Roland Micro Cube Red and Vox DA5

Small guitar amplifiers are hardly new, and battery-powered models have been available since the early ’70s, but the advent of digital-modeling technology has made it possible for even the most diminutive amp to deliver multiple tones, and even relatively sophisticated digital effects. The Roland Micro Cube Red and Vox DA5 are prime examples of this new order. For street prices of less than $150, these little wonders offer a variety of tones reminiscent of classic amps, a selection of high-quality digital effects, the ability to monitor with headphones or send a line-level signal directly to a recorder or P.A., and the option of being powered using either an AC adapter or batteries.
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Roland Micro Cube Red

The Roland Micro Cube Red is a limited red edition of Roland’s popular Micro Cube digital-modeling amplifier. Like the standard black version, it sports six COSM amp models (including an acoustic guitar simulator), six DSP effects (with two independent processors), and a three-tone digital Tuning Fork (A, Ab, or Abb). In addition to the standard guitar input, you get 14" and r" Aux inputs, and a 1" recording/headphone direct output. You can also plug a high-impedance microphone into the guitar input, and set the Amp Type switch to Mic if you need a mini P.A.

Given its two-watt power section, the Micro Cube is not particularly loud. For example, with the “JC Clean” amp model selected and the Gain control fully counterclockwise, there’s enough ultra-clean volume for practicing. Cranking up the Gain adds considerably more level with only minimal distortion—but there’s still not enough volume for, say, a band rehearsal.

Besides the JC Clean model (which actually does capture a bit of the flavor of a Roland Jazz Chorus amp when you dial in some chorus), you get Black Panel (Fender Twin Reverb), Brit Combo (Vox AC30TB), Classic Stack (Marshall JMP1987), and R-Fier Stack (Mesa/Boogie). Although some of these sounds are reminiscent of the amps modeled, the others are a stretch, and that stretch lengthens as you increase the gain, which can cause the Micro Cube to break up in unpleasant ways—particularly at higher volumes. With a little tweaking, you can get distortion sounds that are fine at practice levels, but much past that, the limitations of the 5" speaker quickly become apparent. My favorite models were the JC Clean, the screaming R-Fier, and the remarkably realistic Acoustic (which induced a minor identity crisis in my Les Paul Custom).

Not surprisingly, the Micro Cube’s onboard effects sound a lot like Boss pedals—which is a good thing. It’s also a nice touch that you can choose between chorus, flanger, phaser, or tremolo in one independent section, and add delay or reverb in another. Other than being able to adjust the level of each effect (or the delay time in the case of the delay), the effects parameters are fixed, but the presets are just dandy for general use. The Reverb is particularly impressive, though it sounds more like a hall than the usual spring simulation.

The Aux inputs work well, as long as the level coming from the source isn’t too hot (there’s no input level control). The headphone/recording output sounds great. It bypasses much of the flabbiness of the small speaker on more distorted settings, and it highlights just how quiet the Micro Cube is overall. The tuner delivers a clean tone, and it’s a nice little “value added” afterthought, but a visual tuner would be more beneficial—as would a more sensible E tone. (And what’s up with that Abb tone?).

A great little practice amp with exceptionally quiet operation and a generous feature set, the Micro Cube offers excellent value for a minimal investment.

Vox DA5

Boasting some of the same digital modeling technology found in Vox’s larger amplifiers and effects devices, the DA5 provides lots of tonal options for an amp this size. You get 11 amp models that are labeled by sound type—rather than the specific amp they are based on—and 11 effects presets, as well as adjustable noise reduction. There are also individual Aux and Mic inputs, and the latter has a dedicated Volume control, making it possible to get the right blend of guitar and vocals when accompanying prerecorded sources such as CD and mp3 players. The output amplifier may be switched between 5, 1.5, or 0.5 watts, enabling you to scale the volume for your needs, and to extend battery life when operating on battery power.

The DA5 can get remarkably loud considering its size, and its 6.5" speaker is just large enough to keep from breaking up (in the wrong ways) on all but the most extreme settings. The two Clean models are quite good, with one having slightly more Vox-y midrange edge, and turning up the Gain gives them both a bit of hair. Similarly, each of the three Blues, three Higain, and two Crunch models are voiced differently, providing distinct tonal variations—not just varying levels of gain. All of the more overdriven and distorted models sound better at lower volumes, but are perfectly acceptable even with the amp cranked up.

The effects section is quite ingenious, allowing you to access and adjust up to three parameters for each preset using a single knob. The primary parameter is the default or Edit 1, and you access Edit 2 and Edit 3 by pushing and holding either the Tap or Bypass buttons respectively as you turn the knob. Effect choices include single effects (auto wah, compressor, delay, and reverb), as well as combinations (compressor plus chorus or phaser; chorus plus delay or reverb; and flanger, tremolo, or rotary speaker plus reverb), and tempos for the modulation and delay effects may be set using the Tap button.

All of the effects are generally quite good, though some are a little noisy unless you engage the noise reduction circuitry. Of particular note are the flanger, which can get really wild; the very effective rotary-speaker simulator, which ramps up and down semi-realistically when you change speeds; and the delay, which can be used to create short, “infinite” loops when the regeneration is maxed. The Aux and Mic inputs worked well, and the sound through the headphones and the line out was even better, and quieter, than the sound produced by the speaker.

The DA5 is a truly remarkable little amplifier, delivering a taste of classic Vox tone at low volumes, and featuring enough effects and other goodies to keep things interesting. And while it may not cut it alone at a full band rehearsal, it pumps out more than enough volume to annoy—or even awaken—your neighbors should you so desire.