Practice amps, what do you like/use? & a couple reviewed

What's your favorite practice amp?


  • Total voters
    16

Sadie-f

Senior member
Messages
427
Edit: Tl;dr per my biases

Fender lt25      C-  & honorable mention @ dirty
OC 20rt            B+  very usable dirty chan
THR 5a              B    extra points for tiny size
TheAmp 100    A   

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I'm curious what others like and why (obviously valve/SS is a main divider for a lot of guitarists, so beyond that).

I mostly play thru my SS Orange Crush 20 RT, it offers a decent sound at apartment volumes, good response across the range. When I re-started playing guitar at the outset of pandemic, I quickly realized I wanted to add an electric, and had that in hand by August of 2020. I went with the only cheap amp available from the same shop which was the Fender Lt25 (next step up in price was a Milkman head at $700 and then it was on to $1000+ tube combo amps).

The LT25 was a nice starting point, I setup a few flavors of clean channels and hardly ever used the various modeled distortion / effects. The one complaint I had was, as I improved my playing, it didn't seem to keep up, just a little muddy, I haven't used it at all since getting the Orange and it will soon go out on Craigslist.

Recently, I plugged both into a signal generator (so amps only, no speakers in the chain) and looked at harmonic distortion from both amps, I was a bit surprised at what I saw. at A - 440Hz, they were close to comparable, Orange had only one overtone peak at 880 (-40 dB) while the LT showed 3 peaks above -35 dB, so probably 4x higher THD. The surprise came at feeding the amps lower and higher frequencies. At 82 Hz, the LT25 power amp was clipping the top 20% of the waveform and at 1 kHz, there were -8 to 12 dB 2&4 kHz harmonics. The orange was still clean at the higher and lower notes. Also I *think* the Orange OEM speaker is also a little nicer sounding than the one Fender is using in the LT25, maybe I'll replicate my tests thru the speakers using a mic.

I also wanted something small enough to carry in a small backpack or large handbag and tried the Orange micro (9v battery/4" speaker). I was disappointed badly by that one and returned it, I couldn't get much louder than the bare strings of a strat without turning up preamp gain into distortion / crunch range. I'd really wanted to like it, however even using its headphone driver was disappointing. If I always played distorted, I'd have kept it tho, it's TINY and makes decent sound if you don't want a clean setting. I've replaced that with a Yamaha THR5A, a decent compromise between easy to carry around and good enough sound to enjoy using it.

I've plugged into Carr and Magnatone amps at the local shop and for sure they sound good, I just don't know as yet that they sound good enough for me to plop down 5-10x more $$ or to want something that much heavier. The Milkman is attractive, I've got a 15" Yamaha PA speaker it could drive quite nicely (not that I could ever turn that combo up in our tiny apartment).

[EDIT]

Awesome responses, of course I knew in the back of my mind we have FA-AXE-FX users, shoulda included that in the poll responses. Being a self-centered woman, I biased the options towards < $500 systems.

For now, I'm still committed to spending more on instruments than electronics, the reason is that I see more difference in sound between my factory Fender and my mahogany / rosewood build & pickup choices than I do between amps.

And while I'm definitely interested in informing my future plans, it's absolutely cool to hear the various approaches to amplification equally from those going directions that aren't practical for me!
 

TBurst Std

Senior member
Messages
2,591
My main rig is Fractal Audio AXE-FX III with the FC-12 board and 3 expression pedals.  Needless to say I am as loud or soft as I desire with the same tone.

Oddly, I have been eyeballing a Mesa MKV 35 and putting together a small pedal board.  That’s for when I play at places where there is not a PA/ sound reinforcement.  Id prefer an AC 30, but the Mesa is lighter and would cover more ground.

Lugging even a single piece of my PA takes up space and is 80lbs.

I went AXE-FX over a decade ago. Ditched using a Plexi, AC-30, and a vintage Fender AB circuit. Coupled with 2 pedalboards.
Previously decades before that my rig was a DR, a MkIII and a JTM45
 

stratamania

Senior member
Messages
9,204
I think the best digital one I have had in the past was an Axe FXII. I still have a Blackstar HT5R that I have had for years since around the time they came out, which I still use on occasion. Although if I plug into a tube/valve amp I am more than likely going to use my Suhr Bella, which I am contemplating getting a Suhr Reactive Load IR to add some versatility and practice possibilities.

I also have a UAudio Apollo Twin, which is a few years old now with Thunderbolt 2 hooked up to my older Macbook Pro. I have various amp plugins if I feel the urge to record something.

And I also have a Warwick practice amp for bass, though I would have to check what the model is.

Perhaps at some point I may move back to an Axe FX or similar.
 
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swarfrat

Guest
I get tones out of my Eleven Rack that sound like the tube amps I had were supposed to and didn't, or only did for one specific tone at one specific setting.

Every Marshall I've played sounds really thin at anything less than playing with a drummer volume. My Carvin is a good all around medium gain tube workhorse, but the 11R is way less temperamental and gets the sounds at all volumes.
 

mayfly

Senior member
Messages
8,226
If you want small and portable, modelling devices like AxeFx are the hot ticket.  But they are not amps; you need to plug them into something to be heard.  Pre-pandemic I was using an AxeFX AX8* for everything.  I would just plug it into whatever PA was at the gig or practice space, get a mix, and go.  Fits in an over the shoulder bag and I often went to gigs on my bicycle. 

Ironically when the lockdowns hit we started rehearsing outside in porches and back yards sans PA.  For that I needed an amp.  So I ended up building a small one with some power behind it (Princeton with Deluxe Reverb internals).  Works great for practices, and for the couple of shows we've done recently as well.  I guess I'm back to being an amp (and pedal) guy.

Back to your thing:  If you want 'sounds great, pretty small, not a lot of money' I would suggest you try a fender Pro Jr or a Blues Jr.  Should be able to pick these up used without a lot of cash.

*https://www.fractalaudio.com/ax8-amp-modeler-multi-effects/
 

TBurst Std

Senior member
Messages
2,591
Mayfly said:
If you want small and portable, modelling devices like AxeFx are the hot ticket.  But they are not amps; you need to plug them into something to be heard.  Pre-pandemic I was using an AxeFX AX8* for everything.  I would just plug it into whatever PA was at the gig or practice space, get a mix, and go.  Fits in an over the shoulder bag and I often went to gigs on my bicycle. 

Ironically when the lockdowns hit we started rehearsing outside in porches and back yards sans PA.  For that I needed an amp.  So I ended up building a small one with some power behind it (Princeton with Deluxe Reverb internals).  Works great for practices, and for the couple of shows we've done recently as well.  I guess I'm back to being an amp (and pedal) guy.

Back to your thing:  If you want 'sounds great, pretty small, not a lot of money' I would suggest you try a fender Pro Jr or a Blues Jr.  Should be able to pick these up used without a lot of cash.

*https://www.fractalaudio.com/ax8-amp-modeler-multi-effects/
Exactly. I am getting calls to gigs where there is no true PA or sound reinforcement
 
S

swarfrat

Guest
Right now, if you were to ask me to pick my go to rig, with a little more budget but not crazy,  it'd probably be the Headrush MX5 and an EV PXM-12MP wedge. That can cover me for both guitar and bass. All the brains of the son of Eleven Rack in a small box on the floor, and a wedge that should work fine for the SVT-inspired bass tone at any reasonable volumes.
 

ghotiphry

Senior member
Messages
1,537
For the bass players here, the Markbass Micromark 801.  It's also got enough going for it to fill a good sized room, if you want to use it for performing.
 

zebra

Senior member
Messages
498
This has been a thing for me - I've mostly lived in small apartments with thin walls over the last twenty years.  I think there's a number of factors that, once considered, makes things easier.  IMO, and YMMV and all that sort of thing: 

- It's about getting a good sound, not getting a rig to sound like something it's not. 

- Be aware of frequencies, how the ear perceives them as louder or softer, pleasant or unpleasant, etc.  Bass is what makes neighbors complain, but is also a big part of what makes guitars sound the way they do.  Treble can be piercing and shrill, and also is where the presence and articulation is often missing at low volume.  Mids are the voice of the guitar and important in an ensemble setting, but less of an issue if you're just practicing alone.  Eq can be worked really effectively from the pickups.  It's been my experience that it's much harder getting a good bridge pickup sound at low volumes, but other positions sound much better.

- How a rig sounds is determined by style of music, location, playing alone/with others, etc.  Some things work really well in some situations, but not others. 

- It's hard to get good distortion sounds at very low volumes.  Drive channels on practice amps always seem to sound terrible, and getting dirt from a pedal run into the clean channel almost always seems to work better.  But if you're just practicing, how much distortion do you really need?  A touch of dirt makes sloppiness more apparent, but too much hides it.  If what you're practicing requires high gain, your best bet might be to use headphones.  Just be careful with your ears - a little too much volume coming through headphones can go a long way towards hearing impairment. 

Those things out of the way, here's what I've used:

Fender 25R:  Not bad, not great.  The drive channel is terrible - but the clean is ok. 

Boss Katana Mini:  Very small, light, portable, cheap.  I got it for visit in laws or traveling.  It's cleans aren't as good as the Fender, but the distortion sounds are actually better - much better.  It also had headphone out, delay, can run on batteries. 

Roland Cube LT, Yamaha THD:  I've tried these in a store and liked them, but not being an owner, can't say too much more.   

Mack Gem:  lunch-box style head from Canada.  Very simple/rudimentary circuit - generally transparent, but can also get a little nasally through smaller speakers.  Wattage is switchable between 4 and .4 watts, and has two channels.  This ends up making for a total of 4 "stations" on a clarity/gain/power spectrum, which can be further tweaked with the amp and guitar controls.  Low wattage amps can still get really loud, but with the right combination of pickups and speaker, you can get very satisfying tube saturation at pretty neighborly volumes.  Since it's a head, it's easy to run it through different cabs and try different speakers. 

As an aside, I acknowledge that lots of folks have had a lot of success going the digital route.  That's just not for me - I just get too distracted by menus and scrolling and tweaking things that it becomes a distraction...but if your brain isn't broken in the same way mine is, that solution could work really well for you.

Something to consider is that practice amps aren't usually designed to sound good - they're designed to be inexpensive, both for the manufacturer and the consumer.  Components are cheap, so one approach to getting a better low-volume sound is by de-coupling the circuit and the speaker - allowing you to upgrade them as you like. 
By going the lunchbox amp / pedal form-factor amp (like Crafter and EHX have), you can upgrade the circuit, and by running it to a cab, you can upgrade the speaker(s). 

Upgrading a speaker can take a pretty lame practice amp and make it much better.  I salvaged some empty shells from burnt-out Marshall practice amps and put better speakers into them, and that's what I usually run the Mack through.  Guitars tend to sound best through speakers 10" and bigger, and since a lot of practice amps are 6.5" and 8" - that's another reason why practice amp circuits don't get a chance to show their true stuff. 

Carl Martin Rock Bug:  This is a headphone amp I got for traveling and late night practice.  It sounds great, it's easy to run a drum machine or smartphone into it, it's easy to balance guitar and aux signals, it has a balanced out, and is very low noise, even when running a smartphone into it.  Highly recommended for headphone practice. 

What I mostly play through these days is one or two 8" studio monitors.  You can get a really nice clean sound for practicing as long as you boost the signal a bit - either using a boost, an OD pedal with the gain turned way down and the level turned up, or some sort of preamp.  If I want distortion, I just put a Sansamp GT2 at the end of the signal chain, right before going into the monitors.  It has some good distortion sounds on its own, but you can also run other dirt pedals in front of it.  It's takes some experimentation and using overdrives with a moderate amount of gain tends to yield better results than higher gain approaches - but I've gotten some really satisfying and even unique sounds out of this setup.  Also, pushing the monitors about 5 feet apart and running the signal through a stereo chorus pedal sounds huge!


 

Sadie-f

Senior member
Messages
427
stratamania said:
I think the best digital one I have had in the past was an Axe FXII. I still have a Blackstar HT5R that I have had for years since around the time they came out, which I still use on occasion. Although if I plug into a tube/valve amp I am more than likely going to use my Suhr Bella, which I am contemplating getting a Suhr Reactive Load IR to add some versatility and practice possibilities.

I also have a UAudio Apollo Twin, which is a few years old now with Thunderbolt 2 hooked up to my older Macbook Pro. I have various amp plugins if I feel the urge to record something.

And I also have a Warwick practice amp for bass, though I would have to check what the model is.

Perhaps at some point I may move back to an Axe FX or similar.

That's a nice mix of options, I love that your reactive load costs about 2x any single piece of rig I own (fully understand the use of the RL, I may work on crafting my own someday).
 

Sadie-f

Senior member
Messages
427
Extremely creative ideas from a bunch of y'all, very cool and I'm taking it in (darn if I wouldn't love to play around with an AXE-FX, as well as have a dirt-simple valve amp on hand to play with ... maybe someday both these things will happen.

I didn't mention in the OP that in the completely different direction, a few years back I snagged an 80lb Yamaha S115V PA speaker cabinet, right now it's gathering dust in the attic, however when picked it up from the uni's AV department. I also built a card-sized preamp/poweramp pair based on 4 op amps, the preamp is 2 stages of lm833 which drive two sides of an lm358A, in turn drive TIP29/31 power transisstors. it can source about 18 watts power at 8 ohms. Driving the 15" PA speaker, it sounded good right up to full output, something I only did when I knew all the building occupants were out (long before pandemic, that has only happened at Xmas in the last 18 months).

Anyway, I hauled that little amp out of storage last night and had a look at it on the oscilloscope and it's far better than either then Fender or OC-20, at low-load the highest harmonic artifact is about -68 dB. I'm sure it's more with speaker in the chain, but I can't hook that up now.

When I get a chance, I'll take guitar and headphones down to my guitar shop and see how the milkman hybrid amps sound, maybe I'll be drawn over the the light, for now I am happy enough with my 20 / 10 watt SS amps :).
 

Sadie-f

Senior member
Messages
427
TBurst Std said:
Mayfly said:
Ironically when the lockdowns hit we started rehearsing outside in porches and back yards sans PA.  For that I needed an amp.  So I ended up building a small one with some power behind it (Princeton with Deluxe Reverb internals).  Works great for practices, and for the couple of shows we've done recently as well.  I guess I'm back to being an amp (and pedal) guy.

Back to your thing:  If you want 'sounds great, pretty small, not a lot of money' I would suggest you try a fender Pro Jr or a Blues Jr.  Should be able to pick these up used without a lot of cash.

*https://www.fractalaudio.com/ax8-amp-modeler-multi-effects/
Exactly. I am getting calls to gigs where there is no true PA or sound reinforcement

Different times call for different solutions. I've had to get pretty creative with making the day job functional in these times.

I'm not tied to music industry, so aside from knowing it's been worse than the modern sense of decimated, I would be supposing that the venues that were fully rigged out with PA systems were among the hardest hit by the lockdowns. I've gotten to some outdoor things to hear music, nothing in the world would drag me into an indoor crowd now.
 

TBurst Std

Senior member
Messages
2,591
My std weekly gig has a PA.  What I am getting more requests for are small engagements (indoors and outdoors). 
Coupled with my upcoming move and my real job, I just don’t have the bandwidth
 

TBurst Std

Senior member
Messages
2,591
And to offer some concept.  My std weekly gig is indoors at a facility.  When COVID hit, we went live streaming.  We’ve had an audience back in for about half a year, but also still do the live streaming. 
 

Sadie-f

Senior member
Messages
427
I wound up buying the milkman TheAmp 100 (the 50 would have been adequate power, however it's built-in tremolo wasn't something I needed, the boost on the 100 did have attraction).

I'm not even 100% sold on a tube amp being superior, on the + side, it plays nicely with my guitars and overdrive pedal. However, my SS amps have functioning dirty channels ..

A. To my ear, the distortion channel on my Orange crush 20rt is just different, not better or worse.

B. I'm far more enamored of the distortion I can get from the mayfly Open Window, whether or not it's then also driving preamp distortion is kinda secondary

And I've already hit a reliability problem :-/.

Pretty soon after getting this new rig home, I began to notice static and frequent popping coming through, amplified a lot when the boost circuit was engaged. Putting it on the oscilloscope and comparing to the baseline mouse floor, there was a +10 dB band of white noise from 1-4 kHz and a band between 80-1000 Hz at +12-20 dB.

So I went back to the shop where I'd bought it and plugged headphones into a similar unit, which was not silent, but definitely didn't have the high level of static noise mine did. The staff member who'd sold me the Milkman, listened to both, agreed it was off.

While I was there, I picked up a replacement 12ax7 tube, suspecting the preamp tube was a likely culprit. When I got home and tried it in the amp, sure enough, the noise was gone. but it doesn't sound so great, (it's a Tung-sol ).

Milkman said they'll ship a new tube out, that's nice, because the replacement established the fault was in the tube, and aside from the static, the original (JJ tube labeled as Ruby Tubes), sounds better.

So I've been sucked into the small world of vacuum tubes. I do think this amplifier sounds better than my SS combo amp, on the other hand, an $800 amplifier head *ought* to sound better than a $200 combo amp, right?

It seems this says something about the low quality / reliability of vacuum tubes in a world where they're a margin product being made in the 2-3 factories left and a whatever old or used stock still exists from the 1950s-70s. I've read enough accounts of folks chasing down busted tube issues that having received a dud was no great surprise.

I look forward to building a speaker cabinet to go with this amp, I'm settled on a 12" celestion, perhaps before I build, I'll find a cabinet I can plug into and kick around for a bit.
 

Sadie-f

Senior member
Messages
427
I did wind up building that speaker (other thread, thanks as always to y'all for advices!).

I went with the copper back neo, and as advertised, it adds very little color to the sound, close to the sound of my reference headphones.

As I said in a post above, I had not felt there was a huge difference between the sound of the Milkman vs my SS orange crush. On finishing the 12" cabinet, the difference made by the 12" celestion speaker vs the 8" voice of the world OEM speaker used by Orange was obvious .. no big surprise, and obviously, the 12" cabinet takes that rig way out of the "small practice amp" category unless playing with headphones.

However, on playing thru headphones, the differences between the oc20rt and TheAmp 100 come down to some pretty subtle differences.

Even with some white noise that originates in the 12ax7 preamp tube, the Milkman has a lower background noise than the SS Orange. However playing the clean channel of the oc20, captures every bit of detail I can hear thru the Milkman. There's just a touch of overtones the tube adds to the signal. I can see it on an oscilloscope frequency plot and barely hear it, but only with a top notch speaker.

The main difference I found was in adding distortion. The orange dirty channel  rolls in a little stronger in the treble range and moves smoothly between breakup, through to crunch, and seriously clipped chaos. The Milkman, by comparison rolls on first in bass-mid, and using only input gain. Its bass distortion tones are prone to become muddy and less pleasant while treble notes are still feeling clean, unless I also push the preamp EQ well toward treble. Using the overdrive circuit is a shade more even.

So if the tube preamp Milkman can be a little richer in distortion options, I have to work a bit to get them. The SS Orange distortion always sounds good to my ear. Both amps work well with overdrive pedals, giving good dynamic range. Either way, I like what I get from my Open Window or Heather Brown Blessed Mother in front, they both stack well with both amps.

The Milkman also has a dual control reverb, so with both volume and depth, it's richer than other reverbs I've heard.

Whew. Having done all that, I also took a fresh listen to my Yamaha thr5a and pulled my lt25 out of storage.

With reference headphones, the mini Yamaha sounds close to on par with the Orange, honestly hard to distinguish the two. Even playing thru it's pair of 3" speakers, it sounds good all the way from the bass notes and has a cleaner treble definition than the 20rt. Also, it's got far and away the least static of amps I've tried that might not be true when it's on wall power.

The lt25 really disappoints thru reference headphones, bass tones are simply muddy, and treble notes jangle, where all my other combinations sing. It actually sounds a lot better thru its speaker. The many distortion presets sound pretty ok, just doesn't cut it on clean tones.

Maybe someday, I'll enlist a couple of friends to do the jack swapping for a double-blind listen.

Tl;dr

Fender lt25      C-  & honorable mention @ dirty
OC 20rt            B+  very usable dirty chan
THR 5a              B    extra points for tiny size
TheAmp 100    A   




 

jay4321

Senior member
Messages
1,278
Axe Fx III pretty hard for me to beat for a practice amp or anything else. No matter how many ways I try to prove myself wrong, everything I need is in there somewhere. Can play at any hour with no real setup time, at night the only decision is whether I'm going with monitors or headphones. Practicing, screwing around or recording it covers everything. Plus I'm more apt to use it because I know I can sit down at any time and get going right away.

Still have a decent amp & Mesa cab around for good measure, but use it less and less. At new prices I'd be in for a respectable $4k between those and the pedals (to include ISP noise stuff, furman, pedal power and everything). I've tried it with the Axe3 in the 4-cable method before, using only the power amp into the cab and with some work had great results, similar with a different Marshall cab.

I do need a cheapie for my workshop downstairs though. If I can remember the off-brand solid state 8" speaker amp I started with 30 years ago (and can still find one), I'll snatch one. No reverb or anything, was definitely good to practice and learn on, playing that dry all of your mistakes have nowhere to hide.

Really depends on your situation as far what you can or can't do volume-wise, and what it is you practice. I still sometimes kick around unplugged too but when focusing on getting my hands right a straight-in sound is right, if my next house has man-cave area I can quiet down and get away with a fender amp for that may go that way.
 
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