Most guitarists love the sound of tube amps, but anyone who’s ever owned one will testify they’re not always the easiest or cheapest things to run. The tubes (or valves) wear out with time and can be unreliable due to their fragility. Tube amps are also heavier than solid state amps, and need warming up before they can perform at their best.
Despite all of this, people still often choose tube amps over solid state amps, due to the warm, rich, natural tone that they produce. Solid state amps use solid-state electronics to amplify the signal, and although they are capable of amplifying your guitar reliably and consistently, they lack the warmth and response that makes valve amps so popular.
What if you could get this warm, vintage tone of a valve/tube amp, without lugging heavy potentially unreliable kit around? Well, now you can, with a multi-functional, lightweight amp: a modeling amp.
Here’s a sneak peak of the models we review further down this article. Unless you’re in a mad dash we recommend you read the whole article to make sure you make the right purchase.
At a Glance: Our Choice of the 5 Best Modeling Amps on the Market
VOX VT40X Valvetronix
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Line 6 Spider V 120
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Peavey Vypyr VIP 3 100 W
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Fender Mustang III
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Roland CUBE Street EX
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Note: The links above take you to more information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon. If you do purchase something we get a small commission, which has absolutely no effect on the eventual price that you pay.
- What are Modeling Amps and How Do They Work?
- Do I Still Need Effects Pedals If I Use a Modeling Amp?
- Benefits of These Digital Amps Over ‘Normal’ Amps
- Buying Guide: Things to Consider When Purchasing a Modeling Amp
- Features You Expect to Find on Most Modeling Amps
- Extra Features You May Or May Not Want
- Round-up & Mini-Reviews
- So, Which of These Bad Boys Should I Go For?
What are Modeling Amps and How Do They Work?
Modeling amps are digital amps which ‘model’ the sound of classic guitar amps, via computers and chips. These amps use complex programming technology which replicates the effects valve amplifiers have on a guitar’s signal. After you plug your guitar in, lots of maths happens, then out comes a guitar which sounds like it’s coming through the classic amp of your choice.
These amps store multiple programs, meaning that each model can replicate a variety of different amplifier tones. The options are usually a variety of classic amps and settings within those amps, so you can really take your pick of the most popular guitar sounds throughout modern music history.
Do I Still Need Effects Pedals If I Use a Modeling Amp?
You might be wondering if this versatile piece of kit can act as an all-in-one for your gigging needs. This is to an extent a reality; modeling amps don’t just replicate amps; there are often multiple effects options included in the controls, which you can flick through.
Sometimes, these amps also contain a footswitch option. If this is the case, you might get away with using no additional effects pedals, as you can switch between the amp’s large range of sounds using the footswitch pedal.
If the amp doesn’t have a footswitch option, you’ll most likely still need some effect pedals. Although you have a massive range of sounds at your fingertips, if they’re not easily accessible on stage (via a foot pedal), it will be difficult to shift settings during a performance.
Benefits of These Digital Amps Over ‘Normal’ Amps
Modeling amplifiers weigh significantly less than valve amps, and usually less than solid state amps. You can expect to find them weighing between 30 and 40 lbs, whereas amps containing tubes usually weigh at least 10lbs more than that.
This is perfect for those who detest carrying heavy gear.
Modeling amps are also a lot more reliable than the amps they’re emulating. Although it must be said that they don’t quite sound like a real valve amp, at least you know that you don’t have to warm it up before use, worry about its longevity or dread extortionate re-valving bills.
Because there are so many tonal options in modeling amps, your sound becomes instantly more versatile. This is a huge benefit for session musicians, who may need to emulate a variety of guitarists’ sounds in one gig.
Modeling amps are cheap: they’re often cheaper than solid state amps, and pretty much always cheaper than valve amps.
Granted, they don’t quite offer the quality of tone that a real valve amp does, but when you consider that you get a number of almost-valve amp sounds, for a fraction of the price, it’s impossible to argue with the value for money.
A modeling amp also gives you the opportunity to hear what a number of classic amps sound like. It can act as a try-before-you-buy for some high quality models which are favoured by professional musicians.
You can buy one of these amps as an in-between amp, before you progress to an expensive purchase, and become more informed about which sounds suit you as you experiment with the different options.
Buying Guide: Things to Consider When Purchasing a Modeling Amp
How Many Models?
Some modeling amps include ninety plus amp replications, whereas some contain as few as six. If versatility is your aim, you might want to go for something which can model the sounds of a vast amount of amps. If you are only interested in the classics, a modeling amp which focuses on sounding like a small selection of what you like will be sufficient.
Classic Marshall and Fender amp sounds are often available on these amps. If you prefer a chunky rock sound, one which has a Marshall option will be best suited to your needs. If you require a brighter tone, the sounds of Fender amps are more appropriate.
You can get a good idea of how loud an amp is going to be based on how many watts it is.
20 – 40 watt amps are a good size for a practice amp. You can achieve enough volume to rock out, yet not so much that you’re shaking the street.
If you’re using this amp for gigging, 40 + watts is a must. The price as the watts go up is obviously higher than that of a practice amp, but still a fraction of the amps it’s emulating.
The size of a speaker is also usually indicative of how much noise it can make. It can also show us what kind of sounds the amp will make. Smaller speakers produce more high frequencies, whereas larger speakers are better at bringing out more bassy sounds.
Most guitarists use 4×10 or 4×12 speakers.
Some modeling amps contain a lot of additional effects. These can be fun to play around with, or can be used as tools which are taken more seriously.
The amount of effects included in modeling amps ranges from a bit of reverb in delay to a vast array of 90+ sounds. A bigger bank of sounds doesn’t always mean that the amp is better, though. It’s important to consider how many effects you will actually use.
If you want to use built in effects on stage, you’ll need to ensure that the amp can connect to a footswitch that flicks between the effects.
Modeling amps also use Bluetooth, USB and aux ports. If you’re likely to hook up your amp to additional devices, check which connectors are compatible with both before choosing your modeling amp.
Features You Expect to Find on Most Modeling Amps
EQ for Tone Shaping
EQ controls allow you to shape your sound in terms of high, low and mid frequencies. These buttons give you control over your tone and enable your guitar to sit where it needs to in the mix, rather than becoming ‘muddy’ with the other instruments.
These controls are essential for all players, which is why you can find them on even the most basic of amps.
Many modeling amps contain a bunch of built in effects, from delay and reverb, to phasers, flangers and beyond.
These can be really useful for those who want to experiment with weird and wonderful sounds, and get creative and experimental with their guitar playing.
These built in effects are usually favoured by beginner/intermediate players, rather than professionals. Professional players often prefer to use a combination of foot pedals for their effects.
On a modeling amp, you can expect to see a number of amp model settings which often show on a small screen. You can flick through the different models to find the sound that suits you.
This is the whole point of modeling amps. You can access the sounds of much higher priced valve amps in one box.
They’re for players who either require a versatile amount of sounds – such as session guitarists – or for players who require the sound of a valve amp but without the high cost and maintenance.
Modeling amps can also include built in tuners which you can flick on and silently tune in with. They tend to mute the signal, and have lights which flash green when you’re in tune, and red when you’re a bit off. Having all of your sounds, effects and even a tuner built into one device can be really handy.
These are particularly useful for beginner/intermediate players, who will be primarily using their amps at home. If you’re on stage, you’ll want to use a stage tuner.
Some amps have an effects loop. This is an input/output that allows you to insert effects in between the preamp stage of amplification and the power section of the amp.
It sometimes works better to fit your effects in after the tone has been shaped, i.e. after the pre-amp stage.
Having this option can give you a greater control over your sound, and advanced players often use it to get the most out of their effects.
As they are modern devices, modeling amps often contain USB inputs. These can be used to hook up software that edits your sounds, or even in combination with recording software.
They’re beneficial to anybody who may want to alter their preset sounds, and keep up with updates which can be installed.
Anybody with a techy side to them will enjoy and benefit from this feature, regardless of how far down the line they are in terms of playing ability.
Extra Features You May Or May Not Want
Built In Tubes
You can get modeling amps which actually do include a valve, making them sound even more authentic. With these amps you can get that natural controllability over dynamics and tone that makes valve amp enthusiasts drool.
These amps do, of course, cost a little more than most modeling amps, and the valves need to be maintained just like on a standard valve amp. But talk about the best of both worlds! Modeling amps which include a real valve and also uses advanced programming technology to mimic the sounds of more than one amp can make even the most purist valve amp user look twice.
Catering for Multiple Instruments
Some modeling amps cater for a variety of instruments: from electric and acoustic guitars to bass guitars. Sitars can even be included in an amp’s capacity.
If you play a variety of instruments, or if you want to share your amp with those who do, an amp which is designed for more than just electric guitar will be extremely useful.
If you want to play gigs with your modeling amp, and use more than one amp setting per gig, getting one that’s footswitch compatible is a must.
These footswitches allow you to stamp your way through settings, in times when it would be impractical to fiddle with the amp’s knobs.
Built-in Metronomes/Drum Machines
For beginner or intermediate musicians, the more that’s built into their amp, the better.
When you’re using a modeling amp to practise at home, and experiment with different sounds, you’re going to want to play in time.
Beginner guitarists can delight in the knowledge that, as well as tuners, metronomes and even drum machines are included in some entry level modeling amps.
If you sing or would like to share the modeling amp with a singer, it’s important to look for one with an XLR input to cater for this. Some modeling amps even have an instrument in and an additional mic in.
This is perfect for those who wish to keep their load light, so if that’s one of your reasons for choosing a modeling amp, you might want to look out for this feature.
Now you know what you’re looking for, we’ve taken our pick of the top 5 modeling amps available on the current market.
To make it easy for you to decide which one is best suited to you, we’ve listed the features of each, and highlighted the pros and cons of the 5 models.
Round-up & Mini-Reviews
1. VOX VT40X Valvetronix
The Valvetronix is a special modeling amp in that it also includes a valve. This gives it a superior controllability in terms of dynamics and tone, plus all of the benefits of a modeling amp.
It has a 10 inch speaker, which brings out the high tones, and there are 11 amp models, which can be expanded using ‘Tone Room’ editing software. There is also a USB to allow you to connect to a PC or other device. Many effects are included in this amp, from phaser to distortion to delay and even tremolo.
hese effects can be triggered with a footswitch, making the amp perfect for performance, and at 40 watts it is more than capable of producing enough sound for a pub or club gig.
The presence of the valve does mean that it requires maintenance, has the potential to be unreliable and is slightly more expensive than purely digital amps. However, this amp is ideal for those who want something that’s ‘real’ but has a few more modern options.
It’s not ideal for those who are on a budget and want something to try out an array of sounds, but those who know what they want – and want a valve amp with extra options – will delight in this stylish amp.
- Contains a real valve, enabling extra dynamic and tonal control.
- There are 11 amp sounds – which can be increased using the software – and effects including chorus, distortion, tremolo and delay.
- At 40W it’s suitable for both practice and small gigs.
- The tube components will need maintenance and they make the amp quite heavy.
- The select of amp models is relatively low compared to other modelling amps.
- To get the most out of the amp, it needs to be used in combination with ToneWorks software, which might not suit those who prefer working with hardware.
2. Line 6 Spider V 120
The Spider V comes in all shapes and sizes from 15W up to a massive 240W.
It has a built in tuner, drum loops and a metronome, making it perfect for practising through at home. What makes this amp really impressive, though, is its massive choice of 200 amp models. You can really experiment with a variety of sounds. There are also 128 presets, which give you instant access to signature setups.
It has iPhone/iPad connections and is also compatible with a footswitch, and there are XLR direct outputs which make it suitable for further amplification.
This amp is also designed for use with a Line 6 Relay G10T, which allows you to customise and tweak the sounds. However, this is an expensive addition to the amp.<
The amp’s also limited to electric and acoustic guitars, really, as there is no XLR input for microphones and it’s not well suited to bass guitar.<
It will suit the creative guitarist who wants access to a vast amount of sounds and the smaller models are prefect for practising with at home.
It might not be suited to those who are more interested in recreating specific, classic tones.<
- Over 100 effects plus over 100 presets for quick use make it a very flexible, versatile modelling amp.
- Built in tuner, metronome and drum loops are perfect for practising with at home.
- Footswitch compatible, making it stage-friendly to shift between sounds.
- Needs the Line 6 Relay G10T in order to truly customise and tweak the sounds, and the additional accessory needed for this is expensive.
- Not suitable for bass guitar or microphones.
- With such a wide range of sounds and pre-sets, there isn’t a real consistency of quality in the tones available.
3. Peavey Vypyr VIP 3 100 W
The Peavey Vipyr VIP 3 is a 100W amplifier which caters for guitar and bass guitar. It can also make these instruments sound like one another, and can make your electric guitar sound like an acoustic guitar or even a sitar.
It has a 12 inch speaker, which helps to bring out the high and mid tones, and this has 36 amp models to choose between.
As well as having 36 amp models, there are 400 pre-sets on this amp, to make access to classic sounds across the instruments more simple, and there’s a built in tuner and metronome.
This amp even features a built in looper, which you can operate with a compatible foot switch, so you can really have some fun with it when you’re practising or performing.
It’s suited to the creative musician who plays a variety of genres and either uses or wants to sound like they’re using more than one instrument.
It might not be as suited to the professional guitarist who is looking exclusively for classic tones without the fuss, although this amp is more than capable of sweet sounds when you know how to operate it.
- It’s compatible with a variety of instruments and has effects which can make your guitar sound like an acoustic, bass or even a sitar.
- There’s a built-in chromatic tuner, metronome and looper, making it perfect for practising at home.
- It’s footswitch compatible which makes it more than suitable for performance.
- Using this amp for a bass guitar can lead to poor sound quality, except at low volumes.
- The instruction manual is in CD format only.
- There’s no connection for an external speaker, so you will need to mic it up if you require further amplification.
4. Fender Mustang III
The Fender Mustang III is a 100W amp which is easy to use and affordable.
It combines 12 amp models with 100 pre-sets, with 37 different effects models. These models are mostly classic Fender amps including the ’65 Deluxe Reverb, British ‘70s and the ’65 Twin Reverb amp. There are also 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s sounds included on this amp.
The effects include flanger, chorus, fuzz and even a compressor. With a built-in tuner as well, this amp really is an all-in-one machine.
It has an effects loop, so you can apply the effects before the pre amp reaches the power amp, giving you extra tonal options.
This amp is only really suited to guitar, and it only has one ¼” jack input. It’s not appropriate for running a bass through, and there’s no input for a microphone.
It will suit Fender fanatics who enjoy the classic Fender tones, and have the need to switch between them. There’s also a USB connection, so you can record easily using this amp combined with computer software.
Those who have a particular Fender sound in mind, might prefer to go for a valve amp. Although this amp mimics the classic amps pretty well, it doesn’t quite push the sound in the way a ‘real’ Fender amp does, and you have limited control over your tone and dynamics.
- There are a lot of preamps and effects, most of which emulate classic, Fender sounds which are desirable to achieve.
- There’s an effects loop which can be desirable for those who like to add their effects after the pre-amp stage.
- It includes a footswitch, which enables you to shift between different amp sounds and effects quickly and easily.
- It’s limited to 12 amp models: some modeling amps can achieve a lot more sounds.
- Although it emulates Fender valve amps reasonably well, it doesn’t quite have the natural tone that warmed up tubes can deliver.
- Some of the built-in sounds are noisy and it’s unlikely that you’d use them in a performance situation.
5. Roland CUBE Street EX
The Roland CUBE is an extremely portable modeling amp. It can run at 50 watts for several hours off just eight AA batteries. You can also reduce the wattage and run for even longer – on power saving mode – at 25 watts or 10 watts. The maximum amount of time you can use this for off eight batteries is 20 hours!
It’s also very versatile in terms of what you can plug into it. It is compatible with guitar inputs, vocal inputs and even electrical devices from drum machines to tablets or phones. The sound is clear, and there are multiple EQ settings for the multiple inputs, which can work simultaneously.
Compared to some of the other modeling amps, this doesn’t give you that many models to play with – there are just 4 – but it has built in effects, is footswitch compatible and is easy to use.
This amp is perfect for the musician who wants to amplify both a guitar and a vocal, and perhaps even drum machines. Its functionality makes up for its lack of options when it comes to modeling other amps.
It wouldn’t be ideal for the musician who wants to discover and experiment with a vast amount of valve amps’ sounds, and the portability might not be an issue for those who wish to only play where plug sockets are available.
- It can be completely battery powered, which makes it the most portable modeling amp here.
- It is compatible with vocal mics and instruments such as drum machines, as well as electric or acoustic guitar.
- There are built in effects which can be triggered using a foot pedal, making it performance-friendly.
- It costs a bit more than your average modeling amp.
- There are only 4 amp models, so it’s not the best one for experimenting with or learning about different sounds.
- There are no USB or Bluetooth outputs, so it’s less compatible with modern devices than some of the amps on this list.
So, Which of These Bad Boys Should I Go For?
As you can see, these modeling amps we have chosen vary significantly in their sets of advantages.
If you’re looking for a modeling amp that has the maximum amount of amp models, the Line 6 or the Peavey are the obvious choices. Both of these amps combine large amounts of amp models with multi-effects and even built in tuners. The Peavey even contains a looper, controllable by a foot switch, which is perfect for those who like to get creative in their practice sessions.
If you’re looking for something which sounds truly warm, like a valve amp, then the obvious one to go for is the VOX Valvetronix. This actually contains a valve, but it’s still a modeling amp in that it allows you to model a variety of amp sounds using its advanced programming technology.
The Fender Mustang III will catch all Fender fans’ eyes as it allows you to access the sounds of some classic Fender valve amps, without forking out nearly as much money.
Finally, the Roland CUBE is an obvious choice for those who combine their guitar skills with singing, or programming drum machines.
All of these amps are excellent alternatives to valve or solid state amps, and a true sign of innovation in music technology.