In the world of guitar amps, the tube (or ‘valve’) amp is king. But anyone who’s ever owned one will admit they’re not always the easiest or cheapest things to run. The tubes wear out over time and can be unreliable due to their fragility.
Despite all of this, people still often prefer them over solid-state amps, due to the rich, natural tone they produce. What if you could get the vintage tone of a valve/tube, without lugging heavy, potentially unreliable kit around? Well, now you can, with a multi-functional, lightweight modeling amp.
So which is the best modeling amp? Here’s a sneak peek 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 choice.
At a Glance: Our Choice of the 5 Best Modeling Amps on the Market
Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
Here’s what we’ll cover.
- What is a Modeling Amp?
- Buying Guide: Key Considerations When Buying a Modeling Amp
- Product Round-up & Mini-Reviews – Best Modeling Amps
- So, Which Should I Buy?
What is a Modeling Amp?
A modeling amp is a combo amplifier that models itself and it’s tone capabilities on the sound of classic guitar amps. On one of these amps, you find presets that mimic the sounds of well known, classic amp tones from the like of Fender, Marshall, and Mesa.
They are the ultimate amp for the 21st century. In contrast to valve and solid-state amps, they do everything digitally through the use of what are known as ‘virtual element’ or ‘digital modeling technology’. As a result, they can replicate a variety of different amplifier tones (known as ‘amp models’) without any of the challenges that real amps face – such as overheating, excessive weight, etc. – and in many cases, perform almost as well, so in many ways, they’re the best of both worlds.
Many years ago, the thought of accurately emulating the sound of a classic amp was unthinkable. You needed the actual gear to get the tone. Not these days. The best guitar amps can imitate the response accuracy remarkably well. Rather than the antiquated circuit boards or vacuum tubes that were prone to malfunction, these amps use modern circuitry boards that give you the sounds of your favorite amp at the twist of a dial.
So what are the additional benefits to owning one of these? Let’s take a look…
Because there are so many options, the repertoire at your fingertips becomes instantly more versatile. This is a massive benefit for session or gigging musicians, who may want a variety of tones at their disposal, without having to mess about with on stage with gear. These amps also act as ‘a gateway amp’: you can use one to work out which amp tone you like the most. Sort of like a taste test, giving you the opportunity to hear what many classic amps sound like without having to invest heavily.
Cost is a big attraction here. They’re often cheaper than solid-state amps, and always less expensive than valve amps. Granted, they don’t quite offer the quality of tone that a real valve amp gives you, but when you consider that you’re getting multiple tones in a relatively small, lightweight box, it’s impossible to argue with the value for money.
If you’re a gigging musician you’ll know all about the weight issue of vintage combo amps. They mostly weigh an absolute ton! These combos weigh significantly less than the real thing. You can expect to find them weighing between 30 and 40 lbs, whereas amps containing tubes typically weigh A LOT more.
Finally, thanks to their modern circuitry, modeling amps tend to be a lot more reliable as there is a lot less to go wrong in them.
Buying Guide: Key Considerations When Buying a Modeling Amp
Number of Models?
First up, as you probably guessed, is the number of amp models. Some products include ninety-plus replications, while others contain as few as six.
If versatility is your aim, you will want to go for something which can model a vast number. If you prefer a fat rock sound, one which has a Marshall option will be best suited to your needs. If you want a brighter tone, the sounds of Fender are more appropriate. Fortunately, most of these products include classic Marshall and Fender sounds.
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 favored by beginner/intermediate players, rather than professionals, who may prefer to use a combination of individual foot pedals.
If you want to use more than one amp model per gig, getting a product 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 knobs. If you sing or would like to use it with a singer, it’s important to look for one with an XLR input to cater for this.
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 after the tone has been shaped, i.e., after the pre-amp stage. Having this option gives you greater control over your sound, and allows you to create interesting sonic landscapes.
As these are modern devices, they often contain USB inputs. They can be used to hook up software to edit your sound, or even in combination with your recording software. They’re beneficial to anybody who wants to alter their preset sounds.
Authentic Valve Sound?
You can find some amplifiers which include real valves. With these, you get that natural controllability over dynamics and tone that valve enthusiasts love. These amps are on the pricier side and need a bit of maintenance as the valves need to be maintained just like on a standard valve amp.
Product Round-up & Mini-Reviews – Best Modeling Amps
Now you know what you’re looking for, we’ve taken our pick of the top units 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.
VOX VT40X Valvetronix
The first on our list is the VOX VT40X Valvetronix – it’s a bit special as it includes a real valve. This gives it superior controllability in terms of dynamics and tone, plus all of the benefits of a modeling amplifier.
The Vox has a 10-inch speaker, which brings out high tones, as well as 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 another device. Many effects are included in this amp, from phaser to distortion to delay and even tremolo.
These effects can be triggered with a footswitch, making it perfect for live 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, and is slightly more expensive than purely digital products. However, this one is ideal for those who want something that’s ‘real’ but has a few more modern options.
It’s great for those who want more of a hybrid option, and of course for fans of Vox. It’s not ideal for those who are on a budget and want something to try out an array of sounds, as the number of models is quite small.
- Contains a real valve, enabling extra dynamic and tonal control.
- There are 11 models – 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 make it quite heavy.
- The selection of models is relatively low compared to other products.
- It needs to be used in combination with ToneWorks software, which might not suit those who prefer working with hardware.
Line 6 Spider V 120
The Spider V comes in all shapes and sizes from 15W up to a massive 240W.
The Spider has a built-in tuner, drum loops, and a metronome, making it perfect for practicing at home. What makes this one so impressive, though, is its massive choice of 200 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 that make it suitable for further amplification. It’s designed for use with a Line 6 Relay G10T, which allows you to customize and tweak the sounds. However, this is an expensive addition to the amp.
It is also limited to electric and acoustic guitars, 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, the smaller models are perfect for practicing with at home. It might not be suited to those who are more interested in recreating specific, classic tones.
- Over 200 effects plus over 100 presets make it a very flexible, versatile modeling product.
- Built-in tuner, metronome and drum loops are perfect for practicing with at home.
- Footswitch compatible, making it stage-friendly to shift between sounds.
- Needs the Line 6 Relay G10T to customize and tweak the sounds truly, and the additional accessory needed for this is expensive.
- Not suitable for bass guitar or microphones.
- With such a wide range of sounds and presets, there isn’t a real consistency of quality in the tones available.
Peavey Vypyr VIP 3 100 W
The Peavey Vipyr VIP 3 is a 100W beast 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 high and mid-tones, as well as 36 amp models to choose between.
As well as these 36 models, there are 400 pre-sets and a built-in tuner and metronome.
This amp even features a built-in looper, which you can operate with a compatible footswitch, so you can have some fun with it when you’re practicing or performing.
It’s suited to the creative musician who plays a variety of genres and uses (or wants to sound like they’re using) more than one instrument.
This amp is more than capable of some sweet sounds once you’re confident operating it. It might not be as suited to the professional guitarist who is looking exclusively for classic tones without the fuss,
- It’s compatible with a variety of instruments.
- There’s a built-in chromatic tuner, metronome, and looper.
- It’s footswitch compatible which makes it more than suitable for performance.
- Using this 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.
Fender Mustang III
The Fender Mustang III is another 100W beast that is affordable and easy to use.
It combines 12 models with 100 pre-sets, including 37 different effects models. These models are mostly classic Fender tube amps including the ’65 Deluxe Reverb, British ‘70s and the ’65 Twin Reverb. There are also 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s sounds included.
The onboard extras include flanger, chorus, fuzz and even a compressor. With a built-in tuner as well, this is really an all-in-one machine.
It has an effects loop, which you can apply before the preamp 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 love those classic tones. There’s also a USB connection so that you can record efficiently with computer software.
- There are a lot of effects, most of which emulate classic Fender sounds.
- Includes a footswitch, ideal for gigging.
- It’s limited to 12 models, which is relatively few.
- Some of the built-in sounds are noisy and it’s unlikely that you’d use them in a performance situation.
Roland CUBE Street EX
The Roland CUBE is an extremely portable machine. 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 on eight batteries is 20 hours!
It’s also very versatile in terms of what you can plug into it. It’s compatible with guitar inputs, vocal inputs and even electrical devices from drum machines to tablets or phones. The sound is clear, and there are various EQ settings for the multiple inputs, which can work simultaneously.
Compared to some of the other products on this list, it doesn’t give you that many models to play with – there are just 4 – but it does have built-in effects and is footswitch compatible.
It’s perfect for the musician who wants to amplify both a guitar and vocals and perhaps even drum machines. Its functionality makes up for its lack of options when it comes to emulating other amps. It wouldn’t be so great for the musician who wants to discover and experiment with a vast amount of valve amp sounds.
- It can be entirely battery-powered, which makes it extremely portable.
- It is compatible with vocal mics and instruments such as drum machines, as well as electric or acoustic guitar.
- There are built-in effects that can be triggered using a foot pedal, making it performance-friendly.
- It costs a bit more than many on this list.
- There are only 4 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 Should I Buy?
If you’re looking for the best amp modeler with the maximum amount of amp models, the Line 6 or the Peavey are the obvious choices. The Peavey also contains a looper, controllable by a footswitch, which is perfect for those who like to get creative in their practice sessions.
If you’re looking for something which sounds truly like a real valve amplifier, then check out the VOX Valvetronix. This hybrid gives you the best of both worlds, with that unbelievable Vox tone.
The Fender Mustang III will catch the attention of Fender aficionados as it allows you to access the sounds of many classic Fender tones, at a fraction of the cost.
Finally, the Roland CUBE is an excellent budget choice for those who combine their guitar skills with singing or programming drum machines.