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For a couple years now my “travel setup” for guitar practice has been: iPhone, JamUp Pro app, old iRig guitar interface, guitar cable, and headphones.
Portable? Sure. Practical and convenient? Not so much. It was awkward to use in a hotel room, and there was no way was I going to try and set all that stuff up at a busy airport.
So for a few years now I’ve been seeing “headphone practice amps” on Amazon, but I was skeptical. At home I use very high-end rack gear to get my sounds. It’s serious stuff–I absolutely love the tones I get from that gear and everything else kinda falls short to my ears.
So, I’d essentially dismissed headphone practice amps, assuming they were just toys. But, since I was at my wits-end with my current travel setup, I decided to take one for a test drive.
The Lead version is the model I’ll be writing a review about today, so keep this in mind whenever I’m commenting about sound quality. Otherwise, I believe all amPlug 2 models have the same physical features and come with all the same accessories featured in this review.
Other Similar Products (Competitors)
Of course, VOX isn’t the only company making these little headphone amps. So, I think it’s important to list a few of their competitors so you can make an informed decision. Again, I’m sticking with the “metal” theme here, but each of these companies offers different flavors. Check them out on Amazon:
Disclaimer: I’ve not tried these 3 headphone amps, so I can’t recommend them or tell you whether they’re any good. Please do your homework, read reviews, etc. before deciding what you ultimately want to buy.
The VOX amPlug 2 comes with 2 AAA batteries. For 90% of you out there, this is all you’ll need. Simply install the batteries, plug the amPlug into your guitar, and then plug your own headphones into the amPlug. Done. If you want to plug a playback device (iPhone, mp3 player, etc) into the amPlug or output the amPlug to computer speakers or a guitar amp, you’ll need to buy aux cables and any necessary tip adapters separately.
Unboxing and First Impressions
Okay, let’s take a look at the packaging…
What’s in the Box?
Don’t be intimidated when you see the tri-fold instruction manual. The instructions are in several different languages… which is why the instructions seem longer than they really are.
At one end of the amPlug 2 is your 1/8″ headphone jack. If you use a set of headphones that only have a larger 1/4″ jack, you’ll need to buy a 1/4″ to 1/8″ stereo adapter. On the top edge is an Aux input jack, gain, tone, and volume dials, and the “FX” switch for switching between the amPlug’s three main effects (chorus, delay, and reverb).
Got power? Good. It’s time to get down to business and have fun experimenting with the 3 different channels, 3 effects, and the amPlug’s gain and tone controls. Note that the volume will be turned all the way down at first (I assume for safety reasons), so you won’t hear anything until you turn up the volume.
To turn the amPlug off, again press and hold the power button until the light turns off. It’s important to note the amPlug has an auto-shutoff feature that will shut the unit down after 30 minutes of inactivity.
The VOX amPlug 2 In-Use
First thing I wanted to do was test how this little guy adapts to various guitar output jacks. Luckily, I had a couple customer guitars here with non-standard output jacks. Let’s look at how the amPlug 2 ended up on each one. I didn’t have a Fender Strat to test with, so I simply used a Strat image from the VOX website.
So as you can see, the VOX amPlug 2 is usually oriented upside down on most guitars. This means you can’t actually see the controls, but once you learn where everything is it’s easy enough to feel your way around to make any needed changes. As I said earlier though: don’t go fidgeting around with the controls while you’ve got a note or chord ringing, because you’ll inevitably run your finger over the volume dial and crank it. I learned that lesson the hard way.
Changing Channels = Easy
Switching between the amPlug’s 3 distinct channels is easy. Once the unit is powered on, the power button becomes the channel changer. You’ll see the power light initially come on as green, indicating that you’re on channel 1. Press the button again and it turns orange, indicating that you’re on channel 2. Press it one more time and the light turns red, indicating that you’re on channel 3.
At that point, if you press it again you cycle back around to channel 1.
The amp tones available on each channel depends on the amPlug model you have. For my “Lead” version, I have 3 drive channels that get progressively more overdriven. On channel 1, if I turn the gain all the way down and back-down my guitar’s volume knob a bit, I can essentially get a clean sound with just a bit of breakup if I play hard. Channel 2 is a more saturated overdrive, great for rhythm but with enough drive to solo with… kinda. Channel 3 can be all-out, maximum distortion if I crank the gain dial to the max. If I reduce the gain on channel 3 to its minimum, I get a fairly saturated rhythm tone.
Switching Effects = Easy
Switching between the default version of the amPlug’s 3 effects–delay, chorus, and reverb–is easy. Simply press the FX button to cycle through all of them successively, including a bypass setting with no effects. When I say “default version” what I mean is that simply pressing the FX button will cycle you through just one mode of each effect. Pretty easy. However, if you want to explore each effect’s 3 individual parameters, well, that’s not quite as easy.
Switching Effect Parameters = Not So Easy
Switching between each effect’s 3 unique parameters, on the other hand, is NOT so easy. This is where you really need to read the manual, because you’ll never just intuitively figure this one out on your own. I didn’t even know the feature existed until I read the manual 2 days later. And once you do figure it out, it’s a pain in the butt to actually do while the amPlug is plugged into your guitar.
Here’s the deal: Each effect has 3 individual modes, which gives you a grand total of 9 different sounds. Let’s take chorus, for example. While using the chorus effect, you have 3 different chorus depths you can cycle between. However, switching between those 3 states with only 1 hand is tricky depending on how the amPlug is oriented in your particular guitar. The swiveling jack doesn’t help matters. You have to simultaneously press the channel-change (power) button and the FX button. When you get it just right, you’ll hear 1, 2, or 3 very faint beeps in your headphones… which signifies that you’ve successfully switched the effect. When you get it wrong, you’ll either turn the amPlug completely off, or just switch to a totally different effect.
So, How Did it Perform?
At less than $40 the VOX amPlug 2 isn’t a huge financial commitment. If you order it on Amazon and decide you don’t like it, or perhaps would like a different model instead, simply return it for a refund/exchange. I’d recommend using your own batteries at first (NOT the included batteries) until you’re sure you like the model that you ordered. That way you can cleanly repackage and return it if necessary.
Let’s be honest here: this is a $40 headphone amp, not a high-end rack effects unit that costs thousands of dollars. That said, the sound is pretty good. Surprisingly so, in fact, and 100% adequate for practicing while on the road (which is what I intend to use it for). My main gripe is that, with the gain cranked up, I found the bass/lows to be a bit “wooly.” In other words, even with the EQ set to max brightness, lower notes had a bit too much bass for my taste. I would’ve loved some way reduce those wooly tones a bit.
Remember, I’m referring to the Lead model here. This may not be an issue for the other 6 amPlug models.
With the exception of the metal plug, the VOX amPlug 2 is lightweight and made of plastic. I wouldn’t say that it feels cheap, but I wouldn’t want to accidentally drop it onto a hard surface from too great a height. It would probably survive, but I wouldn’t want to test that theory. The rotating input plug is a great feature, and allows the amPlug to adapt to just about every kind of guitar output jack in existence. I’ll be curious to see how that rotating mechanism holds up with repeated use over the next few years.
Ease of Use
There are a couple reasons I deducted 1 star here. You actually DO need to read the manual to figure out that each effect (chorus, reverb, and delay) has 3 separate modes, and how to enable them. Switching to those extra modes is a combination of button presses that you won’t figure out on your own if you decide to skip the manual and just plug-and-play. Further, pressing those 2 buttons can be tricky depending on how the amPlug ends up being oriented on your guitar. However, that aside, even without reading the manual you’ll still be able to figure out and use 90% of the amPlug’s features.
Speaking of how the amPlug is oriented, another reason I deducted one star here is because, on most guitars, the amPlug 2 seems to always end up in some less-than-ideal position. If you’re lucky, it’ll just be upside down. On some guitars, it may be upside down AND turned at a strange angle. Despite this, I was always able to reach all the controls, and was able to use my ears to figure out which of the 3 dials or 2 buttons I was manipulating. On that note, be careful and don’t go fumbling blindly with the dials while you’ve got a note or chord ringing out. I accidentally ran my finger over the volume dial and inadvertently cranked it while a power chord was ringing. Ouch.
The amPlug 2 comes with a surprising number of features built in. It has a rotating input jack to allow for a variety of guitar jack configurations. There are dials to adjust volume, tone, and drive level. There is also an AUX input jack to allow you to plug in a playback device such as a phone or mp3 player. Lastly, there’s a 1/8″ headphone jack.
There are 3 separate channels for 3 different amp tones which, depending on the amPlug model you choose, can range from sparkling clean to highly saturated distortion. There are also 3 built-in effects: delay, reverb, and chorus and each effect has 3 different modes. In other words, you get 3 choruses, 3 reverbs, and 3 delays for a total of 9 different sounds (and even more if you count the 3 distinct amp channels). I actually didn’t know there were 3 versions of each effect until much later, because you definitely HAVE to read the manual to figure out how to enable them. It’s a feature you won’t be able to discover on your own.
There’s a lot of functionality packed into this little plastic box.
Recap: What I Liked
- I was pretty surprised at how many features are packed into this compact little unit.
- You get 3 distinct amp tones thanks to 3 distinct channels.
- Effects include chorus, delay, and reverb, and each effect has 3 different flavors (effectively, 9 different sounds).
- The amPlug is lightweight and small, and the swiveling input jack makes it compact for travel.
Recap: What I Didn’t Like
- Even with the EQ at its brightest setting, I found the amPlug 2 Lead to be a little bass-heavy when playing with heavy distortion.
- The amPlug usually ends up in an odd position when plugged in, requiring you to grope around a bit to find dials and buttons.
- Switching between each effect’s 3 unique modes is tricky and difficult.
The Final Verdict
In short, I really like my amPlug 2 Lead. It won’t replace high-end, expensive rack gear, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Regardless, the amPlug sounded surprisingly good and the chorus, delay, and reverb effects are decent enough for practicing on-the-go or having an impromptu jam session through speakers. That said, the amPlug is my new go-to unit for practicing while traveling, because it’s so straightforward and compact. All I need is the amPlug and a set of earbuds… unlike my previous travel setup that required 4 different items.
I’m planning to buy 1-2 more amPlug 2 models… probably the Clean and Metal versions. At only $40 each, it’s not unreasonable to have 2 or 3 different models on-hand for more sonic variety. I’d say grab one for yourself if you travel a lot or are looking for something convenient for practicing whenever you don’t want to bother those around you, or grab one as a stocking stuffer for the guitarist in your life. They’re fun little units.
Watch some demo videos, decide which one is best for you, and then head over to Amazon to get your own amPlug 2: