5 Ultra-Powerful Amps that Fit on Your Board

If you know anything at all about Tone Report Weekly, you know that we're slobbering, maniacal stompbox fiends. It's kind of our thing. We're fanatical about pedals, pedalboards, and things that we can use to make our pedals and pedalboards more awesome. So it is only natural that the idea of a pedalboard-mounted guitar amplifier should enrapture us completely. I'm not talking about some kind of dinky one-watt cigarette pack-sized jobbie here either, I'm talking about a real amp that will melt faces, make ears bleed, and cause sphincters to rupture violently. And because it is a pedalboard amplifier, it is also only proper that it be an ideal platform for pedals and effects of all kind, capable of delivering a rich, musical foundation tone that melds perfectly with every form of dirt, modulation, delay, reverb, and whatever else we might throw at it.

Not so long ago, an amp like the one I have described would have been no more than a pedal nerd's fantasy, but today the dream is real, and it's mostly thanks to class-D amplifiers. Class-D is a solid-state technology that allows for the design and construction of small, highly efficient musical instrument amplifiers (and PA systems, and hearing aids, and cell phones, the list goes on). These amps waste considerably less power dissipating heat than older designs, and thus do not require the large heat sinks and extra circuitry associated with those designs. This means that a class-D circuit can produce copious wattage while remaining quite compact, perfect for a thunderously loud guitar or bass amp that will handily fit on a modest-sized pedalboard.

Here at Tone Report Weekly we have had the opportunity to test drive some of the latest and greatest pedalboard-sized amps to hit the scene in recent years, and generally speaking we are quite smitten. The best of these are every bit as good as many all-tube designs, while offering tremendous benefits in terms of size, output, portability, and overall ruggedness and reliability. Most of them are also quite a bit cheaper to purchase new than comparably powerful tube amps. This makes them ideal for a wide range of players, from low-budget econo punks, to traveling jazzers, to players that get most of their tone from pedals and don't need a big, expensive tube head. Those that do a lot of fly-in gigs with questionable backlines will be especially delighted, as a small class-D amp can travel on a pedalboard or fit easily in a backpack, while providing a degree of tonal control and consistency previously unavailable to the airborne six-stringer. Everyone should look into one of these amps, either as a primary tone platform or as a cheap, reliable backup. Here are a handful of our recent favorites.

Quilter Tone Block 201

Quilter Labs has based its whole business on making the most of class-D technology to create superb instrument amplifiers. Its products quickly earned the adoration of pedal steel players and jazz dudes, but with the Tone Block series Quilter amps has attracted the attention of a wide spectrum of players that can appreciate a small, 200-watt head that sounds awesome with a pedalboard or preamp jacked in the front. I reviewed the original Tone Block 200 awhile back and fell in love immediately with its honest, pedal-friendly tones, portability, and bulletproof design. Since then Quilter has released the Tone Block 201, a new version of this tiny beast that has been upgraded with more extensive EQ and voicing options as well as an onboard effects loop. Anyone who felt that the original was a tad too Spartan will be pleased with these new features. The 201 sells for slightly more than its predecessor at 449 dollars, but it's still the best deal going in the pedalboard amp game.

Demeter TGA-1-180D Mighty Minnie

Demeter TGA-1-180D Mighty Minnie

Demeter has been an innovative company since the beginning, and one of its most recent innovations is a compact 180-watt monster dubbed The Mighty Minnie. The Minnie actually combines the power and efficiency of a solid-state class-D power section with the glorious tonal goodness of a hand-wired, Bassman-style tube preamp circuit. This combination offers a nearly ideal blend of glistening tube amp grit and massive, super clean solid-state headroom. It's a little bulkier than more streamlined pedalboard amps from Quilter and others, but it definitely makes up for this in the tone department. It's also outfitted with some really clever features like a stomp switch to engage or disengage standby mode, and a nine-volt DC power output for powering effects pedals. The Minnie has a broad range of onboard tones, and it's also a perfect clean platform for effects. At 949 dollars it is one of the more expensive pedalboard amps, but its tones and build quality are matchless.

ISP Technologies Stealth Pro Power Amp

ISP Technologies is beloved for its brilliant Decimator series noise reducers and its Theta preamps and amplifiers, but one of its most interesting products might be a small, simple, inexpensive power amp called the Stealth Pro. The Stealth is a minimally featured, maximally powerful 180-watt class A-B solid-state design (as opposed to the class-D circuits that most similar amps are built around) with a single knob on the front for level, and dual ins and outs on the back, as well as an additional single bridged mono output for ramming all 180 watts into a single cab. It has a very natural, responsive personality while also being big, open, and transparent enough to be a perfect match for pedals and preamps. If you really get all your tones from your pedalboard or some sort of modeling device, the Stealth will complete you. At 349 dollars it is extremely affordable and totally robust. It does have kind of a bulky power supply, but this is offset by its otherwise diminutive 9 x 4 x 2-inch dimensions.

Electro-Harmonix 44 Magnum

EHX's 44 Magnum definitely wins the award for being the most tiny and economical. The Magnum is housed in a pedal enclosure, the same size as the Freeze, Neo Clone, and the company's other compact stompboxes, but it generates a very loud and convincing 44 watts of proper guitar amp roar. It has a single knob for volume, a Bright-Normal switch, a single quarter-inch instrument input, and a variable-ohm speaker output. On the Normal setting it exhibits a dark but muscular character, while the Bright setting brings out a lot of detail and high end harmonics. The 44 Magnum has a preponderance of headroom that works beautifully with pedals, and its sonic transparency really lets dirt pedals breathe and flex their muscles in a way that many conventional tube amps don't. Even if you don't want to use the 44 Magnum as a main amp, it is invaluable as an inexpensive (around 150 bucks new) second amp, or just as an emergency backup that can live on a pedalboard or in a gig bag until it's needed.

Taurus Stomp-Head

Taurus Stomp-Head

If there's a down side to pedalboard-mounted amplifiers (and I'm not sure there is) it's that they are typically rather plain and unembellished in regards to both function and appearance, usually taking the form of basic boxes with just a few controls. Polish company Taurus turns this convention upside down with its Stomp-Head line of floor or pedalboard-mounted amplifiers. The Stomp-Head comes in several different variations, from 40 to 90 watts, and all of them feature tube preamps, multiple channels, extensive equalization controls, effects loops, and footswitches for changing channels, kicking in some boost, or both. Input and output options are exhaustive, and some models feature power reduction switching and excellent speaker simulation outputs for direct recording. And unlike the basic boxes of its competitors, Taurus has gone the extra mile to make the Stomp-Head amps sleek and flashy, with chrome knobs and fancy graphics. Most models run around 900 dollars new, so they are not inexpensive, but for players wanting a pedalboard amp with all the bells and whistles the Taurus Stomp-Head is where it's at.

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