Respect to the towering 4×12 stack – but if you’ve ever tried humping one eight stops on the Circle Line, you’ll understand why someone had to invent the portable amp. Let’s say you’re a busker, a road-warrior or a musical free spirit who refuses to be handcuffed to plug sockets and four-way adaptors. If so, the portable guitar amp format is a masterstroke, squeezing giggable sounds into a compact battery-powered combo, so you can bring the noise, on the run, anywhere on God’s green earth. With the portable amp sector booming, the market can be bewildering – so here are five key factors to consider before swiping the plastic.
1. Match the rig to the gig
Loud equals heavy, so ditch the ‘big-is-best’ mentality, consider the power figures you actually need and get the trade-off right. If you’re busking solo, you don’t want to be carrying much over 6-kg, and with no drums involved, you can get by with as little as 2-watts and a single speaker. For street work, you should also insist on a tough metal chassis (ideally slanted for optimum sound projection), dimensions that don’t trip up the general public, a carry-strap and a cover to repel spit, gum and the inevitable rain.
Musicians bombing between band practices will want higher figures though, and plenty of portable amps deliver surprising grunt (the Roland Cube Street pumps 2.5+2.5-watts through twin speakers, for instance, but weighs a spine-friendly 5.9-kg). If you’re a pro musician looking for a tourbus distraction then decibels are secondary to tone, while if you’re eyeing up a coffee-table objet d’art for riffing on the sofa, you’ll want it to match the curtains. It’s horses for courses, so decide who you are and purchase accordingly.
2. Choose the right power source
Batteries don’t grow on trees, so if you’ll be performing exclusively on street corners, do a little digging and hunt down a portable amp with a marathon lifespan. Some amps include rechargeable batteries, while others – make six alkaline AAs last up to 20 hours, meaning that you can play three Saturday afternoon sets without handing your takings direct to the Duracell Bunny. If you’ll be hopping between rehearsals or practising in your bedroom, make sure your chosen amp has an AC adaptor, so you can tap into the National Grid whenever a socket is available.
3. Axeman or frontman?
Another critical pre-purchase consideration is what you plan to run through the amp. Some portable amps nail their colours to the mast and specialise at supporting one instrument. Others score with their box-ticking flexibility, welcoming bass, keyboards and acoustic/electric guitar, and offering switchable channels that act like a pint-sized PA system. Chances are, if you’re busking, you’re probably also singing, so scan the spec sheet to ensure you’ll get an XLR microphone input. It’s an invaluable feature for slicing through the hubbub and football chants of the rush-hour tube station…
4. Decide on the trimmings
At the bare minimum, you’ll want a multi-band EQ, onboard guitar tuner and headphone jack – but that’s just the start. The dashboards of portable amps are getting more exotic by the year, and if you’re more Matt Bellamy than Bob Dylan, it’s worth investigating what’s out there. Outboard FX pedals are a hassle for buskers, but portable amps like the Micro CUBE and CUBE Street eliminate the headache with pro onboard effects and COSM amp modelling (great when used in tandem with the Boss FS-5U footswitch for hands-free sound switching). A portable amp with CD/MP3 playback is useful in many scenarios from performance to rehearsal, while some amps even hook up to your iPhone for use with apps. You might want all of this, none of it, or somewhere in-between – but don’t assume that ‘portable’ is shorthand for ‘boring’.
5. Try before you buy!
Always the most important commandment with any speculative gear purchase. Spec sheets only tell you half the story, and before you even consider swiping the plastic, sit down with a shortlist of portable contenders to examine how the features cut it in the real-world. Finally, stretch your budget as far as possible without involving a loan shark, to secure an amp that you won’t immediately outgrow. The one consistent rule of thumb in the amp market is that cheap always means nasty…