Ah, guitarists. We're a funny bunch, aren't we?
We spend a significant amount of time fetishizing over large amplifier stacks and vintage tube amplifiers, only to realize how inconvenient they are when you just want to jam alone!
Luckily, technology has the answer!
Enter guitar headphone amplifiers...
What Exactly Are Guitar Headphone Amplifiers?
A guitar headphone amplifier allows you to connect your guitar to a device that will then amplify your signal to a pair of headphones or a small built-in speaker.
The size of the unit makes the guitar headphone amplifier a convenient choice for home use.
No more being asked to turn it down!
Connect your headphones, close your eyes and be a rock god.
Are There Different Types of Guitar Headphone Amplifiers?
Yes - just like regular guitar amps.
In this article, we will explore micro/bug amplifiers, mini amplifiers, and guitar amplifier emulations units.
"That's all very good and well, but what are each of those?"
- Micro/Bug amplifiers are small devices that plug straight into the guitar. They have a jack connector at one end and a bunch of parameters on the device itself.
- Mini amplifiers look like regular amplifiers that have shrunk. They are often battery powered and have a lovely clip on the rear to attach to your jeans. They usually have a small built-in speaker as well as a headphone output.
- Guitar amplifier emulation units tend to be small devices with many amplifier, cabinet speaker and stomp-box simulations within one small chassis. More sophisticated units have many connectivity options, with some having USB capabilities for recording and tone tweaking via standalone computer software.
Why Should I Get One?
We assumed you already knew that when you stumbled upon this article!
Guitar headphone amplifiers are a great addition to any guitarist’s arsenal for many reasons.
- They're great for solo practice.
- They’re a good option for jamming along to backing tracks (some guitar headphone amplifiers have an auxiliary in to help with this!).
- They're also great for tonal variation. Mini amplifiers with built-in speakers tend to sound pretty kick ass when mic'd up and recorded in a studio, and some of the more sophisticated units double as an audio interface to allow you to record into your computer! Pretty cool, huh?
Our Favorite Guitar Headphone Amplifiers
Now, let's take a look at what we believe are some of the best guitar headphone amplifiers on the market today.
Founded in the 1950's, Vox Amplification remains one of the most popular guitar amplifier brands to this day. As music technology develops further, the physical size of gear shrinks with it. The Vox amPlug 2 series is no different, fitting in the palm of your hand.
The Vox amPlug 2 is available as 7 different compact headphone amplifiers. As a whole, the Vox amPlug 2 covers a range of classic guitar tones from Vox's very own AC30 to Classic Rock (Marshall-style), Metal (Mesa-Boogie Style), Bass, Clean (Fender Style), Blues (Fender Style) and Lead (Mesa-Boogie Style). To access each of these tones, you will have to buy each amPlug.
All you need to do is plug in a pair of headphones to the amPlug's headphone output, connect the amPlug's jack to your instrument, press the on button, and you're ready to go!
The on button also acts as a "mode" switch, which allows you to flick between amplifier presets. The amplifier presets available depend upon the amPlug model you are using. For example, Vox amPlug 2 Clean has 'Pure Clean,' 'Twin Clean' and 'Boutique OD,' providing you with a range of presets you'd expect from a clean guitar amplifier.
In addition to being able to flick between specific amplifier presets, you are also able to adjust the gain control. Higher gain settings increase speaker breakup and distortion. You also have tone control for the equalization of the guitar tone and volume.
If that wasn't enough functionality out of a device smaller than your hand, there is also an FX Button. The FX Button allows you to add Chorus, Delay or Reverb to your guitar tone. Holding the FX Button will toggle the FX preset like the on button toggles the amplifier preset.
Each amPlug also has an Aux In, allowing you to connect an external device to the amPlug, which will then be outputted to the headphones. The Aux In function is handy for practicing to backing tracks. With a 1/8th inch to Stereo ¼ inch jack, you could connect your portable audio device to the amPlug and jam along to your favorite tunes!
Don’t worry about battery life. The amPlug2 can last up to 17 hours with only two AAA batteries!
The Bottom Line: The Vox amPlug 2 series covers a broad range of guitar tones and functionality with such a small footprint. However, If you are looking for a broad range of guitar tones with a single headphone amplifier, the amPlug is limited depending on the which one you choose.
The original Line 6 POD was released in 1998. Looking like an overgrown kidney bean, the original POD contains 16 different amplifier models and effects, as well as an array of cabinet speaker emulations and an LCD screen. To access the tones within this desktop amplifier modelling device, all the user has to do is plug a guitar into the input and a pair of headphones into the output.
In 2007, 9 years after the release of its father, the Pocket POD was born. The Pocket POD promises the massive tone of the OG POD packed into a kidney bean shape that can fit in the palm of your hand with comfort.
If you assume the smaller footprint would mean less features, you’re wrong. The Pocket POD is powered with the same processing technology of the POD 2.0. The Pocket POD contains 300 presets, 32 amplifier emulations, 16 cab emulations and 16 effect modules. That’s a whole load of tone in a very small package!
The front of the Pocket POD has an arrow pad for cycling through the options on the LCD display along with four knobs and two buttons. The four knobs allow drive, effects, delay and channel volume to be manipulated. Additionally, the knobs can be toggled to manipulate bass, mid, treble and reverb, too. The buttons allow you to save your preset tweaks and offer a tap function for synchronizing time-based effects, or you can hold them down for tuner mode.
The LCD display can be a little temperamental, and tweaking the LCD menus can become quite tiresome. Luckily, Line 6 thought about this and implemented USB connectivity. All you need to do is connect your Pocket POD to your computer, download the Vyzek software, and dial in your perfect guitar tone with ease. This is by far our favorite feature of the Pocket POD.
The Pocket POD has a CD/MP3 in, Amp Out and Direct Output on the reverse of the unit, along with the DC input for powering the device and the Guitar In.
- The CD/MP3 in is a 1/8” stereo input where you can plug in an external audio player to jam along with.
- The Direct Out connector is where you should connect headphones, though it is also the perfect output for connecting to a PA system when playing live or connecting to a recording set-up.
- The Amp Out is designed for connecting the Pocket POD to a guitar amp
PRO TIP: make sure you turn off the cabinet emulator on the Pocket POD when connecting to a guitar amplifier or you’ll find your tone will darken and sound odd!
The Pocket POD takes four AAA batteries, which will power the unit for 4-6 hours. If you’re needing longer life out of the Pocket POD, you can also power it via main power.
The Bottom Line: The Pocket POD is an ideal option for the musician desiring a headphone solution with the flexibility to play live, record and tweak until the cows come home.
The Donner Pocket Mini Guitar Headphone Amp Series consists of 6 different bug style amps. Like the Vox amPlug series, the Donner series consists of Classic Rock (Marshall), Basement (Ampeg SVT), Classic OD (Marshall Plexi), Hard Rock (Marshall JCM800), Heavy Metal (Soldano SLO100) and Plexitone (Marshall Plexi).
These bugs have three rotary controllers: drive, tone and volume. These parameters affect the amount of distortion, the color of the sound and the loudness and, in our opinion, they don’t sound too bad!
Their range of bugs are aimed at heavier genres than the more ‘across the board’ amPlug series. Like other guitar headphone amplifiers, the Donner series has an auxiliary input, allowing you to connect an MP3 player and jam along with your favorite tunes.
Our favorite feature of this collection is without a doubt the bang-for-buck nature of the products. Each bug comes with a splitter for the headphones, a stereo male to male cable, and a USB charging cable. The lithium battery has up to 15 hours charge and can be recharged via USB—no need to worry about running out of batteries.
These bugs are 100% analog circuitry, just as you would expect to find in the amplifiers they model. As such, the harmonic distortion of the units is like that of a larger amplifier.
The Bottom Line: The Donner Pocket Series is a great place to start if you’re looking for dirt cheap headphone amplifier solutions. Although you do get an awful lot for your money, it’s still worth mentioning that, though it doesn’t sound bad, it doesn’t quite hold up to the competition. If authentic guitar amplifier simulation or tonal flexibility is what you seek, you might want to look elsewhere.
It may look like a toy, but it most certainly is not. The Danelectro N-10 Honeytone is a 1W mini electric guitar combo amplifier. The manual states, “Danelectro always made insanely great gear. We pioneered tube amps in the 40’s… Top players still love them… Hearing is believing!” The N-10 Honeytone is no exception.
This combo has three knobs and an input jack. This straight-to-the-point design allows you to plug your guitar jack cable into the input and dial up a great tone in seconds. The amplifier can be powered by 9V battery for full portability, or it can be powered by a Danelectro DA-1 adapter for longer life.
The knobs couldn’t be any easier to control. The volume knob will turn the Honeytone on and the volume up. Gain determines the amount of distortion applied to the signal. The tone control adjusts the balance between bass and treble. We really appreciate the simplicity of this guitar headphone amp. A true ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid!’ ethos.
The N-10 has a 2” speaker, which allows you to clip the unit to your jeans and riff away without the need for headphones. Yes, this review is focused on guitar headphone amps, but we have to say that having a speaker is an enormous plus for us.
One of the secrets of a massive guitar tone is to use a small guitar amp. Ever heard of the Pignose? The Pignose was one of the first portable guitar amplifiers available on the market, and it has been used to create some of the most desired recorded guitar sounds in history. Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton and Joe Walsh all knew that tiny amps can yield enormous tone. So, try mic’ing one of these bad boys up in the studio.
The headphone connection on this unit is 1/8th inch, so it should work with all headphone types without the need for an adapter. This is perhaps the only negative to the unit, as an 1/8th inch input can be noisy and flimsy, especially when used portably, so be careful!
The Bottom Line: The Danelectro N-10 Honeytone is a whole lotta guitar amp in one little box. The only features we would have like to have seen is an effects knob to dial in alternative flavor if you desire, and a ¼ inch jack, but all in all the N-10 is a great little box.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, Haven’t I already seen a reddish, kidney bean looking guitar headphone amp?
and the answer is yes.
Behringer is a company known for creating budget versions of more expensive pieces of popular music equipment. The V-amp 3 is no exception, and you are forgiven if you thought it was a POD at first glance.
The V-amp 3 is a virtual guitar amplifier that doubles as an audio interface. The V-amp 3 comes loaded with 32 amplifier emulations, 15 cabinet emulations and 16 classic effects. It’s basically the POD with one less cabinet emulation.
The V-amp3 has really nailed it with connectivity. We really like the ability to hook MIDI up to the device to synchronize time-based effects. The headphone output is next to the guitar input, and there is also an auxiliary in with an independent level control to allow you to connect your MP3 player and play along to your favorite tracks.
The left side of the V-amp 3 has 7 easy to use knobs.
- Master controls the volume of the entire unit; this will include the auxiliary level where applicable.
- Volume controls the level of the modeled amplifier.
- The Bass, Mid and Treble knobs allow you to sculpt the frequency response of the amplifier. If you’re looking to get that cliché metal guitar tone, try the bass and treble knobs at two o’clock and the mid-range anywhere between seven o’clock and noon. Instant “Enter Sandman”!
- The Gain knob controls the amount of distortion or simulated speaker break-up of the emulation.
Pro Tip: keep the gain low! Cheaper guitar amplifier emulators tend to sound best with lower gain. The higher the gain, the more digital and unrealistic they tend to sound.
The final control on the left side of the V-amp 3 is the amp selector. It’s conveniently organized into four styles—rock, clean, blues and metal. The presets are aptly named to allow you to quickly dial up the flavor you need. If you’re looking for the clean jangle of a Johnny Marr style tone, you’ll be heading towards ‘Black Twin Custom Clean.’ If it’s the AC/DC crunch, you’ll be dialing in ‘Hi-Brit 100 Custom Class A.’ The right side of the unit has access to the modeled effects, as well as a separate reverb knob to dial in reverberation separately.
What we find most impressive about the V-amp 3 is the usability. The Pocket POD is great, but without plugging it into a computer, it can be a bit of a pain to edit your tone in finer detail. The V-amp 3 has most of it on the front of the unit itself.
There is also a built-in tuner for your convenience and a tap tempo function to manually sync time-based effects. This unit can be connected via USB to manipulate the parameters of the unit’s emulations with your computer and serve as an audio interface. Both brilliant features.
The Bottom Line: This is an ideal product for somebody who wants a Swiss army knife guitar headphone amp. If you’re after convenience, this product may be the perfect choice. If you’re after quality and reliability, the original red kidney bean looking unit may be a better fit. Behringer products have a knack for deteriorating quickly and welcoming noise, so do be wary.
Jacking It In
In conclusion, to find the best headphone amp for guitar that meets your needs we’d suggest you find your local music store and audition different models.
If you can’t find a stockist, there are plenty of great YouTube demonstrations and audio examples available online. Take your time, have a listen and consider why you want a guitar headphone amplifier to determine which type and model is right for you.
If you’re looking for the smallest possible footprint, a micro/bug styled amplifier is going to be the ideal choice for you.
We recommend any of the Vox amPlug 2 series for your micro/bug needs. The Vox is available in a wide range of styles and packs a whole load of trusty Vox tone into a tiny device.
Each amPlug 2 also has a range of tweakable parameters, which makes the amPlug 2 series the most versatile of the micro/bug range. Versatility + decades of producing legendary guitar tones = our winner.
If you’re after something a little bigger, with the option of using a built-in speaker at low volumes as opposed to headphones, mini amplifiers are perfect.
We recommend the Danelectro N-10 Honeytone for this role. The N-10 can be clipped to your trousers and is powered by a 9V battery. Just clip it on, turn the volume up and riff with mobility.
The simplicity of the Danelectro, with just two tone altering parameters, makes the N-10 as easy as a Sunday morning for dialing in the perfect tone. Although aimed specifically at the headphone guitar amplifier market, the built-in speaker sounds savage when mic’d up in a recording situation.
If Danelectro is good enough for Led Zepellin and recording through small amps is a secret of Jimmy Page’s massive recorded guitar tone, then it’s good enough for us too!
If options are your thing, guitar amplifier emulation units are your thing.
As this article was centered around portability and truer guitar amplifier headphone units, we refrained from looking at emulation devices such as the Kemper or Axe FX, which are more refined, more expensive and less portable.
Line 6 are the industry champions of the portable guitar amplifier emulation unit, and the Pocket POD would be our choice in this particular lane. Not only do you get a wide selection of well modeled amplifiers, cabinets and effects, but the ability to connect to a computer to tweak further is perfect for the guitarist looking at crafting detailed tones to rehearse and jam with.
Only through listening and experiencing the range of guitar headphone amplifiers on the market today will you be able to choose which is right for you. Use our article as a starting point and go search for your rock god tone in a pocket size solution.