Best Amp-less / Amp-in-a-box Pedals of the 2020s (so far and before) December 08 2023, 1 Comment

It's been a little while, but this is a topic I've wanted to write about for a long time. I think the past few years have shown how much the market longs for great amp-less options for recording and playing live, and these calls have been answered by just about every big player on the market. New devices seem to be hitting shelves every month, and devices that have been on the market for a little while (i.e. HX Stomp) are getting updates that further display the value they still bring to the guitar playing public. So before I start jumping into the individual units I want to talk about, I first wanted to give some background on how I've used amp-less rigs in the past. I can get long winded, so if you want to skip to the list, go down to where the pictures start.

When I was in college, I really got interested in recording and home recording in particular, and as soon as I could scrape together some funds I had a wishlist of items I wanted to get to start recording at my apartment...

  1. Guitar processor with some type of amp simulation
  2. Multi-track recorder
  3. Drum machine

This was in the late 90s, so we were starting to see a handful of units that could meet those requirements and not totally break the bank (maybe stress the bank a little). Enter Zoom, with their line of multi-effect processors, early digital multi-track recorders, and drum machines. I managed to get one of each with my savings (though I think I overpaid for the multi-track by a large margin) and my journey into home recording was started.

Flash forward a number of years, and I had just gotten married and bought a house. At the time I had a better job but was still scraping together funds for recording equipment when I could. Multi-track recorders had been replaced by Pro Tools and audio interfaces. Guitar processors went from the fizzy, digital offerings of Zoom to a newer player on the market - Line 6. I saved up some funds, traded in some gear, and got the PODxt (red bean). I was blown away by all the options available in that unit, and while you could get pretty good results with enough tweaking, I felt like there was still just...something missing. The POD amps didn't break up that well when you pushed them with external pedals, you felt kind of "disconnected" from the music you were making. It sounded pretty good and it was a serviceable solution, but not quite ideal. In hindsight, I will say that I'm confident that 90% of the shortcomings I perceived from that unit had more to do with my lack of knowledge of how to get the most out of it than from it being a subpar solution. Oh well, you live and you learn (hopefully).

A few things that I was starting to learn at the time also popped up...there's a big difference between having a guitar track sound good through headphones while you're playing at home alone and sounding good in a mix or a live environment, audiences seeing you play live just want to have fun and enjoy the music, and sometimes simpler is better. Maybe these were just realizations that come with the passage of time and the mellowing of age, but I was feeling myself gravitate toward simpler sounds - guitar, maybe a little overdrive or fuzz, amp, reverb, maybe some delay. This uncovered one of the biggest shortcomings of this generation of modelling - digital recreations of fuzz sound bad a lot of the time. I've seen it done well a few times, but jeez, it can sound like a paper-tearing mess. Remember that term "paper-tear" because it'll become important in a little bit. 

Around this time I was primarily recording metal with my friend Luke from my college days in my home studio, demos for my band, demos for other local bands, or the odd special project (a folk-rock outfit, a hip hop album). One day I got to try out a Tech 21 Sansamp pedal with a cab simulator, and I was blown away. Here was a solution that met a lot of the requirements I had while sounding and reacting much better than the digital units I had been using. The PODxt got shelved, and I didn't look back. 

Around 2010, I was building guitar pedals to sell at shows and on Etsy, and I ran into the need yet again for a good sounding, silent guitar rig that took pedals well. The trouble with the Sansamp and cab sim solution was limited real estate (and power supplies) on a pedal board that was primarily being used to showcase my pedals rather than my amp-less rig. Enter the Vox Tonelab (desktop). This unit wasn't perfect, but it checked a lot of my boxes (good clean to edge of breakup amps, onboard reverb, headphones for monitoring) and allowed for me to have a good sounding neutral pedal platform at a guitar show that players could use to test out how my pedals sound so they could decide if they were right for their collection. I would also bring along a small VHT hand-wired combo, but that would inevitably bring out the decibel police with the SPL meter. So now I had a good option for pedal demos at shows and I had my more "modular" amp-less rig at home leveraging a variety of preamp pedals and cab sim units.

Flash forward to today and my rig has changed a little bit, but not a ton. Even back then when I was running booths at guitar shows, I saw the benefit of having a rig that could seamlessly switch between direct and "cab in the room" use cases, so I built my current rig for that very purpose. I have my pedal board terminating in a preamp feeding to a Two Notes Cab-M which sends a balanced XLR to a small Mackie mixer. The output of the Mackie goes to a Crown power amp feeding a 1x15 Eminence Legend cab (the one I use most day-to-day is open back, the one I've used most live is closed). I know this sounds complicated, but it really isn't. When I play live, I can have the whole thing wired up and ready to go very quickly, and it offers an insane amount of flexibility. At one time, I also had rack effects with the power amp and I could blend via the mixer's effects loop, and the mixer allows for super easy sound checks and testing in a live environment. The mixer also allows me to run a hybrid rig where one channel of the mixer to Crown is for guitars, and one can be for bass (with a separate bass cab, preamp, etc.). Now that you have a good idea of my use case and my current rig, let's talk about the end of the pedal board - from the preamp to the cab sim / DI.

For a number of years, my preamp of choice was the ADA App-1 preamp pedal.

It required a lot of time to dial it in just perfectly when I first got it, but once I had my sample settings down pat, I was in heaven. My one nagging gripe with it was dialing in the edge-of-breakup. If you didn't get the compression control balanced with the gain in the right way, notes would start off clipping but sputter as the note decayed, giving a bit of sound like paper ripping as the note dipped below the clipping threshold. You could dial this out mostly with clever use of the controls, but it was something that I had to keep in the back of my mind. Then I upgraded to the ADA MP-1 Channel and holy smokes, that pedal is a work of art.

It's so deceptively simple on the first glance, but is so versatile and sounds so good. Those two tubes get to cooking To this day, that unit is still up there in terms of gold standard of preamp pedals in my book. The only big issue I've got with the MP-1 Channel is they are a bit rare, and use tubes, so you're loosing a little of the reliability of a solid state or digital unit. But you make up for it in tone. Looking for a similar solution, I was enticed by the Kingsley offerings, but ended up going with one that is easier to get in the U.S. - Tubesteader.

I got my first Beekeeper and instantly feel in love. It's also a dual tube design, but wow does it sound good for amp-less recording. This was my solution for a little while (Tubesteader Beekeeper to Cab-M) but then the pandemic put some (rumored) pressure on tube production, so I started thinking about tubeless options so I could not endanger my precious Beekeeper or MP-1 Channel. The timing is almost suspicious because right around the same time companies rushed in to offer all these great tube-less modelling solutions. HX Stomp was already on the market, and while it was an awesome solution, I wasn't ready to jump back over in that direction yet. Strymon came out with the Iridium just before the pandemic started and it was like a sudden sea change just happened. The timing was perfect, people were at home and wanting to have an excellent silent recording option. I'm not saying gear companies started COVID outbreaks...or AM I?!? Just kidding (it's sad that now days you have to clarify). I had one on my wishlist for a long time, but just couldn't bring myself to pull the trigger yet. Tones on demos were all over the place, so I wasn't sure if I'd end up with a unit that I wasn't in love with that I'd just have to turn around and sell. Walrus came out with the ACS-1, and while that unit also looked great, I wasn't completely sold by the sounds I was hearing on demos. In both cases, I also was thinking, I already have a Cab-M, so I don't know if I need it as an IR loader. Then you started having some awesome multi-effect units come out from companies like Hotone (Ampero), Mooer, and most notably, NUX. I had gotten some NUX units in the past, and thought they were pretty cool but the Solid studio had some design defects that left me thinking it wasn't reliable for long term use (traces on the board connecting to XLR was literally hanging off the PCB). Then they release the MG-30, and I'm reading all these rave reviews, and the videos showcasing the sounds are great, too. I went out on a limb and ordered one, and loved it so much that I turned around and got a second one. It was such a powerful unit in a small footprint, and the tones were really good too. On top of all that, the build quality was light years beyond some of their older models. Just all in all a great unit. In fact, I just updated the firmware on my unit that stays in my office yesterday, and they are STILL ADDING AMP MODELS. The MG-30 came out in March 2021. That's one thing I'll say, I feel like NUX do a pretty good job of supporting their products well after launch. Shortly after the MG-30, I heard rumblings of them coming out with a unit to compete with the Strymon and Walrus boxes, and I'm sitting here thinking, if they could shrink the MG-30 down to a dual pedal size enclosure, this would be the killer solution I'm looking for. Well...

Meet the Amp Academy. Shit just got serious. Those clean Fender and Marshall tones that I loved so much in the MG-30, they're here. Nice IR management. The ability to leverage most of the unit's functions from the controls on the face without a screen was nice. Balanced DI output with switchable IR. Headphone out. Some of the lowest latency on the market. EFFECTS LOOP?!? WITH A BREAKOUT CABLE INCLUDED?!? I was in love with this unit. It was exactly what I was looking for without forcing me to do things a certain predefined way. Now, it's not perfect. You have to go into the app to do things like rearrange the signal chain, change the amp models aligned to the 6 slots you can access from the switches, change the reverb type, activate the reverb and other blocks. There's been firmware quirks, but like with the MG-30, NUX has done a pretty good job of addressing issues that arise. Even with the downsides, I can push the Amp Academy set to Fender, Cali Crunch (Mesa) or Marshall with my Butch drive in boost mode and get great compression and grind without the paper tearing, and it can't be overstated how great and rare that is in an amp simulation pedal (especially a digital one). This pedal has been the main amp-in-a-box I've kept on my board since I got it, and that speaks volumes because I've gotten a bunch over the past few years. Warts and all, I think this one is my choice for best for the money ($199 - that's insane for what you get).

Then Universal Audio came out with the Dream '65 and the Ruby.

 I'm just going to jump right in here. I got swept up in the UA hype at first, then went through the stages of hype withdrawal (hype peak, negative emotional response to compensate, realistic objectivity). I've been a long time UA user in the studio and know how high the bar is for quality in their effects. I've had a UAD card in my Pro Tools rig for years, and it's like the Cadillac of plug-in effects suites. When I heard they were getting into making preamp pedals, I was beyond stoked. I saw the price tag, and even though I'm a cheap bastard that feel physically violated paying full price for anything, I swallowed that pain and bought a Dream 65 new at full *weep* price. Let me say for the record, that was dumb as hell. Not because they are overpriced at $399..they aren't. As insane as that sounds, I'll come back to it. It was dumb because, like all gear fads and flavors of the week in mass market gear where supply isn't a factor, if you wait, you can get it on sale or used for much cheaper. I was dumb, and it won't be the last time (even in this article). Ok, let's go back to the price. On it's face, a lot of people balk at the $399 price tag for a preamp pedal. Oh, my sweet summer child, this isn't a preamp pedal. Let's break it have the preamp emulation, power amp emulation, one of the best spring reverbs around, boost, tremolo, and cab simulation. Now let's think about my board and what the $399 Dream 65 could replace...Let's say you have a preamp like a Vox Silk Drive (an EXCELLENT pedal, we'll get to it later) that you got on clearance for, say $100, then a good tremolo pedal - probably another $100, a decent boost pedal with multiple voicings - another $100, a spring reverb that can stand with the Dream - probably a Souce Audio True Spring or Digitech Polara (if you can even find one now) - that's $150 to $200, then a good cab sim pedal with power amp sim - there are a few serviceable options out there, but the Cab-M is one of the better ones so you're talking another $250 for that. Aaaand you have to power everything. And have room on the board. You're now talking $700 at the low end. Isn't it crazy how stuff stacks up over time like that? So while it feels weird to drop so much on a pedal all at once, you have to consider context. In the bigger picture, I'll put forward that the Dream 65 is actually a good deal for all it brings. That brings me to use cases. If you already own a Cab M, a True Spring, a good tremolo and great sounding preamps, the case for the Dream gets narrowed A LOT. I think the perfect use case for the Dream 65 is a player that's currently using a Fender amp and they want to get into going amp-less. Their pedal board consists of dirt pedals, modulation, and delays. So what has my experience been like with the Dream 65? Honestly, it's pretty good when you accept it for what it is. No, let me rephrase, it's freaking amazing for all the functionality that's packed in that little box. It hasn't stayed on my board for long periods of time consistently in the past because A) the jacks are so close together, you can't use it with pancake style plugs, so unless I want to swap out a bunch of cables I'm limited in where I can put it on my board B) the built in boost pushes muuuuch less DB of boost than my Butch, so it can trick you into thinking it'll take other higher gain pedals better than it actually will. Don't get me wrong, it takes them very good with a minimal of paper-tearing but it's just not, I don't know, perfect, you know? Hard to put into words but the characteristic of the breakup when pushing it from the front just isn't quite as good as it could be, but even this is very dependent on the guitar you're using and the drive you're using. For example, when I was thinking about my gain staging statement with the Dream, I was thinking of my Schecter PT Special with a P90 in the neck, and the pickup selector on both pickups. Boost is the Butch, which is neutrally focused and pushes a TON of gain out to your signal. You flip to the bridge, and it's a whole different world. The Dream really likes brighter inputs and can get flubby if you're feeding too much bass into it. This is an area where, and I sh*t you not, the Amp Academy out performs the Dream. If I had to compare the two and boil it down, here we go...Pros for the Dream 65 - reverb is killer, tremolo is very nice, low gain sounds are great and compress when pushed like a Fender does in real life, cabs are a mixed bag but mostly nice (I didn't mention, but you're tied to their Cab ecosystem rather than loading your own IRs)., loves bright pickups into it. Pros for Amp Academy - takes drives better and more evenly, can load your own IRs, cheaper. So would I recommend the Dream 65 to someone wanting a Fender in a box? Yeah, without a doubt, especially used at around $250. I think it's a no-brainer at that price or anywhere sub $320 (current sale price). If you have any interest in having a Fender direct tone, I think this one is a tool you should have in your toolbox, if only to have as a just in case solution in case your amp gives out. I'll put it to you this way, my Dream 65 is the amp sound on my board right now, and I keep going back and forth between it and my RevivalDRIVE based rig. I've also got the Ruby, and I don't have it pictured here, but it's killer too. Lacks the spring, which sucks, but makes up for it with the excellent modulation circuit. I need to try out the Woodrow, but I'll really need to find a steal on one to justify that purchase.

So, you're now thinking, I bet this list is gonna be short and this was a total waste of time. That's just what BIG PEDAL WANTS YOU TO THINK! Now we're going to get into the world of AI, computers, know, computer thingies. Oh hell, roll that beautiful Tonex footage...

We're gonna go quick now, got a lot to get through. Brass tacks - I was instantly intrigued by the Tonex platform and got one as soon as I could. It came in and right from the start, I found that Tonex is freaking amazing technology hampered by IK Multimedia being weird dumbasses and making everything much more difficult than it has to be in order to get stuff installed and running. I feel like Veruca Salt yelling at her dad, "YOU'RE ALWAYS MAKING THINGS DIFFICULT!" Well, license and software management at IK multimedia, sucks. IT REALLY SUCKS. Takes so damn long to do anything. I didn't like it when I was getting T-Racks on my Pro Tools rig, and I don't like it now. IK licensing department is just a little over-zealous in their handling of a hardware item. You can DEFINITELY tell this is a software company that happens to be selling hardware rather than a company selling a holistic solution. Ok, I got that off my chest. How does it sound? Well, some of the profiles sound amazing. Take pedals well, etc. Some don't. This is one for the experimenters. I think it's a cool concept and very flexible, and the onboard reverb and effects are pretty nice too. Could recommend to certain people, but with a WHOLE bunch of caveats. For the player that just wants a solution to work without sitting at the computer for a long time and having this feel like work, this should be a hard pass. For real, save yourself the headache and get a Dream or Iridium or something. If you like going down the profile rabbit hole to try different things and explore, then have at it. I'm keeping mine, but it doesn't get used as much as it should because my default posture is to avoid sitting in front of a computer unless I have to (as I sit in front of a computer and type these words to you). I think this one is more for the studio people.

I'm going to take a slight detour and talk about compact modellers. In particular, I'm going to talk about the ones that I've had or currently have. HX Stomp is an amazing unit that continues to deliver value and functionality well above it's price (though, am I going crazy? I looked up the current new price for this blog, and $650 seems like more than they were originally? Weren't they originally around $500? I may be way off, but that's how I remember it.) I got an HX Stomp I think either right before the pandemic or right after it started, which would have put it in the late 2019 / into 2020 time range. To be honest, I messed with it a little bit at first and didn't gel with it. It went back into the case I got for it and sat unused for a long time. Honestly, I felt like it was another scenario like the Tonex where I'd be strapped to a PC to make adjustments and that was completely the opposite direction of where I wanted to be from a music making standpoint. That's why I went from Reason to the Akai Force for a lot of beat-based music making duties, the desire to escape the screen. I wanted a rig that I could take with me to a place that didn't have internet access and not be troubled if I wanted to edit a patch with ease. Flash forward to this year, and I've decided to start giving it more of a go, and honestly it is such a powerful platform for it's tiny footprint, that I could totally see building rig around it. The beautiful thing is, you can choose how much you leverage the unit in your chain, or have your entire chain created digitally in the box. It's really a wonderful unit, and I could wholeheartedly recommend it to someone looking for a unit that can load IRs, provide nice amp modelling (some of the new models in the latest update are REALLY nice), house all your time and modulation effects, or any combination of the above. Just keep in mind that it does introduce a little latency (check out Leo Gibson's excellent video comparing latency of the main players in the modeller space and you can see what you're dealing with in real numbers) so choose other effects you're pairing with it carefully. You just need to approach it with patience, and not be afraid to get other artists' patches as a starting point to craft your own sound. Sometimes that's all it takes to give you some good ideas. Another compact modeller that I've actually spent more time with is the NUX MG-30. I mentioned it briefly earlier, but It's an awesome unit and continues to get updates from NUX. I've used it in a recording setting on guitar and bass, taken it with me on vacation, used it as a songwriting tool, and kept it close by when I want to try out an idea but don't want to power up my entire board. It has some of the same amazing Fender amp models that are on the Amp Academy, and many more. The unit allows you to manipulate your signal change to a lesser degree than the HX, but still allows a lot of flexibility. The fact that you can move your Send / Return around in your chain is immensely usable. The latency is also a little bit better than a lot of the other options out there, improving the feel of the unit. I was about to pull the trigger on the new Trident unit, but I sat down with my MG-30 and it does so much for me that I talked myself out of it. 

Next up, Uli had to get all up in this scene and put out the TC Electronic Ampworx pedals. With that X, I feel like this pedal should be a cartoon dog kick flipping over a curb while drinking Surge soda, but I digress. TC came out with the Combo Deluxe '65 blah blah bad search engine optimization name and I was mildly intrigued. TC has been hit or miss for me in the past, so I was thinking, could be good to try out. Maybe? Got it from Sweetwater, hope they don't try to steal my payment info again like last time...I don't have a very trusting relationship with my gear adviser. Welp, here it is...

Looks kinda cool, right? I'll cut to the chase. For $145, if you need a Fender in a box, this is a great solution (albeit, a little limited). The reverb is AMAZING. They should put that in it's own box. For real. Uli, you're sleeping on a money printing machine. PUT THIS 4ms CONVOLUTION REVERB IN ITS OWN BOX AND SELL IT NOW! It's nice. The amp sounds are good with this box, though not quite as good as Dream 65 or Amp Academy. In a world where Amp Academy didn't exist, this box would be an insane seller, but with Amp Academy at $199 and having all those amps and options, it's a little hard to swallow $149 just to enjoy that reverb. But it is a nice reverb. I'm torn. Speaking of torn, this one doesn't really do the paper-tearing thing to bad when you slam it with boost, but it does the Fender get-really-loud thing that, while it is super accurate to the real amp, may not be everyone's cup-o-tea or useful in all situations. New firmware update helps the gain curve some, but it's still not as good as Amp Academy. Few digital options on the sub $200 market right now are, so I guess I shouldn't be so harsh, but they're priced similarly, so I can't avoid thinking about it. Latency is good on this one as well. All in all, a pretty nice option, and there's not a ton on the market yet, so they are maintaining price. Think about it this way, you can get the amp (though not as good as Dream 65 or Amp Academy), cab and reverb for $149, or a whole bunch of (better) amps, more routing flexibility and some less good reverbs for $199 (Amp Academy), or arguably the best Fender in a box with the best reverb, included tremolo, better cabs and boost for around $250 if you keep an eye out on Reverb.

I saved the best for last. This isn't a new release, and will be polarizing, but it's new to me, so there.

I'll start with the order in which I got these guys.

RevivalDRIVE Compact

You know how when you're a kid and you get Wendy's and it's like the best thing ever, and the fries are fresh, and the crisp lettuce and tomato perfectly complement the spicy chicken filet with the mayo? Then your parents make you go to a nice place and the food tastes, I don't know, too complex? Too sophisticated? You want the easy path to good food at Wendy's, not whatever this is. When RevivalDRIVE came out, I thought, well here's another Origin Effects box that costs an insane amount that I'll never afford. (Editor's note: at the time I had been lusting after their compressor pedals for a while, but being Cheapy-McCheapskate I couldn't justify getting one)  I had been cruising forums for a while and seeing the mixed reviews (more positive than bad) and happened to find a RevivalDRIVE Compact (yes, I'm gonna keep typing it in their stylized form until I bore of it or my fingers hurt) used for a pretty good price on Reverb (I think it was like $250 or so) and while expensive, I could try it for that much, and if I didn't bond with it, it would be easy to move for a profit. I plugged it in, messed with the controls a little, messed a little more, unplugged it, put it back in the box and plugged my Amp Academy back in. I had become spoiled on my easy path to my tone, and I didn't want something complex or different, I had preconceived notions of what preamp tone was for me, and this box was completely foreign to my sensibilities. The sample settings in the manual didn't do a ton to help either, because they were all tailored for, I don't know, more of the "in front of another amp" set up than my direct to reverb and IR rig. So I had this really nice RevivalDRIVE pedal that just sat in my studio. For a long time. Then I started seeing some videos from Superdanger Studios and others (shout out to Superdanger Studios, I think one of the better YouTube gear channels out there) showing just how amazing and versatile this pedal and it's siblings could be (note, I also had gotten a used RevivalTREM in the meantime, which was also sitting in its box. I shouldn't be trusted with money.) So I made a promise with myself to leave the RevivalDRIVE on my board for a while and try to research it and dial it in exactly how I wanted it. I had an epiphany that this was exactly like the process I went through to learn and dial in my beloved ADA APP-1 that lived on my board for so many years. I eventually got it dialed in exactly like I wanted, and it was like I kept being drawn back to play guitar. I would stop and play any chance I got. I loved my Amp Academy and Dream 65, but there was just so much depth and complexity to the sound of the RevivalDRIVE, I felt like my eyes were being opened.

I had a similar experience with RevivalTREM. When I first tried it, I came away with two thoughts...there's not enough clean headroom, and it's not bright enough. My brain was trained on other amp simulation boxes that I had forgotten that there can be other sounds that inspire me just as much and can be set to take pedals well, etc. After spending several hours with it, I got similarly addicted. Now, it's not a sound that I would use everyday like the neutral tone I dialed up on the RevivalDRIVE, but it was still great. Are the Revival boxes expensive? Yes, especially new. But just like how you grow and develop a more sophisticated palate for food, your guitar tone palate can grow and change over time. The way the compression, gain, ghost notes, affect of tone stack, all of it playing together in a harmonious symphony of engineering make these pedals something special, but still an acquired taste. I totally get why someone wouldn't gel at first with them, I didn't either, but they are definitely worth the investment of time to build a relationship. RevivalDRIVE to True Spring to Cab-M with York Audio IRs loaded. 'Nuff said. 

So...what else is there that I can recommend? I've tried a ton over the years, so here's a sampling...

  • Well, I referenced them earlier, but the Vox Valvenergy pedals, especially the Silk Drive (think Fender or Dumble cleans) and Mystic Edge (AC30) are excellent if you have a good reverb to pair with them.
  • The EAE Model feT is excellent. Absolutely killer Sunn tones. More versatile than you'd expect.
  • Wasn't a big fan of the Mooer Preamp x2, but could see it's potential.
  • Another favorite of mine is the AMT preamp pedals, the Legend Amps series, the SS-30 Bulava, the SS-11a, SS-20.
  • I VERY briefly had the Blackstar Dept 10. preamp, had so many quality control issues that I sent it back. One I got was broken, then next had issues with the clean level to the point of being unusable. Avoid that one.
  • Carl Martin big box AC Tone is one of the best Vox in a Box pedals I've played, had that one on the board for a looooong time as my amp sound (early days of going ampless).
  • Tech 21 Character series - some of these are awesome and shouldn't be overlooked. Get the ones with the defeat-able speaker sim.
  • Blackstar HT-Dual - it's ok in a pinch. There are better options.
  • Radial Tonebone - ok for Marshall tones, more of an OD pedal
  • Palmer Pocket Amp - it's fine for a Sansamp also-ran
  • VS Audio Blackbird Deluxe - I need to spend some more time with this one, but it seems promising so far
  • Here's a neat one I got recently - it's an Intersound Voicing Preamp pedal - super duper cool and a unique and tunable sound. I really like this one a lot, and you can get a PCB for it and build it DIY, but it's a pretty complex build. I bought mine from a builder, and Paperboy did a stellar job.

Ok, if you stuck it out, wow, I'm impressed. This was a lot to get through, I know.

Here's my nutshell on great boxes

  • Try them out for yourself with at least part of your rig (your guitar, a drive or boost you use a lot) and pay attention to the way notes decay when they ride the line of breakup. That will tell you TONS about the character of the pedal. Have you noticed how gear demo channels usually feature short bursts of playing without much dynamic range and with an abrupt end? Hmm, I wonder why that would be? Could it be that a pedal can sound great when it's signal is well above or below clipping threshold but sputters and poops out right on the edge? I wonder...
  • If at all possible, think about the context you'll be using the pedal in. If you play in a band, think about cutting through the mix. Some amp pedals sound great in isolation but compete with drums and vocals too much in the mix and the amp will lose out.
  • Solid build quality goes a long way. Origin Effects may be expensive, but they'll survive years and years of use and abuse.
  • I/O can be really important depending on your use case. Think about if you need balanced outs, effects loops, etc.
  • We are spoiled for choice these days. Don't be afraid to try smaller builders that are doing cool stuff in the Amp-In-A-Box space.

Top picks currently on market-

  • NUX Amp Academy - great all-rounder with some warts. Absolutely a "Bang-for-the-buck" winner, no doubt.
  • UA Dream 65' and Ruby - Excellent for some use cases, think about your whole rig before purchasing, but such good tones that it's a must have tool if you're looking for Fender or Vox tones. I'm not kidding, if you need a Fender amp and spring reverb tone, this is the one. Your brain may be like mine and bias against it due to the initial hype train, but once you remove the hype from it and spend some time with it objectively, I think you'll be won over. To really get a good idea of what I'm talking about, try it with the cab sim turned off going to a power amp into a good cab, and you'll see what I mean. Sooo good. I think UA have really set the bar for which others will be compared against in terms of Fender and Vox in-a-box tones for the foreseeable future. For some people, it may be a one trick pony since it only does Fender tones, but that's one hell of a trick.
  • Origin Effects Revival series - you've got a good cab sim, you've grown up a little and you're ready to step up and enjoy the nicer things in life. Used. On a great deal. Oh god, did I spend too much?
  • Tubesteader - Beekeeper, but I'm also heavily panting for a Sunkeeper
  • For tha nerds - Tonex - I kid, I kid, it really does sound great. And I'm a nerd, so...OH, ONE THING ABOUT TONEX, when you monitor in software, make sure that your sampling rate and everything is set right. I thought mine was broken out of the box all because it came set wrong from the factory. If it's wrong, the sounds will all be really distorted in a "this thing is broken, oh my god I just wasted a bunch of money and IK won't let me reassign the license" kind of way.
  • EAE - multiple great pedals, I need to get more
  • HX Stomp - great solution to kind of be the effects "brain" of your board, but it can also be your whole board
  • NUX MG-30 - the effects aren't quite as nice as HX Stomp, but they have some great amp models and offer a lot of flexibility
  • This may be cheating (it's an actual amp), but it's just so good, I have to include it - Quilter Superblock US - OMG so good, and a LOT louder than I expected. One qualifying note, I got two, and one of them had a messed up switch and I had to exchange it. That bypass / mode switch is a potential quality failure point, so keep that in mind and be careful with that switch. Beyond that, get one and just keep it in your bookbag. You won't be disappointed.

Anyway, happy new year, be safe!