Not having the luxury of my own workshop where I can leave a regular sized amp, I need a small workbench sized amp I can use to test guitars as I solder them together. Space is at a premium in Makespace, so I can't even just leave a small practice amp there, I have to head down to really tiny desktop amps. Also, given it's a shared workshop where things might get knocked or broken accidentally, I don't really want to go all the way to the small but very good sound quality (and not cheap) amps like a Yamaha THR10 or Vox Adio Air GT.
For the last year I've been using the Orange Micro Crush, which is tiny, fairly cheap at forty quid, and has a built in tuner. However, whilst it's a fun little product, it's clean tones are not great (or, indeed, existant), and as I move into doing more complicated wiring circuits with coil taps and serial/parallel pickup options, I've been struggling to work out if things are working as they should with the sound quality of the Micro Crush.
Thankfully, if you need a diminutive amp that actually sounds nice clean, there are a couple of good seeming options out there now, so I decided to go play at the weekend in my local guitar shop, PMT Cambridge, and see what they were like.
First up is the Boss Katana Mini, which is a 7 watt solid state amp with a 10 cm speaker. It has the option to switch betwee clean, crunch and brown channels (brown for some reason is the metal channel, but I've no idea why it's called that), a three band EQ, and a built in delay effect. It comes in at 23x18x11 centimetres, so a bit bigger than my old Micro Crush, but still reasonably small. The second one I tried was the Black Star Fly, which is a 3 watt amp with a 7.5 cm speaker. It has a clean and overdrive channel, a weird knob labeled IDF that lets you move between a fenderish to marshallish sound, and again a delay effect circuit. Though it is quieter, it is also notably more compact at 17x13x10 centimetres, more comparable to the Orange Micro Crush.
Having watched reviews of both amps online I think I went into the testing with unreasonable expectations, particularly of the Boss Katana Mini. If you watch reviews on YouTube like this or this, then you'd expect it to sound like a much larger practice amp, but it reality it does not in the flesh, having more of the slightly tinny sound you'd expect of a smaller speaker. However, it is streets ahead of the Orange Micro Crush in terms of delivering a clean sound that you can hear the subtleties of your guitar with. At 7 watts it's also reasonably loud, so will make a nice party in the park amp I suspect. But it is still a little tinny, though with the three band EQ you can dial some of that out. It is really good for the money and size, but I think if you've just watched demos on youtube you probably want to try it out in person first.
The Black Star Fly was quite similar, probably a little more tinny than the Boss Katana Mini and definitely not as loud, but still has quite a reasonably clean tone, and if you mess around with the weird IDF knob you can get some reasonable body to the sound as with the Katana.
For a workbench amp though, both are more than capable of letting me know if I've wired things up properly and give me a reasonable idea of what I've got. But neither are going to give me an great tone compared to plugging it into an amp with a 12" speaker, so final testign will need to still be done otherwhere for me. These are nice portable practice amps that you can stash in your rucksack and let you play where you otherwise wouldn't, but not a replacement for something as basic as say a Fender Mustang or Champion practice amp with a much larger speaker.
Downsides with both: neither has a built in tuner, which makes me a little sad. As I mentioned in a recent post, I use a clip on tuner most of the time, given I occasionally want to string up the guitars before I've soldered the electrics in them; but I don't always remember to have it on me, so a built in tuner would definitely be handy. They also have delay but no reverb, which seems odd to me, but I guess perhaps is something other people ask for despite most bigger amps just having reverb? Not a biggie given my use case, just seems odd to me.
In the end it was a tough call between the two: both have the sound quality I want and whilst not cheap, are in a price I feel comfortable stashing in Makespace. In the end I opted for the Black Star Fly, given I am space constrained, and for my use case the extra volume doesn't matter so much. But both really are a step up from your usual tiny amp, so if you need something in this space I really do recommend either of them over the usual novelty tiny amp from the likes of Orange, Fender, and Marshall.