There have been tons of trends in guitar gear over the years. During the past decade or so, it has been all about Amp Sims/Modelers. At least it would seem that way, right?. But Another trend popped up around the same time: Mini Lunchbox Amps!
What Is A Lunchbox Amp?
So I tried my best over the past two days to find out just who started the trend of the Lunchbox Amp. There have been so many over the past 8-10 years that it was hard to pin down who started this. From what I can tell, it may have been Vox with it’s Pathfinder series.
The Vox Pathfinder was probably the first “tiny amp” I can remember coming across, and I recall that it was hugely popular. The Vox eventually was discontinued, and it was around that time that we started seeing more of what we know now as the “lunchbox amp” pop up.
Now, it seems like just about every company makes a tiny version of the bigger flagship models. But I was surprised not only in the sheer volume of how many there are, but how many are made specifically for Metal!
You also have more modern interpretations now in the form of the Spark Amp which leverages your iPhone or Android phone to run different tones and effects.
I know what you’re thinking. These little guys can’t possibly be a good choice for a Metal guitarist’s rig. They rarely go over 15 watts of power, and some are even as low as 1 single watt. Metal is all about loud, and abrasive right?
Well, sure it is. But having a huge 100 watt amp is mostly impractical. This is something that most guitar sites and reviewers would never tell you. But in my opinion, anything over 50 watts is overkill unless you are playing an outdoor festival or Wembley Arena.
Tube amps are loud as hell. They have an immense amount of power that you will probably NEVER need. In retrospect, I was an awful bandmate.
Trust me. I know. My main rig was a Mesa Dual Rectifier with a 4×12 cab for the longest time. I remember very well the look on every sound guy’s face when I loaded this huge monolith of an amp into a venue. That look on his face was disgust, annoyance, and anger. Because he knew I was that guy.
My band hated me. They never said it. But I know they couldn’t stand lugging around an aircraft carrier of an amp rig to gigs.
Over the years, I never got to turn that amp up past 1/4 of the power. It was too loud for even a large venue. It weighed almost 100lbs. It was just way too much for a person that played regular clubs across the country. So I downgraded to a 40 Watt amp, with a single 12” speaker.
This not only made my bandmates happy, it also got me on much better terms with the sound team at clubs and venues. Not to mention how much easier it is to record a tube amp at lower power. When recording, a cranked amp sounds great as the tubes get hotter and the distortion gets meaner.
But you never get to crank these 100 watt monster amps in the studio. Not without an attenuator, or an isolation cabinet. Maybe you can crank it if you live in the middle of nowhere. In reality, it’s just not practical.
So yes, a Lunchbox Amp can be a great solution in a multitude of applications. Especially in Metal!
The 7 Coolest Lunchbox Amp Picks
Let me say, that these are going to be in no particular order. They all have different applications. Some may be great for practice or recording. Some of the others can easily be used on the stage with your pedalboard rig.
I also wanted to include several different budgets. Almost all of these little monsters come in at under $500. If you add a cabinet, then you could easily build a rig with a lunchbox amp for half the price or less of a full-sized amp rig.
But first you need to decide what you’re going to do with it. Recording-wise, almost all of these would be a great option. I also included a few though, that would make for a great replacement in a live situation. If you’re a gigging musician that mostly plays clubs and bars, then the lunchbox amp may be a perfect idea to save space, the audience’s ears, and your back!
Let’s get on with it!
#7 Orange Micro-Dark
The Orange Micro Dark is a tiny little guy, that packs a filthy punch. Big things definitely come in small packages, because this thing is LOUD. Much louder than you would think at first glance.
The Micro Dark is a solid-state, affordable version of the similar Tiny Terror series from Orange. The Tiny Terror is an all tube version, and packs an even bigger wallop than the Micro Dark. The price difference is pretty huge, though.
The Micro Dark is what we call a “hybrid” amp. It has solid state power, but relies on tubes in the preamp section. This assures that your distortion will not be brittle, or weak. It will have the same amount of texture and saturation that the bigger Orange amps do. Just in a much smaller package.
At under $200, the Micro dark comes with some great features aimed at home practice and recording:
- 20 Watts Of Power
- Preamp tubes: ECC83 / 12AX7
- Controls: Gain, shape and volume
- Speaker Out
- Headphone jack with CabSim (speaker simulation)
- Effects Loop
Being a hybrid amp, you can be assured that the dirty tones that this amp provides are rich and saturated. The 12AX7 in particular is a staple of many Metal amps, and should help provide that classic Orange Metal distortion.
The headphone jack has a built-in cabinet simulator, which makes this a great practice buddy. But it can also be used in a recording situation, using the headphone jack as your main output. Add an Effects Loop into the equation and you have a full mini Metal rig!
#6 Marshall DSL 1
We recently talked about the Marshall DSL series in our guide to Doom Metal amps. The reason it made that list, was because it was so versatile. The DSL series can give you classic Marshall distortion tones, or it can be a blank slate for your pedal combos.
The only real difference in the lunchbox amp version, is it has less knobs! All of the great features from the rest of the DSL series remain in tact, just dialed back.
- Reissue series – authentic DSL sound
- Power: Low power circuit from 1 W to 0.1 W
- Tube assembly: 1 x ECC82 and 2 x ECC83
- Tone Shift key for center configuration
- Common sound control for treble, mid and bass
- Serial Effects Loop
- Emulated Output
Unlike the Orange Micro, this is a full tube amp! You may be thinking that 1 watt isn’t enough power for anything. But I can assure you, this is the perfect amp for recording purposes. You can crank it all the way up! I think this would power a single 12” or 15” speaker VERY well.
The serial effects loop will allow you to add any pedals you want into the mix. So if you already use the DSL bigger brother, you will not sacrifice any tone while practicing or recording. The DSL Mini will just be a smaller version of your regular rig!
#5 Hughes And Kettner Spirit Of Metal
Hughes and Kettner revamped their whole image a few years back, and have been a big player in the Metal amp world. Their Tubemeister Series has been used in studios and bragged on by engineers like Glenn Fricker.
The Spirit series are tiny solid state version of some of H&K’s larger amps. While they may be small, they aren’t lacking in tone. I don’t know if I would recommend these for recording or playing live, but they make a fantastic practice amp!
The features on this amp are for people not willing to settle for a regular practice amp. These are features usually found in much more expensive offerings.
- 50 Watts, Solid State
- Speaker Out
- Headphones Out with the TubeMeister18’s RedBox emulation
- Sagging control for volume-independent power amp saturation
- Weighs just 1.1 kg
You could certainly use this amp for recording if you really wanted to. The Emulated output will simulate a speaker cabinet for you. But if you ask me, a tube amp will do this better than the solid state amp. However that is all just personal choice. I am positive you could get some good tones out of the Hughes and Kettner Spirit.
The Spirit certainly nails the idea of the full-size tube amps from Hughes and Kettner. The distortion is pretty good, and the clean tones are sparkling. If you are wondering, the amp absolutely glows blue. Not bad for under $200!
# 4 Joyo Mjolnir
Joyo is on this list more than once, and I think that is fair since the company is absolutely slaying the competition when it comes to a lunchbox amp lineup. It seems to be their specialty!
But The Mjolnir is no joke. This is a fully featured design.
Joyo gained popularity over the past few years for being a great alternative pedal company. Almost all of their pedals are very affordable, and the legacy of budget friendly gear continues with these amps.
The Joyo Mjolnir is a full featured amp, it is just in a smaller package. It has some pretty impressive features, and is a full tube amp. So don’t let the small chassis fool you!
- Power: 15 W
- Dual Channel: Clean, Distortion
- 3 ECC83 preamp tubes
- 2 EL84 power tubes
- Controls (per channel): Gain, Bass, Middle, Treble, Presence and Master
- FX Loop with Send Level control
- Includes a footswitch
So the Joyo Mjolnir is the real deal when it comes to features and specs. It has two independent channels, something unheard of in a small amp like this. Each channel even has it’s own EQ section, although limited. Just the fact that it has dual independent EQ sections is very impressive.
The gain stage is similar to the Marshall DSL, as the tube setup is also similar. You can get some killer high gain tones out of the Mjolnir, but it doesn’t slack on the clean channel either. The clean channel responds well to pedals so you can add shimmering chorus and reverb.
Add in a fully functional Effects loop and you have similar features to a much larger amp. While 15 watts may not sound loud enough, I can assure you it would be perfect for band practice and smaller gigs. Finally, an amp you can really crank up with the band!
#3 PRS MT 15
The PRS MT 15 is the signature amp of Mark Tremonti, a man of great skill that I think gets undo criticism for being in the band Creed. But people forget his own prog-metal outfit; Tremonti. Mark has been a PRS artist for 20 years now, so it was only fitting that he gets an amp to go with his signature guitars.
Paul Reed Smith has only been in the amplifier game for about a decade, but he has made a huge impact with his American made tube amps. Paul and his team really put a lot of love into the features of this amp:
- 2 Channels: Clean and Gain
- Power: 15 W – reducible to 7 W
- Preamp tubes: 6x JJ EC83S
- Power tubes: 2x JJ 6L6GCMS
- Clean Channel controls: Volume / Treble (Pull Boost) / Middle / Bass
- Includes foot-switch and protective cover
This is a full-on tube amp built for the stage and studio. While it can power a 4×12 cabinet, it is probably better suited to a single speaker setup. The amp was made to take pedals well, especially a good overdrive to tighten up the gain channel.
Although, the distortion channel honestly doesn’t need any help. The PRS MT is HEAVY. It was dialed in to Mark’s specs to be able to cover all of the different bands that he is in. By far, the PRS is the most versatile amp on this list. Look at it as the luxury model of the lunchbox amp.
This is yet another lunchbox amp that has two independent EQ controls for each channel. You can really dial in each channel’s sound and use the footswitch to change between them. This makes the PRS MT 15 a perfect amp for a small stage or bedroom practice.
If any amp on this list can take the place of your big rig, the PRS is the biggest contender. You may balk at the price initially. But for a lunchbox amp that can honestly do it all, I think it is a good deal.
I can only speak highly of PRS products. To check out the whole series got to the Official Website.
#2 Joyo Zombie 2
Joyo makes the list again, with another high gain beast! This is the second version of the original Joyo Zombie Lunchbox Amp, with upgraded features. Joyo has managed to pack a ton of great things into this amp, while still remaining in “budget” territory.
- Metal Chassis Construction
- Power: 20 watts
- Pre-Amp Tubes: 12AX7
- Bluetooth Capable
- Class D power amplifier
- 2 Channels: Clean/ OD
Joyo”s Zombie 2 packs a huge punch with the 12AX7 power tubes running as a preamp for the distortion. This gives a huge high gain sound with great low-end response. To my ears, it seems to be based on a 5150.
The difference between this amp and the Mjolnir is pretty drastic, however. The Zombie doesn’t have half of the options that the Mjolnir does when it comes to dialing in your EQ settings. The Zombie is also not a full tube amp, but a hybrid. It will still get loud, and is great for recording. But I don’t think it would make the cut in a band setting.
That being said, if you pair this lunchbox amp with a solid single speaker cabinet, you will have high gain tones for days! The clean channel is a little less focused, but it is still very usable.
#1 Peavey Invective MH
Peavey makes an MH version of almost all of their famous amps now. The MH stands for “mini head” and these are all tube lunchbox amps that go above and beyond the call of duty. Do these smaller versions of flagship models hold up in comparison?
They absolutely do!
The features are a mirror of the regular Invective:
- All tube
- 20/5/1 watts
- 2 x EL84 tubes
- Noise Gate built in
- MSDI (DI output)
- Includes footswitch
The peavey Invective is a collaboration between the Peavey USA amp designers and Misha Mansoor from Periphery. This is the signature amp that Misha uses in the studio these days, and it sounds massive!
The Invective is loosely based on the Peavey 6505 in the way it’s channels and gain stages work. The amp has a usable clean channel, but where it shines is the distortion, and the “boost” function. This boost function acts the same as it does on other Peavey amps, and it takes the overdrive to a whole different level.
The Invective takes pedals really well, but one pedal you will not need is your noise gate. It is built right in! This is great for modern prog guitarists. Pair this feature with the USB connection that allows you to load cabinet IR, and you have the most impressive lunchbox amp on this list.
While this can be a great studio tool, 20 watts of power is definitely enough to gig with as well. It seems like the Peavey Invective really checks all the boxes for a great amp. The price is definitely not “budget”. But remember that the quality is reflected in the higher price point.
Lunchbox Amps: Are They For You?
It may be a tough call for many people. The person that a lunchbox amp is definitely NOT for, is the person that likes to tinker with their sound obsessively. If you like to constantly change up your amp settings, or you are a certified tone chaser…I don’t think these are for you at all. They lack the EQ features needed, and the extra channels.
But if you are looking to downsize, or expand your recording gear? Then these may be the affordable answer to most of your issues. Hell, you could buy a few of them and try them out for recording and the price is so reasonable, you wont be hurting too much if you dislike the amp.
In the end, it is all about your sound and style. But it doesn’t hurt to try something new!
What is a Lunchbox amplifier?
Lunchbox amplifiers get their name from being small rectangles with a handle on top. The look is reminiscent on a lunchbox.
Can I use a Lunchbox amp with my current speaker cabinet?
Yes. Most cabs can be used with a lunchbox amp.