As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago when reviewing IK Multimedia’s new iRig Acoustic Stage acoustic guitar pickup system, the company also announced a couple of other iOS-friendly hardware products at the recent NAMM show. These included the up-coming iRig Pro I/O (a follow up to the very popular original iRig Pro) and the iRig Nano Amp.
The latter is now with us and a review unit arrived through my mailbox a few days ago. So, if you like the idea of a pocket-sized amp to use with your iOS-based guitar rig modelling software, is the Nano Amp, priced at €60.99 (about UK£50/US$60 at current exchange rates) worth a look?
No roadie required
The Nano Amp is actually several devices rolled into one. Sized so it could fit into a large coat pocket (the compact format is shown by the various screenshots included here), and designed to run off 3 AA batteries (you can get up to 8 hours continuous use from decent quality batteries under average usage conditions), it is a stand-alone mini guitar amp with integral speaker.
Plug your guitar in (that switches the unit on), adjust the volume, gain and tone controls to suit (the latter of these is a simple Normal/Bright switch) and the Nano Amp chugs out a reasonable level that’s more than adequate for personal practice or coffee table jamming with a friend or two. Rated at 3 watts, it’s not loud enough to get you arrested or draw complaints from neighbours but it’s a serviceable sound.
The Gain control takes you from clean through to rock but perhaps not into full-on metal. The 3” speaker is, of course, a little lacking in genuine bottom end but, as a practice tool, that’s perhaps not such a big deal. I’m not sure it would be quite loud enough to busk with on a busy street corner but, sat around the living room it would be fine.
Speak(er) to me
The second role is just as an amp that you can plug into an external speaker cabinet. In this case, the internal speaker is bypassed and you get the benefit that a larger speaker might deliver in terms of wider frequency response and somewhat more air being shifted (and hence a somewhat louder result).
I tried this with a single 12” 16 ohm guitar cabinet (impedances between 8 and 16 ohms are supported) and the difference was quite remarkable. Now you could keep your loved ones awake and, if your apartment featured less than solid walls, your neighbour’s loved ones awake also. While you don’t get the degree of tonal variation that you might with a more full-featured practice amp, the sound itself was good, especially when the gain was cranked and you used the guitar’s volume controls to roll on/off the level of overdrive.
Set the amp to ‘clean’ and the level drops away a bit but, even so, this is a nice volume to practice with in a smallish room providing those next door are out and about, although it wouldn’t compete with an acoustic drum kit. Is it the greatest rock ‘n’ roll tone I’ve ever heard? Well, no, but surprisingly satisfying given the physical size of the amp…. and with a suitable speaker, this would be plenty loud enough to busk.
Nano Amp phone home
So far, so good, but also, so far, no iOS. Which is, of course, where the Nano’s Amp/Direct switch and Device mini-jack socket come in. With Direct selected, you can use the supplied 1/8” TRRS cable (it’s about 50cm in length) to connect between the Nano Amp and your iOS device’s 1/8” headphone/mic jack (or adapter if you have an iPhone 7).
The Nano’s guitar input then gets passed to your iPhone or iPad, through any software you might be running there (e.g. a virtual guitar rig app such as AmpliTube) and then back out from your iPhone/iPad to the Nano where it is amplified and appears out of the Nano’s speaker or, if you have an external cab connected to the Nano, out of that. This all works seamlessly and, essentially, the Nano is acting as an amplifier for your iOS guitar processing.
I tried this with both my iPhone 6S and iPad Pro without any problems (bar a little more of a feedback issue when I was using my iPhone; this wasn’t apparent on my iPad Pro so I assume it was down to differences in the hardware of the respective headphone/mic jacks?).
I gave this a go with both the Nano’s speaker and hooked up to an external speaker and I also tried a number of different amp sims including AmpliTube, Mobile POD and BIAS FX. All combinations worked fine and my only other comment was that the overall volume was a little bit lower when using this Device mode than when just using the Nano as a straight amp. It was still perfectly serviceable for personal practice though and plenty loud enough to jam out a few ideas while your drummer pal taps out a beat using a drum app on his own iPad…..
Jack of all trades?
As a pocket-sized, battery powered, practice amp for the iOS loving guitar player, the iRig Nano Amp is a bit of a jack of all trades then…. Stand-alone amp/cab, amp for a bigger cab and amplifier for your iOS guitar amp modelling software of choice. If you need a single device to do all three of these jobs then it would obviously be an attractive proposition. I’m not aware of any directly competing products that would do all three of these roles is such a convenient fashion.
That’s not to say that there are not alternatives, however, if what you really need is only one or two of these functions. For a really (really!) simple mini-practice amp, you could, for example, pick up something like the Marshall MS2 or MS4. Both are battery powered and available for about half of the price of the Nano Amp. If you wanted to go slightly up market, then the Blackstar Fly 3 Mini Amp (around UK£60) delivers quite a kick and has a separate extension cab you can add for stereo performance.
However, neither of these offer such a neat integration of your iOS hardware/software. There are, of course, battery powered amp/cab combinations available, some with amp modelling built in but others that are just straight amplifiers that could take a line out from your iOS hardware and amplify anything you passed through that, but the price goes up a bit. For example, Roland’s Mobile BA (c. UK£145) or Cube Street EX (ouch! UK£479 – for serious buskers only) would provide that sort of connectivity.
Whether the Nano Amp makes sense for you, therefore, will come down to a combination of specific needs and whether you are happy to trade off the versatility of the Nano (jack of all trades) vs the more focused (master of one?) options out there at the price point you can afford.
At this price point, the nano Amp is perhaps aimed at those closer to the beginning of their guitar playing journey rather than the more seasoned player. Purchased just as a mini practice amp, the Nano Amp is perhaps a little outgunned by similarly priced dedicated ‘mini’ practice amps. However, where it scores – and this is obviously a deliberate design decision on behalf of IKM – is in versatility for the iOS-based guitar player.
If you are in that target market and looking for an all-round, compact, battery operated, introductory practice tool – stand-alone or with your favourite iOS guitar rig sim – then the Nano Amp is in a category of its own. There are perhaps better dedicated mini amps at this price point but not that offer such easy integration with your iOS hardware; in that context, the Nano Amp is a very handy – and versatile – portable practice tool.