Line 6 Sonic Port review – guitar audio I/O from the amp modelling giant

Mobile POD - Line 6sonic port on neckIn the world of amp modelling, there are probably two names that really made the guitar-playing world sit up and take notice; Roland and Line 6. Roland make brilliant products but, somehow, Line 6 managed to capture the interest and imagination of not just the techie-minded guitar players but also those who – initially at least – might have been sceptical of all the technology. One of their products – the POD – has become something of a guitar amp modelling icon and, in its current incarnation – the POD HD – can produce some utterly convincing guitar tones that record beautifully and provide plenty of punch live.

I’ve used Line 6 products in my own studio ever since the original POD; desktop modellers, digital amps, their amazing Variax modelling guitar and the Amp Farm software. The stuff works, gets the job done with minimum fuss and, in a recording context is better on both family and neighbours than cranking a valve amp (even if not quite so rock ‘n’ roll’).

So, given their pedigree, it was with some personal interest that I chased up a review unit of the recently released Sonic Port – Line 6 bringing their take on a guitar-friendly audio I/O unit for iOS. At around the UK£70 mark, the unit is priced as a direct competitor to two other devices released recently – the AmpKit LiNK HD and iRig HD – both of which I have reviewed on the site. So how does the Sonic Port – and the associated Mobile POD app – fare against the established iOS amp modelling competition?

Super Sonic?

The Sonic Port is compact, study and stylish - very Line 6.

The Sonic Port is compact, study and stylish – very Line 6.

Physically, the design of the Sonic Port is slightly chunkier than either the AmpKit LiNK HD or iRig HD but this is because it houses four jack sockets in total. It is, however, still very compact and feels robustly made; with due care and attention, the Sonic Port will survive being transported around in your gig bag or back-pack along with your iPad or iPhone. The look is very Line 6, particularly the characteristic metallic red finish on the front and rear panels.

The unit is supplied with two cables for connecting to your iDevices; one for a 30-pin docking port and the other for use with the newer Lightening format. Both are about 1m in length and they fit is secure at both ends.

The unit is supplied with both 30-pin and Lightening connector cables - and the Mobile POD app comes free.

The unit is supplied with both 30-pin and Lightening connector cables – and the Mobile POD app comes free.

All the audio connections are housed on the face of the unit. Centre-bottom is the ¼” guitar jack input while directly above that is a ¼” stereo output (it will also support a mono out with a suitable cable) so you can pass audio to your amp, a PA or some other sort of monitoring system. The left-hand mini-jack (1/8”) is for headphones while the right-hand mini jack provides a stereo input. You could use this to send audio from a line-level source such as a keyboard or mixer into the Sonic Port, although it is worth noting that only one input source can be used at any one time (the line-in takes preference if both are connected).

Sonic sonics

Physical description aside, the obvious question is how good is the audio quality of the unit? The short answer is very good indeed. In the absence of published technical data on the Sonic Port and the obvious competition, this is very much a subjective call but, for me, the Line 6 unit is most certainly on a par with the iRig HD and AmpKit LiNK HD units. And as both those units do a very good job indeed, I’d have no problems recommending the Sonic Port to any potential purchaser. The audio is clean and detailed and, while none of the devices in this price range will compete with a more expensive dedicated audio interface in terms of shear audio quality, I’d happily use this as my main guitar I/O device with my mobile iPad-based recording setup.

Which, of course, is not a great deal of help to you, the reader, if you are facing the difficult question of which one of these three recent releases you might go for :-) I’ll come back to this question at the end of the review….

POD in an app

The free Mobile POD app is very well stocked with virtual equipment and a breeze to use - but it only works with the Sonic Port

The free Mobile POD app is very well stocked with virtual equipment and a breeze to use – but it only works with the Sonic Port

With Line 6’s Sonic Port, the hardware is only part of the equation; you also get access to the Mobile POD app. This app is free to download from the iTunes App Store but, unless you actually have a Sonic Port connected to your iDevice, all you can do is audition the various features of the app via a small number of pre-recorded guitar phrases. This is great for getting a sense of what the app can do – and, therefore, a smart idea – but you can not use Mobile POD with any other audio interface.

This is obviously a very different approach to that adopted by the competition. All of the other main guitar amp modelling apps such as Amplitube, AmpKit+ and JamUp Pro are paid apps and, what’s more, include a range of in-app-purchase options if you want to expand your tonal possibilities with some additional virtual kit. In contrast, Line 6 provide you with Mobile POD for free – providing you have purchased the Sonic Port itself; a interesting approach.

The app itself is very slick and, as you might expect, offers the expected array of virtual amps, speaker cabinets and stomp box effects that you can mix and match to create your required tone. If you are familiar with any of the other iOS amp modelling apps then finding your way around Mobile POD will be a breeze.

There are 32 amp models included in the app - going from super clean to ultra hi-gain.

There are 32 amp models included in the app – going from super clean to ultra hi-gain.

On the plus side, the app comes with a staggering number of different virtual amps. In total, there are 32 different amps to choose from selected, and presumably tweaked to suit the iOS platform, from the same set of models available in other Line 6 products. The amps range from squeaky clean to insanely overdriven with plenty of stops in between. In terms of your basic tone, therefore, pretty much every base is covered (although perhaps not every bass as, tube preamp aside, there is not really a dedicated bass amp in the current line up).

The selection of cabinets is a little more modest but goes from 1×8 emulations up to 4×12 with multiple models in the more popular formats; again, plenty of choice to colour the tone you are trying to create and you can freely mix and match the amps and cabs. The selection of virtual stomp boxes covers the obvious requirements with noise gate, compressor, delay, chorus, flanger, tremolo, EQ, auto swell, wah, reverb and rotary models amongst the offerings. Rather oddly, there are no overdrive or distortion models although, frankly, given just how far the amps let you go in terms of hi-gain sounds, this is not such a big deal in practice. Still, a rather unusual choice as most Line 6 desktop modellers offer a selection of overdrive and distortion options. Perhaps this is something for a future update?

Mobile POD includes a massive collection of excellent presets based upon patches from their desktop and amp modelling units.

Mobile POD includes a massive collection of excellent presets based upon patches from their desktop and amp modelling units.

Perhaps the only other thing to note is that Mobile POD doesn’t currently include virtual microphones for tweaking the amount of room ambience in your sound. This can be fun to play with in a recording context (I use it all the time with my desktop POD) but, again, with some very sweet sounding reverb options amongst the stomp box effects, it is not a significant issue.

Small POD, big sound?

The interface is a breeze to use with easy access to key controls and editing of the signal chain.

The interface is a breeze to use with easy access to key controls and editing of the signal chain.

So, given the overall feature set, what does the combination of Sonic Port and Mobile POD actually sound like? The simple answer is very good indeed. Guitar tones are, of course, a very personal thing but, for me, in terms of the actual amp modelling, by a whisker, this is the best I’ve yet to hear on an iOS device. The range of tones available – because of the huge selection of amps – is vast and, monitored through my studio speakers or a full range speaker/amp combination, the quality of the modelling really comes through.

Line 6 make the most of their amp modelling legacy to show off the Sonic Port/Mobile POD combination with the very extensive and very impressive collection of presets supplied. These are organised into a number of categories – by style and band, for example – and the preset titles make it very clear what the inspiration was for many of these. No prizes, therefore, for imagining what the ‘Back In Black’, ‘Another Brick’ or ‘Brown Sugar’ presets are intended to sound like. And, on the whole, these sound-a-like tones are right on the money. You can, of course, create your own tones and save those as presets.

Other worlds

Mobile POD includes Audiobus support and can be used within the Input slot to form part of your recording workflow. I had no problems using this arrangement with apps like Cubasis or Auria to capture my guitar tones.

The Mobile POD app has Audiobus support although, at present, this is only for the Input slot.

The Mobile POD app has Audiobus support although, at present, this is only for the Input slot.

Equally, the Sonic Port itself is recognised by most other apps as an audio input device and I was able to drive JamUp Pro and AmpKit+ from the Sonic Port. While you can’t use Mobile POD via other guitar interfaces like the iRig HD or AmpKit LiNK HD, you can, therefore, use other modelling apps with the Line 6 hardware. Well, some of them at least as, on my 3rd generation iPad, Amplitube refused to recognise the Sonic Port as a valid input. I’m not sure why this might be or whether it is something IK Multimedia might address (or not as the case may be) but it is worth noting.

[UPDATE: 29th October, 2013: Amplitube has received an update recently and, prompted by a question from a reader about Amplitube/Sonic Port compatibility, I given this another go. Thankfully, whatever issue there was now seems to have been resolved and Amplitube now seems to recognise the Sonic Port as a digital input and works accordingly. Good news!]

Question time

The Sonic Port/Mobile POD combination is impressive. The audio quality is very good and the amp modelling, unsurprisingly given Line 6’s pedigree in the field, is top of the class. But what about the (obvious) question I posed earlier? Which of these three, recently released, main contenders – the Sonic Port, the iRig HD or the AmpKit LiNK HD – should you buy?

First, let’s make one thing clear. All three are very impressive and, for the money, provide good audio quality in a very mobile format. Potential users are, quite simply, spoilt for choice and each is capable of getting you some killer guitar tones from your iPhone or iPad.

So what criteria might you consider in making a choice that is right for you? Price is perhaps not too much of an issue as all three are in the UK£70-85 range. However, do remember that Mobile POD app is then free… although this won’t save you anything if you own one or more of the other amp modellers already.

Recording the Sonic Port/Mobile POD output into your DAW is straightforward given the Audiobus support.

Recording the Sonic Port/Mobile POD output into your DAW is straightforward given the Audiobus support.

The other consideration might be the very specific features sets. For example, the AmpKit LiNK HD and iRig HD include hardware input gain controls that can be useful for matching input levels of different guitars to your apps, although most of the amp modelling apps provide software equivalent level adjustments.

Equally, the various input/output jack combinations might be significant to some users. For example, the additional line input on the Sonic Port could allow you to connect the outputs from a mini-hardware mixer (perhaps for using a microphone or two?) to your iDevice. Or, if you need to play long sessions, the optional power supply for the AmpKit LiNK HD – which will then charge your iDevice – might be a key selling point, although it obviously adds to the overall cost.

You can access the controls for any part of your signal chain at the top of the main screen.

You can access the controls for any part of your signal chain at the top of the main screen.

The are, of course, other – totally subjective – elements to the decision making process. You might just prefer the look of one device over another or you might have some brand loyalty because of other kit you have owned and used from one of the manufacturers. In my own case, I’m a fan of all the companies involved for different reasons but, as I look around my own studio, I’ve got a ton of other Line 6 kit that I use every day for my own music production work. And maybe that brand experience and/or loyalty might be the only criteria that I can really use to distinguish between the three products?

If that’s the case it simply confirms that it is (a) a difficult choice and (b) that we should see that difficulty as a very good thing; the competition is a positive thing for the end user as it has generated three very good products at competitive prices. Am I sitting on the fence? Maybe a little but, with my very soft spot for Line 6 built up over many years of using their products, I suspect that, for me personally, that could well influence my decision –  but I’m happy to acknowledge that this is nothing but a subjective call.

In summary

Whether for live performance or in a mobile studio, the Sonic Port does a great job of getting your guitar working with your iOD device.

Whether for live performance or in a mobile studio, the Sonic Port does a great job of getting your guitar working with your iOD device.

The Line 6 Sonic Port provides iOS guitar players with yet another excellent option in terms of a high quality audio I/O and, with the Mobile POD amp modelling app thrown in for free, this is an impressive combination. In truth, there is very little to pick between the three ‘HD’ guitar interfaces released within the last few months. If you haven’t already taken the plunge, the choice is a tricky one. However, it is a choice you should welcome having to make as all three products can deliver.

It’s a shame that the Mobile POD app is not available a separate paid product for users that want the Line 6 modelling but already have suitable audio I/O hardware. Perhaps this is something LIne 6 might consider as an in-app-purchase that ‘unlocks’ the app for use with other interfaces? I’m sure this would be well received.

If you are new to amp modelling in general, you cannot go far wrong with any of these choices. However, if, like me, you have been using Line 6 amp modellers for some time and have developed some brand loyalty based upon positive experiences, the name alone might be enough to sway your final decision. Line 6’s Sonic Port and Mobile POD come highly recommended from a self-confessed Line 6 fan :-)

Mobile POD - Line 6The Mobile POD app is available from the iTunes App Store as a free download to work with the Sonic Port interface.

Mobile POD logo

Music App Blog YouTube channel

Having read the review, if you want to see and hear the Sonic Port/Mobile POD combination in action, then check out the two videos below from the Music App Blog YouTube channel.

 

 

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    Comments

    1. What other device allows a stereo input at this price point? I’m a keyboard player and am very interested in this device because if that capability! Quality if that input at that price is a factor as well!

      • Hi Paul,

        agreed – it’s a very useful feature and, depending upon what other ‘traditional’ hardware (mixer, mics, etc.?) you might have access to, could make the Sonic Port a decent bet as an all round audio interface until you wanted to move to something more obviously aimed at multitrack recording (and maybe MIDI also).

        Cheers

        John

    2. Thanks. I enjoyed this review. Helpful and nicely done. I’m considering purchasing this but have a question. Can you use the Mobile POD app in the Audiobus effect slot? Seems like it would be a useful feature if a user wanted to record a clean guitar part and then audition sounds for final overdub into a DAW. If not, does it have other features that would allow for a similiar workflow?

      • ASAIK, Mobile POD only works in the Input slot at present…. it didn’t show up in the Effects slot in Audiobus for me. I’ll have a play around and see if I can work out a workaround… nag me in a few days to remind me :-)

        Cheers

        John

    3. Hi John,

      Great review~ I am a current apogee jam user with jamup pro xt and now thinking if getting sonic port is an upgrade. To make it clear, i focus mainly on the audio quality & latency performance. The sonic port seems more convincing on deliver better audio output quality as the output is also through the 30 pin digital port (someone claims it has better quality quality than the internal headphone jack from ipad). Also, how’s its latency performance comparing the jam? I do notice tiny little latency from my current setup (with ultra latency mode off as i found the sound changed a bit with this setting), especially on clean sound setting but it doesn’t bother me from playing or noticeable to audience. I consider using ipad as my major FX for gigs so it would be great if sonic port can handle this better. Any thought?

      Cheers
      Vic

      • I’ve not used the Jam other than a quick demo in a store (I should try and get hold of a review unit) so making comments on a comparison would be a bit unfair. All I will say is that, for me, the Sonic Port/Mobile POD combination had no noticeable latency during my testing. There must be some processing time involved but it certainly didn’t bother me in playing.

        None of these modelling packages is ever perfect… it is always a bit of a trade off between features/sound/flexibility/price, etc…. I really like JamUp Pro also and I’d happily switch between these two apps if it was just down to the quality of the tone…. but, as I indicated in the post, I guess I’m just a bit of a fan of Line 6.

        Guitar tone is such a personal thing I think the only real advice I ought to give you with any great confidence is to find a store that will let you demo the Sonic Port beside your Apogee Jam…. and then make your own call….

        … sorry if there isn’t an easy answer :-)

        Best wishes,

        John

    4. I am a little confused – how do I play along with some existing material, (pre-recorded backing track for example) if, as I understand it, the input to the 1/8 socket overrides the 1/4 guitar input socket, which I presume means you can’t hear both at once. So does the backing track or whatever have to be actually on your i-device to play along with it? If so, how exactly do you actually do this?
      Sorry for the low tech question, – I’ve been playing guitar for over 40 years, but I’m still a bit new to this sort of technology!
      Thanks in advance,
      Rick J

      • Hi… is this when using the Mobile POD app? If so, then tap the small musical note icon located bottom-right of the Mobile POD main screen. This opens up a narrow ‘player’ tool at the base of the screen. For there, you can load any audio track that is currently in your iTunes music library (so, if it’s your own backing track recorded elsewhere, you will need to put it in your iTunes music library on your iDevice first).

        Hope this helps?

        best wishes, John

    5. Sorry for the delay in getting back – thanks for the info John. I now have a sonic port and am finding it a bit baffling, – mainly because I am also a bit new to the iphone as well as Line 6 technology.
      OK, I’ve got all my backingtracks on my phone, have got a track playing. Can hear the guitar as well coming through. But how do I balance the two sources? The player tool at the bottom of the screen doesn’t appear to have a volume control, just a play and forward / back control. The track is too loud against the guitar, but I can’t see any sort of volume slider controls anywhere either for the guitar or for the track. I know this is probably very obvious, but I’ve tried a few different tracks, and they are all too loud on the phones relative to the guitar, and I can’t find a simple way of equalising them. Obviously using the volume controls on the phone doesn’t change the volume relatively of the two sources, just the overall volume.

      I’m sure this gadget is brilliant really, but it sure doesn’t make itself very obvious! Any help here would be much appreciated.
      Rick J

    6. I’m very interested in the Sonic Port. What desperately try to find out is, whether I have the option to use the internal speakers of the iPad with the SP. Can you give me an answer? Thanks in advance!

      • Hi Wolfi,

        as far as I’m aware the answer is no – at least not with the Mobile POD app and, as yet, I’ve not found a way of doing this in combination with other apps either. With Sonic Port plugged into the dock connector, it seems to ‘grab’ the audio output of the iDevice.

        Hope this helps?

        John

    7. I too am interested in the unit but visiting the Line 6 forum made me reconsider as it seems lots of folks there have issues with their sonic port not being recognized by their iPad.
      The question of QC have even been raised on other forums on the web, which brings a cold shower on the subject.

      • Hi FLeuter… difficult for me to say much that might be of help here as, with my review unit (which, incidentally, I purchased after having done the review) has worked flawlessly. It’s also difficult to draw too many conclusions from forums as those folks that are getting along fine don’t tend to be the ones that have the inclination to post. If you browse most iOS hardware/software developers own forums you will find some users who – for one reason or another – are having problems. They shouldn’t be of course – the software/hardware should work as advertised – but in our hi-tech world, not everything is as it should be. Anyway, if you do go for it, then good luck :-) Best wishes, John

    8. Hi John,

      Great review very helpful indeed!. I just have one doubt, let’s say you’re perfoming live and the song you’re playing requires changes of the presets on the go like say you have to change from a clean tone to a distorted one, how do you perform this?

      On a Floorboard Multi-Effects you push the banks with your foot and that’s it but with the sonic pod how do you do? Maybe you can pre arrange changes of tones of the songs?

      Your comments are highly appreciated!
      Brgds,
      Damián

      • Hi Damian,
        good question. Most of the iOS amp sim apps provide pretty good preset systems and a means to switch between presets with a single tap on your iPad’s screen (and some even have a set of oversized panels so you can’t miss in the chaos that is a gig). This works fine but does, of course, mean you have to take a hand off your guitar to tap the screen. Not always ideal…. The alternative is to look to something like the IK Multimedia Blueboard. This allows you to so MIDI-based patch changes via a floorboard. It works well – providing the iOS amp sim app you are using support MIDI patch changes (not all do as yet). Anyway, read the Blueboard review on the site (use the ‘Search’ box and you will easily find it. best wishes, John

    9. A question:
      Can you record from the 1/8 out into the 1/8 in?
      Likewise, can you record from the 1/4 out into the 1/4 in? This would be highly useful for reamping and such.

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