7 Best Modeling Amps (2021 Review)

Until fairly recently, serious players really only had 2 choices when it came to amplifiers, a quality solid state, or a tube amp. Over the last 10 years, though, many manufacturers have been introducing modeling amps into their lineups, with varying degrees of success. At the lower end of the market, modeling amps were little more than a novelty, but as digital technology has improved, so has the ability of manufacturers to reproduce high quality digital models of famous amps and load them into affordable combos.

In this KillerGuitarRigs guide, we’ll be looking at the 7 best modeling amps on the market today. We chose to review combo amps only in this review. In order to ensure a fair test, we’ve used the same guitar throughout, a 2020 Epiphone SG, played directly into the amp with no pedal chain.

We checked the clean settings on the amps, as well as the various amp voicings for tone and accuracy. Where available, we also checked for the on board FX. As one of the key features of any good modeling amp, we additionally looked at the availability of downloadable models, and the ease of uploading them to the amps.

Our Top Three Picks

Our top pick was the ever impressive Boss Katana 50 MKII. We’ve featured it in several KGR reviews and guides, and genuinely believe it to be one of the very best dollar for dollar value propositions of any amp on the market. It’s packed with features, the amp models and built in FX are great, and we loved the Boss Tone Studio software interface.

The Yamaha THR5 was our best budget choice. For just a little over $200, you’re getting a brilliant little modeling amp with boutique amp looks and amazing sound quality. It looks fantastic, it’s easy to use, and it’s highly portable.

If the cost of the amp isn’t an issue for you, then you definitely need to check out our Editor’s Choice, the Neural DSP Quad Cortex. This model is everything you could want in a profiling amp and more! From overall build quality to the highly effective way that it captures amps and cabs, nothing sounds quite like it!


Boss Katana 50 MKII – Top Pick

Best Modeling Amps - Boss Katana 50 mkii

Incredible tones and incredible value from Boss

The Boss Katana 50 MKII is one of the most popular combo amps on the market today, and that’s including comparison against non-modeling amps, too! It’s packed with some of the best tones you’ll find in any sub $1000 amp, and yet it costs less than $300.

As mentioned, this is a combo amp, so it has a very classic appearance. The Katana 50 is very well made, with quality materials used throughout. The control layout is also very traditional, which converts from standard tube or solid state amps may prefer – if the layout isn’t good, digital displays can be a bit overwhelming when you first get into modelers and profilers. Controls are mounted up top, and from there you can access all of the built in features of the amp.

The Katana 50 has 5 different amp models built in – Acoustic, which is designed for acoustic guitar input, Clean, Crunch, Lead, and Brown. These preset amp models aren’t emulated after a particular amp or cab, but it doesn’t stop them from sounding excellent! We got creamy tones with punchy mids and well defined trebles on the acoustic and clean channels. Crunch was excellent, too, sounding just like an authentic tube amp on the verge of breakup. Lead got us some soaring trebles with a balanced mid and low end, and Brown hits with an unmistakable growl.

There were 60 pre loaded FX available, and just as you can on much more expensive models, you can store up to 5 in a signal chain that can be loaded to your Katana via the Boss tone Studio. There are of course more amp and pedal models available to download, and everything can be modified to suit your taste.

The cab is equipped with a high performance 12” speaker. It’s a Boss branded model, and we thought it performed incredibly, going to show you don’t need a Celestion or a Jensen to sound good. A particular favorite feature for the KGR team was the “attenuator” switch, while not a true attenuator, it does allow you to select between 0.5, 25, or 50 watts. We found that this let us turn the Katana down to bedroom levels without sacrificing tone, and best of all, we could crank it to small venue levels without interfering with EQ settings.

Verdict: We stand by our opinion that the Boss Katana 50 MKII is the gold standard when it comes to small combo amps that can be used for everything from bedroom volumes to small gigs. It’s easy to use, built to last, it has tons of aftermarket support, and the sound quality is far superior to similarly priced modeling combo amps.


Yamaha THR5 – Best Budget

Yamaha THR5 Review
Yamaha THR5 Review

Effortlessly cool and awesome sound quality

The Yamaha THR5 is the smallest in Yamaha’s range of desktop amplifiers, and within this particular niche, this is a pretty special amplifier. As with pretty much everything from Yamaha, it’s something of an underdog product, but it’s absolutely worthy of your attention if you’re looking for a small, affordable modeling combo.

This is by no means a loud amplifier. It’s rated to 10 watts and has 2 x 3” speakers, but for its intended use, which is typically bedroom or music room practice, it’s perfect. It can also serve as a USB interface, so if you’re planning to record, you’ll be able to plus the THR5 right into your chosen DAW.

There are a total of 5 preset amp voicings in the THR5 – Starting with clean, which was incredibly crisp, and remained so even at higher volume. Crunch gave us just a touch of tube-on-the-verge-of-breakup like overdrive. Lead was creamy, and very full in the mids. Brit Hi gave us some growling Marshall tube tones. Finally, the Modern mode, which gave us a high gain effect, without pushing over the edge into distortion.

With this range of amp voicings, plus the combination of 4 modulation effects and 4 reverb and delay effects, we were able to dial in some great tones. We tested the larger version of this amp previously, the THR10, and we were equally as impressed with the THR5’s sound quality across all of the models and FX.

If you’d prefer to manipulate the presets and come up with your own voicings, you can do so in the Yamaha THR editor. We really liked this editing software. It was simple to use, and gave a lot of customization options.

Verdict: While there’s no escaping the fact that the Yamaha THR5 is a practice amp, it’s still exceptionally versatile. The ability to use it as a USB interface alone makes this model worth the purchase price, let alone the great model voicings, the simple, but effective FX, and the excellent build quality.


Neural DSP Quad Cortex – Editor’s Choice

Neural DSP Quad Cortex
Neural DSP Quad Cortex

The profiler that has everybody’s attention

Everybody on the KGR team has been a big fan of the Quad Cortex since its launch, and for good reason.

The physical form of the Quad Cortex may be a little deceiving if you’re not too familiar with the world of modelers and profilers. The QC is in pedal form, and isn’t technically an amp at all. It’s a profiler that can capture pretty much any pedal or amplifier in existence, and we found that tonally, it sounds just like the real thing when amplified – we tested quite a few amps, cabs, and pedals, and we were hard pressed to identify which was the original and which was the QC on playback.

We tested this unit with an Orange Pedal Baby 100 into an Orange PPC112 1×12” cab, with an effective 60w output. There are differing schools of thought as to whether you should run a Quad Cortex through a solid state or a tube/hybrid power amp. Some say that tubes provide too much color to the profiles, while others say that tubes help to “un-digitize” the sound. We only got a chance to run it through a solid state power amp, but we can confirm that we still thought it sounded incredible.

If you’d prefer to run your Quad Cortex directly through a PA rather than through a cab, you can absolutely do so, and in fact, you won’t even need the additional power amp to run it this way. Alternatively, you can use it as a USB interface.

There is a wide range of excellent built in amplifier profiles to play with, but if they aren’t to your liking, you can either modify them in the Neural DSP software, you can choose from thousands of pre captured profiles from the internet, or, you can profile them yourself with the Neural Capture functionality.

The user interface is one of the single most impressive things about the Quad Cortex. It has a big, bright LED touch screen display, and each of the menus is so intuitive, you can get started pretty much right away, without even opening the manual!

We loved how easy it was to switch between settings using the foot switches, too. It genuinely felt like using a real pedalboard and amp setup, and distracted us completely from the fact that this unit isn’t even an amplifier itself!

Verdict: The aim of modeling amps and profilers is to accurately replicate other amplifiers, and none do it better than the Neural DSP Quad Cortex. Everything about it is simple and straight forward to use, so beginners and amateurs can enjoy the benefits of the QC, just as pros can. Profiles are easy to download, and just as easy to capture, and there’s endless hours of fun to be had in tweaking them.


Kemper Profiler Head

Kemper Profiler

Exceptional build quality and incredibly accurate profiles

The Kemper profiler was the device that really put profilers on the map. It’s been a mainstay of both amateur and sound engineering professionals for years now, all thanks to its reputation as one of the best amp profilers on the market.

This particular model works as a preamp, meaning you will need to run it through a power amp before sending it to an unpowered cab. For this test, as we did with the Quad Cortex, we ran it through the Orange Power Baby into a 60W Orange 1×12” cab.

Kemper’s reputation as a byword for profiling accuracy is well earned. The preset amp profiles were all great, and without knowing that the tone was coming from a Kemper, you’d be hard pressed to tell that it was a solid state amp and not a real tube amp playing.

The Profiler comes with 60 built in effects, but of course there is an enormous worldwide community of Kemper enthusiasts sharing literally thousands of amp, cab and pedal profiles, all of which are available to download. The built in effects, as we’ve pointed out in previous reviews of the Kemper are pretty lifeless in comparison with those on other premium profilers like the Quad Cortex, but they can all be modified, and as we pointed out, there are thousands of others to choose from online.

We loved that the Kemper really felt (and looked) like an amp head, and this made the playing feel much better than we’ve experienced with the Kemper rack mounted unit, and in some aspects, the Kemper Stage.

One thing that is likely to put off newer players or those just getting started with modeling is the sheer number of knobs, dials and controls on the unit. To look at, it’s quite intimidating, and the overall interface isn’t the most user friendly.

Verdict: The Kemper Profiler Head is, despite the relatively minor shortcomings, still a competitive profiler, despite the fact that it’s been on the market for over 10 years without any major changes. It offers a broad range of functionality, accurate amp, cab, and pedal profiles, and it’s as portable as any other amp head.


Blackstar ID:Core 100

The best modeling amp that you’ve probably never heard of

Blackstar was founded in 2007 by a group of former Marshall employees, including their former chief design engineer. They offer some great products at great prices, and are often overlooked as buyers turn to bigger names like Marshall, Vox, and Orange for their British voiced amp needs.

The Blackstar ID:Core 100 is combo amp, so you’re getting the amplifier and speakers built into a cab. In this case there are 2 x 10” speakers driven by the 100 watt amplifier, so it’s by far the most powerful combo amp we tested today (not including the Quad Cortex being driven by a 100 watt Orange power amp).

There are 6 preset amp voicings, including two clean channels (clean warm and clean bright). We did love the clean warm, for the well balanced mids, but clean bright was lacking presence. Crunch gave some really nice tube tones, while Super Crunch gave us the effect of fully saturated tubes being pushed to the limit. The final 2 voicings are overdrive 1 and overdrive 2, both are equivalent to the lead tones we found on some of the others, although OD2 had noticeably more gain than OD1.

The EQ controls allowed us to further adjust the tone of each of the amp voicings individually, as did the “ISF” control – ISF stands for Infinite Shape Feature, with the theory being you can shift from a warm and crunchy British sound (turn the dial clockwise), through to a crisp, punchy American voicing (turn the dial counter clockwise). In reality, it’s little more than a tone control in reverse, it’s not bad, but it doesn’t really do anything unique. The FX are really one of the strongest points for the Blackstar, there are modulation, reverb, and delay effects that you can choose from, and in addition there is even an octaver function. 

The octaver isn’t as effective as we hoped it would be, and sounds little too digital, but the one outstanding function was the built in looper – something that not even the much more expensive Quad Cortex has. All of the FX can be modified and added to from within the Blackstar Insider software. The interface of the software is a little dated, but it does get the job done.

Verdict: The Blackstar ID:Core 100 is a viable alternative to the Boss Katana if you’re looking for a quality combo modeling amp. The 100 watt power rating makes it very easy to gig with, even when playing as part of a band with a drummer. The amp voicings aren’t emulating any particular models, but they did all have good tone, and controlling/modifying them was really straight forward.


Marshall Code 50

One of the best ways to get authentic Marshall tones from a modeling amp

Of course, Marshall is a brand that needs no introduction, but perhaps their Code series of modeling amps do! The Code 50 is part of a new family of Marshall amplifiers that has hopped on the trend of creating digital recreations of famous models. It’s everything you’d expect from a Marshall, and maybe a bit more!

This is a 50 watt combo amp with a single 12” speaker, we found it to have ample volume for small gigs, but it might struggle to be heard over an enthusiastic drummer. Even though it’s made with a 1×12” setup, there are actually multiple speaker setup emulations, so it can digitally recreate the sound of a 4×12”, although it doesn’t have the volume to back it up. Overall sound quality from the s

As far as amp models are concerned, the Code 50 is pre loaded with 14 pre amps and 4 power amps, all of which are modeled on famous Marshalls, from the Bluesbreaker Plexi to the Silver Jubilee. The models really were great, and sounded a lot like the real things, but it would have been nice to see emulations of non-Marshall amps too.

The Code 50 also comes pre loaded with 24 different modulation, delay and reverb FX. The on board editing function was definitely nice to have, although it came with quite a learning curve. In order to create signal chain presets and to make other advanced edits, it’s much easier to use the Marshall Gateway mobile app than to use the edit dial. Gateway was pretty straight forward to use, and the Bluetooth connection was fast and reliable. The code can take a footswitch too, which makes switching between FX a much more natural feeling affair.

Verdict: The Marshall Code 50 is perfect for the Marshall Amplification fan who dreams of owning and playing classic models, but might not have the space (or budget) for it. It’s a great combo amp that works well for practice and small solo artist gigs, but likely won’t be able to cut through a full mix (although the available 100 watt version probably would work well). The recreations of Marshall amps that it produces are really excellent, but if we could change anything it would be the lack of variety in the amp and cab selection


Line 6 Spider V 60 MKII

A great combo with tons of amps, cabs and FX to choose from

Line 6 was one of the earliest pioneers in the world of modeling amps, and with so much heritage in the niche, they make a great range of modelers, from the simple Spider combo line, through to the more advanced Helix range.

The Spider V 60 MKII offered a much more organic tonal experience than its predecessor, the MKI. It comes loaded with a huge number of presets, in fact there are over 200 amp and pedal models right out of the box, many of which are based on famous models from classic Fenders right through to modern Mesa Boogies. The amp models were mostly very good, although it’s questionable as to whether or not they accurately reflect the examples they’re inspired by.

Overall sound quality was great, the cab houses a single 10” woofer and a tweeter for accurate treble representation. Another neat feature on this amp is the classic speaker mode, which effectively turns off the modeling and reverts the amp to a regular solid state without the digital influence.  It’s loaded with a RelayG10 compatible wireless receiver, although the transmitter is not included.

At bedroom levels the Spider V MKII does lose some of the more appealing aspects of its tone, which is genuinely a shame. Had it been fitted with a power selector like the Boss Katana it may have been a different story.

Modifications to models and downloads of new plugins all come via the Line 6 Spider V Remote app. This was one of the weaker points of this amp, the software was a little laggy, and it took longer than other models to upload changes to the amp.

Verdict: The Line 6 Spider V 60 MKII is a solid all rounder. It has some features that a solo guitarist might find appealing, including drum loops, and a built in looper, as well as the wide selection of pedals and amp models. The software wasn’t as good as some of the other amps we tested, but it’s a great choice if you’re looking for a turn key package and you’re not too interested in modifying presets.


Buyer’s Guide

When it comes to modeling amps, there are a few things you should really look out for to ensure that you’re getting the right model for you. Just having the most features, or having the most expensive amp doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the best amp for you.

Generic vs. Popular Models

Are you looking to replicate your favorite artists’ tone, or are you just trying to experiment with different sounds? This can make a big difference. If you’re hoping to emulate a specific guitarist’s rig, you’ll be best off with an amp that either has famous models built in, or can accept plugins for that specific model. Alternatively, a profiler will do the job more effectively, but in most cases, you’ll be sacrificing having a power amp to get these precise emulations.

Effects

Another big decision to make is what effects are you looking for? Some models have a huge number of FX built in, while others are fairly limited. If you’re still planning to run an analog pedal board through your modeling amp, then concentrate on looking for the model that has the best emulations of the amps and cabs that you would want to play. If they aren’t built in, are they readily available as plugins?

Speakers and Power

What you’re planning to do with your amp is one of the most critical things to assess before you commit to purchase. If you’re looking to perform small gigs while still carrying as little gear as possible, you’ll probably want a combo amp with a minimum of 50 watts and at least one 10”-12” speaker. If you’ll be playing with a band and you’ve got the opportunity to plug into FOH, your options will open up a bit more, as many of the non-combo modelers and profilers can run directly into a PA. If you’re just looking for something for bedroom practice, any combo under 50 watts would be ideal.

If you’re looking at a high end profiler, there’s a chance that you might also need to budget in a power amp and cabinet, too, if you’re hoping to use them live and not just as an interface.


Final Thoughts on The Best Modeling Amps

The world of modeling amps is expanding at an unprecedented rate, so if you’ve been put off by digital emulations in the past, you can rest assured that today’s models are more advanced and sound far superior.

To recap, we found that the Boss Katana 50 MKII was our top choice as an all around blend of sound, features and price. If you’re looking for the best possible value, then consider the Yamaha THR5. If you’re looking for the best profiler or modeler available and you aren’t too concerned about the cost, look no further than the Neural DSP Quad Cortex.

Simon Morgan

Simon is an Orlando based musician, but originally hails from Newcastle, England. He started playing bass and guitar in 1998, and and played the local scene throughout his teen years before life got in the way. Favorite Genres: Blues, Classic Rock, and he’s not ashamed to admit - Emo

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