I feel Boss still kind of bossed it in 2018 - with 3 heavy hitters that took on all-comers in those categories - the Katana Air, Katana Artist and Nextone Artist - a trio pretty much suited for any sort of conditions - the first as the best of the portable practice amps - and the latter two as the ultimate versatile gigging-machines - for those that still like to lug amps around.
I feel that this sort of cabinet form factor of amp will be largely restricted to more fixed locations as musicians choose smarter and lighter technologies for touring - like Axe-FX. Bands playing the gig pub and bar circuit will still need a decent combo amp - like either of the two Bosses, while those plugging into Arena or larger venue systems / PAs - will simply have a smaller modeller / pre-amp box like and Axe-FX.
This means a lot of these amps will end up in recording studios and homes and in the sound dungeons of the like of Louis the Tone King and Phillip McKnight. I don’t see the modern paradigm really being lots of different amps - either in head or combo format. Just like I see the natural progression for guitars is fewer guitars doing more. The holy grail amp is still one that will cover Fender, Vox, Marshal and MESA/Boogie suitably all in the same unit - and a guitar that can cover the core tones of a Les Paul, Strat and Tele - such has long been the way / mission - and that’s why we have various switching circuits and progressively smarter pickups. I don’t think anyone has fully cracked it yet - but that time will roll around some day not too far away...
Amps are listed alphabetically by brand:
Dylana Nova's 3rd Power Amps is really hitting its stride now and this new flagship amp combines the best of here Woolly Coats Amp Range. The mainstays of her now current range consists of 3 exceptionally full-range 'clone' style amps - Woolly Coats Spanky (6V6 Black Face Fender-style), Woolly Coats Chimey (EL84 Vox-AC-style) Woolly Coats Crunchy (6V6 Marshall-Super-Lead-Plexi-style). All three of those amps core tones are then combined in the aptly named flagship 'Kitchen Sink' Amp - which gives you the best of all the classic amp style tones. Hopefully there will be a Combo version of this at some stage - just listen to the above demo for how exceptional this amp sounds! I don't usually go for Amp heads, but could make an exception for this one. As a fun sidebar - the Origin Effects RevivalDrive does much the same sort of thing within a pedal format.
Most will know that I'm a big Boss fan, and Boss have had another bumper year in 2018 - with no less than 3 of my favourite new amps. Starting with this one as the ultimate 'No-wires' practice amp - it contains the full range of features of the larger Katana ones, has Bluetooth and an iPhone App, as well as alternative battery power and wireless guitar connectivity. Of course it's not going to get the full frequency response of its larger siblings - but as a take-anywhere handy practice amp it really has no serious competition currently - it's just really cool all-round.
Had I not had my KT100 Katana already - I would have leapt at this all-round improved version of that. It has a few more cabinet parameter settings - Cabinet Resonance and Line Out Air Feel, as well as my preferred front-facing controls and a better engineered speaker with wider frequency range and more punch / tightness. It takes the Katana KT100 and improves it in pretty much every area and sounds noticeably a bit better than the already excellent KT100. I still feel this amp should have Bluetooth and smartphone app support like the Katana Air does - otherwise I have no gripes - I will eventually add this to my rig - as an addition / alternative to the KT100 or an out-an-out replacement.
In a year of superlatives Boss has kicked it out of the park again with an analogue JFET solid-state quad circuit amp based on 4 of the most popular power tube / valve tones. British EL 84 and EL 34 and American 6v6 and 6L6 to replicate Vox, Marshall, Fender, MESA/Boogie and Peavey style amp tones - with one half of each circuit more suited to clean and high Headroom and the other more for crunchy overdrive and distortion. These are essentially 2-channel amps with Tone-shift and Boost buttons and tap-tempo Delay, Reverb and Tremolo - and the same power-scaling as the Katana's. Overall a much simpler proposition than the Katana amps - and not DSP at all. These will supposedly appeal to a different more 'muso' audience, but I feel the hard-baked muso-types still won't look much beyond traditional valve amps - while the modernists have already moved onto Katana and Axe-FX. So this is for the inbetweeners like me - where I still probably prefer the Katanas overall for their greater range and ability - but really like the gist of these too. Will probably get one of these also eventually. If I was starting from scratch today with my stereo rig - I would be tempted to run the Katana Artist on the left channel, and the Nextone Artist on the right. As it is my current combo duo of KT100 and Carvin V3MC is doing very nicely thank you!
Although it does not have quite the same bandwidth as the 3rd Power Kitchen Sink Amp above - this is still very much Greg Koch's version of a Kitchen Sink amp with everything onboard that he might need - and no less than 2 separate control panels for 3-channel control plus harmonic tremolo and reverb. It contains 2 x 10" Jensen Falcon C10-40 speakers and truly delivers a fantastic range of tones - there really isn't anything else much like it on the market - it does though only have 1/2 power scaling - meaning 25 Watts, which may still be a touch too loud for home-play. It's a wonderful amp really though at a very fair price for everything it delivers - EL34 power tubes by the way.
This new Fillmore 25 & the 50 are MESA/Boogie's attempt to get more back to its roots, and get more Fender style amp fans back onboard - after a heavy association with Nu Metal - via luminaries such as John Petrucci and amps like his custom Mark II, and the legendary Dual and Triple Rectifier amps. Thinking that people were getting put off with all the bells and whistles of the typical MESA amps - they've stripped It down to two simple channels with the same 6 controls for each and a 3-way Clean/Ovedrive/Hi mode toggle switch for each channel. I personally was sad to see the Express 5 Plus Series discontinued - I may still pick up one of those some day.
This is another fantastic Head + Cab set that I'm sort of unlikely to get as a combo fanatic - I'm secretly hoping that PRS Will see fit to launch this in a combo version next year. If push came to a shove I would still be tempted with this powerful punchy combination - but part of me would still rather go with or hold out for a similar combo.
I featured the Head + Cab version of this superb 2-channel Trem-Verb amp back in my Summer NAMM coverage - I don't think the Combo version was out then - so it gets a nod here ahead of its 2-part sibling. I think I forgot that these use fairly unusual 6973 tubes which are close to EL84's in output but require totally different sockets as such - so limited scope for replacements therefore. Many amp techs though would say these tubes were superior to the EL84's so you may well be willing to take the chance. Great sounding and pretty reasonably priced in any case.
Again a Head and Cab combo which though does properly come as a sort of unit. This cute set feature the Korg NuTube valves and actually sound pretty cool in this small box. It's kind of a gimmick / art piece to a degree, but actually does have sufficient Vox tone DNA to make it a pretty decent secondary amp - though never your primary - unless a proper budding bedroom guitarist - possibly.
I did not have space really to fit this one in on the main visual, but I did feature it in my Summer NAMM round-up and I was actually suitably pressed by this hybrid amp based on the Korg NuTube technlogy - probably the best sounding amp on that platform to date. It still has obvious traces of chimney Vox heritage but is able to gear up a lot more high gain style tones for the more versatile modern musician. I don't believe this is the perfect amp yet, but it shows where NuTube could be in a few years time - as a genuine alternative to traditional high voltage tube technologies.
I feel that I have achieved a nice balance here of something for pretty much everyone - targeting traditionalists and modernists alike as well as newbies and experimentalists! The span of price range and amp types is pretty wide too, and I must confess it wasn't intentionally so. I really just picked out my favourite amp from the two NAMM events - plus the more recent Boss Nextone and MESA/Boogie Fillmore - it just ended up as this sort of eclectic collection.
For simplicity and portability etc, I will always be a 'Combo' guy and I will pretty much always lean on those. I am also looking for minimal maintenance and maximum flexibility and versatility so it should be no surprise that I gravitate towards Boss. Boss is the only manufacturer that consistently includes all the features I like - including sensible power scaling - so I will likely always look to Boss first for that reason. As for these others - they have a lot to offer, and it really depends on your own tonal preferences and setups as to what you feel best suits you. Modern journeymen musicians much prefer the Axe-FX route as their is far less complexity and far more portability and ease of setup. There are fewer and fewer bands preferring to haul around their 2-tonne traditional backline - so lots of these amps are increasingly getting fixed to home or professional recording studios as permanent fixtures.
I am not specifically wed to any technology - I go for tone, versatility and feel - and if I find something that can replicate the sounds I have in my hand and sensation I like to feel through my fingers - then I really don't care whether tube, solid state, DSP or otherwise ...