Practicing bass guitar at home without any sort of amplification just doesn’t feel the same! But getting those hours of practice in without annoying your family members or neighbors means playing through a normal amp isn’t an option either.
Step up the bass headphone amplifier!
These amazing little machines, also known as ‘amPlugs’ plug directly into your bass, are powered by batteries, and allow you to hear an amplified bass tone through any pair of regular headphones without the need for a large amp or cables.
But with multiple options now available, which is the best bass headphone amplifier currently on the market?
For the best clean tone then the Vox amplug bass headphone amplifier is the best choice, if you prefer distorted tones with more variety then the Blackstar Fly Bass headphone amp will probably suit you better. We found these two familiar branded options were easily worth the money over some of the cheaper options available.
|Vox amplug 2 Bass||Blackstar amplug2 Fly Bass||Donner Basement|
We concluded this after buying and testing a variety of bass headphone amp options. Keep reading though for a full breakdown of the features and what we liked and what we didn’t about a few different options.
To help you decide before you buy, we purchased 3 of the top-selling bass headphone amplifiers and put them through a series of tests to decide which one is the best.
The contenders were:
- Vox amplug 2 Bass APB2-BS
- Blackstar amplug2 Fly Bass AP2-FLY-B
- Donner Basement
Below we go into detail on a number of different categories which will hopefully help you figure out the winner in the Vox amplug 2 vs Blackstar amplug 2 Fly Bass vs Donner Basement contest.
Vox amplug2 Bass
The Vox is definitely my favorite looking of the 3 contenders. The embossed gold logo and the fake ‘amp front’ which is really just a sticker make it look very sleek
The amplifier, of course, comes with a ¼ inch jack connection to allow you to plug directly into your bass.
A nice feature is it moves 180 degrees through a variety of positions which means it allows you to adjust the angle once is plugged into the bass for easier adjusting of the settings without needing to unplug it or bend your neck at some weird angle.
This moveable jack also allows you to tuck it behind the amp so it folds down even smaller for storage or putting in your pocket without getting jabbed in the leg by the jack.
Firstly, the Vox allows you to switch between 3 different channels by pressing the power button. These are:
- High Gain
- Normal Gain
- Low Gain
The Green light indicates the high gain channel, the orange light indicates the normal gain channel, and the red light indicates the low gain channel.
This might just be me, but I would have thought it should be the other way around? Surely red is the more ‘aggressive’ color and should therefore be the high gain setting surely? A small thing that probably annoyed me more than it should have!
The differences between these three settings are really subtle on the Vox. The higher gain setting just adds the slightest bit of grit, but I wouldn’t call it full-on distortion. I ended up just using the low gain setting mostly as the difference was so minimal.
On the top of the amplifier are 3 dials.
Volume: To control the volume of the bass, this goes up to a decent level. At the top end, it doesn’t deafen you but is definitely loud enough to drown out most general external noise.
Tone: This is essentially an EQ dial. You can roll off some of the higher frequencies to create a more bass-heavy tone or turn them up for more of the high end clarity. The differences are quite subtle and on most bass guitars you’d be better adjusting the tone using the dials on the bass itself. But still its a nice bit of extra control to have.
Rhythm Volume (Tempo) Control: The third dial has a dual function, it adjusts the volume of the rhythm track (see below for more on the rhythm tracks), and it also adjusts the tempo of the track if adjusted whilst holding the rhythm track button down.
These dual functions are cool and save space on the small device, but you definitely need to read the instructions to know these secret functions even exist!
On the Vox Amplug 2, you have a rhythm track button that plays a little drum groove when you press it. There are 3 different types of tracks to choose from by pressing the button again.
Vox calls these three tracks
- Rock/ Pop
- Funk/ R & B
Then within these 3 types of track, you can cycle between variations by holding down the rhythm button and pressing the power button. So you technically have 9 different rhythm tracks to jam along to.
Again, another secret setting I would never have figured out without reading the manual!
The rhythm tracks consist of real drums and sound great. They aren’t the fake drum sounds you might associate with some old Casio keyboard or something, they have a really nice tone to them, and playing along doesn’t get boring quickly.
Having the different types of track is really nice too, from some clear cymbal heavy rock grooves to some nice rhythmic tom heavy funk beats too. Great for practicing different bass playing styles.
The most annoying thing I found is that there is a metronome but it is hidden on the ‘other’ setting and so isn’t that quick to find. I found myself having to scroll through the settings a few times to find it. I think separating out the metronome onto its own track would have been nice but overall that is a minor thing.
If you bought a headphone amp, chances are you are trying to keep the noise down. So playing along to speakers is a bit pointless, and you don’t want to have to wear two pairs of headphones. This makes the Aux In setting very handy.
You can plug in audio from an mp3 player, phone, laptop etc and get it to play through the headphone amp at the same time as your bass. This worked well and could go up to a loud volume which you can easily hear whilst playing along.
One small annoying thing was you need to either own a 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable or buy one, it doesn’t come with it.
Sound Quality: 8/10
So the important thing, what does it actually sound like to play?
Well I loved the overall tone of the Vox amplug2. This was the first of the three headphone amplifiers I bought and I honestly couldn’t believe the sound that came out of it when I first plugged it in. It is warm, full and sounds like you are plugged into a real amp.
Vox are a highly respected brand who make great sounding amps and it’s probably no surprise they wouldn’t let their name be tarnished by something that sounded average.
As I mentioned in the features section, the three settings simply adjust the gain and it is subtle. This leaves you with only one ‘effect’ really, but what a tone! I suppose if you nail it why add more?
Overall usability was good, the adjustable angle of the jack is a very handy feature and the dials are all fairly self-explanatory. There are a few things I didn’t like though:
As I already mentioned above, the light colours for the channel selection were the wrong way around for me. Perhaps this annoyed me more than it should, but as you will find out in the next section, Blackstar got it right as you’ll see below.
I get that the amps are small and so using combinations of button presses is probably essential. But this is the first time I’ve had to consult the manual on a piece of music tech for a while to figure out how to do certain things.
Usually I just mess around to figure things out, but a lot of the features here really are ‘hidden’. I bet there are loads of people out there using this amp with no idea of the additional settings and options available to them.
I found changing the tempo on the rhythm track really fiddly. It was like cracking a safe. It felt like just the slightest touch would take it from slow hip hop groove to 170bpm drum and bass.
I have been testing this for roughly 10 hours and it still hasn’t run out of battery, so not bad. The manufacturers claim you will get between 11 and 17 hours depending on how often you use the rhythm track.
A very handy feature for a forgetful person like me is the auto-off function which turns the amplug off after 30 minutes if not used. Meaning you won’t come back the next day to find you need new batteries.
Overall Score: 40/50
If you are primarily looking for a nice warm, clean tone then the Vox sounds fantastic for such a small bit of kit. It comes packed with nice little features such as the rhythm tracks which meant I was messing around with it for hours.
The downside of the Vox is the lack of variety you can get from the tones. If you are a bass player who wants to try out different sounds or play with heavy distortion, you may find the lack of variety on the Vox slightly limiting.
Blackstar amplug2 Fly Bass
The Blackstar amplug2 Fly Bass looks very similar to the Vox. The size is the same, the font on the dials is the same, the only difference is the branding.
This is therefore just a matter of personal preference and for me, the Vox just looks that bit cooler with the gold letters. The Blackstar still looks very smart though.
The connection type is identical to the Vox with a ¼ inch jack that rotates 180 degrees.
The Blackstar also comes with three channels:
But this time it is green for classic, orange for modern and red for overdrive. I was so relieved that the red channel was overdrive, in my mind this just makes so much more sense.
These channels are very clearly different from one another which I liked. Unlike with the Vox where the three channels were very similar, the heavy overdrive is a mile away from the clean classic tone. I will go into more detail on the sound in the tone section below.
The controls on the Blackstar differ slightly from the Vox. There are still three dials but this time there is volume, tone and gain.
Volume: this control differs from the Vox slightly in that it controls the volume of both the bass and the rhythm track at the same time.
Tone: here you have a lot more control than on the vox. Blackstar has built in their patented ISF control which changes the style from an ‘American’ character with tight bottom end and aggressive mids at one end of the scale, to a ‘British style, with more subtle woody tones at the other.
Gain: Not only do you have the three channels which give varying levels of distortion, but by altering the gain you can be more subtle when dialing in the tone.
So you could have the classic channel with high gain for a crunchy sound or you can dial up the gain on the overdrive channel for a face-melting metal distortion that sounds pretty mad.
The Blackstar has 6 different rhythm tracks:
- Hip Hop
This is probably enough for most people but after testing the Vox I did miss the different beat variations within each genre.
The sounds are good quality very similar to the Vox and sound like real drums.
For a while, I thought there was no way to stop the rhythm track without cycling through all 6, which was very annoying. But I figured out you have to hold of the power button and the rhythm button together made it stop. This was weird as there is no mention of this in the manual.
The tempo of the track can be altered by double-tapping the button at the required rate you want to set the tempo. I found this much easier than the dial control for the tempo on the Vox.
The Blackstar also has an Aux in for playing in tracks from external sources. Again, no 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable is included.
Sound Quality: 8/10
As someone from more of a rock background, I really loved the tone of the Blackstar. The amount of distortion and grit you can get out of this tiny machine is fantastic. The overdrive setting in particular is insane.
When you combine the three channels with the gain and tone dials you can get some really cool rock or metal sounds.
I do know some bassists that cringe at the fact of putting any distortion on a bass. So if that is you, I think the Vox has the nicer ‘clean’ tones and that may be a better fit. But if you want to mess around, distort/ destroy the sound of your bass then the Blackstar is a little monster!
One slightly annoying feature, or lack of feature, is the inability to change the volume of the rhythm track.
The volume dial increases or decreases the volume of the bass and rhythm track together. Unlike on the Vox, you can’t control the volumes independently. This means if you are playing the bass at higher volumes on the overdrive setting, the rhythm track can be hard to hear.
Cycling through the rhythm tacks was slightly more annoying than on the Vox, requiring a press and hold of the rhythm button to cycle through the tracks. This means it does take a little longer to move between them than on the Vox and can be annoying if you go past one and have to go through them all again.
Dialing in a certain tone can take a while, as you have the 3 channels, gain and tone to play with. This is fun, but as there is no way to save settings you are going to have to write down the dial numbers or just dial it in by ear each time.
Similar to the Vox you will get between 11 and 17 hours of battery depending on how much you use the rhythm track and how heavy you go on the effects.
As someone who plays a lot of rock and metal, I love the Blackstar. The different distortion settings were great and the different tone possibilities from the tone and gain dials were vast.
Despite some of the usability issues this really is a fantastic little amp which packs a big punch!
The Donner Basement wins the price category hands down, coming in at half the price of the Vox and Blackstar amps, but is this saving worth it?
The Basement definitely looks cheaper. If you saw these three next to one another it wouldn’t be hard to guess which one was half the price of the others. The simple sticker lacks the embossed logos and different textures of the others.
Unlike the Vox and Blackstar the ¼ in jack connection is fixed and can not be rotated.
This may make the Donner longer, lasting as I’ve read a few reports of the rotating jacks snapping or breaking.
However, in the short term, I found this annoying as adjusting the controls when the amp is plugged into the bass is a little more difficult requiring a bit more neck bending and bass rotating to get a good view.
The Donner Basement only really has two channels, FX on and FX off.
The FX setting is very gimmicky and is called the ‘wow’ setting. This is basically a phaser which is kind of fun but there definitely isn’t the variety of the more expensive competitors.
On the top of the Basement amp there are also three dials. Volume, tone and gain.
The volume can be increased fairly high, definitely as high as you would need to play along with a track or to drown out external noise. Weirdly when the FX button is switched on the max volume decreases but it is still loud enough for most uses.
The tone dial acts in a similar way to the Vox, eq-ing the sound and adding more high or low end.
The drive dial increased the distortion level. Again this is fairly simple and doesn’t offer that many different sound options
Unfortunately the Donner Basement does not come with any rhythm tracks built in.
As with the other two amps, there is an Aux input. The Donner wins here over the other two as it comes with a 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable!
Sound Quality: 4/10
It does feel like you get that you get what you pay for with the sound quality.
The clean tone is fine but it does feel like you are listening through a small headphone amp. It’s fine for a bit of practice, but it felt lifeless compared to the sounds you can get from the more expensive headphone amps.
The drive setting was also disappointing. It just sounded like the sort of annoying crackly distortion you get from playing music too loudly through headphones or speakers. It really lacked any nice tonal qualities that the Blackstar overdrive had for example.
The lack of features on the Basement mean it is actually the easiest to use of all the amps tested.
The dials are self-explanatory and the FX is triggered with a simple on/off switch. There was no need to go into the manual or use trial and error to figure out how to access all the features and settings here.
The battery life is lower than the others at around 7 hours for the Donner.
However, the amp gets the highest score in this category as it has a rechargeable battery.
For me this is a big bonus, I don’t keep spare batteries in the house often and so being able to just plug it in to recharge is very handy.
It should probably come as no surprise that this bass headphone amp came out lowest in the rankings because it is half the price of the other options.
If you are looking for a cheap, no frills option, which you can just plug in and not worry about loads of different tones, rhythm tracks etc then the Donner Basement shouldn’t be completely dismissed.
I do think if you can afford to save up a little more money, the tones from the Vox or Blackstar will leave you more satisfied.
Based on the scores the Blackstar Fly Bass came out on top, and this was definitely my personal favourite of the three. I like the additional tone options and it did certain things slightly better than the Vox like the lights and changing tempo.
That said, if you want the best clean tone to plug in and play out of the box and aren’t bothered about all the fancy distortion modes then the Vox may be a better option. The warm ‘classic’ setting is sublime, I still can’t believe that sound comes out of such a small piece of kit!