The world is getting quieter, my friends. Even on the most expansive stages, the mighty stacks of our predecessors have largely become a thing of the past, and live sound professionals striving for a more controlled stage environment regularly frown upon excess volume. In the residential areas where we spend most of our lives physical space and real estate are at a premium (especially for those of us that reside in cities) and as we begin to live in ever closer proximity to our neighbors, the life of the electric guitarist becomes ever more bound up in regulations, city ordinances, and limitations. Even a five-watt practice amp is plenty loud enough to piss off the tenants next door or across the hall, and if you've got roommates (especially non-musician roommates) or small children that need to get to bed early, then forget about it. Trying to get a little rocking done while your neighbors and flat mates are home will get you kicked off the lease in a heartbeat, and waking the kiddies is never a good idea.
So, what to do in times likes these? You could stand your ground, fight back, and turn up the amps loud and proud, but a more reasonable and neighborly response probably lies elsewhere. Some of us have dedicated practice spaces, for instance. These are nice, but can be very expensive, located at such a distance from home that impromptu jamming is not convenient, and there are usually other people practicing loudly in these spaces as well, which can certainly cramp one's style. The best solution for those with limited financial means and a desire for an isolated place to rock in private is the lowly headphone amplifier. Headphone amps are invaluable tools for practicing when the mood strikes, without damaging any personal relationships, and with minimal cash investment. They're also a lot of fun. Playing with a good headphone amp and a proper set of closed-back headphones can be a truly enveloping experience. Here are our top picks for those times when you must shred in isolation.
The best headphone amp around might be the one that's already in your pocket. In addition to letting you waste time on social media, check your sad little bank account, take hilarious videos of your cat, and even make the occasional phone call, your smart phone is also capable of being an exceptional tool for headphone-based jamming. All you need is some kind of appropriate audio interface. These interfaces come in many forms and at varying price levels, but for late-night headphone shredding the most basic model is all that is necessary. The required apps are often included with the interface, but if not, there are plenty of free ones available, including GarageBand, which is feature-packed, sounds good, and comes pre-installed on Apple iOS devices. Beyond just noodling away aimlessly in the night, one can also employ these devices to jam along with music from one's personal library, or even record a fully realized piece of music.
Vox amPlug 2 Line
One of my favorite headphone amps in recent years has been the Vox amPlug AC30 model. The amPlug line is now in its more feature-laden second iteration, but I still have an original AC30, and I have always loved how it just plugs right into the guitar's input jack with no cable necessary. It also sounds superb, with a dynamic, chimy-sounding all-analog circuit that does a great impression of an AC30 Top Boost combo. I've even put pedals in front of mine with good results. The amPlug 2 line has been expanded recently, adding different models for metal, bass, and Marshall-esque classic rock tones, as well as a full spectrum of built-in effects. The lovely sounding analog circuitry has been retained, as has the very convenient plug system, which has been further improved upon with 180 degree rotation, which makes it much easier to use the amPlug with a wide variety of guitars with varying jack arrangements.
Vox amPhone headphones
So, remember the Vox amPlug that I was talking about in the last paragraph? Yeah, well it turns out that a few years back Vox took the concept at the heart of the amPlug and married it to a nice pair of closed-back headphones from Audio-Technica. These classy looking cans plug straight into the guitar jack, and when the battery powered guitar amp section is disengaged, they function as a normal, passive set of quality 'phones. The amPhone comes in four different models, including AC30, a Fender-flavored Twin model, Bass, and the 100-watt Marshall-emulating Lead model. The guitar versions include effects as well, controlled by a little thumbwheel that engages chorus, delay, or reverb. If you want to jam along with an iPod or other music playing device, it's as easy as plugging it into the auxiliary mini-jack. Judging by current availability, it seems that the amPhone line may be in the process of being discontinued or revamped, but it's a cool concept, and nicely executed. It's well worth seeking a pair out.
Rockman Guitar Ace
Before Tom Scholz, the perpetually mulleted, sleeveless Boston guitarist, MIT grad, audio pioneer, and all-around mad scientist, released the first Rockman series headphone amp in 1982, trying to shred at low volume was a pretty sad affair. It was just about impossible to achieve any kind of inspiring tone at practice-friendly levels. The first Rockman was the game-changer though, with multiple rich-sounding clean modes, convincing distortion, cab simulation, stereo chorus, and echo. Naturally, the series was very successful, and has many rabid devotees to this day. In fact, one can still find vintage Rockman models for sale that have been recapped and otherwise lovingly refurbished by very knowledgeable enthusiasts. Or, you can just buy a new one. Jim Dunlop acquired Scholz's company in 1995, and still produces the Guitar Ace, Bass Ace, and Metal Ace models, which are pretty similar to the original '82 Rockman in sound and function.
Electro-Harmonix Heaphone Amp
Alright pedalphiles, this one's just for you. There are other headphone amplifiers around that will take pedals pretty well if you're careful about it and avoid goosing the gain too aggressively, but the EHX Headphone Amp has actually been specifically designed to sit at the end of your pedal chain, allowing you to use your entire board for silent headphone rocking. It is small and quite ruggedly constructed, with just a single knob for volume control, and will happily accept even the hottest, filthiest signal from your chain, reproducing it in all its glory at headphone level. For pedal people, this is probably the ultimate in tiny, super-portable headphone amplification, and at just under 45 bucks new, it's also an excellent bargain that should remain useful for years to come, with no software updates or additional interfaces necessary.
Before wrapping up it should be noted that, for a headphone amp to produce a genuinely satisfying and inspiring playing experience, one must complete the rig with a good set of closed-back headphones (unless you get the Vox amPhone, of course). If you don't already own a decent pair of cans for music listening or recording, then you should consider investing in some straight away. Ear buds will do in a pinch for an impromptu practice session, but a proper set of reference monitor or hi-fi-oriented headphones will make a world of difference, offering enhanced detail and a much more natural balance of frequencies, as well as just being a lot less fatiguing to listen to. I have personally used the Audio-Technica ATH-M40 models for years and like them a lot. Other excellent headphones include the industry standard Sony MDR-7506, Sennheiser HD280, and the somewhat pricey but magnificent Beyerdynamic DT770.