Practicing through an amp is a blast, but it can also be a nuisance to the people who have to live with you (or your neighbors). Here’s how to practice through your headphones without losing the sweet tone of your full rig.
Update, 9/2/21: Checked content for accuracy.
Guitars don’t put out enough voltage to power speakers or headphones. Even if your guitar has active pickups, you need an external amplifier to boost its signal. And that is, essentially, what all of the tools and products in this article do. They amplify your guitar’s signal and give you a slot to plug in your headphones.
Pretty simple, right? But as with all things guitar, there’s a lot to take into consideration before spending your money. The big things that we’re going to focus on here are tone, convenience, and cost.
Tone might be the big sticking-point here because it’s difficult to get an “amp-like” tone without using an actual guitar amp. You could run your guitar through an old A/V receiver, for example, but it’ll sound like ass because A/V receivers aren’t built to sound like guitar amps. The magic just isn’t there.
For this article, we’re only looking at tools that mimic the sounds of a real amp. We aren’t going to look at A/V receivers. But you still need to keep things like music genre and effects in mind before you pull out your wallet. You also need to consider how comfortable these tools will feel while playing guitar, and how much use you might get out of them when you aren’t practicing with a pair of headphones (an audio interface can also record music, for example).
One last note—we’re including audio interfaces in this article because, when paired with the right software, they’re super tweak-able and can put out amazing “amp-like” tones. But that doesn’t mean that you have to use amp modeling software with an interface. The straight-into-an-interface sound is popular right now, thanks to artists like Steve Lacy (who plays with The Internet and produced Kendrick’s PRIDE). This sound has its roots in Motown and in bands like Chic, and in my experience, it forces you to play more accurately.
And on that note, let’s get into it. Here are six ways to practice guitar through headphones.
The easiest way to practice with headphones is to do it through an amp’s headphone jack. If your amp has a hidden headphone jack that you didn’t notice before, then great, you can close out of this article and start jamming. And if the jack is too big, you can buy a converter.
But if your amp doesn’t have a headphone jack, then you may want to consider buying a small practice amp. They run for around $100, they have headphone jacks, and you can use them as actual amplifiers when nobody’s home. My editor and I swear by the iRig Micro Amp, which sounds great and gets pretty loud for its size if you want to jam with ‘phones. It works well with pedals, and it has the amazing ability to pair with computers, iPhones, and iPads for virtual effects, which opens the door to unlimited possibilities.
If you’d prefer to stick with your pedalboard, then the Boss Katana Mini amp might be a better option for you. It isn’t as loud as the iRig, but it costs $30 less and has some delay and lead settings baked-in. In my experience, it sounds better than most miniature amps, although the cheaper Orange Crush Mini is a serious contender (and you won’t reeeeally hear a tonal difference while wearing headphones).
IK Multimedia iRig Micro Amp 15W Battery-Powered Guitar Amplifier with iOS/USB Interface (IP-iRig-Microamp-In)
The iRig Micro Amp puts out a loud and rich sound, and works with headphones. It also connects to iPhones, iPads, and PCs for use with virtual pedals and effects.
Amp modeler pedals offer a stellar “amp-like” tone and are built to work with headphones. They’re also easy to integrate into live rigs, and they can occasionally stand in for amp heads when you’re working with a cabinet or PA system.
If you haven’t heard of the Line 6 HX Stomp, then it’s worth checking out. It’s a professional-grade multi-effects pedal that contains over 300 virtual effects and amp sims that can be arranged to your liking. The HX Stomp plays nice with other pedals, is easy to use, and has jacks for send and return, MIDI in and out, expression pedals, USB devices, stereo in and output, and headphones. And while the HX Stomp is undoubtedly a pricey fare, it could easily replace most of the pedals on your board and stand-in for an amp head when playing through a PA (but it can’t power a cabinet).
A cheaper, more straightforward option is the Orange Terror Stamp pedal. It’s basically just a compact single-channel amp head with a “cab sim” emulation jack for headphones and PA systems. It isn’t nearly as expensive as the HX Stomp, and it might stand as a better option for people who prefer real pedals over virtual effects. Especially for those who dig that classic Orange tone or play through a cab.
And just to be clear, these stompboxes have headphone jacks are made to output amp-like audio to headphones and PAs. Regular pedals, like Tube Screamers, can’t output audio to headphones without going through an amplifier first.
Line 6 HX Stomp Multi-Effects Guitar Pedal, Black
The Line 6 HX Stomp contains over 300 virtual effects and amp sims, and can output amp-like audio directly to headphones and PA systems. It integrates well with your existing pedalboard, and works with combo amps and speaker cabs.
Like all things guitar, the products featured in this article are pretty expensive. If you want to practice through headphones without burning a hole in your wallet, then you might want to grab a cheap headphone amplifier and call it a day.
Vox’s amPlug products are some of the best on the market and come in a variety of configurations for different genres. These headphone amps have tone, volume, and gain controls, along with adjustable chorus, delay, and reverb effects. If effects are your thing, then you may want to shell out a few extra bucks for the Valeton Rushhead Max, which includes tweakable overdrive, distortion, chorus, flanger, tremolo, delay, and reverb effects.
In my experience, these mini headphone amps don’t sound as good other headphone solutions. They’re just okay, and they don’t have any use outside of practicing with headphones. But hey, for under $50, you can’t complain. It’s worth mentioning that a cheap audio interface should only cost you $50, and can produce amp-like tones when paired with the right software.
VOX AP2AC amPlug 2 AC30 Guitar/Bass Headphone Amplifier
The Vox amPlug 2 comes in a variety of configurations, includes some simple effects, and cost less than any other amp-modeling headphone product.
Practicing through headphones can be a bit dull, even if the tone is on-point. There’s just something special about playing with an amp in a room. And that’s what the Boss Waza-Air wireless headphones set out to achieve. These headphones are capable of emulating the sound of a real amplifier in a real room. And that’s not just some far-out claim; the Waza-Air headphones use advanced AR technology to track your head movements and change the sound of a virtual “amp” as if you were playing in a genuine physical space.
This AR tech comes with Boss amp modeling and over 50 virtual effects, which can be controlled and adjusted from an app. And unlike your regular wireless headphones, the Boss Waza-Air uses a specialized low-latency protocol to prevent annoying lag. It also has Bluetooth built-in, so you can bring your favorite songs into a virtual room while jamming (and pretend that you’re playing with a full band).
A USB audio interface allows you to play your guitar through your computer. From there, you can practice with headphones or speakers, or record audio with a DAW (like Garage Band, Ableton, Pro Tools , etc). You can use an interface to achieve unlimited tonal possibilities, provided that you use effects processing software—we’ll list a few options in a second. Of course, you could also practice with your raw guitar signal or the signal from your pedalboard. As I mentioned earlier, this is something that I enjoy doing.
The popular Focusrite Scarlett Solo is one of the best beginner audio interfaces on the market, and for good reason. It’s built with an incredibly high-quality pre-amp and has both a 1/4-inch jack for guitars and an XLR input for mics. The XLR input also has an optional phantom power setting for larger condenser microphones. Larger versions of the Scarlett come with MIDI ports.
But the Behringer U-Phoria UM2 may be a better option for some people, as it’s half the price of the Focusrite Scarlett Solo has all the same features. The only major difference is that the Behringer unit uses a cheaper pre-amp and has a combo XLR/1/4″ input, which can accept a microphone or guitar cable. Like the Scarlett, larger versions of the U-Phoria have MIDI ports.
Okay, but what software can you use to get amp-like tones out of these audio interfaces? Let’s look at a few free options:
- IK Multimedia Amplitude: This might be the most popular free amp sim. The free version gives you a virtual recording space with cabs, mics, and a bunch of different pedals.
- NA Guitar Rig 5: The Native Instruments Guitar Rig 5 is a virtual rack with over 70 amps, cabs, mics, and effects tools. Native Instruments has a free version of the software that allows you to use one amp, one cab, and a few guitar effects simultaneously.
- Amped Roots: The Amped Roots simulator is great for getting those chuggy metal tones, and pairs perfectly with other ML Sound products, such as virtual pedals.
- Ignite Amps: You can find a mess of different boutique amp sims on the Ignite Amps website. These amp sims are made for metal players and come with a few virtual guitar pedals.
- Shattered Glass Audio Ace: A free amp that mimics the sound of a 50’s Fender Tweed amp. This amp doesn’t come with any virtual guitar pedals, but it sounds like an old Fender Tweed.
These amp and effects sims can work alone or inside of a DAW, like Ableton or Pro Tools. In other words, you can use them for practice or recording.
Focusrite Scarlett Solo 3rd Gen USB Audio Interface, for the Guitarist, Vocalist, Podcaster or Producer — High-Fidelity, Studio Quality Recording, and All the Software You Need to Record
The Focusrite Scarlett Solo connects to computers via a USB cable, and when paired with the right software, can help you practice through headphones or speakers with amp-like tones.
Finally, there’s the wonderful iRig mobile guitar interface. It’s a fantastic interface that’s specifically designed for iPhones and iPads. It can act as a dedicated interface, a simple headphone amp, or a pass-through device to pair virtual effects with real amps. And let me tell you, there are a lot of fantastic virtual pedals, amp modelers, and DAWs on the iPhone and iPad. Some people turn their nose to these digital solutions, and they’re really missing out.
Here are a few iOS apps that you can use with the iRig interface:
- GarageBand: The GarageBand app has some fantastic amps and effects built-in. It can also record audio.
- JamUp: A free multi-effects processor with thousands of amp sims, effects, and effect presets. There are also paid versions of this with access to even more amps and effects.
- BIAS AMP 2: A free app with 36 vintage, modern, and boutique amp sims. You can also adjust virtual mic placement, tone stacks, and even tubes in this app.
- Tonebridge Guitar Effects: Another amp and effects simulator. Tonebridge has more than 9000 effects presets, many of which are modeled after popular guitarists and songs.
- ToneStack ($5): An inexpensive app that lets you play with a wide selection of amps and effects. This app models some popular guitar pedals, and it may be able to replace some of your rig.
- Cubasis 3 ($34): A mobile DAW for recording and live performance. Cubasis has a mess of built-in effects and works with the aforementioned apps.
It’s worth mentioning that you can use virtually any USB interface with the iPhone or iPad, provided you own a Lightning to USB dongle or a USB-C to USB dongle. A full-sized USB interface may be a better option than the iRig if you want to record or process multiple audio sources at a time.
IK Multimedia iRig HD 2 guitar audio interface for iPhone, iPad, Mac, iOS and PC with USB-C, Lightning and USB cables and 24-bit, 96 kHz music recording
The iRig mobile interface pairs perfectly with the iPad and the iPhone. Fire up a digital effects app, like JamUp or GarageBand, and you're ready to go.