In the old days to be heard in a band setting, you had to drag out a large amp. Often said amp was heavy enough to warrant the liberal use of casters and/or a dolly loading it into/out of rehearsals. Modern advances in Class D power amplifier design (read more about the technology here) have shrunk down these mammoths of old into pint sized powerhouses which can now pack a gig worthy wallop while weighing lighter than the average guitar. While bassists have largely accepted this technology with multiple companies racing to create ultimately powerful and extremely small designs, the guitar world has largely ignored the advantages of this new tech. Enter Electro Harmonix and their 22 Caliber and 44 Magnum (the focus of this review) pedal sized power amps.
My first impression upon unboxing the 44 Magnum is that it was small. I mean, unbelievably small. Its about the size of a Boss stompbox! The included power supply is larger! Immediately I was doubtful such a tiny device would offer much volume and as such immediately hooked the unit up to see if the unit lived up to some online hype I've read about it.
...upon striking the first chord I was impressed...the 44 provided clean headroom with the volume up close to 9 o'clock on the dial where it was loud enough to be felt in my chest.
I paired up the 44 with a Digitech GSP 1101 and a 16 ohm VHT Special 6 1X12 closed back cabinet for the initial audition and immediately upon striking the first chord I was impressed. Even running into the less than ideal 16 ohms, the 44 provided clean headroom with the volume up close to 9 o'clock on the dial where it was loud enough to be felt in my chest. Dialing up past that point brought on a subtle grit reminiscent of overdriving a tube power amp which increased to a thick grind as the level approached noon. I didn't like the unit as much paired with a Zoom G3 and Line 6 HD500 where the combo was a bit thin sounding for my tastes. However, that could be a function of the speaker in the VHT cabinet (the spec sheet shows a big spike around 2K and steep rolloff around 100Hz). Conversely, I was blown away pairing the unit with a Tech 21 Blonde. Out of curiosity, I plugged straight into the unit forgoing any type of preamp and was initially disappointed until I engaged the bright switch. I didn't get quite the same volume and punch without a preamp, still it sounded quite impressive. Satisfied with the solo audition, I brought the unit to a rehearsal with a five piece alt rock band and it was plenty loud to be heard in the room over the drums (and anyone else). Granted these experiences are with a 16 ohm speaker (though a highly efficient one, VHT specs their Chrome back speaker with 101db sensitivity) which doesn't provide optimum volume, but I imagine in anything other than a small club the amp would have to be reinforced via PA. Of course, this can be said about a vast majority of solid state amps of similar wattage.
So is it perfect? Well, the unit is a touch noisy though if there is any background noise in a performance scenario (such as audience members quietly talking, an HVAC unit, etc) the quiet hiss of the 44 is drowned out. I think the signal to noise ratio is acceptable for all but the most demanding playing very,very intimate settings, in isolation, or those who play with a very soft touch (requiring more gain/level to compensate).
The Electro Harmonix 44 is a utilitarian type of unit I'd recommend nearly all guitarists own. Its not the perfect fit for those seeking the extremely loud and pristine power required by some modern heavy music nor for those seeking an absolutely quiet when idle power amp; but the 44 Magnum should have great appeal to pedal board junkies, those seeking to minimize the weight of a rack mounted setup, or even a compact backup for tube devotees.
Price: ~$150 USD
Pros: Loud and tiny
Cons: A bit noisy for intimate settings