Terrific Tone In A Tiny Package
It’s tempting to begin a review with adjectives and accolades when you’re excited about a product, but I need to begin this review with a qualifier. Before commenting on how well something is or isn’t designed, I believe that there are several standards to address. Key among them:
- Something well designed solves an existing problem without creating additional new problems and
- The feature implementation in any design should be transparent and intuitive. A good design draws your attention to how well designed it is. A great design keeps revealing its features to you so that the depth of your interaction with it evolves over time.
The Lunchbox Junior is a compact amp with a great design. Fortunately for guitarists, it also sounds really good and with 35 watts, optional battery power and a street price of $149 it’s a great option for rehearsals or gigs where portability is a key factor.
Great design solves an existing problem.
The Junior is a small amp that can go anywhere, amplify anything with a 1/4″ out and sounds good doing it.
When I use the term “small”, the amp enclosure is probably smaller than the box that the 5” speaker it holds would typically be shipped in. If the Lunchbox amp is based around a lunchbox size, the Junior is based more around a bento box. At approximately 5” x 4” x 3” – it’s about the size of a 4-pack of soda and weighing in at 5 pounds, it’s only marginally heavier. The amp construction is durable with a fiberboard case, sturdy handle and a metal plate back, I didn’t have any worries about carrying it from place to place. With a little wrangling, I can actually fit the Junior in the oversized pouch of my guitar’s gig bag, but at approximately $35 for the ZT amps gig bag for the Junior itself, it’s small and inexpensive enough that I’d recommend just getting their bag.
In our interview with ZT Amps’ Ken Kantor, Ken discussed the flexibility that was designed into the gain staging of the amp to be used with a variety of sources.
In addition to plugging electric guitars into the Junior, I also tested acoustic guitars, microphones and various tracks from my laptop using the 1/8th” Aux input and was able to get a workable tone from all of them. While the ZT isn’t designed to be used as an acoustic pre-amp (they have another amp, The Lunchbox Acoustic that’s EQ’d for that specific application), I was able to plug an acoustic with a passive piezo pickup into the Junior and get a decent tone out of the amp even without any outboard effects.
The Junior is rated at 35 watts and it’s shockingly loud for its size. When I first saw the inclusion of a headphone out on the back of the amp, I thought it was a little amusing, but the Junior is loud enough that even setting the volume and gain in the 4 o’clock position had my neighbor banging on the ceiling so I appreciated the headphone option.
A test with a drummer proved that the guitar could be heard in a rehearsal room, but you’d need to run it through a PA for a larger group and/or in a larger room.
Another interesting design feature, the Junior has a small dip switch to turn the speaker on and off but also has a small metal nub in the back of the amp that helps protect the speaker on/off switch. It’s a small detail but it’s also indicative of the thought that went into creating the overall product.
A feature implementation that’s transparent and intuitive.
A small, loud amp is of limited value if it doesn’t sound good and here’s where another of the great design aspects of the Junior comes in. It was interesting to me that before trying it, much of the online chatter I saw about Lunchboxes talked about the transparency of the amp, but I find them all to have a particular sonic fingerprint. Using the external speaker, the Junior it reminds me of a bit of a cross between a Pearce and a vintage JC-120, though the amp definitely has more high and low end through the headphones than the speaker can fully reveal. Having said that, a key gripe of another compact amp I had was that even at low volumes, the low notes of the guitar would often fart out from the speaker and this didn’t happen once in days of testing with the Junior.
This brings up an issue of expectation. It’s possible to quibble about the amp not having the bass response of, say a 12” speaker – but at the end of the day, the real question when I’m playing an amp is, “Am I missing something?” and after playing the Junior for about 2-3 minutes, I forgot that I was playing a small solid state amp with a 5” speaker. Instead, I focused on the fact that I was playing an expressive dynamic amp that reacted to the nuances of my playing and handled dense chord clusters well. (I should mention that this amp works very well with external effects pedals. After playing some long delay lines through the unit I immediately understood why players like Nels Cline are using ZT Amps).
I think that Jazz players in particular would dig the warm punchy tones of the amp, but the Junior has enough flexibility to handle most playing styles. Having said that, while the gain control is musical (and cleans up nicely when rolling back the volume knob of the guitar) it’s probably not high enough gain for players into more aggressive styles. If you lean towards more high gain tones, you’ll need an external pedal.
The control panel is Spartan at best but I think this is the sign of a great design. Having limited controls (Volume, Gain, Tone) simplifies the onboard options a great deal and put the focus on the tone. This is especially true with the Tone knob which appears to boost the highs and cut the lows (and vice versa) simultaneously when employed.
As an interesting aside, the 12 o’clock position seems to be neutral for EQ, but for the gain and volume knobs, the 12 o’clock position is also the point where the amp REALLY starts to open up sonically. If you want deeper EQ adjustments (or if you would miss an onboard reverb), you’ll need external effect pedals. Having said that, it took a while for me to notice that the Junior didn’t have the ambience knob found on the (slightly larger) Lunchbox amp.
The Junior has some unique features with power as well. ZT Amps sells a cable that will connect 12 Volts of AA batteries to the amp as an alternate power supply, and another one that will power the amp from a car battery which makes it an ideal amplifier for outdoor, subway gigs or indoor gigs with no access to power. If you do decide to plug in, ZT sells an additional cable that will provide 9V power to your effects pedals! (Try that with any of the other amps you have lying around!) For additional travel flexibility, the alternating voltage option on the back of the amp will help you use it for busking on almost any continent you happen to be on.
With amplification, it’s easy to equate small size with “practice amp”. While you could certainly practice with the Junior, it’s also a professional quality amplifier that can handle small gigs (particularly duos) with no problem.
There are two design paths that have been employed by compact amp manufacturers. The first choice (and by far the most popular) is to make an amp with a number of different tones and effects that do each of those things so-so. The second option is make an amp that does one thing really well.
Tonally, this amp outshines any of the sub 8” speaker combo amps out there (and also outshines some combos with 10” and 12” speakers!) Pairing this amp with a couple of your favorite pedals (or perhaps the forthcoming ZT Extortion Pedal!!) will give you a much better tone than any of the individual sounds on, say, a comparably priced Micro Cube.
The Junior is not only the loudest amp in this micro amp market, but it’s also one of the best sounding and has an almost tube-like response to nuanced playing. It does one thing, it does it really well and it’s incredible value for the money. If you’re even thinking of purchasing a compact amp that can be battery powered, it’s worth your time to check out the Junior.