Disclaimer: Fiio contacted me to see if we were interested in reviewing their new guitar amp as they want to have feedback of a select bunch of reviewers to make a better end product. Mike and me don’t own any guitars but I immediately knew who I had to ask to review Fiio’s new toy. Some say he can recognize 50 shades of black… All we know is that he’s into some really dark and weird kind of metal music. But I better let Erik introduce himself I think. Enjoy the review! Lieven.
This will be my first review for Headfonia. I’ve been moderating the Headfonia Facebook for a little while now but haven’t contributed to the Headfonia website before. Mike and Lieven actually asked me to write this review because they both don’t play the guitar. I guess they figured that since I only wear black I’m probably a heavy metal guitar god but I must admit that I’m not much of a guitar virtuoso and only exclusively wear black because it’s way easier to pick your outfit in the morning.
Now I understand the Fiio G01 is marketed towards beginners like me, but to make things a little more interesting I rang up a couple of friends of mine who are professional musicians and incorporated their opinions in this review. Their experience really contributed to me understanding the usefulness and potential of a portable guitar amp. Allow me to introduce
Dennis Droomers: lead guitarist and vocalist for the internationally acclaimed Dutch metal band Carach Angren. With three albums out, currently signed by major record label Season of Mist and 10 years of experience as an internationally touring, professional musician he seemed like the ideal guy to help me out. Dennis plays a Schecter Hellraiser 7 string guitar.
Rob Fox: former guitar-technician for After Forever (RIP), one of the most popular gothic rock bands on the planet, stage manager for Carach Angren and studio engineer. Rob plays a Maverick F1 guitar.
Fiio, a Chinese company we all know from their bang-for-your-buck headphone amplifiers, cables, speakers and DACs, have released a product that’s pretty unique in their line-up. It’s the first time they haven’t targeted budget-conscious audiophiles but budget-conscious musicians instead and now release a portable guitar amplifier. Since this is their first guitar amplifier they’ve sent out a few prototype G01’s to reviewers and will use their critique to improve the final product.
The G01 is meant as a handy little device that will let you practice your guitar at times when you can not use a full blown amplifier and speaker cabinet. Those moments when you need the privacy of headphones or don’t want to bother other people with your playing. I imagine a lot of people will use this at home, practicing in silence, to avoid disturbing their spouse/neighbours/parents etc.
The G01 functions as a guitar amplifier with Tone and Drive potentiometers, charges using standard micro-USB and lets you plug in your mp3player/iPod/Phone in a 3,5mm AUX-IN jack to jam along to. There’s a 3,5mm headphone jack , an ON/OFF switch and a flashy blue LED. Basic stuff. Retail price will presumably be around $30.
The first thing that struck me when holding the G01 in my hand is how small it is. You could actually fit it in the pocket of your jeans or shirt. It measures about 2 inches in length and not more than an inch in height. People familiar with the Fiio E10 can get a fair estimate of its size and weight. This compact size makes it perfect to just throw in a bag among your other gear and it won’t add much bulk to your guitar rig. It’s light enough to carry on a lanyard but not so light as to appear fragile.
The construction seems rather solid. The brushed metal finish on top and bottom of the unit gives it a sturdy, and dare I say stylish, look and will make sure it’ll survive a fall. The rest of the unit is plastic, sandwiched in between the two brushed metal layers. On top of the unit sits a button that unlocks the 6.35mm plug that fits in your guitar. Think of a switchblade’s mechanism and you’ll get the idea. The button to unlock the plug is made of metal as well and the triggered mechanism doesn’t feel too loose or floppy. It flips out and locks swiftly but there’s a little play and wiggle in the hold of the plug once opened. A more solid lock would definitely give a more robust feeling to the unlocking mechanism. The plug itself has a gold finish that will keep corrosion at bay. A nice touch.
It looks like every Fiio product I get my hands on actually has a better build quality than the previous one. With every new item they create the build seems to improve and I really notice an obvious progression here. This makes me look forward to future Fiio products that will no doubt keep improving. Frankly it’s a breath of fresh air from a company whose country of origin still gets associated by a lot of consumers with low/fragile build quality.
Rob: “I like the optional red elastic band included in the package to give your amp a personal touch. If you would have more G01’s in the studio or among the other bandmembers, everyone could code their own device to distinguish it from the others.”
Dennis: “How much does this cost? Really? The build quality feels better than some of the more plasticky practice amps I’ve used. I kinda dig the brushed metal look, suits my guitar. Very compact size. The potentiometers are a bit too sensitive. I like more robust controls. I wish the words Tone, Drive and Volume would light up when the unit is on. They’re very small and hard to see when you’re backstage and there’s not a lot of light available. Perhaps using the internal blue LED that’s on anyway.”
After letting Dennis and Rob use the G01 for a period of time we came to the conclusion that the overall ergonomics of the G01 still need a little work. They were playing on headphones (I brought my Sennheiser HD25-1 II) over their own music on a mp3player (my Sansa Clip+) we plugged into the G01.
Dennis: “Plugging the G01 straight into your guitar is not something I really like doing. I’d much rather have a short extension cord from my guitar to the Fiio, while having the G01 tucked away in a pocket or on a lanyard around my neck. When you’re practicing the guitar, be it at home or backstage right before a gig, you often move around. Bumping into something with the G01 attached to your guitar will probably damage either your expensive guitar’s input jack or the G01’s plug. Using an extension cable will avoid this and won’t cause unnecessary strain.”
Another thing worth noting is that the Volume, Drive and Tone potentiometer are on the side of the unit. When you’re playing and want to adjust the sound it’s a bit fiddly to find the right potentiometer.
Rob: “I keep trying both of them to see which one is which. They’re not marked or stepped so it’s a bit hard to feel in which position they are thus making it hard to remember your favorite combination of Tone and Drive. Since all potentiometers are on the side, they easily change setting when you accidentally bump into something or brush against them, with your leg for example. Moving the potentiometers to the top of the unit, giving them a bit more physical resistance when adjusting and using numbered markings (say, from 1 to 10) will make this much easier.”
The G01 lets you manipulate the sound using the Tone and Drive potentiometer. Tone functions a bit like a treble EQ, where the lowest position creates a very dark, wooly sound. The higher the position the brighter the sound becomes, letting you hear more string-detail but also a bit more hiss. About half-way the potentiometer the sound becomes fairly clean and useable, creating a sound that has enough definition and clarity without too much hiss. You won’t be recording your clean melodies on an album with this sound but it’s good enough for practice.
The Drive potentiometer functions as a distortion. The higher the distortion the heavier the sound becomes. Full open the sound is very processed and lacks the realism of a real amplifier. Bass becomes muddy and overpowers the mids and treble. The crunch is there but the overall Drive could benefit from more gain, giving the sound more body and impact. Dennis seems to like it though:
Dennis: “I like it full open! When I play along my own album the distortion fits within the heavy sound of our music and recording and blends in nicely. It’s fun to practice this way, jamming to my own tunes. I wouldn’t want this guitar sound on my album, it’s too thin, but it’s pretty impressive that this comes from such a little box. Definitely useable. Can I keep this thing?“
Rob: “Solid little amplifier from a company I’ve never heard of. If you don’t expect a big sound you’re not going to be disappointed. A few minor niggles but if I could rate it I’d give it a 8/10. “
Dennis: “I want this thing. Before I go on stage I always practice my songs in the backstage area. It’s really noisy and crowded back there, with musicians and roadies running around shouting at each other. I find it hard to concentrate on my music that way and this helps me isolate myself from my surroundings. Being able to hook up a mp3 player with my own songs is awesome. Makes sure I stay on beat and makes practicing more fun.”
If Fiio could tweak the sound a little, especially the Drive, and work on the ergonomics of the potentiometers I think they have another winner on their hands. Their biggest challenge lays in promoting this product in a market where no one has heard of them yet. Audiophiles know about Fiio but musicians don’t. Brands like Vox, Korg and Line6 dominate the scene, and it’s going to take dedication and smart marketing to take a piece of the pie from these competitors, but I believe the G01 has the potential to do so.