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Best amp modelers 2021: rack-mounted and floorboard options for every budget

The best amp modelers 2021: rack-mounted and floorboard options for every budget and type of guitarist
(Image credit: Fractal Audio/Kemper/Line 6/Headrush)

When players hear the phrase best amp modelers, they probably bring to mind one of two things. Guitarists of a certain age will remember fondly the little red bean-shaped Line 6 POD, which brought modeling to the masses. No doubt the young guns will picture the overflowing racks of modern touring bands on YouTube, with Axe-FX and Kemper amp simulators.

The technology in the gear featured in this best amp modelers round-up is unrecognizable from those first innovations, and some of the higher-end kit comes complete with an eye-watering price tag to match. But amp modeling is not just the preserve of the pros – and this guide is going to prove why.

Best amp modelers: Our top picks

If money is no object, there's currently no better amp modeler that can beat the Fractal Audio Axe-Fx III. While the Axe-Fx redefined the professional modeler, the Line 6 Helix revolutionized the user interface players could expect. With the III, Axe-Fx accepted Line 6's challenge, creating a streamlined UI and marrying it to their best simulations and effects. All that said, there is one situation in which the Axe-FX can be bested. The new Neural DSP Quad Cortex has an easy-to-use capture feature. If you have analog gear or amps you want to build into virtual rigs, it's a great all-in-one solution to base your live rig around.

On the other hand, if money is limited, there are more affordable options to check out in our best amp modeler guide too. We're huge fans of the Line 6 Helix LT, a leaner, more affordable version of the full fat Helix. It includes the same dual-DSP architecture, capacitive footswitches and presets. Taking it a step further, the HX Stomp cuts the dual-DSP down to a single DSP, but still offers amp and IR modelling, at a far lower price point.

Best amp modelers: Product guide

Best amp modelers: Line 6 Helix LT

(Image credit: Line 6)

1. Line 6 Helix LT

Enjoy the Helix experience on a budget

Price: $1,199/£799 | Models: 62 amps, 37 cabs | Able to load more patches/IRs: yes | Power amp: no

A leaner version of the full-fat Helix
A great live option
A first-rate studio tool
Fewer inputs and outputs

The Helix LT is the floorboard-only little brother of the full-fat Helix. It has the same dual-DSP architecture of the larger unit, but removes the scribble strips and slims down the input and output options, resulting in a leaner beast. 

Luckily, these changes are unlikely to affect most players, and if you don't want a rack version or extensive MIDI and CV control, then we'd probably say this is not only the better choice for your needs, but also for your wallet.

Finally, for an extra hundred bucks, you can get the Helix Native plugin, which allows you to use Helix models directly in your DAW.

Best amp modelers: Fractal Audio Axe-FX III

(Image credit: Fractal Audio)

2. Fractal Audio Axe-Fx III

Sound like your heroes using one of the best amp modelers around

Price: $1,999 | Models: 259 amps, 2048 cabs | Able to load more patches/IRs: yes | Power amp: no

Hundreds of tones
Intuitive user interface
Too powerful for some

If you can afford it, the Axe-Fx is one of the best amp modelers you can buy. Not only does it have the best tones in the business, but it's got hundreds of them. Sure, the first Tesseract album was recorded largely with a Line 6 POD, but their signature sound is the Axe-Fx FAS Modern. Periphery, Coheed and Cambria and Devin Townsend you say? Yep, they’ve used Axe-Fx too.

The Axe-Fx III has an overhauled user interface that, unlike previous versions, can finally go toe-to-toe with the intuitive Line 6 Helix. Although we're only concerned with amp emulation here, the Axe-Fx has hundreds of brilliant effects as well as powerful, studio-grade EQ and gating options, so that's certainly worth considering, especially for recording.

Read the full Fractal Audio Axe-Fx III review

Best amp modelers: Neural DSP Quad Cortex

(Image credit: Neural DSP)

3. Neural DSP Quad Cortex

All aboard the hype train

Price: $1,849/£1,599 | Models: 50 amps, 1000+ IRs | Can load more patches/IRs: Yes | Power amp: No

2GHz, quad-core processing
7" multi-touch screen
Can be used to capture amps and pedals
Fewer stock amps than the competition

As Omar from the cult television series The Wire had it, "if you come at the King, you'd best not miss." The Quad Cortex is touted as an Axe-FX killer, and given that it's only about two-thirds the price of the flagship Axe-FX III, that's quite a claim.

In terms of sound, like the Axe-FX, it's impossible to tell it apart from a real amp. Where it has the edge is form factor, portability and the ergonomics of its touch screen. It's not the first modeller to sport a touch screen, but it is the first one to offer an experience comparable to other high-end consumer devices.

Another killer feature on paper is the ability to capture amps and pedals that you own. Again, like other products such as the BIAS amp suite, it's uncannily on the money. This feature does, however, require you to own or have access to the amp or pedal in the first place.

This neatly sets up the only drawback of the Cortex - that, however good they are, it ships with a fraction of the amp models of its main competitors. For extra expansion in the future, it does have Cortex Cloud, where you can download and share presets, but that's hardly a unique feature.

Read the full Neural DPS Quad Cortex review

Best amp modelers: Line 6 HX Stomp

(Image credit: Line 6)

4. Line 6 HX Stomp

Too good to be true?

Price: $599/£399 | Models: 300+ amps and cabs | Can load more patches/IRs: Yes | Power amp: No

All the sounds of the larger Helix
Can be used as an audio interface
Intuitive UI
A little cramped

If you liked the idea of being able to run amp models and IRs but have a traditional pedalboard, then the Line 6 HX Stomp could be for you. It takes a scaled-down version of the Helix floorboard, and gives you a subset of its amps and effects, with the same intuitive controls.

As you'd expect, it doesn't have the processing power of the larger unit. This means you can't run patches of the same complexity. However, it's incredibly useful for adding additional, infrequently-used effects to your chain. This could really come into its own in a covers band, for example.

Meanwhile, the amp and cab models are the same excellent pedigree as the flagship models. This means that it's a great grab-and-go amp solution for smaller gigs, as well as a useful audio interface to use in a home studio setting.

Read the full Line 6 HX Stomp review

Best amp modelers: Kemper Profiler

(Image credit: Kemper)

5. Kemper Profiler

Hate menus? Get an amp feel from your modeler

Price: $1,799/£1,199 | Able to load more patches/IRs: yes | Power amp: yes, on the head version

Amp-style interface
Rack and head options
A top choice for pro bands
Not cheap

With a more amp-like front panel than many of its competitors, the Kemper is the best amp modeler for players who want to be eased into the simulation experience, hiding a huge amount of depth behind its simple user interface.

There's a rack version for those that want to use it in a studio or ship it in a rack, or a head version that comes with a power amp, so that a speaker cab can be attached. For both, there's the option of a floorboard. There's also, as of Summer NAMM 2019, an all-in-one floorboard is on the way.

For every band that's using the Axe-FX, there's a band that’s running Kempers. They're a core part of the live rig of bands like Biffy Clyro, and Tesseract switched from Axe-FX to Kemper for their most recent album Sonder, using a patch based on a custom-captured Diezel head.

Read the full Kemper Profiler review

Best amp modelers: Headrush Pedalboard

(Image credit: Headrush)

6. HeadRush Pedalboard

Get more headroom with the Headrush

Price: $999/£859 | Models: 33 amps, 15 cabs | Able to load more patches/IRs: yes | Power amp: no

Modern, stylish interface
Wide choice of sounds
Full and rich sounding
Some may struggle with the touchscreen

With a quad-core DSP and luxurious 7-inch touchscreen, the HeadRush certainly goes all-out on hardware. In terms of the fidelity and feel of the amps, it's more 'open' and 'full' than most of the Helix models, and the way models respond to playing dynamics seems more subtle and more rich than other top-flight units.

So what's the catch? Well, on paper the 7-inch touchscreen should be a great user experience, but in practice, it's often harder to use than a joystick or arrow buttons, resulting in a great-sounding, but often frustrating floorboard.

Best amp modelers: Kemper Profiler Stage

(Image credit: Kemper)

7. Kemper Profiler Stage

Hundreds of amp profiles and effects all at your feet

Price: $1,700/£1,389 | Models: 287 amps pre-loaded with around 16,000 available via online Rig Manager, can store up to 999 on the unit | Able to load more patches/IRs: yes | Power amp: no | Additional features: Integral digital effects, full Kemper Profiling capability, S/PDIF in/out, MIDI in/out, headphones, USB

Profile any amp – ever – and store it on the unit
It’s a sound investment
The effects are excellent
You’ll need some time with the manual
The display could be clearer

Given that it is capable of profiling an innumerable amount of vintage amplifiers and making them digitally available, and it costs less than buying a Profiler Head and Remote, the Kemper Profiler Stage could be marketed as the best value amp on the market. Or alternatively as the ultimate tool for the touring musician.

With Kemper’s profiling power in one compact pressed-steel enclosure, the Profiler Stage comes loaded with some 287 amp profiles and has a suite of onboard effects. It will take a bit of getting used to, some time to figure out which amps you’d like stored and where, and inevitably you will fall down the rabbit hole of experimentation and tweaking. But that is part of the Kemper experience. 

At least Kemper’s OS7 software and Rig Manager makes accessing firmware updates, rigs and effects easy enough. The Profiler Stage weighs just 10lb and yet it can hold all the rigs you could ever need. There’s a reason why the pros love it.

Read the full Kemper Profiler Stage review

Best amp modelers: Line 6 Helix

(Image credit: Line 6)

8. Line 6 Helix

The best amp modeler when it comes to user interface

Price: $1,699/£1,290 | Models: 62 amps, 37 cabs | Able to load more patches/IRs: yes | Power amp: no

Huge creative potential
Better UI than the Axe-FX or Kemper
Rack or floor options
Some won't need this much functionality

The Helix LT is probably more than enough for most players, but if you want to send CV or control a whopping three expression pedals, then the full-fat Helix could be the best amp modeler for you. 

For the extra cash you get some additional affordances like scribble strips and additional inputs, though the DSP and software is the same. Crucially, the user interface is the best on the market right now, and that's why you'd buy the Helix over the Kemper or Axe-FX.

Alternatively, you can opt for the rack version if you have a studio or want the ability to neatly flight-case the unit, though you'll need to separately purchase the Helix Floor Controller if you want a floorboard to control it.

Best amp modelers: BOSS GT-1000 Floorboard

(Image credit: Boss)

9. Boss GT-1000 Floorboard

Place Roland’s expertise at your feet

Price: $1,049/£829 | Models: 16 amps, 7 cabs | Able to load more patches/IRs: yes | Power amp: no

Loaded with features
Amp sims are fantastic
Roland reliability
Old school interface

The Boss GT-1000 was the first floorboard modeler released by Roland following the Helix taking the fight to Axe-FX and Kemper. With a proprietary DSP and ports of effects from their flagship DD-500, MD-500 and RV-500 pedals, there's a lot going on under the hood.

The amp simulations are second-to-none, thanks to the Augmented Impulse Response Dynamics (AIRD) tech, which gives the impression of even more 'air' and harmonic richness than even the Headrush.

However, the user interface has not changed with the times, reminding us more of our old rack gear that, while powerful, required power-user level knowledge to edit and operate. The GT-1000 sounds fantastic, but many of its competitors on this best amp modeler list leave it in the dust in terms of usability.

Read the full Boss GT-1000 review

Best amp modelers: Positive Grid BIAS Head

(Image credit: Positive Grid)

10. Positive Grid BIAS Head

The best amp modeler if you're already sold on BIAS Amp

Price: $799 | Models: 25 built-in | Able to load more patches/IRs: yes | Power amp: yes

Great amp-style interface
Use the BIAS software live
25 built-in patches
Not a great all-rounder

The BIAS Head ships with 25 built-in patches, and a pleasantly familiar amp-like interface on the front panel. The real power comes from hooking it up to a computer or device running the BIAS software, as you can tweak and load new patches directly.

Especially if you're already a BIAS owner and use it in your DAW, the BIAS head is a great bridge to using the software live, especially given the quality on offer with the latest BIAS Amp II.

If you're looking for an interface to flight-case or put into a studio setting, there's also a rack version, though without effects like its competitors, at that point you might want to explore more all-rounder solutions.

Watch our Positive Grid BIAS Head demo

Best amp modelers: BOSS GT-100

(Image credit: Boss)

11. Boss GT-100

The best amp modeler for power and performance on a budget

Price: $499/£375 | Models: 31 amps | Able to load more patches/IRs: yes | Power amp: no

A fraction of the price of the GT-1000
Plenty of tone choices
A great intro to amp modelling
There are better options, they just cost more

It might not have the sampling rate or bit depth of the trailblazing GT-1000, but for a fraction of the price the GT-100 certainly isn't bad. Yes, there are many better options on the market (all of which are on this list), but like anything else, ten years ago this amp sim would have blown away the best studio gear available.

With a host of amp models that cover the main bases, from bluesy to high-gain metal, the GT-100 is a workhorse that will get you to your band's first demo tape and beyond, even if it's unlikely to be a tool you hang on to forever.

Best amp modelers: Buying advice

The Line 6 HX Stomp XL on a dark background

(Image credit: Line 6)

When it comes to guitar amp modelers, they come in two main flavors – rack and floorboard. The big sluggers are the Axe-Fx and Kemper, both of which are primarily rack units.

The Kemper does have a head version, as well as a new floorboard edition, for guitarists that prefer the look and feel of those formats. 

The Line 6 Helix also comes in two different flavors. First, a floorboard, familiar to those that had already used POD floorboards and Line 6 multi-effects in the past, and a rack version, aimed at touring players, or for studio use.

When choosing the best amp modeler for you, the main consideration should be the user interface. That is, how you interact with it, and how easy it is to use. In some ways, the quality of the models themselves is a secondary concern. Though it's tempting to buy based on the number of patches, the interface is more important.

Manufacturers will boast an eye-watering number of presets, but most units will allow you to add new presets and Impulse Responses (IRs). From our experience, a lot of players will only dive deeper once they've found some core sounds they're happy with. This is why it's still important that there be some great-sounding stock presets, straight out of the box.

Finally, there's the tech specs. What’s the resolution of the DSP audio engine? Is there any noticeable latency? What inputs and outputs are on offer? Most modern units also allow you to share tones and presets on the internet and many allow you to load new IRs.

If you want to play live, probably the most important consideration is whether it has a power amp built-in or not. Most of these units will use their digital modeler as a preamp, like the pre- in a traditional guitar amp. However, if they don't have a power amp – like the power tubes in a valve guitar head – then it won't be able to drive a speaker, and you'll need to buy a separate power amp.

Alex Lynham

Alex Lynham is a gear obsessive who's been collecting and building modern and vintage equipment since he got his first Saturday job. Besides reviewing countless pedals for Total Guitar, he's written guides on how to build your first pedal, how to build a tube amp from a kit, and briefly went viral when he released a glitch delay pedal, the Atom Smasher.