Fender Mustang Micro Review: 12 guitar amps in your pocket
As a beginning electric guitarist, I'm well aware that the best gift I can give my family is often the gift of silence. The sense of general relief around the house has been palpable since Fender's Mustang Micro headphone amp arrived, and while I consider it a bit of a travesty that my kids don't get to enjoy the dulcet tones of me butchering the funk-metal hits of the early 90s while they're trying to watch Teen Titans, I'm highly impressed with this jigger.
Not by its form factor – not at all. There are some butt-ugly guitars out there, but I can't think of one that wouldn't look worse with this thing dangling out of its jack-hole like one of those things really dedicated anime fans use to make it look like they've got tails. It's an awkwardly shaped piece of plastic with a tilting jack, a set of hard-to-reach buttons that always seem to be on the wrong side, and a row of inscrutable colored LEDs where you'd expect to find a user interface. Fender supplies you with a little color chart to tell you what these colors mean, but some of the colors don't match up, so getting your head around it can be a confusing exercise.
Worse still, it makes you wear headphones. Not modern day wireless ones, we're talking corded ones with a 3.5-mm jack. Today's Bluetooth, the Fender team tells us, is too slow. It can't give you real-time audio without groove-crippling latency. So wired headphones it is, along with all the tangling and cable-shrugging and fiddling that goes along with them.
But don't let any of the above put you off. Once you've picked a sound, turned the thing on and rolled the volume knob on your guitar, you're in a world of sound. The Mustang Micro gives you 12 amps to choose from: four clean tones, three crunch tones, four high-gain monsters and one direct-out "studio preamp" setting, and there's nary a dud among them.
Fender doesn't stick to its own catalogue of classic amps, either – yes, the '65 Twin Reverb, '65 Deluxe and '57 Twin are here, as well as the high-gain metal sound of the Bassbreaker 15, but other settings are "inspired by" iconic rigs from other brands, like the British Invasion-era Vox AC30, the hard rock-era Marshall Super Lead, the choggy, nu-metal era Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier, the sizzling Friedman BrownEye 100, Eddie Van Halen's aggressive EVH 5150 and the face-ripping super-high-gain Bogner Uberschall.
Each of these amps has a dozen or more knobs in the real world; here, you get what you're given. There's no facility to dial gain up and down, for example, and even the five-mode EQ is really there more to balance out the natural sound of your headphones than to change the sound of a given amp. So if I want a cleaner tone, I flip to the single-coil neck pickups and pull the volume knob down on my guitar, and if I want big 'n' chunky, I push it back up and flip over to the bridge position humbucker.
Tone is subjective and all that, but I think the choices here offer a terrific range of options, particularly given how simple Fender has kept the design and interface. Playing guitar in headphones really puts the sound in the spotlight, and my old studio cans give a beautifully detailed sound that really lets me enjoy the different tones here.
I've spent a long time with the '65 Deluxe + Greenbox tube screamer combo, appreciating the way its glassy clean tone gently breaks as you push it over the edge and it crunches up. When it's time to rock out, the Friedman BrownEye patch absolutely crackles, managing a searing high-gain assault that preserves enough harmonics to let you take it well beyond power chords with impressive articulation. A/B them against miked up versions of the originals, and they're not the same; it doesn't matter, the amps are all fun and inspiring to play in their own wheelhouse. They may not take off as hard as their real-world counterparts, but they don't feel dead or digital. Each gives you an organic-feeling connection to your guitar and invites exploration.
I'm still enjoying the standard amp models so much that I've spent far less time with the effects. Again, there are 12 to choose from, including reverbs, delays, chorus, tremolo and flanger effects, with more than half the patches using multiple effects together, and several using stereo effects. The effects can be turned off or altered using the "modify" buttons to swap between five different settings for each. Where there are multiple effects, these settings will change only one parameter of one of the effects. So although there are quite a few options here, allowing for some pretty classic sounds, this is again not designed to encourage excessive knob twiddling.
Indeed, the overall goal here is plug in and get going. I can see a lot of players settling on one particular sound and staying there for weeks at a time – Fender has been nice enough to leave your settings as they are when you turn the Mustang Micro off and on again, so it'll always be just as you left it.
It can operate as a USB recording interface too, meaning you plug it into your PC, bring up a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), and start directly recording the gorgeous stereo sounds you're hearing through your headphones – you can also choose to send in a basic clean sound with no amp or effects modeling applied. The sounds record so well, and the whole things sets up so quickly, that I can see it being a genuinely attractive rapid demo recording option even for professional players.
It can also hook up to your phone via Bluetooth, allowing you to stream music, lessons or backing tracks through your phone and play along using your choice of sounds. This couldn't be simpler; there's no Fender app to fiddle with, you literally just call up the music on whatever app you like and it comes in through your cans. You adjust the track volume through your phone's slider, and the guitar volume via the big knob on the front. Lemon squeezy.
For all its aesthetic crimes, it does feel light and pretty sturdy. Its built-in lithium battery lasts an absolute minimum of four hours, the Fender team tells us, and more like six in real-world use, and where some devices stick to the ancient MicroUSB plug, this one's moved into the 2020s with USB-C.
Best of all, the Mustang Micro costs a measly hundred bucks in the USA – £89.99 in the UK, €99.99 in the Eurozone and AU$219 once the Australia tax has been applied. Paired with a good set of headphones, this is a brilliant practice tool for beginners. The detailed sound in your cans makes it very obvious which strings you've forgotten to mute and which ones you're fretting too hard and pushing out of tune, so it's probably even better than a full-size amp for developing precision and touch.
And where full-size amps often need to be cranked up to rampantly unsociable levels before they start sounding their best, this little fella can give you both barrels without even waking the dog up on the sofa next to you. You may not be able to serenade your partner with it, but again, that might be the greatest gift you can possibly give.
Have a listen to some of the Mustang Micro's awesome sounds in the video below.