Top positive review
Stunning design and versatility - a blank canvas for guitar effects
Reviewed in the United States on January 14, 2017
The Hotone XTOMP is a modular platform that can load and play a single guitar effect from a growing library that promises to someday number upwards of 300 effects. I came away overwhelmingly impressed by this ambitious effort - so much so that I'm hoping the XTOMP will curve my obsession to always be on the lookout for the "next best thing" in guitar pedals. I wanted to try an offer as detailed a review as possible to help prospective buyers understand why this pedal is (or isn't) for them.
BACKGROUND & HISTORY - There were a lot of reasons to be skeptical of the XTOMP pedal from Chinese developer Hotone (pronounced "Hot-tone", by the way). Flashback a few years ago and DigiTech tried a similar thing with the iStomp - a rugged tabula rasa with 4 unlabled knobs and an LED that could display different colors. It loaded only one effect at a time, and to change the effects you needed to wire it to an iOS device using the proprietary cable, a process which took about 30 seconds. I purchased one on $40 closeout a few years later, and felt that it was a flawed and inconvenient concept that was surprisingly well-implemented in terms of sound quality. I've kept mine as a "swiss army" knife, but it's usually relegated to reverb duties and I find it a pain to switch effects using the cabled connection.
Enter the Hotone XTOMP. Hotone has a bit of a reputation with their micro-sized pedals that clone popular boutique circuits, But they had never tried anything as ambitious (or decidedly digital) as the XTOMP when it was announced at Winter NAMM 2015. I was cautiously excited for it then, but...then nothing happened for about a year-and-a-half. It wasn't until the late Spring of 2016 that the XTOMP was fully released, and several months after that before it got back on my radar.
FEATURES & BUILD QUALITY - It's impossible not to notice the unique, rugged metal design of the XTOMP. For it's size, this is one of the heaviest, most durable-feeling pedals I can recall. It also has a profile that is very low to the ground, so it's unlikely to tip over while using the main footswitch. Then knobs and jacks are well-braced, and each knob has a circular LED display that becomes vitally important for the functioning of various models.
But I think the key distinguishing feature of this one-at-a-time effects pedal is the Bluetooth functionality - something Digitech iStomp did not have but sorely needed. Linking the XTOMP to your iOS or Android device could not be easier - I didn't even need to tell my phone to look for the pedal. XTOMP has a free app that you can download right now and look around at all the various effect and amp models. The app automatically searches for and connects to the XTOMP, and I've never had a connection failure once, even after walking a few feet away from the pedal. You can also hook it up to a computer software program through mini USB connection, and the transfers are a bit faster that way.
ALGORITHM LIBRARY & STORAGE - The XTOMP effects are basically digital algorithms loaded onto the device and then operated through the pedal as if it were a compact stompbox. Some people felt duped by the claim that XTOMP would soon offer up to "300" effects...as of January 2017, I counted more like 126 "effects", which includes things like amps and cabinets, but not combinations of effects that are separately available. Still, that is a LOT of content, and a shocking percentage of it is very good in comparison to the real-life versions of these pedals. Hotone even got permission to reference many brands (Marshall, Ibanez, Fulltone, etc.) in the descriptions of their models, while some other brands (ahem...BOSS) are described a little more vaguely.
When your XTOMP arrives, it has a single algorithm randomly added to it, but does not contain the full library. These need to be added one-by-one, which is a bit of time consuming pain. (Tip: The process goes considerably faster if you transfer with a computer instead of via Bluetooth). BUT, once the effect is loaded into the XTOMP for the first time, the algorithm is stored, and the next time you switch to it, the transfer happens within literally 2 seconds. The iOS app is a make-or-break factor in the functioning of this device, but, at least for the time being, it's exceedingly well-done and functional. At least as good as Marshall CODE, and certainly better than the mobile apps for TC Electronic and Digitech products that I've used. Bluetooth saves the XTOMP as a functional device because it makes it so easy to flip back and forth between effects. Given that this is the type of product that will appeal to pedal enthusiasts and knob tweakers, that's a good thing.
DISTORTION/OVERDRIVE/FUZZ SOUNDS - The area where the XTOMP is unexpectedly good is with the quality of its digital dirt box models. A lot of digital distortion sounds sterile, fizzy, or unresponsive to playing dynamics, but not the XTOMP. I've owned real-life versions of many of these pedals. The XTOMP models behave very similarly to a lot of them. And for the ones I don't own, maybe it isn't a 1:1 comparison, but the models here capture enough of the characteristics of those pedals that I'll still be (tempted) to own the real thing, but I won't NEED to.
Some of my favorites are the models of the Barber Direct Drive, Fulltone OCD, Hermida Zen Drive, and MI Audio Crunch Box. The Xotic pedals (BB Preamp, AC Booster, and RC Booster) are extremely well-done. The model of the RC Booster is so good, I wonder if I might have been happy purchasing a $200 pedal that did just that! And that's really the whole appeal of the XTOMP - so many different options, and so much of it good.
It's been noted in some reviews that there's a lot of difference in output and behavior between the models, but that's the point. Hotone obtained and impersonated the exact circuits of these pedals, so they share many of the characteristics of the original.
MODULATION, DELAY, & OTHER EFFECTS - It's less surprising that many of the digital-based effects would be good, but so they are in the XTOMP, by and large. There's a HUGE selection of digital and analog style delays. There is also a tap tempo feature where you hold down the stomp button and can set tempo that way. Great selection of choruses, tremolos, flanger, vibrato, vibe, and reverb, as well.
NEGATIVES? - While my review of the XTOMP is overwhelmingly positive, there are a few obvious long-term concerns. What if Hotone ceases to operate as a company, or otherwise stops production on the amp models (which continue to trickle out every few weeks). A loss in the ability to connect to the device using your phone could cripple the device, but hopefully that's a long way off.
Also, while the LED displays and knobs are very sleek and well-implemented, the biggest problem with using the XTOMP is that you have no idea what the various knobs do unless you memorize it or refer to the guide on your smartphone app. On some effects that isn't a huge problem, but on some of the more complicated ones, it's a huge hassle.
I love the Hotone XTOMP, and have made a pledge to focus on unlocking its potential instead of constantly looking for new pedals. It isn't a perfect product, but I think there's an insane amount of value here, even at the somewhat high starting price.
UPDATE (06/02/17) - I have continued to use and love the XTOMP. The main reason I wanted to post an update was that in the 6 months since my prior review, Hotone has continued to work on the project and has posted monthly updates on the last Friday of each month. Each of these updates adds usually between 5 to 10 new items - typically a preamp/cab, a dirt pedal or two, and then some signature models. They've also expanded categories like compressor, noise gate, and synth/filter (the latter of which I haven't been able to check out yet). I think the quality of these things as direct boxes with cabinet simulation is almost worth the price of admission, alone. Mooer came out with their $98 Micro Preamp series, and those are pretty great, but I swapped in my XTOMP and realized that I had the equivalent of about 15 of those things already on my XTOMP (and seemingly more always on the way). They remain at price points ($200+) that will keep a lot of people away, but at the right price, I'd consider getting a second one (or a XTOMP Mini, if those become available), for a truly modular effects setup.