August 31, 2017
Guitar amplifiers under the "BOSS" name are a relatively new development, but Roland/BOSS was actually one of the early pioneers of reliable, value-laden solid-state amplifiers. The Roland JC-120 is an industry classic for crisp, clean tones, and the popular CUBE series has been a favorite of beginners, buskers, and working musicians for several decades. So, it really should come as no surprise that the company could put out an excellent BOSS-branded amplifier at ultra-competitive pricing.
Still, I remain surprised - blown away, actually - at just how good the new BOSS Katana 100. At first glance, the Katana series looks like another entry priced modelling amplifier, akin to the Fender Mustang, Marshall Code, Vox Valvetronix, Blackstar ID:Core, and so on. BOSS insists, however, that the Katana is not really a "modeling" amplifier, though it does use some combination of analog gain staging and DSP (digital) processing. The result is a product that is can be as simple to use as a vintage tube amp, or as deep and complex as you want to make it with desktop software.
TONE QUALITY & FEATURES:
I opted for the Katana 100 at about $329 because it just seemed to solve all the things I'd been missing in past amplifiers I owned. Just in the factory settings alone, it has 3 on-board reverbs (plus countless other effects...see below), a powerful Katana-branded 12" speaker, endless power for clean headroom, a type of volume throttling/attenuation, a line out, and an effects loop. Good luck finding all those features in a sub-$500 amplifier, let alone one that sounds this good.
The Katana 100 is a fully open-back cabinet, which was new to me. I was a bit concerned about this causing a lack of low end at moderate volumes, but the EQ controls (including presence) and power amp options allow you to dial in "large sounding" tones at all volumes. The power settings are 0.5w, 50w, and 100w, but these are a bit misleading as descriptions. For example, a 1-watt tube amp would be both low in output and overdrive very quickly, but the Katana doesn't do that. These power settings simply scale down the decibel level of the amp so you can play at different volumes, but the tonal character is mostly preserved. I was actually surprised just how loud the amp was even on the "0.5w" setting. For playing in my basement, I use it at 50w quite a bit, but can't imagine a scenario where I'd ever use the 100w setting.
If you're familiar with the Yamaha THR10 (lunchbox portable amp), then you could imagine the Katana as sort of a full-size version of that amp. You get just a handful of different amp models (ACOUSTIC, CLEAN, CRUNCH, LEAD, BROWN), and then robust EQ and gain controls on those amps. Best of all, the CLEAN channel is a surprisingly excellent pedal platform. I actually do like the driven sounds on the Katana and plug "straight in" a fair amount, but my gain pedals have new life with power and punch of the Katana's 12" speaker.
Younger players have grown accustomed to having a piles of effects thrown at them on entry-level modeling amplifiers, but BOSS was particularly clever in how the effects are implemented in the Katana. Rather than lock users into soulless presets or force them to spend time menu-diving on an LCD screen, The whole effects section is delegated to three knobs with corresponding color LED buttons. Two of the knobs control one of two different effects categories (boost/modulation; delay/FX), while the third is a stand-alone reverb control. There are three types of each effect, which can be cycled through using the LED button. For example, on the "boost" effect, the default settings are Blues Drive (GREEN), Overdrive (RED), and Distortion (ORANGE). But these can be further customized using the software, and you get digital models of basically the entire 40-year archive of BOSS effects, which is amazing.
SNEAKY AMPS & HIDDEN GEMS:
On the Katana 100, you get 4 preset buttons, which can be long-pressed for instant saving and recall of the current state of the amp (and all its settings). Traditionally, this has been a feature modeling amps offer to live players - you could save a clean tone, a crunchy rhythm tone, and a boosted lead tone, and then switch back and forth. The Katana 100 also supports BOSS' GA-FC footswitch, sold separately for $100, and it has all sorts of cool functionality for switching presets and turning on/off individual effects.
But it turns out the Katana is even more powerful than advertised. A series of online power users discovered that the firmware for the Katana was very similar to the BOSS GT-100 multi-effects processor, and responded to MIDI/sysex commands. Through third party live sets and software, users have unlocked 28(!) additional amp models (Google: "Katana Sneaky Amps") that parallel the modeling found on BOSS and Roland COSM units. You can save one of these amp models to each of the 4 preset slots on the amp, AND also assign customized effects to each of those slots. This expands the capabilities of the Katana quite a bit, though I want to emphasize that the stock sounds are extremely good, and I will spend most of my time just using the amp as it is "out of the box".
I have little negative to say about the Katana 100, but there are few things worth pointing out so that this review does not "over-promise" the features of the amplifier. First among these would be the voicing of the amp. Roland's amplifiers are famous (infamous) for a crisp but somewhat bland clean tone, and I had some concern that the amp was lacking low end relative to its size. Now that I own it and have had a chance to experiment, I can confirm that it has PLENTY of low end, and is capable of huge distorted sounds alongside the glassy cleans. But it is generally a brighter amplifier that needs to be tamed with EQ settings to avoid harsh sounds. Fortunately, I found the treble roll-off very effective at taming any excessive brightness.
The effects suite is very powerful, but the dashboard controls of the Katana will only give you very limited control of each effect. For example, if you are using a delay, you get a tap tempo button for rate, but only a single modifier knob that has to control some combination of effect level and feedback. I also notice this problem on the drive pedals - you can control the amount of gain, but not really the level and tone of the effect, at least without diving into the software.
The Katana 100 is an industry-changer that has generated extreme hype, but that hype is easily justified by the quality and value offered in this package. Rather than obsessing over features my amp doesn't have, the Katana 100 encourages you to quickly set up the sound you want and start playing. I've owned solid state amps and tube amps, both, and the Katana 100 behaves more like the latter than the former. It isn't just a bland clean tone, but a gradient from pure cleans to just-on-the-edge-of-break-up to fully-driven tones. This amp is the real thing.
UPDATE (10/04/17) - I brought the K100 home about a month ago, and I think I'm even considerably happier with it now than I was during the supposed "honeymoon period". It's just such a versatile product, and while BOSS EQ choices for the 5 on-board amp models might not have been exactly what I preferred, you are given endless ways to tame harsh frequencies and bring those down to comfortable volume levels for home playing.
Those options have been expanded even further with firmware version 2.0, which was just released a few days prior to this post. The number of savable preset states has doubled from 4 to 8. You can now hold down the PANEL button for one second, and its LED will start flashing, indicating you are using presets 1-4 in BANK "B". BOSS also added a few effects, including the SDE-3000 - a digital delay with modulation that was a popular rack unit in the 80's. Coupled with the new ability to add a second delay to your chain (this is integrated with the reverb effect), you can create lush "dotted eighth plus quarter note" effects (think "The Edge"), or just about anything else you can come up with. The Katana is meant to be more "plug and play" than a traditional modeling amplifier, but having 8 preset settings tied to different "Sneaky Amp" models makes this one hugely versatile combo amp.