Top positive review
Lowering the bar for entry on affordability and portability for high-end, component-level modeling
Reviewed in the United States on December 17, 2018
The Line 6 HX Stomp ("HXS") is my entry to high-end guitar modeling, and after a few weeks of use, it has prove to be an excellent product. I will try to go over some of the major features, as well as the key pros and cons, while trying to avoid making this review excessively long. But I want to go into some detail, since the HXS is an extremely deep and versatile unit that can be as complex or straightforward as you want to make it.
The HXS basically the entire Helix modeling software shrunk down to the size of a dual-footswitch effects pedal (like a Strymon, or two BOSS pedals side-by-side). Debuting a street price of $599.99, this represented the most affordable entry point for a high-end modeler at the time of release, though the Headrush Gigboard is arguably a comparable product announced only four days earlier! Modelers like the Helix and Helix LT had typically costed $1,000 to $1,500 in price, and were significantly larger in size. Since my primary interest was in gaining access to the Helix amp models in an affordable, portable package, the HXS was of immediate interest to me.
The HXS is a sturdy unit that uses a clever combination of three touch-capacitive footswitches, a relatively small LED screen, and just a few more buttons and encoder knobs to access all of its features. The enclosure is painted in a glossy black sparkle finish, which is a fingerprint magnet, but I actually like quite a bit. There are stereo inputs on the top of the unit, balanced/unbalanced stereo outputs, the jack for the 9V, 3.0A proprietary power block (included), and a USB "printer" cable port. On the left side are a headphone output and in/out DIN MIDI ports for external control of the unit. Finally, the right side has jacks for a stereo FX loop, though this can be reconfigured to work as an "AUX IN" jack for playing along to external gear.
Overall, I find the unit to be very well-built. Footswitch longevity has been a concern on past Line 6 units (like the M5), but these "soft press" switches are different and feel built to last. Some of the encoders have a little bit of wobble to them, but should hold up with care. I would definitely work out some type of case to protect the unit - I am using an Apache 2800 hardshell camera case with foam cutouts for the HXS and power adapter.
AMP & CABINET MODELS:
In Helix, Line 6 uses what is called "component-level" modeling to create virtual models of real-life amplifiers by taking them apart and capturing what each physical component of the amp is doing. In theory, this means that you get the same control knob and switches available on the real-life amp, and they should behave in almost the same way. I found the HXS amp models to be largely excellent, though I strongly recommend setting up your own presets from scratch, as this will accommodate your tastes and the power amp, mixer, or headphone output particular to your setup.
The Helix library of amps is already dozens large with great guitar and bass options, and you can visit the Line 6 website for details on that ever-expanding list. While primitive modelers were favored by high-gain players, I tend to prefer the classics - sparkly Fender cleans, chimey Vox tones, and the bluesy crunch of vintage Marshalls. All are well represented here, and the "Placater" model of a Friedman BE100 is an immediate standout for driven rock tones.
Since the HXS functions either as a multi-FX unit (into a guitar amp's front end) or a direct box (into either a mixer, a flat-EQ power amp, or monitored by headphones), it includes endless cabinet simulation options to handle the "direct" option. The HXS has an IR loader that accepts third-party impulse responses in the proper format. However, I've been favoring the built-in cabinet simulations recently, as these give you more flexibility with microphone selection and placement.
An important tip about both cabs and IR's is warranted here. Guitar amps have a much narrower frequency range than a full-range studio monitor, with most guitar frequencies falling between 100Hz and 6400Hz (or, arguably, an even narrower range). But the Helix is capable of putting out a full frequency range, which means that some of the sounds will be either "boomy" (low end) or "fizzy" (high end) unless you apply low and high cuts on the cabinet or IR to match that range. Experiment with different settings and see if that cures any unpleasantness with your setup.
In addition to having great amp and cabinet models, the HX Stomp offers a full suite of effects options, ranging from overdrive/distortion to delay, modulation, reverb, compression, EQ, and even some off-the-wall options like pitch shifters and synth/note generators. There is also a noise gate built into the input slot of the effects chain, so you do not need to add a separate noise gate block.
I won't even try to go through the merits of the various effects, as there are dozens. But I think there are two key takeaways regarding the Helix effects. First, they are crafted with the same "component-level" approach as the amp models, so they really are meant to interface, behave, and interact with other gear in the way the real-life versions do. One of the reasons I wanted the HX Stomp was that I had been obsessed with guitar pedals and acquired way too many of them. I have found the models on the Stomp to be good enough that I was happy to sell over half of my pedal collection. Not only do I not feel like I am "missing out" by using the Helix version of these effects, but I truthfully have far more options having added the depth of the Helix library. There are effects in Helix that are either so niche I would never buy a dedicated pedal for them, or would cost in excess of $200, each, if I did.
Second, even if the HX Stomp effects are not always 100% as good as the source material, they still benefit from being assembled together in a cohesive ecosystem that allows you to do things that are expensive and complicated to do with a traditional pedalboard. The most obvious of these is powering all of these effects - you don't need to worry about dealing with different voltages and power supplies, as everything is done through the Stomp. But there is also effects switching and chaining - this can be done conveniently through presets and snapshots that change not just the on/off status of the effect, but individual effect parameters. Time synchronization is also a major advantage of a multi-FX approach. I can run two parallel delays or simply time-sync everything to a specific BPM setting using the tap tempo footswitch. After some initial time to learn how everything goes together, I think you'll find that advantages of this type of setup greatly outweigh the feeling of missing out on a few specific sounds from your pedals.
Of course, it doesn't have to be either/or. You can run pedals into the front of the HXS, or set up an effects loop that you move around to anywhere in the signal chain you want.
Having largely gushed about the HX Stomp, I should point out at least a few items that might be of concern for some users, and some software items that may benefit from additional tweaking to the (still-new) firmware for the HXS. The number one complaint, by far, about the HX Stomp, is that you are only limited to 6 blocks. This is due both the layout of the HXS, as well as its limits in processing power compared to its larger brothers. To be fair, I would basically never use 6 effect pedals at one time in anything I am doing. But if you running direct or otherwise using the amp and cab simulations, you have to account for 1 or 2 of those blocks occupied for that, plus reverb, compression, EQ, and other effects that you might want to use on virtually every patch. I don't find the 6 blocks to inhibit much of what I do, but if you are hoping to use a stereo setup, then you can run out of options fairly quickly.
The one other caveat that I would point out regarding HX Stomp and Helix and general is that it is NOT a plug-and-play solution for anything. You need to have a specific setups for headphone, running into an amp, running into a PA, etc., or the results can be pretty bad. I'm sure that the default presets sounded great with the gear of whoever created them, but I found them to be largely unusable, as modeling presets generally are. You need to start from scratch with your patches, don't afraid to experiment, and then avoid the "paralysis of choice" that comes from obsessive tweaking and the feeling that you can always make things "just a little better". I found that running the amp models (without cab simulation) into a power amp was pretty quick to get good results, but there was a huge learning curve for setting up direct guitar sounds due to the sheer number of variables (cabinet/IR type, mic placement, hi/low cuts, volume/gain settings). The good news is that if there is some way you want your tone to be shaped, there is almost certain to be way to do it with all of the amp, effects, and output options offered by HXS.
Many people have complained that the stomp only has three footswitches, and it is actually only TWO if you leave the third one as a tuner/tap tempo. I thought this would be a major annoyance for me, but it really hasn't been. Snapshots give you massive flexibility to change several effects at once, so you can think of it as having three "presets within a preset". And footswitches can be assigned to bypass multiple effects at once, so maybe your "lead" switch turns on a boost, activates a compressor, and adds some delay, all with one press. You can also expand to two additional (momentary) footswitches, two expression pedals, or one of each, if desired.
I should also note that there have been anecdotal reports of freezing, volume drop, and (very rarely) hardware/software failure on message boards I have been active in discussing this product. Many of these complaints may have already been troubleshooted as of the release of the v2.71 firmware. Others appear to be extremely anecdotal, and as a policy, I try to base my reviews only on the positive and negative experiences I have had with the device on a firsthand basis. My HX Stomp, thus far, seems to be well-built and has performed without incident thus far. I would amend my review in the future if that ever changed, of course.
At a street price of $599.99, the HX Stomp opens up the world of component-level amp and effects modeling to a whole new subset of guitar enthusiasts. While it is still one of the more expensive single items of guitar gear I have ever purchased, it arguably replaces and improves upon thousands of dollars of gear that I previously owned or would need to purchase in order to be able to do what I can now do from the convenience of a single, compact box. You are not required to like every amp and effect offered by the HXS - I certainly do not. But only a few weeks in, I've quickly identified some go-to amps and effect chains that are as good as anything I had created with analog hardware in the past. The amps are amazingly touch-sensitive and varied in what they offer. And the convenience of being able to plug a guitar, bass, or keyboard into a single box that serves as my iOS recording interface, amp/cabinet sim, and multi-FX platform is truly amazing.
UPDATE (02/21/19) - Glad to see my (absurdly lengthy) review was helpful! As I have had more time to use and learn the HX Stomp, my appreciation for it has continued to grow. It has effectively replaced all of the other ways I used to play guitar. I sold my largest amp, sold dozens of pedals, and with just my HX Stomp plugged into either headphones (Beyerdynamic DT880) or a FRFR speaker (Alto TS312), it seems like I have infinite tonal possibilities. The Yamaha/Line 6 development team and surrounding Facebook/online community is also incredibly helpful, knowledgeable and fun. I had zero affinity for Line 6 products prior to this purchase, and openly despised the brand because of some of their budget modeling products in the early 2000's (Spider amps, red POD, etc.). The acquisition by Yamaha and continued development of Helix has truly made Line 6 into a top-flight brand for component level modeling. The HX Stomp makes my playing more rewarding, and the only problem now is finding more time to play!