Price paid: C$ 289
Purchased from: Long And McQuade
Features — 8
This is a fairly recent addition to the Orange Amplifiers lineup, having been released only about two years ago, and despite its diminutive packaging (I've honestly eaten larger sandwiches than this head!), packs a hell of a punch.
Basic specs of this Chinese-built amp (surprisingly good quality for something out of China, to be honest) are as follows:
- 20-watt hybrid amp (solid state power amp, 12AX7 preamp tube)
- Four gain stages (two more than the similar Micro Terror)
- Buffered effects loop
- Three controls: volume, "shape" (more on that later), and gain
- Single channel (all the gain, all the time!)
- Cabinet-simulated headphone jack
- 8-ohm speaker output
That about covers it for specs, or at least the useful ones for the average end consumer. This amp is one of those things where it's really simple, and just does exactly what it says on the tin. It's incredibly easy to run, takes basically no time at all to get a decent usable tone out of it.
The fact that it's a solid-state power section means you can use this amp without a speaker load, meaning you can simply plug your headphones into the cabinet-simulated headphone out and use this for silent practice, though if you have the headphones connected while a speaker cabinet is plugged in, it doesn't cancel the speaker out. Still, I find this a very useful feature.
The power supply is external, being connected via a very similar type of cable you'd use to hook up your laptop to an outlet. This is how Orange managed to make the Micro Dark so micro.
The lack of a clean channel is the only thing that I think of that would really make some people hesitant about this amp, feature-wise. You CAN get a clean tone from it, but this amp is not made for that.
Sound — 8
Orange is known for its simple, organic sound, and despite using a solid-state power amp section, this amp does have the characteristic attack of a tube amp. The "shape" EQ is a particularly interesting feature, where turning the knob counter-clockwise raises the mid frequencies and cuts the treble and bass, and turning it clockwise raises the treble and bass while cutting the mids. At its most extreme settings, the EQ is still somewhat palatable, which is rare for most amps, though I've found the sweet spots on this amp for high-gain riffing to be at the 1-o'-clock position and the 3-o'-clock position. The former is great for chunky rhythms, with a nearly-flat EQ that only cuts a small amount of the mids, but still keeps enough to add some well-needed beef to your tone, and the latter is a bit of a brighter, scooped sound that pierces well for lead playing.
If you, like me, are playing prog-metal and its derivative genres with extended range guitars (I'm playing a Jackson SLATX-M3-7 and Ibanez RG8, both running Seymour Duncan Nazgul/Sentient pickups), chances are, you're going to have a hard time finding a tone that really works well with this amp on its own, especially when plugged into the matching (but not included) PPC108 1x8 cabinet. The gain knob tends to drive a lot of low end as you start to get into metal territory, and it can get a little boomy and out-of-control. The best fix for this has been the use of an overdrive pedal, and my weapon of choice has been a DigiTech Bad Monkey. Those pedals run very, very cheap (I found mine brand new for $40CDN, and I've seen them go as low as $20 online), and if you set it with the highs at max and the lows at the 12-o'-clock position, I find that it really tightens up the low end when playing a seven or eight-string guitar through the 1x8 cabinet, as well as not running the gain at full (I tend to run it at about the 3-o'-clock position).
Obviously, if you're running a 1x12 or 2x12 (or going all out with a 4x12!), this is going to have a profound effect on the tone and volume. The overdrive pedal becomes less necessary as the cabinet can better deal with the increased low end, though it still goes a long way to tightening up the sound, and plugging into a bigger cabinet is where the Micro Dark really gets to shine. And, despite its size and the low wattage rating (20 does not sound like much on paper!), this amp is MORE than loud enough to be heard over a drummer when plugged into a 2x12 cabinet. While the 1x8 is more than sufficient to use at home for practice purposes, you really haven't experienced what the Micro Dark is all about until you've plugged it into a big cabinet.
The elephant in the room is the single-channel nature of this amp. It only has a dirty channel, meaning that clean tones are not something you expect this amp to do well. And to be honest, even at its cleanest that I've managed to get it, there's still a tiny bit of breakup in the tone. The clean tones you can get, crunchy as they may be, are still fairly usable, but this isn't really an amp you buy in the hopes of running shimmering clean tones.
The buffered effects loop is a great feature as well, something that was missing from the Micro Terror. Having tried an Electro-Harmonix Memory Toy analog delay through it, I can say that it does the job quite nicely.
The cabinet-simulated headphone output is really the only Achilles' heel with this amp. I had hoped to purchase this amp as a headphone amp, rarely ever plugging into a cabinet, but as it turns out, the cab-sim headphone out is a bit harsh and grainy. It's not an entirely pleasant sound, and though it is possible to dial in a decent tone, it's a lot harder than with a real 4x12 cab. If Orange's 4x12 cabinets sounded anything like the headphone out, I don't think I'd buy their 4x12s.
Reliability & Durability — 7
The amp head itself is built fairly solidly. The all-metal construction seems rather tough and durable, and nothing on it seems loose or flimsy. The knobs are a little easy to bump and knock out of position, though. A bit of a stiffer feel to the rolling of the knobs would have gone a long way to improving this amp. The power switch, though, is satisfyingly solid. The single 12AX7 tube means that this amp is slightly more fragile than a solid-state amp, but luckily there's only the one tube to replace if it gets damaged.
The PPC108 cabinet (which, again, is not included with the amp, but is the matched cab to this amp and meant to go specifically with the Micro series of heads) also feels incredibly solid, like you could lug it around recklessly and have nothing happen to it.
The big area where the Micro Dark loses points is the power supply. Understandably, to keep the size to a minimum, all the important power supply bits are outside of the amp, in the kind of box along the power cable that you'd expect to see used on a laptop. The connecting cable from that box to the amp seems to be terribly flimsy and small, and the actual connector itself does not seem to be built to the same quality standards as the rest of the amp. It seems to me that the power supply is going to be the first thing I'll need to replace on this amp. I understand the need to keep the power supply external, but I feel that a somewhat tougher power cable and connector would have been a much more solid improvement to this amp.
Overall Impression — 8
I haven't owned a great deal of amplifiers. Most have been the kind of typical solid-state practice amps most beginners would be familiar with. This is, in fact, my second Orange amp. My first was an older Crush 15R practice amp, which I still own.
I have to say, though, that this amp blows the Crush 15R out of the water, tone-wise. Even through the puny 1x8 cabinet it's matched with, this has a solid, rich, full tone, and when you plug it into a cab with 12" speakers in it, this amp absolutely sings. I'd almost suggest skipping the PPC108 1x8 cab altogether and save up for a 1x12 or 2x12 cabinet, it'll be much more worth it, and this would become an amp you could legitimately rehearse and gig with.
It's a tough little amp, despite a few minor quibbles over the power supply, and it's a wonderful sounding piece of gear. This is an amp that, through the right cabinet and with a Tube Screamer (or clone) in front of it, is going to provide you with some of the absolute most satisfying metal and hard rock high-gain tones you're ever going to hear from such an affordable amp.
The only thing I wish this amp had was a clean channel, though that would increase the size and cost of the amp. But I do feel that for my more "progressive" style of metal where I need a bit more versatility, this amp does come up slightly short on that. But it does clean up a little bit when you roll off the volume on your guitar, so it still can do versatility, just not as well as a larger, more expensive amp.
Of course, there is sort of becoming a bit of a competition between this and Peavey with the 6505 Piranha and Vox's new, higher-wattage MV50 series. Honestly, after reviewing footage (specifically, Rob Chapman's comparison of the Micro Dark and the Piranha), I find the Micro Dark just blows the others out of the water, tonally. It does require a bit of coaxing from an overdrive and the right choice of cabinet for certain kinds of tones, but once you get that far, you've got an unstoppable riff machine.