Price paid: $ 159
Purchased from: SGCNation.com
Sound — 7
Roland has developed their own sound-modeling technology referred to as COSM (Composite Object Sound Modeling). Roland claims to have painstakingly gridded out thousands of minute physical and electrical characteristics of Vintage overdrive, distortions, and effects to create quality digital representations. I'm not sure about all that but they do sound 'good'. It has a distinct sound that is somewhat tube-like but isn't really fooling anybody. The COSM system seems to have taken a small step forward in the tube emulation department, but the solid state technology just isn't there yet. The effects especially sound above average compared to other modeling banks. The knob/level interface is a little ambiguous so it's tough to dial in a precise amount of effect, but for just practicing or screwing around it does an ok job.
The lead section is decent. The overdrive setting is a bit weak, and the 'metal' and 'metal stack' settings are a bit better. They sound very compressed, which is to be expected but you have to EQ out all of the mids to tighten it up. However, when you put it on the 'EXTREME' setting, you'll swear you just plugged in to a Mesa Triple Rec... Or something like that. I'm not sure if it's just the nature of the effect being dubbed 'EXTREME' or not, but it is in fact so extreme, it kind of dwarves the other settings, much like the 'INSANE' button on the Line 6 amps.
Regardless of which distortion/effect you have on, the tone of the amp is very thick and midrange focused. You'll want to really dial back the mids to get it sounding its best, which some might claim is true on all amps, but in this case it's more of a low midrange resulting in the nature of the tube emulation. Keeping the lows flat, totally removing the mids and then dime-ing out the highs will get you by on the lead circuit, but the clean channel's sound leaves something to be desired.
Overall Impression — 7
Of all the previously mentioned practice amps by major manufacturers, the Roland Cube 20XL arguably looks the coolest, but other than that, there isn't really anything that sets it apart from the pack. It's a good little amp for a reasonable price, has a healthy amount of features and is durable. I'd say the tone is better than the Vypyr and Spider series, but isn't really that much better or worse than the Mustangs, albeit slightly more expensive. The effects and interface are very good, but if you're looking for a great-sounding practice amp loaded with features, it might be worth the extra $40 or so to upgrade to a Fender G-DEC 15.
Reliability & Durability — 9
Most Roland products, and Boss for that matter, are built to hurricane standards. The baffle where the speaker is mounted uses a precise direct-joint construction method to reinforce the fluidity of the speaker movements and the cabinet is fitted with full-length corner protectors. Roland claims to have invented a proprietary lightweight, rigid paper for the speaker cone that safely vibrates at high speeds to maximize the sound articulation. Also, the grill is made of punched metal so it can double as a shield against heavy artillery. It's somewhat unlikely an amp of this size would ever be gigged but hey, more power to you if that's the case. My only complaint is the input jack on this particular unit is a little loose and moving the cable around near it caused some dropout.
Features — 8
One of the key points to making an entry-level amp is to pack as many features into it as possible. The challenge is to do this while still keeping the user interface relatively simple. This is where the knob-based system of the Cube has a bit of an advantage over the Fender's tiny digital readout display. The amp is 20 watts to a custom-built 8" speaker that Roland designed especially for this series. There are 2 channels, one clean and one that sports 5 different lead options and an acoustic simulator. There's onboard EQ, an 1/8 inch AUX in, 1/4 inch headphone/recording out, 9 different effects, built-in tuner, the option for a footswitch and a 'power squeeze' function.
The effects include chorus, flanger, phaser, tremolo, solo, delay, reverb, and a 'heavy octave' setting which is often overlooked by other amp manufacturers and actually sounds pretty good. The power squeeze feature is a little strange. It's supposed to provide full gain at lower volumes, because as most people know, solid state amps achieve better gain staging when you saturate the circuit board? Kind of interesting I guess, but it doesn't really sound quite like you would think, almost more of a compressed cutback in volume. Overall it has an impressive set of features for an all-knob-based interface and it's pretty easy to figure out.