Price paid: £ 42
Purchased from: Amazon
Ease of Use — 8
Dialing in good tone is perfectly easy and idiot-proof (but let's face it, do any of us have trouble using stompboxes these days). Controls are all self-explanatory. Mine doesn't seem to have shipped with a manual, but I can't see anybody having trouble as it's exactly what you'd expect from this kind of unit, with no surprises or weirdness.
There's a Volume control for the pedal's output, a Gain control for distortion levels and a Tone control which ranges all the way from muffled through warm, bright and cutting tones. The three-way selector switch provides more flexibility in slightly different distortion models and the footswitch is solid without being difficult to engage or sticky. Using this pedal is easy and enjoyable.
Changing the chips is a tad less enjoyable. The chip cover is removed easily enough with a thumbscrew (the same cover is used for the battery compartment) but the chip itself is a little tricky to remove and replace. It's set in a fairly deep compartment with minimal space to manoeuvre around it on each side, and the socket (forgive the poor-man's terminology, I'm not familiar with electronicsy stuff) into which the chip is inserted seems sticky and unwilling to relinquish the chip. It's difficult but not impossible to pull the chip out, but I suspect that some pins are gripped tighter than others, as each and every time I've removed a chip from the socket it's come out squint and bent the pins on the chip. None of them have snapped, and they're flexible enough to be set right with careful fingers or long-nosed pliers, but this is hardly a pleasant or user-friendly job, and on one occasion a chip sprang out so suddenly and at such an angle that I ended up stabbing myself under the fingernail with one of the pins, (this is definitely at least partly down to my own stupidity). I'd recommend careful extraction with a pair of pliers to help avoid such unhappy mishaps or too much damage to the pins.
Inserting a new chip is equally tricky, as due to the deep compartment and close compartment walls it's tricky to see whether the pins are lining up properly with the holes once you're holding the chip over the socket. This caused a bit of frustration, as chips will generally ship with the pins splayed further out than the right angle that most sockets require, and it's not easy to bend them into perfect alignment for the socket when it's so hard to see what's going on in the compartment. I'd recommend changing the chips under a strong light to make this easiest.
That said, as noted above it's well worth changing the chips to see what suits your sound best, and I'd reiterate the recommendation of the Burr Brown OPA2134 chip as a good way to improve on the tone of the chips provided (which are nonetheless pretty good).
So your actual user-controls are easy, appropriate and flexible, whilst changing the chips has proved a mini-nightmare for me. The stickiness of the socket may vary from unit to unit, but because of this I'm knocking a couple points off the Ease of Use score, which would otherwise be a 10 for the idiot proof controls and ease of finding usable tones.
Sound — 9
I run a hand made hollow body guitar through a Vox AC30 and was looking at cheap and cheerful OD pedals to play with when I came across the Biyang. I realise that running a cheap digital pedal through a valve amp is considered punishable by death in purist circles, but I was impressed with the tonal range I had seen online and decided that at 40 quid I should give it a shot.
The X Drive is basically an imitation Tubescreamer with a fair bit of flexibility. A toggle switch lets you flick between three settings: 'TS' (Tubescreamer), 'Bright' and 'Warm', and the usable range of tones available here is surprising. Heavier OD/Dist sounds with the 'Drive' knob cranked and the 'Tone' knob up produce tight and responsive distortion that provides a great lead tone, whilst much lighter and less obtrusive overdrives are available at lower settings to provide good crunch and power.
The tonal difference between the three toggle switch settings is fairly self explanatory, and all of them are usable, although I find the 'Bright' setting to be overly cutting if you don't dial the tone knob back a bit. The 'Warm' setting is nice enough, but not overwhelmingly warm in comparison to the 'TS' setting, where I suspect the pedal's best tones lurk.
The versatility is truly surprising in a pedal this cheap: bright, cutting leads; warm, rounded tones and everything in between are fairly easily accessible.
It's worth noting that the pedal's distortion chip is easily accessible through a screw fix panel on the underside, making it easy to swap out the chips. It ships with three of these. The two extras that aren't pre-installed appear to offer a slightly heavier distortion (which is equally usable) and a lower-gain overdrive (which to me sounded muffled and a bit useless). I've actually opted to replace the chip with a Burr Brown OPA2134 chip instead (available for about £5 on eBay) which is a vast improvement on any of the stock chips in my opinion, and makes this pedal a real gem.
Noise: as with any OD there is a certain amount of buzz to be found at higher volumes, but the X-Drive's noise floor is actually remarkably low, and I would be comfortable recording with this box without fear of obtrusive hum.
[9/10 is of course a very high rating for £40 worth of cheap OD, but for the price I believe this to be absolutely unmatched, and I would say it compares very favourably to a genuine Tubescreamer. Of course there's the Burr Brown chip that I've installed to take into account as well, without which I might score it a high 8/10].
Reliability & Durability — 8
This is a new purchase and as yet un-gigged but the casing is a solid metal construction and the footswitch feels sturdy. Time will tell but I'd imagine this is a highly durable beast, and I've had reports elsewhere online of folk using these for years without issue. I'd be surprised if the casing were to suffer damage, and none of the pots or switches feels cheap or wobbly.
I'm giving this a solid 8 for the time being as it's not been put to much of a test yet, but based on first impressions and online reports it's a reliable unit.
Overall Impression — 9
Overall I'm very pleasantly surprised by this little unit. You don't tend to expect much paying £40 odd for a pedal that can be found on Amazon, but the X-Drive is a flexible and highly appealing creature.
[A bit of my background info]
I've been playing guitar for about thirteen years, have played everything from mad noise rock and heavy stoner-prog-rock type stuff to light folk rock and blues. As stated in the "Sound" section I run a hand made hollow body guitar with humbuckers through a Vox AC30. For the purposes of this review I'm assessing the X Drive running into the amp with no other pedals, although it plays well with delays and reverbs (I have an Akai Headrush and the mad-cap Boss Tera Echo), and responds nicely to a compression pedal before it in the signal chain to even the overdriven signal out a little.
I've played through innumerable ODs and Distortions in the past, including a Tubescreamer although I've never owned one and didn't have one to hand to do an A/B comparison (intheblues does this with a TS-9 here).
I'd say the Biyang compares favourably with the Tubescreamer and will give you much the same tones for less than half the price with more flexibility. It's a great unit, especially for the money, and being able to swap the chips without dismantling the whole thing is a big bonus. If only doing so were a little less tricky.
Pros: Sturdy construction, true bypass, dead easy to use, chip-swapability, a versatile and highly usable range of tones to suit a number of genres and playing styles.
Cons: Frustratingly tricky to swap chips without damaging them.
What this pedal is: a great value unit for blues, heavy rock etc with mild to fairly heavy OD/Dist sounds and good sustains. Closely emulates a Tubescreamer but won't limit the player to the TS sound alone.
What this pedal isn't: a mad metal machine, a boutique OD, an analogue unit, a fuzz box. (If you're after more extreme distortions or heavy stoner-rock sounds I'd recommend something from Electro Harmonix, the Germanium 4 has provided me with a lot of fun).
I don't think it's possible to get better tones for the price, and I'd wager you're looking at well over £100 for any other pedal that does what the X Drive does any better. Upgrade it with the Burr Brown chip and you won't be disappointed.