Fender Passport Mini Review

AG 247 June 2013 Cover

by Andrew DuBrock

Fender’s Passport series is a diverse set of portable amplification systems ranging from hand-held battery operated units for tour guides and classroom presentations to small PA systems. The new Passport Mini merges these two approaches in a small unit designed for street musicians and anyone needing amplification for an instrument and a microphone without relying on AC power. With a dedicated guitar channel featuring three types of guitar modeling and four electric amp models, along with a separate vocal input, and a 1/8-inch input for CD or MP3 players, the Passport Mini offers a ton of flexibility within its diminutive 7.25-pound package. 

Plug and Play

You don’t need any manuals to figure out the easy controls for the mic channel, which includes inputs and a separate knob for volume, tone, and reverb. The guitar channel is not quite as simple, but it’s still nearly as easy to get going on, despite having a ton more functionality buried under the same number of knobs. Use the Preset knob to scroll through three settings within each acoustic guitar or amp model you want to choose. Or, if you’d like to choose the sound of your guitar’s unmodified signal, use one of the three “natural” presets. Once you’ve chosen the preset you want, you can use the Effect button to select one of 12 different effect types, which override any effects assigned to the particular guitar model you’ve chosen. It’s not that complicated; you’re still using the same guitar model, it just overrides any effects assigned to that model in the preset you’ve chosen. This takes a bit of time to get used to, but in a few minutes you have access to a wide variety of tones.

As I scrolled through the different guitar models with the Preset knob, I found that all of the acoustic models—parlor, jumbo, and dreadnought—sounded better than the “natural” presets (which don’t add any modeling to the signal).I tested the amp in a large room of my house, but it would work just as well for solo guitarists in a small coffeeshop, practice sessions with a group of other instruments, or street performers hoping to boost their busking levels.

Plugging a Shure SM58 vocal mic into the XLR input, I was pleased with the sound of the mic channel, and the amp responded well at higher gain levels, as long as I used good mic technique—if I turned the volume up past halfway, putting my mouth on the mic produced some distortion. While feedback from the mic was not a problem at most volume levels (and even sometimes difficult to manufacture at full amp volume), when it did occur, the anti-feedback button worked well at notching out the worst frequencies. You simply hold down the Tuner button for two seconds to engage the tuner/feedback buster, and then use the Effects knob to scroll through frequencies until the feedback subsides.

A 1/8-inch headphone output lets you adjust the amp’s settings without disturbing your roommate (it mutes the speaker), and another 1/8-inch auxiliary input allows you to play along to an MP3 player, output from a computer, or anything else that can generate accompaniment or backing tracks. 

Portable Power

The Passport Mini runs on AC power through the supplied adapter or battery power via a compartment on the bottom portion of the back panel that holds six C batteries. It took a bit of effort to insert the batteries (the plastic bends out a little more than expected), but once they were installed, the amp worked and sounded great on battery power. My guitar’s pickup (a Fishman Acoustic Matrix mounted in a Taylor 314K) occasionally has some grounding issues, so when I plug in, there’s often a little extra noise, but when I plugged in to the battery-powered Passport Mini it was incredibly quiet. Comparing the sound in battery power and AC, there was a noticeable difference between the extraneous noise in AC mode compared to the quiet resting sound in battery-power mode. I was surprised that the gain seemed comparable, too, although there seemed to be a hair more gain in AC mode (though the extra hum could have fooled me). I wasn’t able to test the battery life of the unit, but the manual gives an approximate battery life of 20 hours.

Programmable Effects

The Mini has a surprising number of bells and whistles under its small hood. With 24 presets (three distinct presets for each of the following: one direct input, modeling for three acoustic guitar models, and four electric amps) and 12 different preprogrammed effects that can be applied to each of the eight overarching presets, you’ve got more than 100 distinct sound possibilities with minimal tweaking. In addition, with the included USB cable, you can plug the unit into your computer, download Fender Fuse software, and edit any preprogrammed effect you want to. The software allows you to chain together up to four different effects, giving you the option to use each effect as either a virtual rack-mount unit or virtual stompbox—allowing you to tweak knobs and activate levels the same way you would for whichever type you choose. The nifty interface shows virtual rack-mounts and stompboxes on your computer screen, with the same types of knobs found on their real-world counterparts. Tweak any knob you want with a click of the mouse, and save it to whatever effect position you want. New programmed effects from Fender can be downloaded with the Fuse software, and you can upload your own presets and download other users’ effects as well.

While I was exploring the software and the controls on the amp, I discovered that there is no Level knob for the effect on the amp. That means, for example, that you can easily dial in the amount of reverb you want on your vocals with the Reverb knob, but there’s no knob that gives you the ability to tweak the level of your guitar’s reverb (or delay, etc.) on the fly (though you can set it at whatever incremental position you want with the software). This is a drawback for me, since I find that a room dictates the level of effect I’ll need. And while the functionality of having all those effects is cool, it’s much less functional for a solo acoustic guitarist than having the ability to tweak one effect to the right level. One way of getting around this would be to use the software to program the effect knob so that each of the 12 effects is an incrementally larger amount of the same type of reverb. Then you’d have a virtual reverb control knob at your fingertips. Another workaround would be to bring a laptop with you to the venue and program the effects you want once you’ve checked it out in the space where you’re performing.

Another issue I had was that whenever you move the Preset knob, the effects reset to their preprogrammed default, regardless of whether you’ve set the Effect knob where you want it. So, for instance, if you’re using the smallest reverb setting (position two for the Effect button) and you scroll to a different guitar model type and want that same Effect, you’ll have to move the Effect buttonawayfrom its spot at position two, then move itbackto where it initially was. This is a little awkward, but not a deal breaker on such a versatile amp.

Small and Satisfying

For a unit so small that it’s easier to carry around than a gallon of milk, I was impressed with the amount of power the Passport Mini produced, although it is probably best suited to smaller, quieter rooms or for street musicians not competing with the noisiest intersections in town. Overall, the unit’s myriad presets and vast programming flexibility offer a surprising amount of sounds for someone who wants a portable amp for practice sessions, small coffeeshop gigs, or street corners. 

SPECS: 7-watt mini-PA. Two channels. Three inputs: instrument (1/4-inch), mic (XLR/1/4-inch), and aux (1/8-inch). USB input/output and headphone output. Twenty-four preset guitar sounds on instrument channel, including natural guitar (no modeling), acoustic guitar modeling, and electric guitar amp modeling. Twelve programmable effects on instrument channel, including virtual rack-mount or stompbox reverb, modulation, delay, and post gain (accessible via computer with the included USB cable and Fender Fuse software). Tap button to manually program modulation rate or delay time for affiliated effects. Onboard tuner and anti-feedback filtering. Tone and reverb control on mic channel. Powered by either the included AC adapter or six C batteries. One 6.5-inch Fender Special Design speaker. 9.45 inches x 9.45 inches x 6.69 inches. 7.25 lb. Handle doubles as tilt/stand.

PRICE: $199.99 list/ $149.99 street.

MAKER: Fender Musical Instruments Corp.: (480) 596-7195; fender.com

Excerpted from Acoustic Guitar July 2013

Receive lessons, songs, advice, and news like this straight to your inbox