Saturday, August 30, 2014

BOSS CS-3 Compressor Sustainer Guitar Effects Pedal Review


You can pay anything you want for guitar effect pedals, and the choices include crummy junk for twenty bucks (probably put together by little kids in sweatshops) all the way up to boutique pedals with prices so high that they must use unicorn hair for wiring. Somewhere in between are BOSS pedals, which are reasonably priced, good quality, and the mainstay of many working musicians. Today we are going to take a closer look at the BOSS CS-3 Compressor Sustainer pedal.

What exactly is a compressor sustainer pedal? Well, this one compresses louder signals and boosts softer signals, resulting in more even output. At the same time it can sustain your notes, making them sound longer. Putting these two features can result in a smoother sound, and this will work with either guitar or bass.

The CS-3 is a standard single-space sized pedal, measuring 2-7/8 inches wide by 2-3/8 inches tall by 5-1/8 inches long. Take that, metric system! In that same vein, it weighs in at around 15 ounces. This pedal runs on a single 9-volt battery or it takes the optional BOSS PSA adapter. It draws 11 mA at 9 volts, in case you are thinking of hooking it up to a pedal board power system.

By the way, if you run the unit on battery, make sure you unplug the input when you are not using it, as the input jack acts as the power switch.

It has the same general style as other BOSS pedals, but this one comes in a lovely shade of blue. The outside of the sturdy metal case has a single 1/4 input, a single 1/4-inch output and a jack for the aforementioned AC adapter. The expected BOSS high quality is to be found here, with a smooth finish, clean wiring, and knobs that have a nice feel. These knobs include Level, Tone, Attack, and Sustain, so it is not too complicated. Here is what they do:

Level: adjusts output level, not input level

Tone: high frequency boost and cut

Attack: enhances the intensity of each note by controlling how quickly the compression activates.

Sustain: adjusts the sustain time. If turned counter-clockwise it acts as a limiter.

The CS-1 was one of BOSS' first mass-production pedals, and it has changed quite a bit over the years as the model name has changed to CS-2 and then later to the CS-3. There seems to be a bit of hate out there for the CS-3, particularly with the changes in the circuit and the addition of a tone knob. That being said, I like having the tone pot on the unit so that no changes are needed to my guitar settings when I switch the pedal ON.

The CS-3 is at its best when it is asked to provide a high level of compression, and combining it with the right guitar/amp combination (think Les Paul and a Marshall). It certainly can squish things down, and there are definitely usable ranges, to be found though I would avoid anything outside of the 9:00 to 3:00 range as there is too drastic of a difference in tone when the unit is switched on. Increasing sustain seems to enhance the compression effect, so I usually keep it below 10:00. The tone control is very useful, and it helps dial out most of the muddiness that comes bout from the compression. With these settings the attack can be spot on without a ton of mush.

In a nutshell, the CS-3 is a pretty good pedal for a reasonable price, which is what BOSS is all about. This pedal would be good for hard rock and metal, but if you are playing jazz, country or blues it will not make you very happy because it is hard to get a clean sound out of it.

Unfortunately, there are a few downside to this unit. For starters, it does not have true bypass, which is something that everybody and their brother wants. In truth, there is some color added to the straight tone when bypassing the pedal, and gear nuts are fanatical about this. But more importantly, is that, no matter what the manufacturer says in their sales literature, this pedal is pretty darned noisy if the controls (Level and Sustain) are used very aggressively.

By the way, there is a considerable number of folks out there modifying these pedals to reduce noise and improve tone, but I have not had the opportunity to try one. If you have, please add a comment to let us know what you think!

If these are the features you are looking for and if you can handle a little extra noise in your signal chain, the BOSS CS-3 Compressor Sustainer may be the pedal for you. It will get the job done and is certainly reasonably priced with a list price of $154.50 and a street price of $99. They are way cheaper on the used market, but you will be giving up the 5-year warranty if you go that route. Check one out before you buy to make sure it is really what you want, and let me know what you think.



  1. Thanks for this very useful review. I am about to get one from eBay and will follow up.

  2. Well I got my CS3 from eBay - quite a bargain for GBP 36 ($52) in nice condition - just minor scuffs at the corners. Personally, I don't care about true bypass. Whether I am playing bass or guitar, there is so much noise out there (just from the other band members, never mind the audience) that I can barely tell if the pedal is making any noise. TBH, I can hear very minimal noise from the pedal in my own room (my hearing may be going....). I am quite satisfied with the sustain that I am getting from this pedal. My only comparators are the compressors found in various multi-effect pedals and this is way better. However, I haven't got a Dynacomp or a Keeley to hand so can't compare to these. The sustain works for me even up to 12 o'clock so I am keeping this for now.