Okay, I lied. I said in my previous article that I’d have a First Impressions article in the next couple of days. But I got to play around with the amp for a couple of hours yesterday and decided that I played it enough to get a good idea of what I like and don’t like, at least a first blush.
What I Liked
The cleans with this amp are just as expected from any Fender tube amp: They’re spectacular. With just a little bit of reverb grease (around 2-3), the cleans sound deep and alluring. Played with my American Deluxe Strat with Kinman HX pickups and my ’59 Les Paul Replica, I just fell in love with the clean tone this amp creates! Old Leo got it right with the cleans on his amps. There’s nothing like a Fender clean sound. I realize that it’s not for everyone, but I’ve always been a fan.
As far as overdrive is concerned, this amp wants to growl. It stays pretty clean up to 4 on the volume knob, then will start breaking up. With the higher-output HX pickups on my Strat, I could get a great gritty tone with the volume knob on my guitar set at about 6-7; then just a little grittier when I dime my volume. It’s a completely different experience with my Les Paul, even with the lower-output Dr. Vintage PAFs. Set at about 5, I could get tons of grit, then cranked, I’d start getting some compression out of the power tubes. Upping the amp’s volume to 6-7 got me into tons of distortion. The cool thing was that the amp cleaned up very well, when I brought the volume down on my guitar, so it’s totally controllable.
What I Didn’t Like
While I liked the nature of the grit coming from the tubes, I didn’t care too much for the actual tone. Cleans were fine, well, as I said, “spectacular.” But I’m playing lead guitar in a classic rock band, and I’m anticipating using the amp to get a great rock sound. To me, that’s not possible with the stock speaker.
While I love Jensen speakers – I’m a huge fanboy of the Jet series – I’m not too keen on Jensen alnico speakers; at least for rock. For blues, they sound great, and when I did play bluesy stuff which didn’t require much grit, I loved the tone. But when I pushed the amp hard, the speaker breakup turned a little flabby for my tastes, and the amp lost a lot of dynamics and touch-sensitivity, and sounded “mushy.” It was a very “meh” experience. I think that’s a factor – at least for me – with Alnico speakers. I’ve only liked them for rock tones when there’s a couple or a few in a cab. But in a 1 X 12, their tone just doesn’t appeal to me.
I originally thought that with a 40 Watt speaker, I could get a great tone as the combination of tube and speaker breakup would produce something nice. But what I found was that particular combination didn’t really do it for me. The amp itself breaks up early, and around 6-7, I get all the breakup I need when I dime my guitar’s volume. Plus, when I bring my guitar volume down to 2 or 3, the amp cleans up. So that’s definitely the sweet spot, amp-wise. Unfortunately, the 40 Watt speaker can’t take that kind of gain.
But it’s a damn good thing that I have a lot of gear!
I pulled my 1 X 12 cabinet loaded with my latest favorite speaker, the Jensen Jet Nighthawk, and everything changed. My disappointment overdriving the stock speaker was complete erased when I when I hooked that cabinet up. The thing about the Nighthawk is that it has a full bottom-end, but not so beefy that it overshadows the tone. At the same time, the mids are tight and understated and the highs are just high enough to cut through a mix. So while you might think that the speaker might be on the warm side, it’s actually not. It’s more of a scooped tone (you’ll see what I mean if you at the frequency response chart on the link I shared above).
What this means for this amp is that it’s the perfect foil for the natural midrange I’ve come to expect from amps equipped with 6V6 power tubes, and totally balances out the tone of the amp. And yes, it is 75 Watts, which means that by using this speaker, the amp got a whole lot more clean headroom, which was why they put a lower wattage speaker in, to get breakup early. But for me, the amp itself produces all the overdrive I need. I don’t need metal crunch because I’m playing classic rock. If I ever need more, I just have to plug in my EWS Little Brute Drive, and I’ll get all the crunch I need.
That said, with the 75 Watt speaker, I could crank up the amp to pretty high levels to really push the tubes, and unlike the stock speaker, the overdrive did not sound flabby, nor did I lose the dynamics and touch-sensitivity as I did with the stock Alnico.
To get to that kind of drive without pissing off my wife who was working in the next room, I did use an attenuator (an Aracom DRX). No, I wasn’t at bedroom levels because that would just sound funky. But it was above conversation levels. At that volume the speaker wasn’t breaking up at all, so what I got was pure amp tone. In a word, the tone is inspiring.
Overall Initial Impression
To be perfectly honest, and I know that this is purely subjective, in stock configuration, this amp is really meant for the blues. I originally thought otherwise based upon a pretty good demo I saw on YouTube of this very amp that it could be used for rock and softer alt-rock. But the guy doing the demo was playing a standard Strat, so the demo only displayed a fairly narrow set of its capabilities as standard single-coil pups just won’t push the front-end as much as my Kinman HX and humbuckers. Like I said, it’s a totally different story with a Les Paul.
That’s not to say that if you throw a couple of pedals in front of it, you can make it rock as-is. You can do that, but for me, I like my overdrive to come predominantly from my amp, then use an overdrive pedal to help push it over the edge and add only a touch of its own dirt to the signal. So that option is kind of out of the question.
Speaking of clean headroom… considering the configuration, I’m wondering what target market Fender had in mind for the Limited Edition DRRI. It’s certainly pretty to look at with its wheat grille and burgundy tolex. It almost screams “furniture,” which might imply that this is a bedroom or living room piece, as opposed to the more pedestrian standard DRRI, which sports an 80 Watt Jensen C12-K. That’s more headroom, but that kind of volume is more like gig volume to me.
But considering I don’t like the stock speaker, which might be the noose that kills this for me, with the right speaker, this can do rock, and do it quite well. Plus, it’s a combo, which is what I’m looking for with my new band. I don’t really want to lug a head and cab around.
All in all, I like this amp – a lot – so I think I’ll hold on to it for awhile. Admittedly, I won’t make my final decision until I use it at a gig, but I think it’ll work just fine once I swap out the stock speaker.
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