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Summary: The flagship amp of the Katana series, the Artist provides the ultimate in versatility to an already versatile line of amps. But with its larger cabinet and WazaCraft speaker tuned specifically for the amp, it has a richness in sound that surpasses the rest of the line.

Pros: As with the Katana 50, I have lots of praise to heap on this amp. The sounds it produces in addition to the feel and dynamics are incredible as with the other amps in the line, but the Line Out is really the secret weapon of this amp. And having the cabinet resonance and Line Out Air Feel – which simulates microphone distance – on the front panel makes it super-easy to dial in your direct signal to a board or a DAW.

Cons: My only nit with this is that I wish it had at 25 Watt setting. The difference between the 50 Watt and 0.5 Watt is so drastic, it makes me wish for a “tweener” power level.

Tone Bone Score: 5 
No two ways about it: This is a great amp.

Street Price: $599.99 

I’ve already written so much about this amp since I got it, but I’ll reiterate: This ain’t yo daddy’s solid-state amp. Ever since I got the Katana 50, I couldn’t believe that a solid-state amp could have touch and dynamics similar to a tube amp, let alone get as big a sound. And as I said in my review of the 50, I really tried to make it suck, but couldn’t. I did the same with the Artist.

Granted, when I first got it, the speaker was absolutely fresh. But now that I’ve been playing the amp daily for the last couple of weeks, the speaker is breaking in and the sound is becoming silky-smooth. I’ve done four gigs with the Artist and the sound just gets better every time I play it.

On top of that, I’ve been using recording with it daily. The Line Out is incredible. The sound I get out of it is so natural and so very close to a miked cabinet that I haven’t bothered to set up any of my tube amps. Of course, that could change depending on the song I’m recording because you just can’t duplicate something like a Plexi.

But make no bones about it, though it is said that the speaker was tuned to approximate an old Greenback through a vintage Marshall, this has more to do with feel and dynamics and less about sound. As I’ve said before, though the Katana is technically a modeling amp, using BOSS’ TubeLogic technology, it wasn’t voiced to sound like a Marshall or a Fender. It has a sound all its own.

Fit and Finish

Though only 45 lbs., this amp is built like a tank. The cabinet is MDF and though there have been comments circulating that it would’ve been better for it to be made of solid pine or birch, the semi-closed back makes it incredibly resonant and able to capture the low frequencies very well.

I absolutely love that the controls are on a front panel! It makes it so convenient to tweak during a gig, which I had to do last weekend at church. We have a really finicky PA system (what can I say, it’s old), and for some reason, my guitar was sounding horrible through the Line Out. But all I had to do was turn the Line Out Air Feel to “Blend” and all was right. I had the same setup as the previous week and it sounded killer. Everything on the board was also set up the same. That the Air Feel control was on the front panel made it super convenient; not to mention that I didn’t have to go into the software to make that change…

As far as controls are concerned, if you have any of the other amps in the line, you’ll immediately be familiar with this control layout. The big difference is the exposure of the cabinet resonance and line out air feel knobs. On the back, there are jacks for a GA-FC (which I highly recommend getting), extension speakers (16 ohms), headphone/record out, MIDI in, expression pedal, an effects loop jacks. In other words, pretty much everything that you need.

As far as the GA-FC foot controller is concerned, that’s a must-have as it allows you to quickly switch channels but also turn effects on and off on the fly (which I find extremely useful). In addition, you can hook up an expression pedal directly to the GA-FC so you don’t need to run two long cables from the amp to use the foot controller and an expression pedal. The GA-FC also has an extra jack for a volume pedal.

How It Sounds

One striking difference between the Artist and the 50 is the Acoustic setting on the amp. My old 50 sounded okay with an Acoustic guitar, but the Artist has a rich, deep tone that rivals my old SWR California Blonde which I have always felt was the pinnacle of acoustic guitar amplification. The semi-closed back really helps in capturing and projecting the rich lows of an acoustic guitar. In fact, the lows are so good, that I have to roll them off a little on the EQ.

To date, I still haven’t miked the amp. For recording, the Line Out produces such a nice, natural sound that I haven’t seen a need to mic it. This is evidenced by the dynamics in the wave-form it produces. It is VERY dynamic, much like the output I’d get from miking the amp.

I’ve already posted these clips, but here’s a playlist I created:

The first three clips are of my acoustic guitar through the Line Out. The EQ was all neutral. With the last two songs, I wanted to see how the Line Out performed within the context of a song. Someone in a forum kind of bagged on me posting a song and should have only posted raw clips. But I argued that while raw sound clips are useful to a point, you really see how something performs when it’s done with a song. And in that regard, the Katana Artist’s Line Out is AWESOME!

Ease of Use

Like the rest of the Katana line, this amp is easy to set up. Even the Tone Studio software is pretty straight-forward to use. Some people might argue that there are lots of things to tweak and that, by virtue, makes it much more complicated. But I want to make absolutely clear that I believe the amp’s natural sound is great by its own merit. A lot of the tweaks and patches I’ve seen people make try to make the amp sound like another amp. But for me, I love the way the amp sounds on its own. So for me, it’s simply a matter of dialing in the gain settings and EQ. Since I make limited use of the onboard effects, I don’t do much tweaking, so set up – at least for me – is super-easy.

How It Plays

As I mentioned in my original Katana 50 review, this is what endeared me to the Katana in the first place. It was the first amp that gave me tube-like response and dynamics. But more than that, it didn’t feel as if the response and dynamics were simulated or artificial. In fact, it felt completely organic and natural, just as I would have expected with a tube amp. The Katana Artist inherits this but with the larger cabinet and much much better speaker, that responsiveness is coupled to great sound.

Is the Katana Price-Competitive?

One of the arguments people have made about the Artist is that its price starts getting into the territory of some low wattage amps. But the one thing you have to keep in mind is that while this is true, a tube amp at that price will not have anywhere near the features that come with the Katana by default. Plus, let’s face it, amps at that price are going to be fairly low wattage. They will not have the big sound that you can get out of the Katana. Furthermore, tube amps at this price point will most likely be heads. You have to spend more to get a cabinet.

So is the Katana price-competitive? To me at least, the value it brings for the price makes it a totally viable option.

Should You Upgrade?

This really is elephant in the room with respect to the Artist, so as opposed to giving you a pat answer, I’m going to take a bit of time with this…

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have considered the Artist had I not given my Katana 50 to my youngest son. I was using the amp mainly for gigging, and I was perfectly happy with it. I certainly didn’t need a 100 Watt amp, especially considering the venues that I normally play. The Katana 50 was plenty loud; besides, when I needed sound reinforcement, it was simply a matter of miking the amp.

But one shortcoming I saw with the 50 was that I didn’t like to use it for recording. I was not at all a fan of the headphone/record out. From that perspective, I was just fine recording one of my tube amps and using an IR and using the 50 as a pure gigging amp. But all that changed with the Artist. The Line Out output quality is killer, and as I spend a bulk of my playing in my home studio, the Artist is quickly becoming my go-to for my basic guitar part foundation, if not more. So for me at least, upgrading made a ton of sense.

But for those of you who are a bit conflicted about upgrading, it really depends on how useful it would be for you. For me, I’ve discovered a TON of versatility in it due to the Line Out. But then again, I’m actively gigging and recording, so it is invaluable in those respects.

But to be honest, take away the Line Out, and the only glaring thing that is better with the Artist is the sound quality which is much richer than both the 50 and the 100. It’s obvious at all volume levels. That bigger cabinet definitely makes a difference. And for some, while the obvious difference in sound quality could be a deciding factor, for me – and I know it sounds crazy given how much I love this amp – it wouldn’t have been enough for me to upgrade. And to be completely honest, it wasn’t until I started using the Line Out in recordings that I truly discovered its real value for me.

So am I or am I not recommending the amp? Well… yes and no. I’m basing my assessment of the amp on its versatility in both stage and studio use. And as far as versatility is concerned, I can give a resounding yes. But I have to be transparent and say that if you’re just going to play the amp in your bedroom, or just want a straight-forward gigging amp, stick with what you have for now. It’s great, but it’s not enough of an upgrade.

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VHT Special 6 Combo
Summary: This is a hand-wired, solidly built tone machine that packs great features for an unbelievable price. The value proposition alone is enough to turn heads, but add superb tone to the equation and you have a winner!

Cons: None.

Features (as tested):

  • 6 Watts
  • One 6V6 Output Tube
  • One 12AX7 Preamp Tube
  • Volume and Tone Controls
  • Footswitchable Boost Mode
  • High/Low Power Switch (Pentode/Triode)
  • 10” VHT High-Sensitivity Speaker
  • 4, 8, and 16 Ohm Speaker Jacks
  • Mod-Friendly Eyelet-Type Board
  • Hand-wired In China

Price: $199 Street / $179 Street for Head

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ Clean or dirty, this amp delivers the goods! The tone sweep is absolutely excellent giving you gorgeous, warm jazz cleans, to classic rock bite! Add the Hi/Lo power switch, and Push-Pull volume knob boost (also includes a footswitch), and you’ve got an amp that can live in a variety of musical genres.

About a week ago, I extolled virtues of the Marshall Class 5, and raved about how great it sounds. It’s a fantastic little amp, and I haven’t changed my opinion of it. But along came the VHT Special 6 and the game has completely changed. VHT raised the bar with Chinese-manufactured, low-cost, low-wattage amps by offering a hand-wired, super-well-built amp with fantastic features that can easily change the amp’s character for under $200 for a 1 X 10 combo.

I think the arrangements many gear manufacturers have made with overseas assemblers is great. Egnater is another example of a manufacturer doing it with great success. Design the gear here in the US, then partner with an overseas manufacturer to take advantage of their cheaper parts and labor, ensure that they meet a high standard of quality, then give the savings back to the customer. The top-of-the-line stuff can be saved for domestic production, but the stuff you want to get out to the masses can certainly be made elsewhere, and in much higher volumes and production rates. It’s a good model that many manufacturers have been following for years. I realize that I’m going to piss off some of the ultra-patriotic that will only buy stuff made in the USA; I myself prefer to buy US-made stuff, but it’s tough to argue with getting great tone for a great price, and that is EXACTLY what the VHT Special 6 and lots of other gear assembled overseas provide.

But enough toeing the political line. Let’s get into discussing the Special 6, shall we?

Fit and Finish and Features

The first thing I noticed when I first looked at the amp is how solid it looked. Picking it up revealed an amp that is no lightweight. I don’t know the exact weight, but the Special 6 is not lacking in heft. The cabinet is made of birch ply, and from what I could tell, fairly large transformers were used with the amp and those are heavy. Note that I’ve actually heard some conflicting information about the cabinet wood. Some say MDF, others say Baltic birch ply. Actually, it just doesn’t matter. The cabinet’s solid, and it works well as a resonance chamber for the speaker.

As far as cosmetics are concerned, the amp is covered in tolex with white piping around the front grille. The rear panel sports a partially open back that, like the Marshall Class 5, has a thin metal screen covering the opening. That’s a nice touch.

The control panel is super simple. You’ve got two chickenhead knobs for tone and volume, on/off switch, a three-way Hi/Lo Power / Standby switch (I dig that), and two input jacks for Lo and Hi input. The volume knob is a push-pull knob that when out, adds boost (sorry, not sure about the amount of boost). You can surmise just by these features that you can do a lot of tone shaping with this little beast. 🙂 The back panel has jacks for 4, 8, and 16 ohm speaker outs, plus a jack for switching between normal and boost.

Sound and Dynamics

Even with a 10″ speaker, the amp is capable of producing a variety of tones, from lush, Fender cleans, to ringing, AC15-like overdrive to gorgeous, smooth Plexi overdrive. I’m not kidding about this! Depending upon the pickup you’re using and where you set the tone knob, and other amp settings such as hi/lo input, pentode/triode mode, you can cover a wide range of tones! This is what is so SICK about this amp! It’s so damn versatile!

I played around with it in my studio this afternoon, getting ready to record some clips (which I’ll have in an upcoming article), and just for kicks, I unplugged the stock speaker and ran the amp out to my 2 X 12. Granted, there is a HUGE difference between a 2 X 12 and a little 10″ speaker, but in my experience, many low wattage amps still sound a little on the thin side even when going into a bigger cab; not so with the Special 6. It sounded big and ballsy; much more “big-amp-ish” than it’s diminutive power. That really came as a surprise, much like my surprise when I plugged the Reason Bambino into a big cab. It’s clear that just like the Reason guys, VHT didn’t want to just build a low-wattage amp. They wanted to build a great amp, period.

I also gigged with the amp in my weekly church gig yesterday afternoon, and it worked absolutely stellar! I kept the amp in high power mode, plugged into the high power input, set the tone and volume at 3pm each, then pulled the boost knob to activate the normal/boost footswitch. I didn’t use any effects at all as I just wanted the raw amp tones. I even tuned with my Peterson StroboClip so my signal from my guitar to the amp was completely direct. Note that even with a 10″ speaker, I still had to use an attenuator, and my trusty Aracom PRX150-Pro worked stellar with the amp.

During the gig, I mostly used the volume knob on my guitar to vary gain, whether in normal or boost mode. The amp responded so well to volume knob and pick attack. Even if I didn’t reduce the volume, and picked very lightly, I could clean up the sound. So sweet!

The only time I made any adjustments to the amp was when we did a song that I needed absolutely clean tones. I simply reduced the volume to around 11 am, then bypassed the attenuator. And the cleans were simply fantastic!

Made to Mod

Despite the fact that VHT says this amp is highly modifiable, I doubt that most people will do no more than swap tubes. I’ve seen some forum posts where people have made a couple of changes, but I’d say the majority of folks just won’t see a need to do that. But curious, for shits and giggles, I swapped out the stock 6V6 with a couple of different 50’s-era 6V6’s (GE and RCA). They each sounded beautiful as I expected, but quite frankly, they were just too smooth. The Chinese tube seems to be “hotter” and produces lots of harmonics; something my NOS tubes didn’t do. In my opinion, the Special 6 is meant to be a mini-rock machine. It won’t do really heavy stuff, but for 70’s and 80’s classic rock, it sits right in the sweet spot.

Overall Impression

I am thoroughly impressed with the VHT Special 6. Hand-wired, immensely versatile, plus fantastic tone for under $200? That’s tough to beat! And unlike other small, low-wattage amps that have only a volume and tone knob, the combination of inputs, low/hi power modes and boost make this an amp that can be used in a variety of ways. Big thumbs up, and 5 Tone Bones!

I’ll have clips in an upcoming article. Stay tuned!

Update: January 2, 2013

It has been awhile since I wrote the original article, and amazingly enough, I’m still using the Special 6. I did finally swap out tubes to 50’s era NOS for both pre-amp and power tubes, and I also swapped out the stock speaker and put in a Jensen Jet Electric Lightning. I use this amp frequently at my church gig where I don’t need a lot of volume since mic the amp and use the PA, and it is perfectly suited for that venue.

Even after all this time, I do have to say that I’m still thoroughly impressed with the tone of this little amp. When it’s cranked, and especially with the Electric Lightning speaker, the amp sounds SO much bigger than what its diminutive 6 watts would suggest. A lot of that has to do with how the speaker projects, but when cranked, that amp absolutely sings with tones of sustain and really sweet overtones. I love playing this amp with a Les Paul. The clean tones are gorgeous as well, and when I don’t hook it up to an attenuator, I just use pedals to get my distortion. From that perspective, the amp takes to pedals real well.

Finally, even with a simple, single EQ knob, the EQ works fantastically well with the amp. It’s kind of bright out of the box, so I normally just set the tone control to about 10 am. On some amps I’ve played, that muddies the tone a bit; but not with the Special 6. It simply makes the lower range stand out a bit more.

I’ve even been using the amp in the studio, over my DV Mark Little 4o and Aracom VRX’s (except where I need a heavier sound). It’s perfect for the studio.

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Marshall Class 5 AmplifierSummary: Class A, Plexi goodness in a low wattage amp that packs a punch despite its smaller size.Pros: Great, ballsy tone that’ll just make you smile

Cons: None.

Features (as tested):

  • Power: 5 watts
  • Preamp tubes: 2 x ECC83
  • Power tubes: 1 x EL84
  • Controls: Volume, Treble, Middle, Bass
  • Speaker: 1 x 10″ 16ohm Celestion G10F-15
  • Headphone output
  • Extension speaker output
  • Dimensions: 19.48″ x 16.34″ x 9.05″
  • Weight: 26.46 lbs

Price: < $400 Street

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ Even though I didn’t get to spend as much time as I’d like to play around with the amp, I was simply impressed by the tone that it delivers, and at a price point that makes it very difficult to ignore. While many low wattage amps can sound thin and tinny, the Class 5 with its generously-sized cabinet has a fantastic, rich tone.

On Low Wattage Amps

I love low wattage amps – those that are 10 Watts or less. I have a few. For years, people eschewed these super low wattage amps, and passed them off as mere practice tools. But I suspect they really didn’t understand what a super low wattage amp brings to the party. Low wattage amps such as the 5 Watt Fender Champ helped define the sound of rock and roll. Listen to classic rock tunes, and more likely than not, the venerable Fender Champ would be the amp providing the sound.

Today, more and more people are turning to low wattage amps – especially home recording enthusiasts, and even pros like Jeff Beck – to save their ears and to get crunch and grind at low volume levels. As a result of the increased demand, many manufacturers, boutique and mainstream alike, have responded and come up with a slew of low wattage amps. It’s a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, you have tons of selections, on the other hand; well, you have tons of selections. There are a lot of them out there and it’s tough to decide which way to go.

The shear amount of low wattage amps on the market is perhaps a big reason why Marshall waited so long to come out with its super own low wattage amp. Perhaps they were studying what the market responded to and what they could do to address what people might have fed back as improvements that could be made.

Enter the Marshall Class 5 amp. This amp was released in the UK near the middle of last year, and arrived here on our fair shores around November of last year. Amazingly enough, news about this amp has been relatively quiet. There hasn’t been all that much advertising that I’ve seen about this amp. The Marshall Haze amps have gotten lots of “rag” time, and the response to those amps has been generally positive. But I haven’t heard much about this amp other than user reviews. That’s too bad because after playing it, I have to say that I really dig it!

Classic, Killer Tone!

Is Marshall embarrassed about advertising such a low wattage amp? I certainly hope not, because I got a chance to play this amp today, and I just have two words to describe it: KICK ASS! Built upon the “Bluesbreaker”/Plexi pedigree, the Class 5 has all of that Plexi goodness in a low wattage combo. Make no mistake: The Class 5 packs a serious punch; maybe not maximum volume-wise (for a gig, this amp would need to be miked, but will provide plenty of stage volume), but if you’re looking for those classic Plexi tones in a low wattage solution, look no further!

Because I was in a shop, I only tested it with a single guitar: An Epiphone Les Paul Ultra. But the Class 5 delivered that cranked Les Paul through a cranked Marshall Plexi true to form. It was everything I expected to hear from a cranked Plexi, just at a lower volume. That really blew me away!

There’s really something special about that tone. My Aracom PLX18BB is a super-close replica of the Plexi 18, plus my good buddy has several Marshalls including an original JTM45 and Plexi 50, so I’m very familiar with that classic tone. While the Class 5 is just a tad grittier in its overdrive than its more powerful siblings (perhaps due to the new speaker), the rich harmonics and smooth overdrive delivered with “balls” with a gorgeous sustain is all there.

While it might seem from my description that this amp isn’t very loud, it’s plenty loud. You can even gig with it easily, even with the stock 10″ speaker which, by the way, has tons of volume and provides rich tone. I was actually expecting the amp to sound a bit thin due to the smaller speaker, but there was nothing thin-sounding about the amp.

Another reviewer mentioned turning the bass all the way down, because he thought it was flabby. I really didn’t detect a flabbiness to the bass, but I like a bright amp anyway so I had the bass EQ dialed down to about 8pm which is almost off.

All this tonal goodness is delivered by a 10″ speaker specially developed for the Class 5 by Celestion, the G10F-15. As expected, the 10″ really has an emphasis on the mid- to high-frequencies, but Marshall compensated for the lows by providing a spacious cabinet to act as a nice resonance chamber for the speaker. The result is a very balanced and smooth tone, if a little on the bright side. But bright is what Plexi’s are all about, and the Class 5 delivers on that swimmingly!

As far as my customary test clips go, sorry, this was a shop eval, so I didn’t record any. But if and when I get the amp, I’ll post some for sure!

Yikes! It’s Too Loud!

Hello… 5 Watts is loud. In fact the speaker’s SPL is rated at 97dB at 1 meter with a power rating of 15 Watts. People have complained that they can’t crank it up in the bedroom past 3 or 4. Yeah… welcome to the Non-Master-Volume club. But that’s the beauty of the Plexi in the first place! You need to saturate the power tubes as well as the preamp tubes to get that Plexi vibe. If you need to run this amp at bedroom levels, the best solution is to get an attenuator such as the Aracom PRX150-Pro.

I sincerely hope that Marshall doesn’t cave in to those complaining it’s too loud and add a master volume to the amp. To me, it doesn’t need and would take away from its vibe.

Made in the UK

This amp is constructed in the UK, amazingly enough. And what’s even more amazing is that it sells for less than $400! The shop I tested it at had it a retail price of $389! One would expect those kinds of prices to come from gear manufactured in Asia. But not this beauty. So to have a UK-made amp at this price point is truly remarkable! Then to get tone this good? OMG! Truly amazing!!!

Fit and Finish

This amp is extremely well made. The cabinet feels real solid, and nothing was loose. Apparently, earlier versions suffered from a buzz, but the unit I tested didn’t have that at all. In any case, I inspected the amp thoroughly – front and back-  and didn’t detect any finish flaws. The tolex was nicely molded down to the surface of the underlying wood, and there were no loose pieces of material. From what I could tell, 1/2″ ply was used for the cabinet, and that is good because I’ve found, at least from a purely qualitative perspective, that cabs built with 1/2″ thickness tend to resonate quite well. This obviously helps bolster the bottom end, and it does it nicely.

The rear of the cab is interesting in that it is partially closed with about a 4″ opening, covered by a metal grill. I suppose that this is so you don’t throw in the cable and accidentally puncture the speaker cone, but it may be purely aesthetic in nature. The rear grill is rather cool.

Overall Impression

I totally DIG this amp! It was fun cranking it up in the store this afternoon! Admittedly, the amp doesn’t really hit its sweet spot until the volume knob is about midway. But completely cranked up, it produces the tone I expect out of a Plexi! And even cranked up, it responds well to volume knob levels, so you can clean up the amp quite easily.

Compared to other super low wattage amps I’ve played, even my venerable ’58 Champ, this amp has tons of balls in stock configuration. With my Champ, I had to have an amp tech add a 1/4″ jack so I could run it into an external cab because the 8″ speaker really can be quite thin-sounding. But the Class 5 has enough balls and volume stock to not need any of that (though it’ll be fun to run this into an external cab anyway, which I plan to do).

Note that unlike other reviews, I really didn’t make mention of the amp being “Class A.” That’s a big deal with lots of folks, but to me, even though I understand the classification, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter to me is how the amp sounds, and it simply sounds killer. In my book, I couldn’t care less about an amp’s classification so long as I can get great tones out of it; and the Class 5 will certainly deliver on that!

As you might surmise, I’ll probably end up getting this amp. As if I need another! But it’s a great amp at a great price. That’s just plain tough to ignore! And note that this amp sounds so good stock to me that I really don’t see a need to swap out tubes unless they burn out (which they probably will considering I’ll be running the amp all out all the time 🙂 ).

Here are some cool video clips of the Class 5 in action:

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Peavey Classic 30 Amp

Summary: Great looks, great sound, and at a GREAT price!

Pros: Beautiful cleans with a sweet, airy reverb, and smooth overdrive tones

Cons: This is a nit, but I was a bit annoyed at the labeling of Pre- and Post- volume controls on the Lead channel. Why not just follow convention? It’s obvious that “Pre” is volume, and “Post” is master. But when I first saw it, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them until I turned the amp on.

Features (from the Peavey site):

  • 30 watts (rms) into 16 or 8 ohms
  • Four EL84s and three 12AX7s
  • 12 inch Blue Marvel® speaker
  • 2-channel preamp
  • Pre- and post-gain controls on lead channel
  • Normal volume control on clean channel
  • 3-band passive EQ (bass, middle, treble)
  • Boost switch
  • Reverb level control
  • Effects loop
  • Footswitch selectable channel switching and reverb
  • External speaker capability
  • Chrome-plated chassis
  • Classic tweed covering
  • Footswitch optional (not included)
  • Weight Unpacked: 39.50 lb(17.917 kg)
  • Weight Packed: 46.00 lb(20.865 kg)
  • Width Packed: 13″(33.02 cm)
  • Depth Packed: 21.5″(54.61 cm)
  • Height Packed: 19.25″(48.895 cm)

Price: $599 street

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ Even my little nit couldn’t keep this amp from getting my top score. It’s simply a great-sounding amp!

I’ve been a big proponent of: If it sounds good to you, then brand and price don’t matter. This goes back to my very first guitar, a Yamaha FG-335 Acoustic that my dad bought me for my 18th birthday. I still have that guitar. But I remember a jam about 25 years ago I was having with my brother at a party. We were sitting in our living room, and we pulled out our guitars to have a jam and singalong. When I got my guitar out of its case, my brother remarked facetiously upon seeing its worn condition, “Dude, you should turn that into a beach guitar.” I just looked at him blankly and replied, “Nope. It may not look like much, but it has a great sound. Why the f&%k would I want to trash it? I’ll never get rid of this guitar!” Ahh… brotherly competition. 🙂 But I digress…

The point of me mentioning that is that nowadays with boutique gear being all the rage with “tube” this, “mustard cap” that, “hand-wired” this, etc., it’s so easy to dismiss some excellent gear that sounds absolutely KILLER! If you can get said killer-sounding gear at a fantastic price, then that’s even better. Now I admit that I have some expensive gear, but not once have I purchased gear because of a name or because someone told me to buy something because they love it. I suppose with this blog you might accuse me of doing just that, but I always suggest people try things out for themselves before making any buying decisions. Damn! Again I digress! Let’s get on the with the review, shall we?

Fit and Finish

Talk about vintage mojo! The first time I saw this amp in a local shop, I was stunned by its looks. With its vintage-style front panel and dark brown cloth grille, and tweed covering with chrome-plated corner protectors; what’s not to like? Weight-wise, at 40 lbs, it’s not light, but it’s also not a behemoth that you can’t lug easily into a gig. And don’t let the small size of its cabinet fool you: It’s quite resonant, but more importantly, its size doesn’t make it unweildy in the slightest. Simply put, the Classic 30 just plain looks great!

How It Sounds

In my test, I used a Squier Classic Vibe Tele 50’s, a Custom Shop Strat, and a Les Paul Standard. I always start out all my tests with the amp clean, and playing finger-style. No matter what guitar I used, the cleans were absolutely spectacular. I love EL84 cleans. They’re sparkly and chimey, and the Classic 30 simply delivered that EL84 clean goodness! The single coils sounded chimey as expected, but I totally dug the cleans with the LP! Adding a bit of grease with the reverb brought out the  lush, deep tones of the Les Paul nicely. I believe the reverb is a digital reverb, but who the hell cares? It sounds incredible! I guess that’s the point I was trying to make above. If something works well, it doesn’t matter what it’s made of.

As far as overdrive is concerned, as its name implies, the Classic 30 isn’t going to get you modern high-gain overdrive tones, but there’s tons of overdrive on tap. Once I dialed in the Pre and Post volume control balances, I was able to get nice overdrive tones that weren’t at all harsh, no matter how hard I pushed the amp. Since I was in a shop, I didn’t get a chance to record clips, but here are some clips from Peavey:

Clean

Clean, Reverb

Channel 2 Flat

Channel 2 Preamp

Channel 2 Boost

As you heard, great tones out of this little beastie. Even completely dimed, you don’t get over the top overdrive, but for classic rock and blues, this is a GREAT amp. That Blue Marvel 12″ speaker works great in this cab!

Overall Impressions

At $599, this amp looks and sounds as good as many boutique amps I’ve played. I love this amp, and it’s definitely going to be added to my amp collection. 🙂 I didn’t get to try out the effects loop, but I love the fact that it has one. It just adds to its versatility. If you’re looking for a vintage-style amp for a great price, this is definitely an amp to consider!

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Click to enlarge

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Fishman SA220 Solo Amp

Summary: Compact and weighing in at just 25 lbs., the SA220 Solo Amp is an ideal PA solution for the solo acoustic guitarist/vocalist, but it’s versatile and loud enough to be used as a PA for a band (if you have a couple of them).

Pros: It may not have the Bose name, but I’d put this up against the L1 Compact system any day. With built-in, independent, 3-way EQ, and a variety of other features, if you’re a solo acoustic artist, you owe it to yourself to check this unit out! I got it set up in less than a minute!

Cons: None

Features:

  • Drivers
  • – Six 4″ mid-woofers, patented dual gap, high excursion design, neodymium magnets (200W)
    – One 1″ neodymium soft dome tweeter with level control (20W)

  • Auxiliary Stereo Input with Level control
  • Four Digital Reverb effects with master level
  • Balanced XLR D.I. outputs for both channels and main mix
  • Independent effect loops for Channel 1 and Channel 2 (OMG!!!)
  • Unique Monitor I/O for improved on-stage ensemble monitoring
  • Mute with remote footswitch input
  • Tuner Output
  • Ships with Stand and padded Carry Bag (w/ wheels)
  • Dimensions: 41.5″ H x 5.6″ W x 6.6″ D
  • *Weight: 25 lbs without Stand, 35lbs with Bag and Stand

Price: $999 Street

Tone Bone Score: 5.0 ~ Talk about ease of use! As I mentioned above, I got the SA220 set up in less than a minute! And my Yamaha APX900 sounds absolutely killer through this, not to mention the great clarity of the vocals. This is a winner, folks!

Year over year, I play between 100 to 150 gigs a year, with about half of them as a solo acoustic act. My solo gigs have consisted mainly of my weekly restaurant gig, but I do lots of weddings and special events throughout the year as well. Of late, the restaurant I gig at moved my act outside in a public patio area as the weather is gorgeous.

To make a long story short, even though the restaurant has a decent PA system, I ended up bringing my own PA last week, which was the first week we did the outdoor show. That worked pretty well, and my PA has a great sound. But it also made me realize that the old mixing board, and big 300 Watt speakers was just too much gear to haul around. Even if I ended up using the restaurant’s PA, which is a nice one, I’d still have to lug the board and speakers and stands down from the office upstairs. Enter the Fishman SA220 Solo Amp.

Plug It In and Go!

I finally received my SA220 today after having to wait for a couple of weeks for it to arrive (had to be ordered). So when I got home, I knew I had to try it out to see how it sets up, and of course, to work out kinks before I gig with it. There’s nothing worse than fighting your rig or sound DURING a gig – especially when you’re solo.

The guys at the shop assured me that Fishman’s claims of easy setup were true. I am now a believer! I had the SA220 set up in exactly 42 seconds!!! That didn’t include hooking up my pedal board, guitar, and microphone, but I had the system on its tripod stand and plugged into power, ready to go, in that short amount of time. That just blew me away! Plus, everything you need to get up and running fits into a single carrying unit that consists of two bags: One for the array/PA, and one for the tripod that buckles to the main bag. Talk about convenience! Fishman really had the solo artist in mind when they built this!

How It Sounds

For my audition, I just plugged my guitar into the SA220 directly, and hooked up my microphone. All I can say is that the sound is spectacular! I was actually concerned about the bass response of the unit, but apparently Fishman distributes the bass response among the six main mid-woofers. It may not get boomy with the bass, but the sound is absolutely rich, and vocals are clear and full. Normally, I use a DI to go into a board – and will probably do the same with this unit, but my guitar sounded clear and natural and full plugged in directly without those annoying high-end transients and flattened tone that is so annoying with plugged in acoustics. Admittedly, the ART system in my Yamaha APX900 has quite a bit to do with that, but Fishman really knows how to condition sound.

At first, I had a bit of a problem with feedback, but setting the phase switch and tweaking the anti-feedback knob (it’s a variable frequency notch filter designed to subdue a resonant peak – just turn it to where the feedback gets reduced or eliminated – very cool), and attaching the rubber sound hole cover on my guitar took care of the feedback problem.

Luckily no one was home when I tested the SA220. I set it up outside so I could see how it performed. Damn! Even with just 220 Watts, the SA220 is LOUD!!! I had the Master volume set at around 10 am, and that will be enough to fill the large patio space I’ll be playing in tomorrow! It’s not a stretch to say that the SA220 can cover a lot of venues.

As far as listening angle is concerned, the SA220 disperses the sound incredibly well! Even at extreme angles, where I was almost even with the array, the sound was clear with good volume. Of course, narrower angles are better, but this unit will have no problem playing in the open space I’ll be playing.

Talk About Bang for the Buck!

The sound is great, but I have to tell you, I was ready to get the Bose L1 Compact, which is a great unit, but the mere fact that if I wanted more EQ control and other features, I’d have to spend another $499 really soured my taste for the unit. On the other hand, Fishman has packed all sorts of features into the SA220 that make it hands-down the better value. Independent 3-band EQ for each channel, phase and anti-feedback control, 4 types of digital reverb, a mute switch (that is REALLY handy!), independent balanced XLR outs to go into a board, and my favorite feature: independent effects loop for each channel! You just can’t argue about with what comes built-in on this unit!

Overall Impression

It’s hopefully obvious that I love this unit! For me as a solo artist, it’s a true game changer! It’s light and versatile, and the sound is spectacular. What more could I ask for?

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I’ve been using the Aracom PLX18 BB Trem in my studio for the past couple of months, and it is simply a great amp. As I’ve written in the past about this amp, I’ve made some modifications to it such as replacing all the stock pre-amps with NOS (the JJ EL84’s are killer in this amp, so no need to even look for NOS for these), and replacing the stock speaker with a Fane Medusa 150.

As most GuitarGear readers know, my go-to gigging amp is my beloved, customized Aracom VRX22. But every now and then, I like to take my other amps out for a spin. For this evening’s church gig, I took the PLX18. Based upon tonight’s experience, it looks like I’m going to gig with this amp a lot more.

One thing that I’ve come to love about Jeff Aragaki’s amp designs, is that he has got the vintage Marshall mojo down. Mind you, he doesn’t make clones. He takes the original circuit designs and innovates on top of them. The PLX18 BB started out as a classic “Bluesbreaker” design, but with improvements to the circuit to make it much more efficient. The result is a real smooth-sounding amp that – like the amp it is modeled after – has tons of clean headroom, and needs to be absolutely cranked to get grind. But when it grinds, it’s so rich and smooth and dynamic, you just close your eyes and let your fingers do the talking!

Such was the case tonight. About a year ago, I re-arranged a classic Catholic hymn and gave it a bluesy, folk-punk vibe (think a cross between Death Cab and Clapton). I know, it sounds like a weird mix, but amazingly enough, it works. People know the song really well, but this arrangement gets them nodding their head in time – it’s cool to see! In any case, I also arranged it so that there was plenty of room in between verses for little solos. It’s a somewhat slow song, so you can’t go overboard, but the phrasing really lends itself to a lead played with an amp just at the edge of breakup, with lots of bends and vibrato.

And it helps to have an amp that has a lot of natural sustain. The PLX is just so damn good at that! I played the amp in the “clean” channel that I had almost cranked up all the way, since that’s where a vintage Marshall sounds great, and of course, it was plugged into my attenuator so I could crank it and still have a manageable volume level. The PLX is so responsive to attack and volume knob adjustments that it makes playing just a dream. Throughout the song, I just closed my eyes and got into pure expression mode. It was one of those occasional experiences where the tone just takes you right into the Zone! When you’re in the Zone, you just can’t do wrong. Hearing the PLX sing with my Squier CV Tele – I just floated away in absolute bliss.

For our closing song, I actually didn’t play, and gave “Blondie” over to my guitar cohort Dave so I could thump out on bass. For that song, I activated the wonderful Kasha overdrive pedal, in the Hot channel to really slam the amp with gain. The great thing about the Kasha overdrive is that it’s a really transparent overdrive pedal, and allows you amp to do it’s magic. With the OD engaged, the PLX took on this incredible character. It’s a bright amp by nature, but the tone became really jangly and ringy, with just a touch of compression coming from the EL84’s. It helps that I replaced the original JJ pre-amps with the NOS ones. In any case, talk about creamy smooth but articulate overdrive! Listening to that just got me thumpin’ out on the bass! We had a lot of fun with that song. Kind of felt like the White Stripes as we only had two instrumentalists (though it was two guitars, or a bass and guitar – no drums). It was raw and edgy, but oh so cool! You gotta just dig moments like this!

As I’ve mentioned, the PLX18 BB Trem is Jeff’s oldest amp design and unfortunately, his least-known amp. It’s tough to compete in the market when there are so many boutique, vintage Marshall-style amps on the market. I’ve played many, but the PLX18 BB is special. Others who own one of these will attest to just how special this amp sounds. Even though it’s not quite as versatile as the VRX22 that can get me over-the-top gain, for what it does, I can’t think of a better amp. Mind you, this ain’t just a one-trick pony. For blues, classic rock, and country, it’s simply killer. So if you’re looking for that classic “Bluesbreaker” tone at a price that won’t break you at the same time (the head is $1345, and the combo – which I have is $1750), I encourage you to check this amp out! And if you do get it, you won’t regret it in the slightest!

As far as equipping it, pay the extra for NOS pre-amps (the JJ EL84’s are just fine – I actually prefer them), and even though Jeff recommends an Eminence Red Fang Alnico to be paired with the PLX18 BB, for my personal tastes, I prefer something with a bit tighter bottom end; hence, the Fane Medusa that I swapped in. If you still want bright tone, then an Eminence Governor works insanely well, and will give you nice mids and high-mids, and I hear the Celestion Gold sounds killer in the the combo! YMMV…

For more information on this wonderful amp, check out the Aracom Amps site!

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Ever since Paul Reed Smith came out with amplifiers, I’ve been a little dubious about them mostly because anything carrying the PRS logo will invariably cost an arm and a leg. Don’t get me wrong PRS makes freakin’ incredible gear, but said gear also has a relatively large barrier to entry. So it came as a nice surprise that the PRS Sweet 16 is much more reasonably priced than one might expect of a PRS. For a hand-wired amp at just under $1700, that’s getting into Dr. Z territory, and that’s a GREAT thing!

During my latest sojourn to Guitar Center, my wanderings took me to the “quiet room” where GC has a few amps and guitars for people to play, isolated from the rest of the store. I like going in there because usually they have nicer gear like Custom Shop Strats, and high-end Gibsons. For amps, there’s always nice ones like classic Fenders (they’ve had the same silverface Twin in there for awhile now), and this time, they had the PRS Sweet 16 with its matching 1 X 12 cab.

Features (from PRS)

  • Hand-wired in Stevensville, Maryland
  • 16 Clean Watts (Smooth Overdrive at Max)
  • 2x 6V6 Output Tubes
  • Cathode Bias
  • Master Volume (Exits the Circuit at Max)
  • Reverb
  • Volume, Bass, Treble, Mid, Reverb, Master, and Bright Controls
  • Vintage-style Black and White Tolex Look

Fit and Finish

What can I say that hasn’t been said of PRS gear? It’s invariably lovely stuff! The black and white tolex and black grille cloth give the amp a very cool vintage look. As expected, there’s nary a blemish or seam out of place with this amp, and as expected, both amp and cab are super-sturdy. But that’s a given with pretty much any PRS gear.

How It Sounds

Here’s where we get into a bit of murky territory, primarily because even in an isolation room in a store, it’s not an optimal place to test – at least for me because I almost invariably don’t have my own guitars available when I do “random” tests. But that’s okay, I just spend a bit of time getting guitars that are close to what I have or had. With this test, I used a Strat and a very nice ES-335.

The Sweet 16 must have a pretty hefty output transformer because this puppy puts out some volume, even with a single 1 X 12. It has TONS of clean headroom, which made me turn down the Master and crank up the volume to get even a little grind, which indicated to me that to really get this amp to get into serious breakup, the master has to be dimed as well. The predominantly pre-amp distortion just seemed a little flat-sounding to me; it wasn’t bad, but it was nothing special. I did crank up the Master for just a little while, and even with it dimed, the breakup was  lot like a classic Marshall JTM; tons of clean headroom, with a modest amount of distortion when cranked. Definitely an amp suited for classic rock/blues.

Clean was another story. Really nice cleans with this amp, especially with a Strat. The CS Strat I played produced a smooth and complex tone with a chimey top-end. Quite nice. And the ES-335 sounded gorgeous through the Sweet 16. Adding a touch of reverb, really helped fill out the sound, and it was great playing fingerstyle with both axes.

For EQ settings, I just moved everything to 12 o’clock and didn’t have to tweak at all, though I did switch on the bright control to get some top-end shimmer; especially when playing the ES-335. The Strat didn’t need it, and the fuller sound really helped bolster the natural thin tone of the Strat.

Regarding the reverb, I do have to say that I’ve heard better. It’s not that it’s bad-sounding. I just wasn’t really impressed with it. I certainly wouldn’t use it to provide a sustaining effect with this amp. The sag is enough with the amp that I can get my sustain with my fingers. The reverb is not as pronounced as a Fender reverb, and it’s not very springy. I liken it to an Aracom reverb that isn’t very intense. It’s there, but it’s a heck of a lot more subtle than a Fender. But like I said, it’s not bad, but for me, I probably wouldn’t use it. For recording, I’d record the amp dry and layer a reverb as an insert or side-chain effect. That said, that amp sounds great without a reverb.

Overall Impressions

My gut impression is that it’s a great-looking and great-sounding amp, and it’s a good start for PRS’s entry into the low-wattage amp arena, but there are a lot better-sounding amps in that price range and below.Good examples of this are the Reason Bambino, the Aracom VRX series, and the Dr. Z Remedy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the Sweet 16. I really liked it, but it’s not an amp that blew me away with its tone.

Despite my rather contrarian comments, the Sweet 16 gets a 4.5 Tone Bones rating. It’s well-made and great-sounding. If I ever get one into my studio, I’ll do a full review, and perhaps my rating will change. But it’s a solid performer nonetheless, and you could do a lot worse.

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