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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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IMG_20181001_112403Or… this could be called Confessions of a Tube Amp Snob…

For the past decade or so, I’ve been a complete devotee of the tube amp. I’ve literally got 10 of them, and believe it or not, I still use most of them. In my mind, there has really been nothing like the feel and dynamics of a tube amp. And solid state amps? No way could that feel be duplicated.

Ten years ago, that might have been true – though admittedly, it was probably also drinking quite a bit of Koolaid – now though, that line between what separates tube amps and solid state amps is so narrow as to be almost imperceptible. WTF? Part of me is beside myself scratching my head and asking, “How could this be?”

Technology, of course, progresses. And luckily, amp manufacturers – specifically, solid state amp manufacturers – have listened to their customers over the years to create amps that have similar dynamics to valve amps.

I just bought a BOSS Katana 50 and I can describe it in two words: IT ROCKS! I can’t even begin to tell you how good it is. It not only sounds great with the deep, 3-dimensional sound I’ve come to love about tube amps, but the feel and dynamics of the amp are right on par with my tube amps. And I only paid $219.99 for the freakin’ thing!

Most solid state amps of old were fairly flat sounding and uninspiring hunks of junk (though I need to leave the Roland JC series out of that). But today? It’s a completely different story. Within the first few notes of playing with the Katana in the shop, I knew I was playing something special. I was expecting kind of a “toy” sound out of it. But what issued from the amp was simply magic. #blownaway

Even when I played the amp completely dry, the deep quality of the sound still remained. It didn’t become flat and lifeless. The sound still resonated and I was playing in a carpeted room with a low f-in’ ceiling! Look, I’ve been around gear for years and have literally reviewed thousands of guitars, amps, effects, and accessories in all sorts of different combinations. I’m not easily blown away because frankly, I’ve become quite jaded. But this amp completely changes my mind about solid state amps being inferior in both sound and dynamics compared to tube amps.

Am I going to scrap my tube amps? Absolutely not. Each amp has a particular voice that I may need when I record. So they will still be set up and still be used. I’ll even still gig with them.

But as far as voicing is concerned, what I like about the Katana is that at least to me, it seems that it isn’t an amp that was designed to emulate a tube amp platform like a Marshall or Fender. It has a sound all its own. What’s most important to me is that it possesses the tonal and dynamic characteristics I’ve come to expect out of a “good” amp. And I will just say it: This amp isn’t just “good enough;” it’s not a compromise. It’s just plain good.

Over the years, I’ve mellowed my perspective about gear. In my mind, if it sounds good and feels good, it is good, and the Katana fits that perfectly.

Here’s a Chappers demo of the amp:

I will be gigging with the amp in the coming week, and will follow this up with a full review!

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20161017_102120First, a little history…

My very first tube amp was a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. I got it based on a conversation I’d had with Noel at Tone Merchants in Orange, CA back in 2007; soon after I created this blog. In fact, my Hot Rod Deluxe was the reason I created this blog in the first place! It started making me think about gear combinations, and thus GuitarGear.org was born in January of 2007.

I remember the conversation. It was sometime around November 2006. At the time, I was playing an earlier model Line 6 and a Roland Cube 60. Both amps served me well for playing with my church band, and from 2001 through 2006, I just played those two amps (also, I’d occasionally use a Roland JC120).

But as I started getting the gear bug (I had already started to acquire a few guitars and a bunch of pedals), I realized that where I was lacking was in the amp department. So I started going on the gear boards, and I saw a reference to Tone Merchants and gave them a call. Noel answered the phone, and we must’ve chatted for at least a half-hour. He explained how tube amps worked and how they respond to various inputs and how different types of tube configurations produce different sounds. I remember telling him that my head was spinning.

He laughed and said that the trick with tube amps is that you have to play a bunch until you find the right sound for you. This is where he made the distinction between Marshall and Fender tones, and until I knew what I liked, he recommended I don’t buy a boutique amp right away. Instead, he said that I should get a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. It was a great platform with which to start out. I could learn about swapping tubes and replacing speakers. And then once I’d gotten the hang of a tube amp, I could start looking at other amps. So I got a Hot Rod Deluxe II. Then over the next few years acquired a bunch more amps, all in search of that elusive unicorn of tone.

Now I’ve come full circle. I’m back in a band that plays mostly 60’s – 70’s classic rock, but I’ve also made a foray into writing and playing reggae. Clean is the name of the game with almost everything I’m playing right now, and if I need some dirt, I just switch on an overdrive or distortion pedal. And since I’m gigging with the band, I’ve been wanting to use a simpler combo as opposed to my separate heads and cabs. Those give me a lot of versatility, but the fewer pieces to lug, the better.

Fixing my amp

With respect to the Hot Rod, it worked for a long time and though I didn’t use as much, I still played it. But about a year ago, I was recording a new reggae song, and it just started cutting out after a few minutes. And being in a rush to lay down a track, I just switched amps, not wanting to deal with my failed amp. So I covered up the Hot Rod and put it back on its shelf, where it stayed until this morning.

I recently wrote a blog post about the Fender Ultra Chorus and said I wanted to get one. But I thought to myself this morning that rather than getting yet another amp, let me see if all that was wrong with the Hot Rod was a bad power tube. Luckily I had a matched set of spare JJ 6L6GCs in my tube drawer.

So I pulled my amp off the shelf, I plugged the power tubes in, and let the amp run for several minutes in standby mode. Then I started playing and found absolutely nothing wrong. Damn! There was that Fender clean tone! And with the scooped tone of the Eminence Red Coat “The Governor” speaker that I installed years ago, it was simply audio honey!

I love it when a fix goes this easy! Especially for me, deathly afraid of electronics, swapping out tubes is about the most I will do. But more importantly, I now my gigging amp! I never thought I’d use my Hot Rod Deluxe again, but as they say, needs must.

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You’ve probably figured out by now – if you’ve read this blog with any regularity – that I’m a huge fan of the Jensen Jet series of speakers. Apparently, I’m not the only one. Fender has just released the George Benson Twin Reverb, and he chose the Jensen Jet Tornado 12″ for his speakers. Wow! What an endorsement by such an icon of guitar! Here’s the press release that I just received:

——-

NEWS RELEASE February 2016

Jensen® Tornado is George Benson’s Speaker Choice for the Fender® GB Signature Twin Reverb® Amplifier

Inspired by one of the world’s foremost jazz guitarists, George Benson, Fender’s GB Signature Twin Reverb amplifier is an all-tube amp that produces rich, punchy tone with smooth attack and singing sustain. The GB Twin Reverb is an updated version of the venerable classic amplifier tweaked to satisfy Benson’s discerning ears.

Features include an 85-watt all-tube two-channel guitar combo amplifier, a pair of 12- inch, 100 watt, 8-ohm Jensen Jet Tornado speakers with neodymium magnets, two channels, — normal and tremolo; re-voiced low-gain normal channel — a solid pine cabinet construction, gray vinyl cover, silver sparkle grille cloth, a George Benson badge on the lower right of the front panel and a protective amp cover.

The tonal character of the Jensen Tornado is perfectly designed to give the clean, articulate tone many jazz guitarists favor with a classic full-bodied sound. The neodymium magnet design and characteristics resemble Alnico magnets, contributing to its distinct behavior and quality of tone. The frequency response is noticeably extended in the upper range, generating a sense of airy openness and definition, essential to deliver all the details and the harmonic complexity of jazz chord play, and all the dynamic nuances in the fastest single note runs.

The high headroom from the two Jensen Tornado 12-inch speakers (each at 100 watts), allows every bit of the 85-watt GB Twin Reverb to flow through clearly and dynamically.

The Jensen Tornado speaker weighs only 4.45 pounds – less than half an average comparable 12” ceramic speaker. Combined with the solid pine cabinet, the GB Twin Reverb is 13 pounds lighter than a standard Twin Reverb amp.

Jensen is proud of its contribution to the tonal delight all jazz players will experience when playing the new Fender GB Twin Reverb.

Jensen remains dedicated to working with all musicians in pursuit of their perfect tone!

jensentone.com

——-

Here’s the great George Benson talking about the construction of his signature amp:

To me, this is absolutely exciting! In the video GB talks about the headroom of the amp, and how he can play with the volume sweep a lot more than with his previous amp (which was a custom Fender Hot Rod Deluxe). One thing that has frustrated me about Fender amps is that they go from very low to very high volume in very little sweep. Mr. Benson mentioned that he’d have to play with the volume control and keep it between 2 and 3 to dial in the proper volume. I smiled when I heard this because that’s exactly my experience with my Hot Rod Deluxe, and it was the driving factor in me experimenting with attenuators so I could drive the amp more. So it looks like Fender has created a much more forgiving volume sweep with this version of the amp. I definitely will have to check this one out!

As far as the Jet Tornado speakers are concerned. Damn! What a sound! At 100 Watts, they are certainly all about clean headroom. And the sonic content in that video recording just affirmed my belief that Jensen was definitely onto something with the Jet Series of speakers. Originally, I thought that this was Jensen’s answer to lower-cost, entry-level speakers, since they were known for their superb vintage Alnico and Ceramic speakers.

But time and time again, I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by the performance of all the Jet Series speakers I’ve tried. Whichever one I’ve gotten, they’ve stayed in the cabs I’ve placed them in, and they aren’t coming out any time soon. They are that good.

So to have such a great player such as George Benson use a pair of Jet Tornados in his signature amp is a HUGE endorsement for this wonderful line of speakers. With the features this amp has, and the sound that it produces, I’m getting that old familiar feeling of GAS.

For more information on this amp, check out the Fender web site! And lest I am remiss about the crux of this latest entry, check out the Jensen Jet Tornado 12″ spec site!

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Sorry, no pictures nor sound clips – yet – but I wanted to get out a first impressions post on this wonderful amp.

Personally, I’ve never heard or seen a real Dumble Steel String Singer other than Doug Doppler’s video of one of Henry Kaiser’s SSS, so I can’t really make a comparison between Sebago’s amp and the original. But if I were to sum up what I’ve heard from Bill’s newest amp in my short time playing with it, and if you don’t want to read any further, all I can say is that this amp sounds like nothing I’ve ever played before; presenting a complex and rich tonal palette that truly gives it the ability to be used in ANY type of genre. And make no mistake, it doesn’t lean towards a particular camp, as in Fender or Marshall. This amp has a sound all its own, and it has completely blown me away!

I don’t say that lightly, by any means. I’ve tended to be a bit jaded with Dumble-style amps probably due to all the hype that’s associated with them. And though it could be argued that Sebago is doing yet another knock-off of Dumble amps, I believe Bill Dunham’s approach is not to create pure clones, but rather to create great amps that he believes capture the spirit of a Dumble amp; and not be an exact reproduction. At least to me, being a copy-cat is absolutely boring, and Sebago amps are far from boring.

Before I get into discussing the amp further, let me go through its features:

  • 100-150 Watts (150 with 6550’s) from 4 power tubes
  • Reverb “loop” with send and receive knobs
  • Single input with switchable FET circuit
  • Gain control
  • Three-band EQ
  • Bright, Mid, Rock/Jazz mini toggles
  • Master control
  • Presence control
  • Individual High and Low notch filter knobs.
  • Power and Standby switches

When Bill first contacted me the other day about the new amp, I asked him if it would have the FET input. He replied no, but when he delivered the amp, he had constructed the FET circuit. I’m glad he did because it tweaks the tone in a very nice way. Unlike an original Dumble, the FET circuit on the Sebago amp is relegated to another input. Bill instead makes it an activated feature via switch (either push-pull or footswitch). According to Bill, the FET provides some extra gain at front-end that produces an asymmetrical clipping that’s not quite distortion though you know something’s happened. To me, it “feels” like a compressor as when it’s switched on, the tone feels much richer and fatter. If I were to own this amp, which I probably will in the future, I’d probably have the FET on all the time.

The distinctive thing about Dumble amps is all the EQ tweaking you can do. The Overdrive Special has the three mini toggles plus the three-band EQ knobs. But the Steel String Singer adds two incredibly useful High and Low notch filter knobs. I believe these two filter knobs are responsible for making the magic of this amp, and these are the knobs that I played with the most, once I set up the EQ. Having the filter knobs really helped me dial in all sorts of tones from spanky, sparkling cleans to big bottom-end crunch – with a Strat, no less! The Low notch acts like a cut, where the High acts like a midrange voicing knob that you find on various amps. The combination of these two allow you to adjust the amp’s basic tone to fit your guitar and cabinet. For instance, I’m playing the amp through my Avatar 2 X 12 with a Celestion Gold and a Jensen Jet Falcon. Even with the Falcon, which has a lot of bottom-end content, the cabinet tends to be bright. But a few clicks of the Low notch filter helped bring out the lows. Just incredible.

As far as the reverb goes, I dig that it’s in a loop, and that you can control how much signal goes into the tank, and control how much gets added back. It allows for really fine control of the reverb, and I spent quite a bit of the time playing with it to see what it could produce. In the end, I set the Send to about 10-11 am, and just twiddled with the Receive to control how much I reverb I wanted to add back into my signal. Very cool.

So how does it sound? With cleans on a Strat, it is other-worldly. There’s so much harmonic content in the signal that depending upon how you set the notch filters and reverb, you can get almost a chorus-like effect which is absolutely dreamy. But you can also get spanky country cleans again, by adjusting the notch filters. Those really give the amp its personality. As far as dirt tones go, as Bill put it, most of the harmonic content is in the preamp section, so you can crank the preamp and keep the master down. Me, I like cranking the power tubes to get them working. But either clean or dirty, there’s a real depth; almost a 3D quality to the tone that’s total ear candy!

With both the Gain and Master cranked, I have to admit that the amp doesn’t sound all that good. The overdrive sound becomes really muddy, and even more so with the reverb on, and no amount of EQ would clean it up. But backing off the Master to about 2:30 to 3pm, gave me a nice, ballsy growl. Can’t wait to try that out with my Les Paul.

Bill did say that at least to him, the amp is a great pedal platform, and that putting a Tube Screamer in front of the amp can get you that SRV tone. Based upon my eval thus far, with the FET and a Tube Screamer, that may just be true. There’s TONS of clean headroom with this amp, so using it with pedals will be ideal.

I found that the sweet spot of the amp is setting it at the edge of breakup with the FET on. In addition to the aforementioned compressor-like quality the FET introduces, the clipping gives the signal a bit of “hair.” I wouldn’t necessarily call it breakup, but you know there’s some distortion. It’s a great tone that I hope to be able to capture once I make some recordings of the amp.

Gawd! I know I’m loving a piece of gear when I write a lot about it. This amp has so much character, and I have yet to really do an exploration of it in both the studio and at a gig, which I will be doing this weekend. I am SO looking forward to playing with it more!

By the way, the name of the amp obviously will not be “Steel String Singer.” Bill has told me what he intends the name to be, but I won’t share it until the product’s actually out the door. It will have a Southwest-flavored name in celebration of that SRV tone. But make no bones about it, this amp can do way more than the blues.

And thank goodness I have my Aracom PRX150-Pro attenuator. I could not do the dirty tests without breaking windows. 🙂

For more information, and to keep up to date with the release, go to Sebago Sound’s product page.

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Got a call over the weekend from Bill Dunham at Sebago Sound who wanted to tell me that he was releasing a Steel String Slinger based upon the topology of a SSS owned by a well-known, grammy-award-winning, blues/pop artist (I know who it is, and based upon the description, you should be able to figure it out).

Don’t have a lot of details on it right now, though I will be doing a demo/review of his pre-production prototype. I’m excited about playing around with the on-board reverb that is in its own loop to control the signal going in and out of the reverb unit. Very cool.

From what I know of the original SSS, the amp is a single-channel amp, but has two inputs: Normal and FET. The FET input is like having an on-board overdrive. Having played with a real Dumble, that FET circuit is pretty special. The prototype will not have this feature, though Bill does have plans to put that in.

For more information on the Sebago SSS, check out Sebago Sound!

In other news with Sebago, Bill has done a fantastic job of creating Dumble clones with his Double Trouble 50 and 100 Watt amps based upon the Dumble Overdrive Special. But more importantly, unlike other boutique Dumble cloners out there such as Two Rock and Bludotone, Bill’s mission is to create Dumble-style amps and not charge a premium. For instance, Sebago’s 50 Watt Double Trouble is only $1995. Believe me, it’s a well-made amp, and the retailers who carry that amp can’t keep it on their shelves for more than a couple of days. I’m not quite sure what the price-point for the SSS will be, but it will be far less than the competition; and you won’t have to wait more than a couple of weeks at most to get one, as opposed to having to wait up 18 months for other builders’ Dumble-style amps.

So lower price, short wait time (if any, if you get it from one of the local retailers)? Kind of a no-brainer, if you ask me… In any case, stay tuned for my review! I’m getting the amp tomorrow evening and will be playing with it for the rest of the week.

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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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