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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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REMIn yesterday’s little adventure at Guitar Player Magazine, I got a chance to play the new Dr. Z Remedy amplifier. This amp is based upon a classic Marshall JTM circuit design, but with a twist: Instead of 4 inputs that allow you to jumper the two channels, the Remedy has a single input and the channels are already jumpered. You then have the ability to blend the amount of high and normal channel amounts via the two loudness knobs.

This amp is a lesson in simplicity. It has a three-band EQ, and the volume knobs for the High and Normal channels, plus Power On/Off and Standby toggles. That’s it. With this amp, you dial in your tone and sound levels, and play!

The amp is powered by a quad set of 6V6’s, and man they sound sweet! The power tubes are JJ’s which have kind of a “hybrid” 6V6 tone – I use these myself, and I love them. They’re brighter-sounding than the classic 6V6, and they’re extremely durable. I’ve never had one of these fail on any of my 6V6 amps, so it’s not a surprise Dr. Z uses the JJ’s for their reliability.

How It Sounds…

In a word, it sounds “big.” A lot bigger than I expected from just a 40 Watt amp. I played a Gibson ’59 Les Paul Special Re-issue through it and was really taken by the big sound that the Remedy produces. For classic rock and blues tones, this is an ideal amp. It responds incredibly well to picking dynamics and volume knob adjustments as well, which is why I mentioned you set your EQ and volume where you want it, then play. You can then adjust the cleanliness or dirtiness with your volume knob or attack. Very cool. You might dismiss the Remedy as another JTM clone as the circuitry is based upon that. But it has a sound all its own. The cleans are lush and defined, and the overdrive is nice and crunchy, and very little to no top-end raspiness. I think that’s an earmark of the 6V6’s. They just don’t get fizzy.

A Great Half-Power Mode

I played around with the half-power switch a couple of times, and it works as expected. But I wanted to find out more about how Dr. Z does his half power mode, so I gave him a call this morning, and found out some interesting things about how he does his half-power mode – very interesting things, indeed. There are a couple of ways I’m familiar with that amp manufacturers introduce half-power modes in their amps. A common way is to shut down half a tube, essentially going from pentode to triode. According to amp builders I’ve spoken with, this is the easiest, but it also changes the tone significantly between the two modes.

The second common way is to adjust the B+ voltage down, then provide some compensation so the correct heater voltages are maintained. This is what Jeff Aragaki does with his amps, and this technique is very transparent.

Dr Z. takes a completely different approach and leaves the front-end alone entirely, and works his magic from the power transformer, something he worked with the late Ken Fisher to produce. I won’t go into details – and Dr. Z didn’t go into a great deal of depth – but he effectively bypasses the power from two of the power tubes then does some other stuff to compensate for the impedance mismatch to half the power. The end result is a very tonally transparent switch from full power to half power, using a method no one else is using; at least according to Dr. Z.

I love stuff like this! I’m no electronics guy, but I love it when people think out of the box to handle common problems, and come up with approaches that no one else thought of, or didn’t try because they thought it was too hard! Kudos to Dr. Z for doing something like this!

I truly wish I had more time to spend with it so I could explore the amp’s capabilities more. Perhaps in the near future I’ll get that chance.

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4.75 Tone Bones - Almost perfect but not quite

Blackheart BH5-112 Little Giant 5 Watt Combo

Blackheart BH5-112 Little Giant 5 Watt Combo

Blackheart BH5-112 Little Giant 5Watt Combo

Summary: Nice, simple, and versatile studio/practice/small venue amp with sporting happening EL-84 tones.

Pros: Sweet and chimey EL-84 tones with Class A circuitry; simple and straightforward to use. Switchable between 5Watts and 3Watts, ensuring usability in just about any smaller venue. 3W mode kicks ass for getting power tube saturation at a reasonable volume.

Cons: I wish it had a Master Volume, but that’s just a nit.

Price: $349 street (used to be $249 when it first came out! Damn! Shoulda gotten one then.)

Specs:

• Single-ended Class A circuit
• All tube signal path
• One 12AX7/ECC83 dual-triode preamp tube and one EL84/6BQ5 pentode output tube
• Pentode (5W rms) Triode (3W rms) switch
• Solid-state rectifier
• DC filament power supply for all tubes
• 3-band EQ
• 16-gauge (1.5 mm) thick, folded and spot welded steel chassis
• Double-sided custom color PCB with 2 oz. copper
• 15-ply, 18 mm thick, void-free birch plywood construction
• Custom-designed 12″ Eminence Blackheart speaker
• 16 ohm, 8 ohm, and 4 ohm speaker outputs

Tone Bone Rating: 4.75 – Very musical and expressive amp. Nice cleans, with a decent amount of headroom.

I first heard about Blackheart amps back in 2007. They were so new that very few people knew about them. And while a local shop was listed as a dealer, only the owner knew about the amps, and they didn’t carry them in stock! Blackheart Engineering is sort of an overseas spinoff from Crate which produces cool, yet affordable tube amps. As a home studio enthusiast, I keep my ear to the ground about low-cost, low-wattage combo amps. When I first heard about the BH5-112, I was excited. I thought it was a bold move for Crate, and a smart one, considering Crate is a huge manufacturer with huge lineup of gear; adding even something cool like the Blackheart line would just get lost in the mix. But Blackheart was pretty low-key. No ads, spotty coverage on the Internet.

So it was a very pleasant surprise to see a few Blackhearts at a local shop yesterday, and among them, the Little Giant. I was actually there to play that G & L Tribute Comanche I wrote about last week; the last time I was at the shop, they didn’t have any Blackhearts, so I wasn’t expecting to see them at all. But with them there, I naturally had to try one out, and luckily they had the Little Giant.

Fit and Finish

This little amp has a real cool vibe going on. I really like the cabinet that Blackheart uses. It’s a closed back cab, and for an amp made overseas, it’s appears to be very well constructed. There were no apparent flaws in the tolex layering, and Blackheart logo on the front is killer. I dig the white vinyl trim used on the front around the grille cloth. Real boutique styling at a pretty affordable price!

The control layout is simple: An input jack on the left, volume and three-band eq knobs, an indicator light and an on/off switch, making it simple to plug in, dial in your tone, and start rockin’.

How It Sounds

I’ve really come to love the EL-84 tones, especially when they’re saturated, and the Little Giant doesn’t disappoint when delivering its sound. With the EQ knobs at 12 o’clock, the natural tone of the amp leans toward a slightly scooped tone with a bright voicing. Even with the specially-made Eminence 1 X 12, it’s bright, but it does retain a taut low-end that really smooths out the tone. Quite pleasing. I only tested the amp with that Tribute Comanche, but it didn’t matter. When I test an amp, I play it clean for a lot of my tests to see if it will deliver the natural tonal character of the guitar, and the Blackheart Little Giant fulfills its mission.

The amp is very responsive to volume knob and pick attack. With the volume set at about halfway, and cranking the guitar volume, I was able to get that AC30-like response: Clean and shimmery, with just the slightest bit of breakup when you dig in. Very pleasing to the ears.

Amazingly enough, even though its power rating is a minuscule 5 Watts, with the 12″ speaker, this amp can put out some volume! Hence its name “Little Giant.” It probably couldn’t keep up with a drum set and a band going all out, but it can pack a good enough punch to work well in a small venue where lower volume is critical, and it definitely could be put to great use in a studio!

Overall Impressions

What can I say? I dig this amp, much like I dig the Fender Champ 600. But unlike its Fender cousin, the 12″ speaker really lets the amp breath. And speaking of volume, I was quite impressed with the volume control. Unlike many amps that practically max out by 6, the sweep covered by the Little Giant’s volume knob is nice, even and more importantly, wide. Two thumbs up!s

Here’s a video (excuse the dude’s misinformation about Class A amps – damn! That’s even worse than my faux pas about modes 🙂

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