Dr Z Mini-Z and Z-Verb

January 1, 2010

0.000gp0110_gearMini-Z-HeadRESPECTED CLEVELAND-BASED “BOUTIQUE” amp and accessories manufacturer Dr. Z is combating these recessionary times with a trio of new releases, two of which are aimed at making you sound smaller—in a manner of speaking— while the other helps you sound bigger… or wetter, at least. In keeping with Dr Z’s reputation for admirable construction quality and no-nonsense affordability—in the realm of hand-made gear at least—these newcomers land at prices well south of the stratosphere, too. The Z-Verb is Z’s take on the classic early- ’60s tube-powered spring reverb unit, while the Mini-Z head marks the slightly rejiggered return of the single-ended Mini-Z combo.

Previously available as a 1x8 combo, the Mini-Z is back in head-only format, and we’ve just learned that a 1x10 combo model will also 0.000gp0110_gearT1004return this year. It has the same popular single-ended EL84-based circuit, but Dr. Z now builds it in a larger chassis that also houses a built-in attenuator (essentially the Brake Lite), which allows you to take it from its raging 5 watts at maximum crank, all the way down to less than 1 watt. An attenuator in a mini amp? Sure, and it’s a great idea. While little single-ended beasties like the Mini-Z are less bovine of output than your average club combo, they’re still too loud, at full juice, for apartment dwelling or late night jams. And let’s face it: full juice is how you’re usually going to be playing an amp like this. There’s little more to say about the features: the front panel carries a single input, single Volume control, and a 5-step Attenuator control that runs from bypass at position 0, to –2dB, –5dB, –8dB, and –11dB at positions 1- 4 respectively. On the back panel there’s a single speaker out jack and a switch for 4Ω or 8Ω loads. Inside, the chassis is populated with Dr. Z’s usual neat wiring and high-end components, including custom-order polyester SBE signal capacitors, Sprague filter caps, and carbon-film resistors.

I ran a Telecaster, a Stratocaster, and a Taylor Classic through the Mini-Z at all conceivable settings, and found solid and usable tones throughout the gamut. Lows are short of gut-thumping, naturally, but are full enough to contribute to a convincing big-amp sound, and the Mini-Z’s ability to achieve chewy old-school rock lead tones with mucho touch sensitivity and compression—at a range of lower volume levels—makes it absolutely addictive. The amp’s simplicity might imply it’s a one-trick pony, but its versatility comes in how you use it. The head format addresses the desires of many players today, who are using small amps like this atop 1x12 and 2x12 speaker cabs (even a 4x12 isn’t unheard of) to get that juicy output-tube distortion at small-club volume levels. Paired with an efficient speaker or two—a Celestion G12H- 30 or Blue, Eminence Red Fang, or Jensen P12N—it will comfortably keep up with the average drummer. Mic it, and the sky’s the limit. Once you get it sizzling it’s hard to stop playing. That said, while the super-saturated, yet whisper quiet tones are the ones that get us all excited, I achieved some sweet and saucy clean-going-crunchy voices for recording with the Volume set way down around 10 o’clock and a good studio condenser mic in front of a Celestion G12-65. Bottom line: The Mini-Z Head offers endless noodling fun, and a great many practical applications, too.

Dr. Z’s first stand-alone reverb unit, the Z-Verb, takes its inspiration unashamedly from Fender’s Reverb Unit of the early ’60s, but rotates the format forward in a frontmounted chassis, and gives it all the handwired credibility that Z excels at, and which Fender’s own PCB-based reissue lacks. The Z-Verb features the classic three-knob configuration with Dwell, Mix, and Tone, and a short, three-spring reverb tank. The springs are powered by a single 6V6GT tube, with 12AX7 and 12AT7 preamp tubes for driver and recovery duties—all much like the Fender 6G15 circuit, but with a few twists to give it the Z treatment. “I didn’t have to change a whole lot, but I used higher-quality parts than the 6G15 reissue, and, of course, it’s all hand-wired,” Dr. Z’s Mike Zaite tells us. “We had a couple of excellent vintage units to compare it to, and it came out very, very close to those.” Zaite also relates that he purchased a whopping 600 U.S.-made reverb tanks from Morley, the new owner of Accutronics, upon hearing that the company would soon be moving manufacture of this component off shore. Stand-alone reverb units like this one are typically used in front of the amp (patched between guitar and amp input), but the Z-Verb also works well in an amp’s effects loop. The controls are simple: Dwell sets the delay time (the depth of the reverb), Mix determines the blend of dry and wet (effected) signal, and Tone increases the treble content of the wet portion of the signal as you turn it clockwise. The Z-Verb also comes with a one-button footswitch for remote on/off switching.

I tested the Z-Verb with a number of amps, including a Dr. Z Z-28, a TopHat Club Deluxe, and a 1957 Gibson GA-40 Les Paul amp, and was impressed first and foremost in each case by the quietness of the unit. With some pairings, a simple three-pin to two-pin ground-lift adaptor was required to reduce the hum induced by a ground loop between Z-Verb and amp, but this was an easy fix, and something you’d likely have to deal with when mating any two grounded mains-voltage units. Also, while the Z-Verb’s output is darn close to unity gain, there’s a slight signal loss through the unit. It is still a little less than the loss from most vintage-style outboard reverbs, however. The Z-Verb is not true bypass (a feature difficult to achieve in units such as this), but this is a good thing because your signal runs through part of the tube circuitry, which adds a little smoothnessand warmth to the tone.

At lower settings of around nine to ten o’clock on the Mix and Dwell, the Z-Verb is reminiscent of good combo amp reverbs, but with more depth and presence. Turn the Dwell past this stage, and a rich, three-dimensional delay ensues. Advancing both controls to noon or beyond takes you right into surf country, inducing a splashy wetness that’s perfect for West Coast-style instrumental workouts. Anything short of around two o’clock and beyond on the Dwell maintains pretty good clarity and note definition, although these higher settings are excessive for just about anything other than your best Dick Dale impersonation. Even so, it’s a lot of fun, but dialing it all back down reminds me that reverb, like habañero salsa, is often most appealing when used in moderation.

SPECS | Dr Z Amplifiers, (216) 475-1444; drzamps.com
MODEL Z-Verb Mini-Z Head
PRICE $699 retail/Street price N/A $749 retail/Street price N/A
CONTROLS Tone, Mix, Dwell; on/off footswitch output Volume, Attenuator
TUBES 12AX7, 12AT7, 6V6GT (all by JJ) 12AX7, EL84
5 watts (variable, down to less than 1 watt)
KUDOS Excellent retro surfy reverb with good depth and low-noise operation Delightful fully cranked tube-amp overdrive tones at bedroom and home studio volumes
CONCERNS None. None.
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