Review: Tone King Sky King and 20th Anniversary Imperial LE

May 23, 2014
share

Over more than two decades, Tone King has earned a reputation for original designs, excellent build quality, and stylish looks. The amps have always been handbuilt, but previously used high-quality printed circuit board (PCB) construction, a conscious design choice of Tone King’s head honcho Mark Bartel, and one that in no way implies a cheapening of the ethos behind these well-respected boutique tube amps. However, with this pair of newcomers—the 20th Anniversary Imperial LE and the Sky King—Bartel has plunged headlong into the handwired waters, and discovered some toothsome new sonic flavors in the process.

SKY KING

With its unusual but extremely accessible top-front-edge-mounted control panel, the Sky King follows somewhat in the footsteps of the previous Meteor and Metropolitan models. The simple dual-channel architecture also follows that lead, but virtually everything else that happens in this amp is entirely different than previous designs, and helps to establish a very original feel and sound for the Sky King. A pair of 6L6s in the cathode-biased output stage generates around 35 watts, but, although there’s no master volume, it can all be reined in by the built-in Ironman attenuator, with independent six-click output controls for each channel. Channels are footswitchable (footswitch included), as is the bias-modulated tremolo, although the tube-fired spring reverb has no footswitching facility.

Prior to now, Tone King has largely been known for the über-blackface tones of its clean channels, and the Sky King will go there too. Bartel tells us, though, that he designed this amp around an ultra-linear output stage, which configures the 6L6s and the output transformer differently for a warmer, rounder, more syrupy tone that might be thought of as leaning toward Valco/Supro or Magnatone. For traditionalists, output mode is switchable to standard pentode wiring, which yields a brighter, snappier, more scooped tonality, and increased volume, without actually changing the output wattage. Essentially, the feature makes the Sky King two amps in one, and preamp gain and tone settings will react differently depending on whether you’re running in ultra-linear or pentode mode. Inside the Sky King’s unusual, enclosed folding-top chassis, Tone King’s rendition of a handwired circuit presents itself as entirely unique. Components are arranged vertically between triangular circuit boards, in several individual “blocks,” the majority of which are tied directly to a dedicated preamp-tube socket.

Bartel puts as much thought into his cabinet designs as he does his circuits, and everything about the Sky King’s construction is aimed at enhancing resonance and sonic depth. The cabinet walls are thinner than those of your average modern amp, and the speaker baffle is semi-suspended— or “floating”—to maximize the liveliness of the Celestion Creamback that comes standard. In ultra-linear mode, a Telecaster still exhibits plenty of bite and twang, but it’s a rounder, earthier tone that works great for retro roots rock, rockabilly, and classic rock’n’roll, whether cranked on the Rhythm channel or flipped to Lead. Pentode does indeed bring in a more classic “blackface” voicing, but with plenty of breadth and range, making it great for just about any contemporary pop, country, or jazz playing. The Lead channel is a bundle of fun, and while it won’t do anything remotely thrashy or metal-esque, it’s a great on-the-fly option for juiced-up solos and crunch-rhythm tones. Overall, though, I find the Sky King breathes most fluently on the Rhythm channel: in either mode here it still has plenty of touch sensitivity and will sing sweetly when pushed a little, while exhibiting excellent clarity and retaining the full character of any guitar you throw at it—from Tele, to Les Paul, to P-90 loaded Junior. Add in one of the finer reverbs I’ve heard in a while, and lash on some tasty, throbbing tremolo, and this is superbly playable stuff that really makes it hard to switch off.

I found myself mostly digging the Sky King’s built-in attenuator one click down on each channel, which made volumes manageable in my studio’s 20' x 24' live room, but preserved the tonal veracity of the amp beautifully. You can click right down to true “midnight in the bedroom” practice levels and things still sound pretty good, although I’d like to have found another –6dB stage between the first (–3dB) and second (–9dB) clicks (beyond bypass mode), where the output seems to drop rather dramatically. Also, some players might like a footswitchable reverb, and engaging the tremolo brings a slight drop in output level, although that is generally the nature of the beast with this type of circuit. Regardless, the Sky King is a peach of a combo and a blast to play—a new and high-quality offering that presents a ton of personality and appeal in a challenging market.

SKY KING

CONTACT toneking.com
PRICE $2,995 street

SPECIFICATIONS

CHANNELS 2
CONTROLS Lead channel: Volume, Tone, Mid-Bite. Rhythm channel: Volume, Treble, Bass. Shared: Reverb, Tremolo Depth and Rate. Independent 6-position Attenuation controls for each channel (rear panel)
POWER 35 watts
TUBES Four 12AX7 and one 12AT7 preamp, two 6L6GC output, 5U4G rectifier
EXTRAS Dual switchable ultra-linear/ pentode output modes. Built in Ironman output attenuator with independent 6-position switches for each channel. Dual speaker outs switchable for 4Ω and 8Ω, footswitch input (dual-button channel/ tremolo footswitch included)
SPEAKER 12" Celestion G12M- 65 Creamback
WEIGHT 40 lbs
BUILT U.S.A.
KUDOS Well designed and built. Classy styling. Great tone and dynamics. Impressive versatility. Major performance in an easy-to-carry package.
CONCERNS Would like an attenuator position between #2 and #3 (–3 and –9dB), and also footswitchable reverb.

 

20TH ANNIVERSARY IMPERIAL LE

The new handwired rendition of the Imperial retains the same Lead/Rhythm channel distinctions, the same tremolo and reverb circuits, and also the same Ironman output attenuator as the Sky King, although this time the attenuator’s control is shared by both channels. Otherwise, this 20-watter uses two cathode-biased 6V6s in a more traditional output stage that ably bridges tweed-to-blackface tones, with a little vintage Brit grind thrown in when you wind the Mid-Bite control clockwise. The Imperial’s forward-facing controls and overall cabinet design come off as more traditional, too, although a conscientious build of the latter—with the same versatile Celestion Creamback—make it another lively, resonant package.

This is not intended as a knock of the Sky King (the more impressive amp overall, I felt), but I enjoyed the Imperial’s Lead channel even more, very likely because of the chewy midrange grind it induces in the smaller 6V6 output tubes. Give it a Les Paul, and it’s pure gnarly garage-rock bliss with Mid-Bite set anywhere past 11 o’clock, or perfect for dirty, gone-closing-time-honky-tonk riffs with the Tele. Mind you, the Rhythm channel is plenty rewarding, too, with a little less headroom and more compression, and that familiar edge-of- breakup sensitivity that universally screams “Deluxe.” Add on its luscious reverb and tremolo— essentially similar in performance to those of the Sky King—and there’s little wanting here. For many players, across a broad range of styles, I can see this being the dream grab’n’go amp, with a tone, playing feel, and feature set that lets you get your groove on without thinking too hard about where the dials are set.

All in all, both the Sky King and the 20th Anniversary Imperial are extremely well thought out and designed, and they are simply a boatload of fun to play as a result. Both deserve some attention if you are shopping in this market, but for its bigger, bolder voice and the increased versatility brought by its dual-mode output stage and independent Attenuation controls, the Sky King lands an Editors’ Pick Award.

MODEL

20TH ANNIVERSARY IMPERIAL LE

CONTACT toneking.com
PRICE $2,595 street

SPECIFICATIONS

CHANNELS 2
CONTROLS Lead channel: Volume, Tone, Mid-Bite. Rhythm channel: Volume, Treble, Bass. Shared: Reverb, Tremolo Depth and Rate, 6-position Attenuation control (rear panel)
POWER 20 watts
TUBES Four 12AX7 and one 12AT7 preamp, two 6V6GT output, 5AR4 rectifier
EXTRAS Built-in Ironman output attenuator with 6-position switch. Footswitch input (dual-button channel/ tremolo footswitch included)
SPEAKER 12" Celestion G12M- 65 Creamback
WEIGHT 30 lbs
BUILT U.S.A.
KUDOS Excellent build quality. Appealing tones and playability. A great grab’n’go combo.
CONCERNS Would like an attenuator position between #2 and #3 (–3 and –9dB), and also footswitchable reverb.

COMMENTS

comments powered by Disqus

Reader Poll

Favorite Fender Guitar (non-Strat or Tele)





See results without voting »