5 Tube Combo Amps

April 17, 2012

Long favored by studio players and on-the-go working musicians, small combo amps are seeing ever more use these days by guitarists who have found that 15 or 20 watts of tube power driving a 10" or 12" speaker can provide all the soulful SPL needed for a variety of gigs. An obvious advantage of low-watt amps is they can be cranked to levels that deliver a rush of overdriven-tube harmonics without blowing out the room or driving the soundman nuts. That said, improvements in design, speakers, and other circuit components have increased the punch and aggression of many of today’s small combos to the point where they warrant the same kind of volume-reducing features (pentode/triode switches, wattage controls, built-in power attenuators, etc.) typically seen on bigger amps.

If you’re shopping for a new low-watt combo amp you’ve undoubtedly seen how extreme the choices can be, with expensive hand-wired jobs with two knobs competing alongside more affordable models with enough switches and dials to make a 747 pilot feel at ease. Does a new amp that’s based on, say, a tweed Deluxe, really need anything more than Fender equipped it with in 1955? In many circumstances probably not, and a few celebrated boutique makers have proven this by recreating iconic amps practically verbatim. But unless you’ve chosen to martyr yourself by carrying nothing more than a guitar, amp, and directions to the gig, having a few extra features built into your amp can be a great thing. After all, why carry pedals for distortion, reverb, tremolo, and EQ if you don’t need to—especially if you’re just heading out for a rehearsal?

This roundup of five recently introduced tube combos—the Carr Sportsman, Goodsell Dominatrix 18, Fender EC Tremolux, Vox AC15C2 Twin, and the VHT Special 12/20RT—is representative of the diversity that exists in today’s amp market. Though all are powered by either 6V6 or EL84 tubes (the VHT can digest 6L6s and EL34s as well) and push between 12 and 20 watts into a 12" speaker (two in Vox’s case), their features and the way those functions are implemented make them different as night and day.

We tested these amps with a variety of guitars that included Fender Strats, Teles, and a Blacktop Jazzmaster, Fernandes S and T models, a Fano Stratosphear, a Gibson Les Paul, a G&L Korina ASAT Junior II, and a PRS SC58.

Carr Sportsman

Tested By Michael Ross

Some amp manufacturers believe the more bells and whistles the better. When all those switches and knobs offer real-world tone shaping, this is a plus. Yet too often they deliver ultra-subtle changes that are hard to discern over pounding drums and washes of keys, while complicating operation and adding tonesucking circuitry to the signal path. Steve Carr is no stranger to making amps with the occasional extra switch or knob, but his specialty is combos that deliver classic tones with a minimum of fuss.

The Sportsman’s 6V6 power stage and brown Tolex covering echo the vintage vibe of an old Fender Princeton or Deluxe, while the white control panel features pointerstyle Volume, Treble, Mid, Bass, and Reverb controls, along with a Max knob for the “headroom attenuator.” The on/off switch offers a choice of polarity once the standby switch is engaged.

All Carr amps feature point-to-point construction and premium-grade components, and the Sportsman adds adhesive foam to protect the MOD reverb tank (and damp unwanted resonance), and a strain relief on the hospital ICU-grade power cord to prevent you from losing or forgetting it. A heavy-duty TMI transformer, 120-watt 12" Eminence Patriot Red White & Blues speaker, and a handcrafted-in-house, yellow pine cabinet with glued dovetail joints, combine to make a hefty 42-pound rig.

Tested with a humbucker-equipped Fender Blacktop Jazzmaster, and Fernandes S- and T-type guitars, the Carr delivered a lot of headroom for a 19-watt amp, and sounded very Fender-like with the Mid knob rolled back. This also increased the headroom, staving off any kind of breakup until almost two o’clock on the Volume—even with humbuckers! With the Mids cranked, the Sportsman started to bark as early as nine o’clock, making the Mid knob a defacto drive control.

This was all with the headroom attenuator’s Max knob, well, maxed. This is not a master volume—the overdriven sound with the Volume at nine cleaned up completely as I lowered the Max knob. But by turning the Volume back up I was able to match the former tone almost exactly, just at a lower volume. At its lowest settings, with the Volume full up, the Max knob produced rich crunch tones at bedroom volumes without a hint of fizz. But the true glory of the Sportsman appeared with both Max and Volume up all the way, which yielded the kind of harmonically complex, “edge of feedback on any note” tone I’ve heard on amps costing up to a grand more. Did I mention the Sportsman loves pedals? In clean or dirty settings, it let the quirky character of my boutique stompboxes shine through with amazing clarity.

Gain aficionados and those who like amps with an airplane cockpit’s worth of knobs and switches will find plenty meeting their specs elsewhere. However, if you love small American combos but wish for more headroom, reliability, and tone options, you are the target market for the Carr Sportsman.

Fender EC Tremolux

Tested by James Nash

Some of Fender’s most enduring, gig-proven creations of late have resulted from artist collaboration on factory hot-rodded instruments, such as the Eric Johnson and Jeff Beck Strats. Now, Fender is extending that successful formula to amplifiers by tweaking classic ’50s “tweed” designs with suggestions from another undeniably qualified authority, Eric Clapton.

The EC Tremolux is based on the venerable “narrow panel” 5E3 Deluxe originally produced from 1955-1960, and featured on legendary recordings by Larry Carlton, Billy Gibbons, and Neil Young. Under Clapton’s direction, the EC Tremolux adds significant mods such as fixed biasing for more punch, output-tube tremolo, power attenuation, and a Celestion G12-65 speaker.

The basic layout of this tweed, chrome, and leather beauty is as simple as it gets with just Volume, Tone, and Tremolo Speed (clickstop for “off”) controls. Inputs are normal and low-gain. The original Eisenhower-era Deluxe included additional “microphone” inputs that some players exploit for interactive tonal quirks, but I appreciated the redesigned simplicity of the EC. The only remotely modern feature is a power attenuator, engaged via toggle switch.

Build quality is impressive, from the solid pine cabinet and lacquered tweed to the Sprague electrolytic caps and Mercury Magnetics transformers. For comparison, I peeked under the hood of a Victoria 20112—a popular boutique “Deluxe” clone—and found some costlier parts like carbon-comp resistors and “orange drop” caps, but the Fender’s components are also high quality, neatly arranged, and hand-soldered to an eyelet board.

Plugging in a ’60 Relic Strat, I closed my eyes, slid a few sixths, and was immediately transported to the Capitol Theater in South Memphis. From the immaculately detailed midrange to the round, burnished highs to the squishy, slightly flabby lows, everything about the Tremolux experience is authentic ’50s Fender, right down to the minimally filtered power-supply hum. The amp stays clean until about 3 on the Volume control— from there rapidly getting gooey and unbelievably spongy and compressed, with notes rasping, popping, and spitting their way out. Look elsewhere for “Blackface” sparkle, Marshall crunch, or VOX chime. Like any good tweed Fender, the Tremolux amp’s singular purpose is warm, rich, syrupy midrange.

The Tone control goes to 12, but you might wish it went higher. Strat and Tele bridge pickups sound huge, thickened, and smoothed by the Celestion G12-65, and there’s enough bite for Hendrix-y singlecoil neck tones—but just barely. You’ll need a treble booster or bright overdrive pedal to cut through a band with a Les Paul, and for darker guitars a Celestion Greenback or Blue Alnico might be a better speaker choice.

The footswitchable bias tremolo conjures a wonderfully bubbling and deep swampy throb. It’s also a bit of a one-trickster, with no depth control, and limited speed range (at its slowest setting it about perfectly matches Slowhand’s “We’re All the Way”). The power attenuator works well, taming the overdrive to coffeehouse levels, while dulling the tone only slightly. At full power the Tremolux pushes about the perfect volume for naturally overdriven blues in a small club, making a mic mandatory for projecting anything remotely clean over a drum kit.

When auditioned side-by-side with the Victoria 20112, the Tremolux revealed its hot-rodded side, sounding somewhat louder and punchier, possibly due to the fixed biasing. At identical settings, the Tremolux was darker and bolder, the Victoria more delicate and sparkling. But swapping tubes and tweaking knobs resulted in nearly interchangeable tones, and the comparison yielded no clear victor.

The EC Tremolux is a stunning amplifier that can hang with the best of the new “tweeds.” You can find boutique clones with more exotic parts, but for pure sonics the Fender breathes the same rarified air, and offers additional useful features and a Fender pedigree. It’s a specialized amplifier with limited headroom and tonal range, but for a golden-toned retro, the EC Tremolux is a chart-topper.

Goodsell Dominatrix 18

Tested By Michael Ross

The highly collectable Watkins Dominator appeared in Great Britain in 1956, possibly inspiring the original Marshall 18-watt combo. With 17 watts pushing two 10" speakers, it served more as a studio amp than a live combo, and is rumored to have been used by Jimmy Page on some classic records of the era. The Dominatrix 18 is inspired by the Watkins Dominator (primarily in the design of its phase inverter), and is also similar in some ways to Goodsell’s Super 17, though the Dominatrix’s controls veer off radically. Gone are the Super 17’s tremolo and single-tone controls, replaced by a full tone stack of Treble, Mid, and Bass. Master volume and Reverb controls complete the knob count.

The standard Dominatrix comes in basic black (custom colors are extra), but it’s not short on style, with cool white knobs set on a snazzy red top-mounted plate.

A large upper back panel nearly meets the lower one for an almost closed cabinet. Accessing the two EL84 power tubes, three 12AX7 preamp tubes, and JJ 5Y3 rectifier requires removing the upper panel—a simple enough job with a power screwdriver, but not one you would want to have to tackle at a gig. Tube ventilation is through a screen set in the top under the handle, which got a little toasty after an hour or so of playing.

Tested with a humbucker-equipped Fender Blacktop Jazzmaster, as well as Fernandes S- and T-type guitars, I quickly understood why 18-watt amps are so popular with touring pros these days. The Dominatrix proffered plenty of controllable power—more than enough to cut over all but the heaviest drummer—and a surprising amount of clean headroom as well. “Cut” is the operative word here, and the Dominatrix waves its Union Jack high, delivering a clean sound that is perfect for pop jangle or edgier blues. At around noon on the Volume, the amp enters raunchy crunch territory, with the highly interactive tone circuitry serving up excellent classic and modern rock tones. Single-coils produced a lot of top-end slice, which seemed to come mainly from the speaker, as running the amp through a cabinet with an Eminence Texas Heat speaker tamed the highs quite nicely.

On the other hand, the Dominatrix loves humbuckers, serving up a variety of British- style grit, including a stinging Bluesbreakers tone. The reverb sounds great at lower volumes, but the amp delivers enough rich overtones that I tended to not even use it—especially when running the amp at high levels.

Bottom line: The Goodsell Dominatrix 18 offers a nice spread of sweet to nasty tube tones at a reasonable price. And if the early rock sounds of England are your thing, you may want to put yourself in the hands of this musical mistress.

VHT Special 12/20RT Combo

Tested by Art Thompson

The latest in VHT’s growing line of Special series amps is the 12/20RT Combo, which adds tube-driven reverb and tremolo. As with previous 12/20s, the RT uses two 6V6s in cathode bias to deliver 12 watts, and can also be powered with 6L6s or EL34s (not included) for 20 watts. The plywood cabinet is covered in black vinyl with snazzy white piping on the grille, and it houses a steel chassis that contains a pair of glass-epoxy eyelet boards with hand-wired leads to the pots, jacks, switches, and tube sockets.

With top-mounted controls for Volume (Pull Boost), Tone, Reverb (Pull Deep), Tremolo, Speed, and Watts—along with a 3-position Texture switch and a 6-position tremolo Depth switch—the 12/20RT offers a lot of ways to get your sound. The emphasis is on grind, as this rock-ready amp starts to distort when the Volume gets to around nine o’clock (or closer to 12 with single-coils). Gritty rhythm tones lurk until about two o’clock, where the touch-responsive sustain becomes progressively more lead friendly as you turn up the wick. Activating the footswitchable boost pours on more girthy distortion, with just enough volume increase to lift a solo out of the mix. It’s sort of like kicking on an overdrive pedal, though the sound is pure tube. The 12/20RT is very dynamic— you can always get a cleaner tone by rolling back your guitar’s volume—and though the amp has no master volume, turning down the Watts control reduces the volume while keeping the overdriven tone and feel largely intact (especially if you don’t go much below two o’clock). Running the tubes in triode mode is yet another way to lower volume without overly affecting the dynamic response.

A Texture switch that provides two flavors of sonic thickening bolsters the 12/20’s lone Tone control. This can be effective for, among other things, coaxing more beef from single-coils or summoning a rounder jazz sound from a solidbody’s neck pickup. The 12/20RT also invites tube swapping, which can offer different kinds of tonal benefits. For example, replacing the 6V6s with EL84s (optional socket adapters are needed to do this) took the sound in a janglier direction with lots of chiming harmonics (nice with a Gibson Les Paul and a PRS SC58), while installing EL34s elicited more clean headroom. You may also choose to run the 6V6s in “High” mode, which juices their plates to 420 volts—same as a Fender Deluxe.

On the ’verb side there’s a ton of warmsounding “sproing” on tap even before activating the Deep switch, which creates a potential tsunami of spring-generated reflection. Surf dudes will dig this, but it’s difficult to find more subtle textures due to the Reverb control’s quick transition from wet to off. On the flip side, the old-school-style “bias wiggle” tremolo is more polite than pummeling. Turning the Depth switch clockwise sweeps the effect from brighter to more deeply throbbing, but even with everything maxed out, the pulse stays relatively smooth and nonchoppy. The Speed switch’s fast/slow settings determine the range of the Speed control, so there’s a lot of adjustment available for dialing in the tremolo rate.

With its toneful distortion, bounty of features, hand-wired circuitry, and affordable price, the 12/20RT is a sweet deal. You can control it six ways to Sunday before even trying different tubes on for size, and as long as you don’t need a ton of clean range, it’s an excellent choice for lower-volume gigs, recording, and rehearsals.

Vox AC15C2 Twin

Tested by James Nash

Ever since Fender boosted his twin to 80 watts in 1958, most amp builders have followed Leo’s lead and reserved the 2x12 combo for high-powered fire-breathers. But with the AC15C2, Vox couples the deep, full sound of two 12s with the eardrum- friendly AC15, creating an uncommonly big-toned combo.

The AC15C2 runs a pair of EL84s in cathode bias for 15 watts, just like the 1962 AC15 Twin that inspired it. But from there, Vox makes some modern choices, such as a solid-state rectifier, a 12AX7-powered preamp, and G12M ceramic Celestions (the original AC15 used a tube rectifier, an EF86 tube in the Normal channel, and alnico speakers). In addition, the new Twin adds significant upgrades like a large-tank spring reverb and a shared Master Volume.

The AC15C2’s PCB-mounted tubes are accessible without unbolting the chassis (a big advantage over a vintage Vox). Most of the hardware is plastic, but seems reasonably durable, and the cabinet is medium-density fiberboard, which is sturdy but heavy. Reverb and tremolo are footswitchable, and the back-panel speaker jacks are unusually flexible, allowing you to add another cab using the External Loudspeaker jack, or mute the onboard Greenbacks entirely with the Extension jack—very cool!

I tested the AC15C2 with a variety of Fender, Gibson, and PRS guitars, and with all, the Vox delivered tone to match its classic looks. The Normal channel excels at clear, shimmering chords, brimming with characteristic Vox sparkle, jangle, and midrange honk. There’s plenty of girth for single-note lines and chicken pickin’, and a surprising amount of gain on tap for a “clean” channel. The Normal input has no EQ, but I found enough range in the shared Tone Cut to warm up a snappy Tele or brighten a Les Paul’s neck humbucker.

The Top Boost channel isn’t over the top by modern standards, but it kicks in enough drive for Brian May-style sustaining leads. High gain distortion can get a bit buzzy with the master set low, but judicious use of the Treble and Cut controls yielded a fat bedroom solo tone. The amp warms up wonderfully at gigs, delivering a lead voice that’s articulate and slicing (though more spongy than punchy) with a low end that, while not exactly chunky, is clear and grinding. It’s a unique sound, one that’s familiar yet undeniably different from Fender- or Marshall-style overdrive.

Both channels feed the onboard effects: a spring reverb with a spacious, slightly metallic ring, and a deep, smoothly throbbing tremolo, which adds an undulating pulse you can hear when you stop playing. This might be distracting to some, but I found the artifact to be swampy and vibey.

Unfortunately, the AC15C2 has no channel switching, so you’ll need an A/B box to footswitch between Normal and Top Boost. And the shared Master makes it impossible to stomp immediately from highly saturated to sparkling clean without knob twiddling. But this Vox positively shines as an old-school one-toner. It plays well with pedals (an Xotic AC Booster easily pushed it into infinite sustain), and it cleans up tremendously well. With the amp dimed and teetering on the edge of feedback, I found a deliciously chiming clean tone by backing my Strat’s volume down to 2—many players could plug in, turn up, and get all the gain range they need at the guitar.

The more I used the AC15C2, the more I appreciated its unusual low-wattage 2x12 format. The big cabinet and dual Greenbacks churn out way more sound than a typical compact 1x12, but with a voice that’s more full than loud. The power tubes get crunchy at average club stage levels, so it’s not the right amp for high-volume clean funk, or for tight, gain-y chunk. But for players who like all their riffs warmed in the glow of organic overdrive, the AC15C2 is an outstanding choice at a bargain price.


Carr Sportsman

CONTACT Carr Amplifiers, (919) 545-0747; carramps.com
PRICE $2,190 1x12, $2,090 1x10, $2,010 head, retail
CONTROLS Volume, Treble, Mid, Bass, Reverb, Headroom
POWER 16 watts clean, 19 watts maxed
TUBES Two 12AX7 and two 12AT7 preamp tubes, two 6V6 output tubes
EXTRAS Variable Headroom control. Reverb
SPEAKERS One 12" Eminence Patriot Red White & Blue
WEIGHT 42 lbs
KUDOS Warm, complex, American tone with a surprising amount of headroom for a small amp.

Fender EC Tremolux

CONTACT Fender Musical Instruments, (480) 596-9690; fender.com
PRICE $2,799 retail/$1,999 street
CONTROLS Volume, Tone, Tremolo Speed, Output (high/low)
POWER 12 watts
TUBES Three Groove Tubes 12AX7A preamp tubes, two Electro- Harmonix 6V6GT output tubes, Ruby 5Y3GT rectifier
EXTRAS Onboard power attenuator. Tremolo footswitch
SPEAKERS One 12" Celestion Heritage G12-65 (8Ω)
WEIGHT 25 lbs
KUDOS Nails the ’50s Fender “tweed” tone with stellar tremolo and a useful attenuator.
CONCERNS Best paired with brighter guitars. Expensive.

Goodsell Dominatrix 18

CONTACT Goodsell Electric Instruments, (678) 488-8176; superseventeen.com
PRICE $1,449 street
CONTROLS Volume, Treble, Mid, Bass, Reverb, Master
POWER 18 watts
TUBES Four 12AX7 preamp tubes, two EL84 output tubes, 5Y3 rectifier
EXTRAS Custom colors available for a $400 upcharge.
WEIGHT 31 lbs
BUILT Circuit handwired in USA, cabinet built in China
KUDOS Wide range of clean sparkly tones and edgy British grind.
CONCERNS Can be a little too bright with single-coils.

VHT Special 12/20RT Combo

CONTACT VHT Amplification; vhtamp.com
PRICE $749 street
CONTROLS Volume (pull for boost), Tone, Reverb (pull for deep), Speed, Slow/Fast switch, Tremolo, 6-position Depth switch, 3-position Texture switch, Watts control, Voltage Range switch (high/low), Pentode/Triode select on Standby switch
POWER 12 watts with 6V6 tubes. 20 watts with optional 6L6 or EL34 tubes
TUBES Four 12AX7 preamp tubes, 6V6 reverb/tremolo drive tube, two 6V6 output tubes.
EXTRAS Tube buffered effects loop w/send and return level controls. Tube driven reverb and tremolo. Dual external speaker outs w/ impedance selector (4/8/16Ω). Voltage selector (100/120/230v). Built-in 9v DC power supply for pedals (cables included). Footswitches included (single-button for boost, two-button for reverb and tremolo).
SPEAKER VHT ChromeBack 12
WEIGHT 42.5 lbs
KUDOS Cool distortion tones. Herculean reverb. Lots of useful features.
CONCERNS Limited clean headroom, especially with humbuckers.

Vox AC 15C2 Twin

CONTACT Vox Amplification, (631) 390-6500; voxamps.com
PRICE $1,100 retail/$799 street
CHANNELS Two, with individual inputs
CONTROLS Top Boost channel: Bass, Treble, Volume. Normal channel: Volume. Shared Master Volume and Tone Cut, Reverb, Tremolo Depth and Speed
POWER 15 watts
TUBES Three 12AX7 preamp tubes, two EL84 output tubes
EXTRAS Dual external speaker jacks with 8/16Ω impedance switch. Footswitchable reverb/tremolo (footswitch not included, $39 street)
SPEAKERS Two 12" Celestion G12M Greenback
WEIGHT 67 lbs
KUDOS Wide range of classic Vox tones at medium-to-small club volumes. Great value.
CONCERNS Heavy. No channel switching.

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