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8 New Amplifiers

February 1, 2009
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So, ask the GP brain trust what the “best” guitar amp is right now, and you may well be met with a collective 1,000- yard stare. “Best” in what sense? Guitar amplifiers come in so many flavors now—from high-gain shred heads to retro-revamps of classic designs to budget modeling amps—and with so much emphasis on pushing the flexibility factor, it has never been more important for guitarists to take the time to compare as many different models as possible to find out what’s really going to do it for them. This month’s roundup takes a close look at eight new amps from all points on the tonal compass and price spectrum. We gave each one a thorough test drive using a bunch of different guitars that included Fender Stratocasters and Telecasters, Gibson Les Pauls and SGs, and a PRS Mira andModern Eagle II. —Art Thompson

Carr Slant 6V

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WITH A SINGLE 12" SPEAKER, REVERB, AND A QUARTET OF 6V6S IN THE POWER SECTION, THE SLANT 6V appears to be a beefed-up take on the classic Fender Deluxe Reverb. However, closer inspection reveals an entirely different beast, sporting two foot-switchable channels with independent tone and reverb controls, as well as some super-cool half-power options. As with all of Carr’s amps, the build quality is impeccable, with neat point-to-point wiring and beautiful cabinet construction and covering. Rocking on Channel One with my Telecaster, the Slant 6V’s clean tones are squarely in the classic Fender camp, with a taut low-end, a blossoming midrange, and a glassy treble response. The beauty of these tones is the musical compression that spills forth when you really lay into your strings. For single-coil enthusiasts, there’s a lot to like here, and a simple nudging of the Treble control dialed-in my humbucker-equipped guitars beautifully.

Moving to Channel Two, I conjured authentic British raunch tones, replete with a piercing midrange snarl that made squealing pinch harmonics and singing, milky lead lines the order of the day. I was surprised by how much gain was on tap. In fact, as I cranked the Volume and dumped the Midrange, I began flirting with some fairly brutal metal tones that stayed tight and mean-ashell— even when I cranked the Master Volume. Even with the Treble full up, I occasionally craved a bit more top-end detail for medium-gain tones—especially when I lightened my touch, backed off my guitar’s Volume control, or used humbuckers. The very cool Boost function adds a skosh more gain and volume, and it keeps the tones intact and focused. As a major bonus, the Slant 6V’s reverb is extremely lush sounding, and you get separate Reverb controls for each channel.

The nut of the Slant 6V, however, is that can be operated at half-power, but with a twist—two twists in fact. You can run two of the 6V6s in cathode bias for 18 watts, or opt for the more common fixed-bias mode, which yields a slight bump at 22 watts. At full power, two of the power tubes run in cathode bias, while the other two run in fixed bias, creating a subtle, yet muscular complexity that is loud and proud. The difference between the halfpower cathode/fixed modes is more tonal and tactile, rather than sheer power. In cathode bias, there is a bit more sing and openness to the tones, whereas the fixed setting sounds a tad stouter in the lower mids. Subtle? You betcha. Fun? Hell yes! Especially when you start mixing and matching different guitars with the different settings. Big props to Carr for churning out an amazingly useful and versatile amp that celebrates tube-tone nerdiness in an ultragig- worthy package. —Darrin Fox

Engl Thunder 50 Drive

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GERMANY’S ENGL HAS TAKEN A DEDICATED APPROACH TO ROCK AMPLIFICATION WITH MIGHTY four-channel heads such as the Invader, Savage, and Special Edition, so it figures that even its smaller tube combos would offer the right features and tones for hard-rockers, metal heads, and shredders. The Thunder 50 Drive, for example, dispenses with the spring circuit as found on its more expensive sibling, the Thunder 50 Reverb, but it retains the basic format of a dedicated Crunch volume control for players who need a happening distortion sound for rhythm playing, and yet don’t want to compromise their settings on the Clean and Lead channels to get it. The 3-band EQ is well voiced across the spectrum to yield everything from crisp clean tones to scooped metal textures, and the amp’s sounds are open and dimensional enough that you don’t miss the reverb. (Besides, you can always run outboard effects in the loop, which has a handy dry/wet mix control.) A shared EQ is never optimal on a multi-channel amp, but as the Thunder 50 Drive’s Crunch and Lead modes are identically voiced, you notice only a difference in gain when toggling between them. A footswitch is optional with this amp, but you can switch channels and activate the Crunch mode via front-panel switches. Both of these higher-gain channels deliver a tough, Marshall-style distortion that is rich in harmonics and not too biting or sharp—unless you crank the Presence and Treble controls excessively. The sounds we got with Les Paul, Jackson, PRS, and Fender guitars were excellent across the board, and the Thunder 50 Drive did a good job of keeping the sonic signatures of these guitars intact. This amp responds well to changes in guitar volume, but, if you’re running a lot of gain, it’s definitely nice to be able to click to the Crunch mode when you need to transition instantly from a soaring lead tone to a grinding rhythm sound.

With its birch-ply cabinet, Thunder Drive 50 gets good marks for stoutness. Its circuitry is rugged, if not particularly exciting to look at, the knobs are reasonably well protected. The industrial strength steel-mesh grill could probably withstand a well-placed kick from an NFL punter. The Euro-mandated cage around the tubes is an impediment to quickly replacing a microphonic 12AX7 in the middle of a gig, but the perforated steel unit is attached with four screws, so it can be permanently removed if you’re not worried about inquisitive fingers touching the hot tubes.

For rockers seeking a compact amp that’s powerful enough for club gigs, the Thunder 50 Drive is an attractive choice. Offering some of the best elements of Engl engineering in a stripped down package, this amp could work as a emergency stand-in for your regular rig, or be something you use when the full roar of a half-stack is overkill. —Art Thompson

King Rocket 88

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THE ROCKET 88 IS AN 80-WATT HEAD THAT UTILIZES A PAIR OF KT88 POWER TUBES AND A CONCERTINA phase inverter in a class AB topology. The head sports an attractive dark-blue control panel, a classy woven grill, a sturdy leather handle, and black vinyl covering on the outside. An anodized aluminum chassis supports the amp’s high-grade components and point-to-point handwired circuitry on the inside.

The Rocket 88’s Distortion channel was designed to produce plexi-era Marshall tones, and it has controls for Volume, Gain, Bass, Mid, and Treble. The Clean channel was designed to produce a blackface-era Fender tone, and has only a Volume control. The two channels have parallel gain structures that can be combined by engaging the ingenious Parallel mode, and adjusting the two Volume controls to taste. The three nicely voiced active tone controls boost or cut frequencies, rather than just passively rolling them off. Another cool and unusual feature is Power Scaling, which allows you to continuously vary the drive voltage from the preamp to the power amp section using the Master control, and the voltage that determines the output of the power tubes using the Scale control. The idea is to get power-amp distortion even with the output reduced to as little as two watts, but the inter-relation of the two gains stages can also offer a ton more dynamic and tonal goodies—you just have to play with the controls to discover them.

Despite the amp’s straightforward design, some of the controls are labeled counter-intuitively (and the manual could be clearer). For example, one might expect Master to be a master volume rather than a “Drive Compensation” control likely to increase distortion, and when looking at the front panel, it appears the distortion channel is labeled Normal, and the clean channel is labeled Parallel (the words Clean and Distortion only appear on the footswitch).

When it comes to how the Rocket 88 sounds, however, there’s no confusion. The Clean channel is very Fender-like, with all the responsiveness, spank, sparkle, and tight low-mids found in the best examples of mid-’60s amps. The lack of tone controls obviously limits flexibility, but Val King customizes the clean sound to your specifications when you order the amp, making it less of an issue.

The distortion channel is equally great sounding, offering up a variety of killer Marshall and Hiwatt-type tones—from glassy clang and chunk to heavy compression and spongy saturation. The feel is also reminiscent of an old Hiwatt, responding beautifully to subtle shifts in dynamics. Combining the two channels in Parallel mode opens up lots of additional possibilities, ranging from adding a little clean attack and definition, to distorted sounds to infusing clean rhythm tones with a touch of sizzle. Like its namesake, the Rocket 88 is a stylish little number boasting an unusually powerful engine under the hood. —Barry Cleveland

Orange 40th Anniversary OR50

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AS TIME KEEPS ON KEEPING ON, THE ICONIC AURA OF ORANGE AMPS SEEMS TO BE GROWING. THE brand’s absolutely sick color scheme is as identifiable as its potent, über-British tones. For 40 years, everyone from Peter Green, Jimmy Page, and Ike Turner, to modern badasses such as Clutch and Queens of the Stone Age have squeezed the juicy fruit of the mighty Orange. The OR50 is based on the company’s early ’70s designs known as “pics only” models by Orange diehards—a term born from having only funky symbols on the control panels that ranged from a cryptic “orange fist” for the HF control, to a not-so-cryptic “bass clef with arrow” signifying the Bass control. The OR50 is not a reissue of a vintage Orange circuit, but it sports a single-channel circuit and classic Orange cosmetics.

Using various Gibson SGs, as well as a Strat and a Telecaster, I ran the OR50 through a Marshall 4x12 loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s, as well as an old 2x12 Fender cab loaded with an Eminence Red Coat and a Celestion Heritage Greenback. First off, the OR is loud. A lovely, soulful loud, but forget about using it for bedroom metal tones, or practicing in mom’s basement. Once the amp is about halfway up, the OR50’s absolutely gorgeous treble response with humbuckers yields enough lacey detail for shimmering chords and even funky stabs. And yet, the topend compresses impeccably for sustaining lead work as the tones cut through a bandstand mix with a juicy attack and a tight, bootylicious bottom end. With a Strat and Tele, the OR50 is still happening, but a bit more EQ twiddling was needed to tame the more strident treble frequencies. The control that is labeled with the aforementioned orange fist is what Orange dubs an HF Control. It’s basically a presence control that, when about 90 percent of the way up, takes the Master Volume out of the circuit. This is the amp’s only footswitchable feature, and it’s a real doozy. It unleashes everything the OR50 has with a heftyyet- musical infusion of gain and delicious top-end harmonics— especially with humbuckers. Again, to really take advantage of this feature, you’ll need the OR50 to be humming along at a pretty hefty volume. (Hopefully, your neighbors will share your appreciation for badass British tone.) The OR50 at high volumes with a Gibson SG is a rock machine for the ages—a world-class sound that responds to your touch and the character of your guitar. It’s aggressive enough for knuckle-dragging heavy rock dudes, yet pretty enough to reward a blues tone snob or middle-of-the-road rocker. Mark my words—whatever inspiration you put into the OR50 will be rewarded handsomely. —Darrin Fox

Peavey Vypyr 75

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WANT A VERSATILE AMP WITH A COLLECTION OF AMP MODELS AND BUILT-IN STOMPBOXES AND outboard effects? Check out Peavey’s new Vypyr Series of modeling amplifiers, which includes the Vypyr 15 ($169 retail), Vypyr 30 ($279), Vypyr Tube 60 ($599), Vypyr 75 ($399), Vypyr 100 ($699) and Vypyr Tube 120 ($799). The Vypyr 75 on review offers a good balance of power, features, and cost that can make your life a bit easier onstage and in the studio by incorporating most everything you need in a compact, 36.5-lb package (a thick rubber handle also helps make lugging the amp more comfortable). The first thing one might notice about the Vypyr is its array of dancing flashing lights, but the LEDs do more than perhaps signal an imminent alien abduction— they also clearly signal parameter settings in low-light stage situations.

The Vypyr 75 comes armed with 12 amp models, with each model having both a clean and distortion channel. In addition to the 24 amp tones, you can chose from 11 stompbox models, and 11 rack effects, with the option of using up to five effects simultaneously. Many of the controls on the Vypyr have dual purposes, and in order to select effect and adjust parameters, you need to twist either the Stompboxes or Effects knobs to your desired processor, and then depress the knob to enter edit mode. (The Amp selector knob doesn’t have an edit mode—the front-panel Pre Gain, Low, Mid, High, Post Gain, Master, and Power Sponge controls take care of that—but holding the knob down for two seconds calls up the Vypyr’s onboard tuner.) Some of my favorite stompbox models included XR Wild (a full-bodied crunch tone that works well for metal) and the BC Chorus (a classic analog chorus with an inviting low end), while the “rack effects” menu includes Reverse—a fabulous feature that reverses whatever you play for those psychedelic backwards effects. There’s also a Looper that records up to 30 seconds of audio, but, as a footswitch is needed to enter start and stop points onstage, the effect is only available with the optional Sanpera I/II foot controller ($109 retail).

The feature-packed Vypyr 75 also includes a USB recording output that doesn’t require any drivers—it just shows up on your computer desktop as an audio device. While this feature makes it easy to record riffs, solo ideas, and chord progressions into a DAW to avoid memory lapses, it wasn't designed for multitracking, so latency can be an issue.

At a street price of $299, the Vypyr 75 is a pretty insane deal. It’s a great practice amp, a fabulous recording tool (tons of options in one package), and a lightweight, good-sounding small club amp. —Reggie Singh

Traynor Custom Special 50

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KNOWN FOR BUILDING GOOD SOUNDING AND EXTREMELYRELIABLE AMPS, TRAYNOR HAS ALWAYS PUT the emphasis on quality rather than cosmetics or an abundance of features. But the Custom Special 50 breaks with the past by strutting a cool retro look and a ton of tonal options. Besides being able to operate at 50 watts in class AB or at 15 watts in pure class A, the Custom Special has a Brit/U.S.A. switch (which revoices the tone circuit to yield more clarity and definition, or more grit and a spongier dynamic feel), an Expander switch (that broadens the EQ range to create a more acoustic-like response on the Rhythm channel), and, for the Lead channel, Modern and Scoop switches (for eliciting classic tube overdrive, or modern metal sounds). The Lead channel also gets a footswitchable Boost level control for kicking up the volume to make a solo cut through (a two-button switcher is included). It doesn’t stop there. You also get series and parallel effects loops and global Presence and Resonance controls (which can be bypassed), a longspring Accutronics reverb tank, and an aluminum chassis—a detail that helps keep the weight at a manageable 48 lbs.

The Custom Special 50 is an easy amp to get around on. The controls and switches are logically arranged, and the large pointer-style knobs allow you to easily see their positions. As you might expect, however, a little time may be required to figure out the right settings for your particular instrument and playing style. We found it easy to dial things in to produce anything from pristine clean sounds reminiscent of a Fender Deluxe Reverb, to high-gain tones that were in the neighborhood of a Marshall JCM 800. The Brit setting is the ballsier sounding of the two—so much so, in fact, that we just kept it there for most of our testing. Even the most furiously overdriven metal tones sounded thicker, deeper, and meaner in the Brit setting. The top end is particularly sweet and complex in this mode, as well. The class A mode allows you to really push the output stage for more harmonic complexity—which is pure fun—and, for louder situations, there’s a substantial increase in volume and tightness in the class AB setting. It seemed more appropriate to use the class AB mode when auditioning the Rhythm channel’s Expander function with a Larrivèe LV-10 flat-top—which sounded noticeably more “acoustic like” with Expander engaged. The reverb sounds good—and it can dish up some surf-style sproing at high settings—but the tails are bouncy and they don’t diffuse smoothly. Overall, the Custom Special is quite impressive. If you’re looking for some serious boutique bang at an affordable price, the Custom Special 50 is an amp you’ll definitely want to try. —Art Thompson

Trillium Signature Series

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KNOWN FOR BUILDING AMPLIFIERS WITH VERY EXOTIC CABINETRY, TRILLIUM ROUTINELY HAS THE last word with its Art Deco-inspired Empyrean and Seraph models. These stately amps—which go for $6,490 and $5,790—respectively, feature curvatious cabinets handcrafted from such beautiful woods as bubinga, paduak, bee wing’s eucalyptus, claro walnut, and fiddle-back makore. And, as each is made on a custom order basis, no two Trilliums are exactly alike. That said, the Trillium folks base all of their models on the same amplifier section—the Nace M1-7 designed by audio engineer Art Nace. This single-ended class-A amp uses one 12AX7 and a 6V6 power tube to develop 7 watts. Users can install a variety of octal-base power tubes (including the 6L6, 5881, and KT66) without rebiasing, along with other preamp tubes such as a 12AT7, a 5751, and a 12AY7.

The Signature Series on review here sports a more traditional look, but there’s no mistaking the flair of its cabinet, which is crafted from paduak with 1/4" maple stripes that encircle the front and rear of the cab. A laser-etched sliver logo plate looks sweet against the black grillecloth. The circuit is a minimum-parts-count affair that is laid out neatly on a thick PC board. I expected to see a handwired circuit, but, apparently, Nace favors this construction method in order to obtain an audiophile-grade signal-to-noise ratio of -65dB. The amp is indeed very quiet—even with the Volume knob all the way up—and it offers great touch sensitivity and dynamic response. The maximum distortion level is on par with other small single-ended amps (such as a Fender Champ), although the Signature typically sounds more even and refined across the overdrive spectrum. This amp also sounds excellent for jazz. Its clean tones are rich and detailed, and its quietness lends a CD-like “out of the blackness” vibe to these textures. Used with a variety of pedals—including new Way Huge distortion and fuzz boxes and a DigiTech Hardwire CM-2 Tube Overdrive, the Signature assumed a much more aggressive demeanor, while revealing a lot of subtle nuances from these effects. And while a 7-watt combo with furniture-grade cabinetry is unlikely to have a lot of gigs in its future, the Signature would make a fine recording amp, as well as something that could sit happily in your living room for practice, tube tasting, and just classing things up with the warm glow of rare woods. —Art Thompson

Victoria Golden Melody

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KNOWN FOR ITS DEAD-NUTS REPROS AND SMART REVAMPS OF VINTAGE FENDER TWEED AMPS, Victoria has turned its attention in another direction with its new Electro-King (a remake of the 15-watt Gibson GA-40 from the late ’50s) and the Golden Melody tested here—a 50-watt 2x12 combo that packs spring reverb and Victoria’s own Harmonic-Varitone vibrato. Clad in hip looking two-tone vinyl, and featuring an electrified Victoria logo, the Golden Melody has the appearance of something Gibson might have developed to contend with Fender’s high-power Twin-Amp of 1957. Construction-wise, the Golden Melody is pure Victoria. It has a carefully made cabinet of solid pine, which, besides being more resonant than plywood, is a big factor in the keeping the weight of this robust amp to a manageable 62 lbs. Housed within is a sweet-looking hand-wired circuit that’s easy to access without removing the chassis—just undo the four screws that hold the rear panel in place. Two Warehouse Guitar Sound British Lead 12" speakers with ceramic magnets are mounted to the birch-ply baffle, and a long-spring Accutronics reverb tank resides in a padded bag in the bottom of the cabinet.

The Golden Melody is a tone machine par excellence, with a deep, throaty voice, and a lot of headroom. You may want to plan on using a distortion pedal with this amp, because it only begins to deliver its fat-sounding grind with the Volume at ten o’ clock, and it needs to be turned up at least halfway—which is loud—to get the preamp and power stages sweating. From that point on, though, Goldie’s overdriven voice is a thing unto itself. The higher volume tones are sinfully thick, and the dynamic response is outstanding. This is an amp that can rage or purr simply by varying your guitar volume or pick attack, and the shower of harmonics it produces when you lay into it is an inspiring experience. The 12AT7-driven reverb is awesome. Completely in harmony with the amp’s core tone, it has a naturally drippy and spacious response at lower levels, and it delivers a righteously splashy surf sound when cranked up. Three 12AX7 tubes are dedicated to the Golden Melody’s vibrato circuit, which, based on the vibrato found in some early ’60s Fender amps, produces a watery and mildly pitchshifted throb that is beyond cool. The speed range is excellent—from a slow crawl that to a jaunty stutter—and though you have to get used to some inherent scratchiness when turning the Intensity knob, this vibacious effect is just one more reason why the Golden Melody rules. This one-of-a-kind modern classic gets an Editors’ Pick Award. —Art Thompson

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