THE 100-WATT GUITAR AMP HAS
LONG set the standard for tonal firepower. Before the advent of
proper P.A. systems, guitarists had to rely on the volume delivered by their
amp and speakers to project sound to the audience, and the 100-watt heads and
4x12 cabinets that were offered by Marshall, Hiwatt, Orange, Laney, Sound City,
and others were developed specifically to answer the need to be heard.
Fast-forward to today, and the 100-watt head is far from being an overpowered
relic of the past.
Indeed, for many companies, the 100-watt tube head is their flagship
product, offering the abundant headroom and thunderous volume that have always
been earmarks of the breed, as well as features such as power reduction and
cabinet voiced line outs that give them greater flexibility for use in clubs,
recording sessions, rehearsals, and anywhere else that a smaller amp would
seemingly be the better choice.
The four amps on review here from Egnater, Fender, Friedman, and Mesa
all merit “bruiser” status courtesy of the their quartets
of EL34s or 6L6s, but paired with a 4x12, 2x12, or even a 1x12 cabinet, they
can be optimized to suit gigs of virtually any size. Most of them (Egnater
Vengeance notwithstanding) are capable of powering down to half their full
wattage, and the Mesa Lone Star can even drop to 10 watts for the ultimate in
We tested these heads using PRS, Charvel, and Buzz Feiten guitars, and
plugged them into 4x12 cabinets by Bad Cat, Mesa, Egnater, and Fender. Our
guitar cables were from Asterope, Canare, and Monster; and head-to-cab
connections were via Van Damme Blue Series cables.
DESIGNED TO SQUEEZE A LOT OF SOUNDS OUT OF TWO CHANNELS,
THE Vengeance features independent Gain, Volume, Reverb and EQ
controls, as well as four mini-toggle switches on each channel that activate
the following functions: Tight, Bright, Gain boost, and Mid cut/flat/boost. A
pushbutton channel selector also resides on the front panel, and on the right
side we find global Density and Presence controls, a Master Volume, and a footswitchable
2nd Master— the latter being essentially a volume-boost function that
can be preset on the included 6-button switcher to work on either channel or
both. The Vengeance sports a series effects loop, which is configured in the
same manner for activation on either or both channels via a 3-position
mini-toggle on the footswitch (which connects using a standard XLR
On the rear panel are two
speaker jacks with an impedance selector (4Ω, 8Ω,
16Ω), bias test points and trimpots for the two pairs of 6L6 power
tubes, a speaker emulated XLR recording out, effects loop jacks with Send and
Return Level controls, and three 1/4" external switching jacks for channel
select, mids select, reverb on/off, and effects loop on/off. The Vengeance
looks menacing with its black-on-black theme (covering, grills, panels, knobs),
and the steel chassis pulls out to reveal a high-density circuit with most of
the components (including the tube sockets) mounted to PC
boards—seven in total—with the pots also secured to the
chassis for added strength.
Despite its multitude of knobs
and switches, the Vengeance is easy to use. Channel 1 has a ton of clean headroom
and responds well to however you configure the switchable functions, yielding
crisp tones with the Bright switch on, and your choice of cut or flat midrange
textures depending on how the Mids switch is set. I didn’t care as
much for the boosted midrange sound, and the Tight switch reduced the bass a
bit, but otherwise it was a snap to get deep, glassy clean sounds as well as
dynamic crunch tones when the Gain knob was cranked up and the Gain switch
activated. The Vengence can sometimes stand a little boost in
brightness—especially with humbuckers—and the Presence
control adds sheen and makes the overdriven tones cut through better.
Switching to channel 2 is like playing through a
different amp, as the distortion comes on strongly as you nudge the Gain knob
up from zero, and just keeps getting more aggressive from there—and
that’s before activating the Gain switch, which boosts the front-end
gain into the stratozone for practically endless sustain. The tones are very
ballsy sounding, with excellent attack and definition, and the switching
functions are very effective for getting the tones dialed in the way you want
’em—particularly the Mids switch, which yields a classic
hard-rock/metal response when set flat, and badass sounding scoope-dmetal tones
in the Cut position. As on the clean channel, the EQ is well voiced, and the
Presence control is great for getting more slice from humbuckers. And speaking
of cutting through, the 2nd Master is handy for delivering whatever amount of
footswitchable boost you need for solos. I didn’t find it necessary
to use the Density control with the 4x12, though it could be useful for pumping
up the mass when playing though a smaller cabinet.
All in all, the Vengence delivers a lot of performance for a very
affordable price. It’s definitely aimed at rock and metal players, so
if that’s what you’re looking for it’s an
excellent choice. —ART THOMPSON
PRICE $1,099 street
CONTROLS Both channels: Gain, Volume, Bass,
Middle, Treble, Reverb; Tight switch, Bright switch, Gain switch, Mid Cut/Boost
switch. Global Density, Presence, Master, 2nd Master
POWER 120 watts
TUBES Six 12AX7s, four 6L6s
EXTRAS Effects loop with Send and Return Level
controls. External bias test points. Fan cooling. 6-button footswitch included.
SPEAKERS Tested with Egnater VN 412A cabinet
WEIGHT 43.6 lbs
KUDOS Excellent clean and overdriven tones. Great
FENDER SUPER-SONIC 100
ABLE TO DELIVER CLASSIC AND
MODERN TONES, THE SUPER- Sonic 100 has two distinctly voiced
channels—Vintage and Burn—both featuring independent
controls. On the Vintage side you get Gain, Treble, Bass, Mid, and Volume
controls, along with a 2-position switch labeled “Showman/
Bassman.” On the Burn channel the controls are Gain 1, Gain 2,
Treble, Bass, Mids, Notch Tune, and Volume. A master Reverb control and a
channel- select switch complete the front panel’s feature
On the back we find an effects loop with Send and Return Level
controls, Preamp Out and Power Amp In jacks, dual speaker outs with
4Ω/8Ω/16Ω switch, and a Slave Out with Level
control. There’s also an Arena/Club switch (100 watts/25 watts), and
a Damping switch that affects how tightly the power amp controls the speaker.
But perhaps the Super-Sonic’s most notable feature is an Automatic
Bias Selector with Warm, Normal, and Cool settings. Forget about multi-meters
and test points—now you can just run the power tubes harder or easier
depending on whether you want optimal tone or optimal tube life. Way
Plugged into the Super-Sonic 100 412 cabinet, the amp
delivered hip Fender tones on the Vintage channel, which sounds big, clear, and
dimensional. On the Showman setting the tones have that depth and bold midrange
punch you get from that classic head, with the 4x12 cab adding mass and
bolstering the lows to glorious proportions. Switching to the Bassman setting
ups the gain and brightness to yield more dynamic saturation, with a rawer edge
that sounds cool for semi-distorted rhythm parts and solos. Nice that you can
footswitch between these settings too, as a blues or roots-rock player could
easily find everything they need from this channel. The reverb sounds good too,
offering warm, springy textures that cover the gamut from light reflections to
drippy surf effects.
The Burn channel offers a completely different sound
by virtue of its cascading gain stages, which let you dial in everything from
light overdrive to long sustain. It’s great to have this channel to
go to for heavier solos and rhythm parts, and it’ll deliver these
sounds at blistering volumes, but it is really like switching to another amp,
as the distortion sounds and feels more preamp derived
compared to what you get from the Vintage channel. It sounded best to me with the
Gain 1 and Gain 2 knobs sitting at around one o’ clock and the volume
cranked up fairly high. This yielded plenty of distortion, good dynamic
sensitivity, and more presence from the power section. Turning the gain up
higher, particularly at lower volumes, tended to diminish some of that sense of
detail and dimension. The Notch Tune control didn’t help either. This
semi-parametric filter moves the midrange in brighter or darker directions, but
it doesn’t work like a presence control.
The Damping switch and Automatic Bias Selector
provide more subtle ways of tailoring the Super-Sonic to suit your needs, as
does the Arena/Club switch, which tames the volume and is useful for getting
more power-amp grind at lower levels.
All considered, though, the Super-Sonic definitely covers a lot of
sonic ground, and its Vintage channel is so good that a case could be made for
buying this amp just for those righteous Showman and Bassman tones.
PRICE $1,199 street
CONTROLS Vintage channel: Gain, Showman/ Bassman
switch, Treble, Bass, Mid, Volume. Burn channel: Gain 1, Gain 2, Treble, Bass,
Mids, Notch Tune, Volume. Master Reverb control.
POWER 100 watts/25 watts
TUBES Seven 12AX7s, two 12AT7s, four 6L6s
EXTRAS Effects loop with Send and Return Level controls.
Automatic Bias selector (Warm/ Normal/Cool). Arena/Club switch (100 watts/25
watts). 3-position Damping control. Preamp out and power amp in jacks. Dual
speaker outs with 4Ω/8Ω/16Ω switch. Slave out with
Level control. Four-button footswitch included.
SPEAKERS Tested with Fender Super-Sonic 100 412
cab with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers
WEIGHT 49.3 lbs
KUDOS Lots of tonal options. Excellent sounding
Vintage channel. Automatic tube biasing.
CONCERNS High-gain tones lose definition at lower
FRIEDMAN BE100 BROWN EYE
EVERY FEW YEARS IT SEEMS, SOME AMAZING NEW TUBE AMP
COMES ALONG and becomes a serious must-have piece of gear,
generating a huge buzz and an even huger waiting list. Over the last couple of
decades we’ve seen it happen with Matchless, Diezel, and Divided By
13 to name a few. Right now, the “It” amplifier is
undeniably Friedman. Rack Systems founder and tone guru to the stars Dave
Friedman has put the knowledge he gained from playing, studying, modding, and
repairing the classics into a line of amps that bears his name, and his models
have found their way onto the stages of tone freaks like Joe Bonamassa, Steve
Stevens, Jerry Cantrell, and many others. And although we would have been happy
to test a Dirty Shirley or Pink Taco, we were psyched to put the Friedman Brown
Eye, or BE100, through its paces.
This amp looks like a very simple, plexi-inspired top
with its seven-knob front panel, although the several mini-toggles on the front
and back start to clue you in to the fact that it has a lot going on.
Here’s what we found when we plugged in a PRS S2 Mira and a
hum-singsing Charvel: The Clean channel is massive, with tons of headroom, a
full, breathing low end, and gorgeous treble sparkle. We were so knocked out by
the rich, ringing clean sustain that we didn’t feel the need to reach
for the EQ, which is a good thing because there is no EQ for the Clean channel.
This is Friedman’s Simple Clean circuit, and all you get is a volume
knob, a 3-position Bright switch, and the Presence knob. Ordinarily that would
freak me the hell out. I need EQ! I need control! But Friedman has somehow
designed a clean channel that can be all things to all people, no matter what
guitar, no matter what pickup. Bridge humbuckers, neck single-coils, you name
it, all sound great. It’s an amazing feat and the Brown Eye pulls it
off with aplomb.
Switching channels gets you
into BE mode, which has a whole lot of tone shaping features, including 3-band
EQ, a Voice switch, a Fat switch, a C45 voicing switch, and a Sat (as in
saturation) switch. What this channel really has, however, is tone for days. At
lower gain settings I could get perfect AC/DC rhythm tones and beautiful clean
timbres if I picked lightly. Inching up the gain brought in Van Halenstyle
crunch with humbuckers and beautiful Hendrix-y stringiness with single-coils.
All of the tones are teeming with harmonics, depth, and three-dimensional
clarity. The sounds have a brilliant high-end but never get screechy, instead
they have a glorious, bell-like clang that will cut through any mix. Nice! The
various switches are all subtle and musical, with the Fat switch being my
favorite for beefing up Strat tones.
Although the BE channel has gain to spare, if you need more you can
switch to the HBE, or Hairy Brown Eye, mode. This is akin to kicking a great
boost in the front end and produces searing distortion and terrifying sustain.
If that’s still not enough, you can hit the Sat switch in the back
for even more smooth saturation.
Even with all this praise about how this amp sounds, it’s
important to note how great it feels to be plugged into the BE100. Friedman was
striving for a “bouncy feel with just the right amount of
sag,” and he nailed it, by carefully selecting and matching the very
best components. Truly great amps are living, breathing things that you play
just like an instrument, and that’s what this is. It’s also
extraordinarily flexible and could easily handle classic rock, pop, country,
blues, and all but the most brutal forms of metal. One of the finest takes on
the venerable plexi that I’ve ever tried. —MATT
BE100 BROWN EYE
CHANNELS Clean, BE, HBE
CONTROLS (Front panel) Bass, Treble, Mid,
Presence, Master, Gain, Clean Volume, Voice Switch, 3-position Bright switch
POWER 100 watts/50 watts switchable
TUBES Four 12AX7s, four EL34s
EXTRAS Effects Return Level, half-power switch,
Fat switch, C45 switch, Sat switch, Line Out
SPEAKERS Tested with Bad Cat and Mesa 4x12
WEIGHT 43.5 lbs
KUDOS Rich, dimensional tones. Extremely flexible.
CONCERNS A significant investment.
MESA LONE STAR
THE “BLUES AMP” GENRE IS SO DOMINATED
BY MID-POWER offerings that it’s easy to overlook the
blues bruiser of the crowd, the Mesa Lone Star. Ignoring for a moment that Mesa
makes a 30-watt version of the Lone Star, the 100-watt head on review here is
both a powerhouse and one of the most the most advanced amplifiers available in
terms of tonal options. Designed to deliver a decades-wide spectrum of
Fender-informed tones, the Lone Star Special gives you a
“blackface”-style channel with a wide gain range, and an
overdrive channel that, while essentially a slightly gainier version of channel
1, features a selectable Drive setting that activates another triode stage
along with a dedicated Drive control and a 3-position voicing switch with
Thick, Normal, and Thicker settings. In Drive mode, the Lone Star is basically
deploying the same three-knob, cascading gain-stage preamp used in the famed
Mesa Mark I, which could deliver searing sustain at any volume level.
Moving downstream, each of the
Lone Star’s channels features independent Gain, Treble, Mid, Bass,
Presence, Reverb, and Volume controls, along with a switch to set the power at
10, 50, or 100 watts. The fact that the wattage can be different on each
channel has many implications for configuring tones, the most obvious being
using a higher wattage setting on the clean side for increased headroom and a
lower setting on the overdrive channel in order to be able to run the output
tubes harder. Further, the 10-watt setting also cuts the power stage to two
output tubes operating in parallel single-ended class A, which yields the rich
breakup associated with small tube amps like the Fender Champ. This is a great
option for those situations where you want that touch-responsive,
saturated-output- tube tone, but at a far more giggable volume than a Champ
could provide. In fact, this amp is damn loud in the 10-watt setting!
And that’s just the
start of the myriad ways in which the Lone Star controls power and dynamic
response. In the 50- and 100-watt settings, the tubes (a pair and quartet
respectively) run in push-pull class AB—the standard for headroom and
smoothness— and in any of the wattage settings you can also select
tube or diode rectification (10- watt defaults to tube, 100-watt to diode); the
former providing a looser dynamic feel and the latter yielding tighter, faster
tracking of notes and chords. Even the power switch plays a major role by
virtue of a Tweed position that reduces the incoming AC wall voltage throughout
the circuit to give the amp a “browner” sound and feel.
Conversely, you can set the switch to the Full position for maximum headroom
and punch. It’s a ton of fun to play with all these options, and it
certainly makes the Lone Star extremely adaptable for everything from low
volume rehearsals to big stages.
The Lone Star also has a global Output control and a footswitchable
Master Solo knob that can be preset for an overall volume boost. If, however,
you subscribe to the less-is-more theory when it comes to tone, you can
completely bypass all the circuitry related to the effects loop and the Output
and Solo controls. All these functions can seem a bit daunting, but in reality,
the Lone Star is so accommodating that you could do a gig with it using just channel
2, which, no matter how high you set the gain (and there’s a ton on
tap), rolls back to a useable rhythm sound when you turn down your
On balance with its excellent clean response,
lush-sounding spring reverb, and impressive palette of rich distortion tones,
the Lone Star answers the call for an amplifier that can pretty much do it all.
If you’re looking for a price/performance champion among U.S.- made
amplifiers, you’ve definitely come to the right place. —ART
PRICE $1,799 street; 1x12 combo $1,949 street;
2x12 combo $2,099 street
CONTROLS Both channels: Gain, Treble, Mid, Bass,
Presence, Reverb, Master Volume. 100/50/10 watts switch. Channel 2: Drive/Clean
switch, Drive control, Thick/ Normal/Thicker switch. Global Output and Solo
controls, channel select switch.
POWER 100 watts; switchable to 50 and 10 watts
TUBES Five 12AX7s, four 6L6s, 5U4 rectifier
EXTRAS Multi-Watt power amp. Class A single-ended
operation in 10-watt setting. Bias Select switch (6L6/EL34).
“Variac” power switch with Tweed and Full Power settings.
Selectable diode or tube rectification. All-tube reverb with Bright/ Warm
switch. Footswitchable Solo Level. Effects loop with Send Level control. Slave
out with Level control. Hard Bypass switch (removes effects loop and Output and
Solo controls from the signal path). Fan cooling with on/off switch.
SPEAKERS Tested with Mesa 4x12
WEIGHT 43.4 lbs
KUDOS Outstanding feature set. Superb range of
clean to highly overdriven tones. Excellent reverb.