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Handwired 30-Watt Tube Amplifiers

June 22, 2006
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Yet, throughout the second half of the 20th Century and into the 21st, lower wattage amps have remained popular, and presently nearly every manufacturer offers a model rated at around 30 watts—many of which are still based on the classic Vox AC30 Twin. Distortion is also a factor in the popularity of amps in this class. A high-power amplifier with a master volume control may provide highly saturated sounds at low volumes, but that saturation will be derived mostly from the preamp, whereas a lower-wattage amp cranked up to the same volume will give you the smoother and thicker tones resulting from output-stage distortion, which is generally more complex and dynamic. Amps in the 30-watt class are also usually lighter and less bulky than their more powerful peers, yet loud enough to hold their own on smaller stages, making them ideal for club use.

The six 30-watters reviewed here boast all-tube preamp and power sections, and are hand-wired, but they each take a different approach to achieving tonal nirvana, starting with the choice of output tubes. The Matchless Independence 35 and Carr Hammerhead Mk II employ EL34s, the Dr. Z Stang Ray and Snider Chicago EL84s, the RC Davis 30 Watt Combo 6V6Ss, and the Reeves Custom 30 KT66s—and each type of tube obviously has a distinct sonic personality. And the differences in gain staging, tone stacks, and other features further distinguish the amps from one another.

We tested the amps using a variety of Fender, Gibson, and PRS guitars, and one thing that became abundantly clear during the process was that nearly 60 years after the golden age of guitar amplification, amp builders are still finding new ways to advance the art.

Carr Hammerhead Mk II

The Art Deco-inspired Hammerhead Mk II ($2,400 direct, head and 1x12 cabinet; $1,750 direct, head only) significantly updates Steve Carr’s original design, with an improved output transformer, major modifications to the power supply, and the addition of a Tone control that can be switched entirely out of the circuit. Like all Carr amps, the Mk II boasts a 12-gauge welded-aluminum chassis, chassis-mounted tube sockets, clean point-to-point wiring on multiple terminal strips, lots of shielded wiring, and custom-wound transformers.

The amplifier’s refreshingly unorthodox tone-shaping controls produce very appreciable shifts in color, intensity, and feel. The 4-position Impact control provides flat response, high treble, high treble/upper-midrange, and high treble/full-midrange emphasis for “blackface,” “early-’70s British,” and “’60s British” sounds respectively. Similarly, the 4-position Grip control provides three levels of preamp gain, and a fourth setting that tightens up the response of the power tubes. These two controls are highly interactive, and the response of both is in turn greatly affected by the position of the Volume control (for example, the Impact control has little or no effect once the Volume knob is set much past halfway), resulting in dozens of variations without even switching in the “tweed-like” Tone control, which thins the lower-mids and sweetens the upper-highs.

The Hammerhead Mk II’s sonic palette ranges from wonderfully warm yet clear sounds with lots of high-end sparkle to immensely saturated distortion that somehow manages to feel soft and rounded without losing that throaty EL34 bite—a quality at least partly attributable to the hemp-cone speaker. And even on ultra-high-gain settings, the amp cleaned up dramatically when the guitar’s volume was lowered, going smoothly from practically undistorted to slightly hairy to raging with a pinky stroke.

Given the Hammerhead Mk II’s propensity for crafting distorted tones, it is especially suited to traditional rock, blues, and pop players, though we were able to coax some country twang and even jazzy sounds out of it as well. It’s classy looking and sounds great, all at a reasonable price for an amp of this quality.

Kudos Ingenious Impact and Grip controls. Extremely flexible. Good value.
Concerns
None
Contact
Carr, (919) 545-0747; carramps.com

Dr. Z Stang Ray

The newest member of the Dr. Z family, the Stang Ray ($2,499 retail and street, head and 2x12 cabinet; $1,699, head only) was originally designed for live use by country shredder Brad Paisley, who wanted the sound of a 1963 Vox AC30 in non-Top Boost configuration. The Stang Ray sports three knobs and a basic effects loop with no level controls. The head and matching speaker cabinet are expertly covered in black-and-tan Tolex with white piping and brown basket weave grillecloth, and the aluminum chassis houses a handwired circuit on a glass-epoxy circuit board. The wiring is very neat and the tube sockets, pots, jacks, and switches are all chassis mounted. Though reminiscent of Dr. Z’s earlier Route 66, the Stang Ray has a decidedly British vibe courtesy of its EL84s, EF86 preamp tube, and Cut control—which attenuates high frequencies at the output stage.

A medium-gain amp with abundant clean headroom, the Stang Ray is a cool choice for blues or old-school rock. It’s also a natural for those who like to get their lead tones from a pedal—especially considering that even with the amp running wide open and pummeled with humbuckers, the distortion is about right for a crunch rhythm tone. The well-voiced Tone control has a surprising range, though its middle setting yielded very satisfying sounds with both single-coils and humbuckers. Once you’ve established your basic tone, the Cut control lets you tweeze the highs to get just the right blend of burnish and sheen. The Stang Ray has enough Vox-flavor in its voicing to make it a cool rig for Brit-style jangle rock, and the Celestion Blues add their own sweet, chimey element that works magically with the EL84 tubes. The Stang Ray goes right to the heart of the classic AC30 sound, and it’s ideal for stage use because it’s hellaciously loud and punchy, and exceptionally well implemented for players who like to run distortion, fuzz, and overdrive boxes between their guitar and amp.

Kudos Loud and thick, with a chimey, old school British accent.
Concerns
Volume could be overkill for smaller stages.
Contact
Dr. Z, (216) 475-1444; drzamps.com

Matchless Independence 35

The first three-channel amp in Matchless history, the Independence 35 ($3,705 retail/$3,600 street; add $300 for reverb) is a sharp looker with its two-tone covering and control panel that lights up blue for the Clean channel, white for Channel 2, and red for Channel 3. The only slightly confusing part is that the included footswitch has a red LED for Channel 2 and green LED for Channel 3. (According to Matchless, the LEDs were accidentally reversed in the unit we received.) The amp’s circuitry is rendered in classic Matchless fashion, which means everything is wired point-to-point, using terminal strips instead of boards. The components are extremely heavy duty, and the power tube sockets are shock mounted.

The Independence has a great clean sound with plenty of crispness and headroom, and even at maximum volume the tones remain quite clear. You only get one Tone knob on the Clean channel, but the EQ range (which is bolstered by the global Cut control) proved quite sufficient for our humbucker and single-coil guitars. With Channel 2 activated the grind heads straight to the zone of an old Marshall. The tones are rich, throaty, and dynamic, and in this mode you get the benefit of a second Volume control (independent of the Master), and the full complement of Bass, Treble, and Cut controls. This is a very happening channel that delivers shimmering grind tones at lower Gain settings (very SRV sounding with a Strat), and a thick, sustaining lead sound with great balance and articulation when cranked. Channel 3 can only be activated when Channel 2 is on, and the idea is that you toggle between these channels for crunch rhythm and high-gain lead. This works quite well when Channel 2 Gain is set low and Channel 3 Gain is turned way up, but be prepared for a very significant increase in volume when you switch to your lead sound in this configuration. It would be nice to have another volume knob dedicated to Channel 3, so that you could fully control your lead volume. Also on my wish list would be a means of switching channels when the footswitch isn’t connected—the current arrangement could prove troublesome to say the least if you forgot the footswitch or had a problem with it on the gig. Those issues aside, the Independence 35 successfully provides the extra level of tonal flexibility that many Matchless fans have long wished for.

Kudos Excellent clean and overdriven tones. Higher gain than any previous Matchless. Ultra-rugged construction.
Concerns
Channels can only be selected via footswitch.
Contact
Matchless, (310) 444-1922; matchlessamplifiers.com

RC Davis 30 Watt Combo

Rob Davis designs his amplifiers to be less-expensive alternatives to vintage amps with a comparable sound, and the tones that emanate from the appropriately named 30 Watt Combo ($1,395 direct) are somewhat reminiscent of a blackface Fender Deluxe, though the 30 Watt is by no means a clone of any particular vintage amp. Housed in a retro hi-fi-looking cabinet, with a single input and four knobs labeled only L, A, H, and M, the 30 Watt looks to be the model of simplicity—but its modest exterior conceals lots of tone-shaping capabilities. Unfortunately, it also conceals some untidy and haphazard-looking wiring.

The 30 Watt’s open-backed cabinet is very sturdily constructed and features a durable textured exterior coating and custom-beveled speaker baffles designed to decrease comb filtering. There’s a Reverb level control located on the rear panel (and another on the included footswitch, which is an ingenious touch), and a power switch that is on when in the down position. The three tone controls—L(ow), A(ggressive mids), and H(igh)—are roughly based on a typical Fender tone stack, yet provide an atypical amount of flexibility and interactivity. The well voiced A control is particularly powerful, acting almost like an active boost, and essentially eclipsing the functions of the other two controls when fully clockwise.

The first amp that we tested developed an intermittent problem that turned out to be due to a faulty speaker. A second review amp with a different speaker functioned perfectly.

The 30 Watt’s sound is generally warm, clear, and punchy, with minimal breakup until you push the volume past halfway. The sparkly 6V6S-induced highs and tight lows will appeal to rhythm guitarists of all stripes, and country and funk players in particular. Raising the volume to three-quarters yields crunchier tones reminiscent of small tweed-era Fenders, and diming the volume while cranking the mids causes the amp to sing beautifully with the sort of fat, harmonically rich sustain that blues and many rock players crave—while at the same time cleaning up exceptionally well when lowering the guitar’s volume control. The reverb, too, sounded very nice, providing lots of lushness that further enhanced the 30 Watt’s personality. This is a solid amp that sounds great at all volumes, with unusually versatile tone-shaping capabilities and some nice extra touches, that comes in at that magic “under $1,500” price.

Kudos Wonderful clean and overdriven sounds. Versatile tone controls. Lush reverb.
Concerns
Unkempt wiring.
Contact
RC Davis, (510) 612-0467; rcdavisamps.com

Reeves Custom 30

Back in the ’60s, the late Dave Reeves’ Hiwatt amplifiers set the standard for extraordinary workmanship, unparalleled durability, and remarkable sound. Reeves Amplification carries on the Hiwatt tradition, while updating and expanding the designs in conjunction with Canadian amp pooh-bah Mark Stephenson. Sporting elegant lines, classy grillcloth, and decorative piping, the Reeves Custom 30 ($2,430 direct, head and 2x12 cabinet;

$1,695 direct, head only) closely resembles a vintage Hiwatt—but the resemblance doesn’t stop there. Inside, you’ll find the same

“military-spec” turret board construction, with chassis-mounted pots and tube sockets and right-angle wire runs, along with giant transformers and impeccable soldering throughout.

The Custom 30 does differ from its ancestors, however. In addition to the usual Treble, Mid, Bass, Gain, and Master controls, the

Custom 30 features a high-frequency Cut control, and a Power Scale control positioned before the output transformer that lets you play at any volume while maintaining the sound of power- tube breakup. There’s also a sweet-sounding onboard spring reverb and a preset lead boost function, both of which may be engaged using the included footswitch.

Although the Custom 30 can sound a lot like a vintage Hiwatt—with the characteristic bell-like clarity on clean settings, and very British KT-66 grind with the gain turned up—it has its own personality as well. The sound is not particularly bright, generally, so you have to crank the highs and lower the Cut control to get much chime. But the mids are absolutely wicked, and the lows are tight and punchy. The lead boost provides a reasonable amount of kick for soloing, and the Power Scaling feature truly does preserve the fully overdriven sound of the amp even at barely audible levels. The Custom 30 is also super dynamic, responding to the subtlest differences in playing (despite the solid-state rectifier), and the sound cleans up nicely when you roll back your guitar’s volume.

The Custom 30 makes an excellent low-wattage alternative to vintage Hiwatts, and the onboard reverb and boost are welcome additions. Unfortunately, the control knobs partially obscure the front panel lettering, making it difficult to read. Other than that quibble, this is an exceptional amplifier that looks and sounds great, and will likely last a lifetime.

Kudos Exceptional build quality. Power Scaling feature. Vintage Hiwatt-like tones.
Concerns
Control lettering difficult to see.
Contact
Reeves(513) 451-1071; reevesamps.com

Snider Chicago

Designed especially for blues players, the Chicago ($3,000 retail/street price N/A) is optimized for guitarists who like to get their rhythm and lead tones via their guitar’s volume knob. Builder Jeff Snider says his goal was to create a 20-watt amp that was capable of behaving like a 50-watter, and by “ignoring small amp protocol and designing his models as if they were 50-watt amps” he eventually landed on the parameters necessary to create an amp with two EL84 output tubes that could deliver 30 watts (or 18 watts in the Low power setting). Now it’s widely accepted that a pair of EL84s are good for about 18 watts and not much more, but the proof is in the pudding as they say, and if the Chicago sounds as loud as a 30 watter, well . . .

To find out, we cranked up the Chicago in the Low power setting with the Master bypassed, and quickly determined that the volume was on par for a 1x12 combo powered by two EL84s. When we switched to the High setting (which activates a solid-state rectifier and rebiases the output tubes) there was a noticeable increase in volume, and the tones became brighter and more aggressive. The closed-back cabinet helps keep the bass tight and punchy, and the Gain control is wide-ranging and able to conjure everything from silky clean tones to stout overdrive. The Sizzle (treble), Bark (midrange), and Woof (bass) controls are all suitably voiced to extract happening tones from single-coil and humbucker guitars. The reverb is nice and splashy with good surf-style qualities when turned up, and the Warble (tremolo) offers plenty of throb over a speed range that slows just enough and doesn’t go overly fast. We don’t see many new tremolo-equipped amps these days, and the Chicago’s trem is dynamically responsive—the effect stands out when you play lightly on cleaner parts, and it virtually disappears when you hammer down with a heavy attack. And coupled with great touch sensitivity and an overall tonal character that is distinctly on the bluesy side of the tracks, the Chicago is an amp with a tough vintage soul.

Kudos Broad gain range. Excellent touch sensitivity. Good tremolo and reverb. Rear panels secured with machine screws and blind nuts (no wood screws to strip out).
Concerns
Noisy at higher Gain settings.
Contact Snider, (858) 565-4079; snideramps.com

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