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Review: Kemper PowerHead

January 10, 2014
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WHEN WE REVIEWED THE KEMPER PROFILING AMPLIFIER last August, we discovered that it did an amazing job of capturing the sound and feel of any amp that we stuck a mic on. We also learned that it came loaded with a ton of great amp sounds, stompboxes, and reverbs, and in the studio it produced astonishingly real guitar tones—sounds with depth, dimension, and dynamic response. There was a sneaking suspicion, however, that we had only scratched the surface of what this cool box could do.

Despite the great reception the original Profiler received, the Kemper company was not content to rest on its laurels and released not one but two powered versions of the Profiler: the rackmounted PowerRack and the PowerHead that you see here. Both units come with a 600-watt class- D power amp, which adds almost no weight to what was already a very portable piece of gear. Christoph Kemper spent a lot of time on the power section, getting just the right voicing and feel to complement the Profiler’s amp tones and we were anxious to hear what he came up with.

I plugged the PowerHead into a Bad Cat 4x12 and started auditioning profiles. A PRS S2 Mira into a Vox AC30 profile delivered a perfect Brit Pop clang with all the top end that you would expect. Nudging the gain up brought in a great grind that went all the way to a sizzling lead tone. I called up a profile entitled “Till’s Recto Modern” and was greeted with one of the best high-gain tones I’ve heard, out of a modeler or an amp. It was massive and viciously distorted but somehow managed to clean up when I rolled my volume back. It was also dead quiet, thanks to the PowerHead’s ingenious noise gate, which is one of the most effective and transparent that I’ve ever heard. The power amp is voiced perfectly for this system and the thing is really loud. 600 watts means different things to different people, and solid-state power is not the same as tube power, but the PowerHead is certainly loud enough for any gigging scenario you’ll ever come across.

Because we get some amazing amps at the office, I greedily wanted to profile every last one of them. The profiling process is simple: Run a cable from the Kemper’s direct out to the amp’s input, mic the cab, and send the mic signal to the Kemper’s return. Hit the “Start Profiling” button, listen to a minute or so of funny-sounding test tones, and that’s it. You can tweak the profile after the fact if you want or just save it, like I did. A Friedman Brown Eye was first up, and the Kemper nailed both the clean and dirty channels with impressive fidelity. Likewise with the Showman and Bassman channels on a Fender Super-Sonic. Those two clean tones are both gorgeous, but they’re very different sounding, and their breakup characteristics are not at all the same. The PowerHead captured the character and the nuances of each of those channels, and adjusting the gain on the two profiles confirmed this. It’s truly remarkable to experience—and remember, the whole procedure only took a couple of minutes.

The PowerHead’s effects sound great and can turn one profile into dozens of presets. For example, I took a profile of the Friedman Brown Eye dirty channel, rolled the gain back, boosted some highs, and slapped on a bit of Vintage Chorus, Echo, and Hall Reverb and had an amazing Alex Lifeson- style “Xanadu” clean tone. I then took that same profile, cranked the gain, lost the chorusing, and increased the level for an ungodly lead tone. The “Wet Queen” profile that the unit ships with is a killer “Brighton Rock” impersonation, but take the delay off and add some reverb and you’ve got Brian May’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” lead tone. Any profile you like can easily be tweaked for a variety of tones. Got a friend with a plexi Marshall? Bring your Kemper to their house, snag the profile, and then create your own plexi clean, crunch, and lead sounds, as well as plexi with a rotary speaker, plexi with a Fuzz Face, or plexi with whatever. Don’t know anyone with a plexi? No problem, because that amp is in there already.

I went to the Kemper site and perused the profiles that are available for download from the user community. This was truly mind-boggling, because just about any amp you can think of is there, and they only take up about 5kb, so you can download them instantly and store a Guitar Center’s worth of amps on a tiny memory stick. But here’s the thing: Not all profiles are created equal. Not every Kemper owner knows how to mic an amp and not every amp is one you’d want to play through. So what to do? Remember that profile I love called “Till’s Recto Modern”? That one is so good, I looked into who created it: a guy named Till Schleicher. I went and searched for other profiles that he had made and downloaded them and guess what? A lot of them are incredible. A trusted source for kick-ass amp tones!

You can profile distortion boxes, boosts, and overdrives, with or without an amp. I tried a Fuzz Face into a Victoria, an Xotic EP Booster into a Fryette Sig:X, and an Alairex HALO all by itself and they all turned out great. It’s a blast and it’s incredibly easy. It’s also very addictive, which points up a potential downside: I can see myself getting so into grabbing the tonal fingerprint of every amp and distortion box that I come across that if I’m not careful, I won’t ever craft those tones into usable presets and actually use them on a tune. I don’t want to be a guy with 1,000 amp profiles but no songs, gigs, or sessions. Instead, I’m more into taking my favorite five or six profiles (with current faves being the Friedman, Recto, Super-Sonic, Fryette, and AC30), creating various levels of clean or dirty and wet or dry, and simply getting to work.

In the studio with the Kemper, that work couldn’t be easier. Plug and play and prepare to be amazed on playback. All your playing dynamics are there with stunning clarity and realism. On a gig, it used to be a little trickier, because you had to find some way of monitoring your Kemper, whether through wedges or into a power amp and cab or the effects return of a combo. Now, with the PowerHead, simply bring your favorite cab and run a line to the mixer and you’re good to go. And think about this: With a lightweight 1x12 cabinet, your whole rig—amps, effects, everything— could weigh about 30 pounds. You could load in one trip and have a state-of-the-art, 600-watt setup.

My only gripes with the PowerHead are minor, and most can be remedied by a little more study of the unit. It takes a solid minute to boot up. Not a big deal so long as you remember to have it on before the drummer counts off the first tune and no one accidently kicks your power strip out of the wall. The interface can also be confusing, although not once you learn its language. Still though, be prepared to put some time in to access the deeper features, of which there are many. Just plugging in and getting great tone, however, is pretty much instantaneous, so fear not. Kudos to Kemper for taking a great product and making it a million times more practical, flexible, and powerful. The future is here, and it sounds and feels amazing. Wunderbar!

MODEL

KEMPER POWERHEAD

PRICE $2,730 retail/$2,640 street
CONTACT kemper-amps.com

SPECIFICATIONS

AMP MODELS 200 amp profiles onboard
EFFECTS TYPES 45
PRESETS 200
ANALOG INPUTS 1/4" Instrument (front panel), 1/4" Alternative Input (back panel), FX Return (XLR and 1/4")
ANALOG OUTPUTS Master Output (2 XLR and 2 1/4"), 1/4" Monitor out, Output 2/FX Send: two 1/4", Headphones, 1/4" Speaker out.
DIGITAL I/O Coaxial S/PDIF In/ Out, USB, Ethernet
MIDI In/Out/Thru
FOOTSWITCH JACKS Two Switch/Pedal 1/4" TRS
WEIGHT 14.33 lbs.
KUDOS Incredible dynamic response. Superb sound quality. Unreal ability to capture an amp’s sonic DNA.
CONCERNS Takes a long time to boot up.

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