Former tone king head honcho Mark Bartel recently started building amps under his own name after passing his longtime brand to a new owner. The results are both something to behold and an entirely next level up from the amps for which he was previously known. As Bartel himself says, “I really wanted to create a new category of elite, master-built, bespoke guitar amps that truly represents the best of what I can do.”
The Starwood derives 28 watts from two cathode-biased 6L6 output tubes and has a single 12-inch Celestion Alnico Cream speaker. As with all new Bartel amps, the circuit is entirely original and not derived from any existing guitar amp, new or old. Bartel tells us that the volume pot actually controls the gain in two different stages of the circuit simultaneously, so the Starwood feels like a low-gain amp at lower settings and a high-gain amp at higher settings.
The preamp incorporates EQ stages for the high and low frequencies that are unique and entirely independent (they even occur in different parts of the signal chain), and the innovative master volume circuit features an interstage transformer between the preamp and output stages to allow an unprecedented degree of tone retention as you dial down the decibels. The chassis contains an unparalleled number of either custom or self-designed and in-house-fabricated parts, all artfully hand-wired together. Such extremes of design follow through to the cabinet, which is constructed entirely of solid woods. It incorporates a unified body-and-baffle design, using eastern white pine for the former, and 12 pieces of pine and solid African mahogany for the latter (no ply whatsoever in this baffle). The tweed portion of the two-tone exterior is finished in five coats of hand-brushed lacquer, and you lift it all by a custom handle stitched by Brookwood Leather.
Testing with a Les Paul and a Stratocaster quickly revealed that the outward simplicity of the control set belies the amp’s range and versatility. The Starwood is sweet, clear, dynamic, musical and expressive throughout a broad range of settings, while the cabinet projects a resonant, balanced, room-filling sound that’s really something special. And while the Starwood is not difficult to dial in, it does require that you reconfigure your preconceptions. In addition to the volume control’s Jekyll-and-Hyde-like behavior, the gain is increased as you turn down the tone controls. For their part, the tone controls dramatically revoice the overall sound as you gradually wind them up. With volume set at four and treble and bass settings each at zero, the Starwood achieves a singing, cranked Plexi-like tone, while just raising the treble to five tames that toward a cleaner Plexi-like sound. Placing each tone control at seven yields classic blackface cleans, while maxing them delivers a scooped-blackface texture. Dial it from there and back again, and you’ll discover tweed and Vox-like personalities. (Bartel has a handy instruction sheet that guides you toward many such settings.) The Starwood really is its own thing throughout, and a luscious, tactile, infectious thing at that.
The controls are so interactive that you need to consider resetting everything to complement everything else. Which is to say that adding just a little bass requires rethinking your volume and treble settings, too, but you quickly get used to it. The master works as desired (and is doubly useful for rebalancing output levels, rather than just reducing them), and the reverb is one of the best tube-driven spring units I’ve ever heard. The mix and dwell controls make the amp exponentially more versatile than most other combos, and the Starwood never interferes with your core tone until you push it to ridiculous extremes. For its achievement, originality, uncompromising build quality and stratospheric leap forward, the Starwood easily earns an Editors’ Pick Award.
PRICE $4,295 street
CONTROLS Volume, treble, bass, mix, dwell, master volume
POWER 28 watts
TUBES Three 12AX7s, one 12AT7, two 12AU7s, two 6L6GCs, 5AR4 rectifier
EXTRAS Tube-driven spring reverb
SPEAKER 12" Celestion Alnico Cream
WEIGHT 42 lbs
KUDOS Uncompromising build quality and component choice. An impressively original circuit yields rich, musical tones and surprising versatility
CONCERNS All this comes at a high price. Control interactivity requires some learning