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 small-stage accommodation.
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 cable).
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 price.