Review: Benson Monarch Head, 1x12 Cab, and Tall Bird Reverb

This boutique maker in Portland, Oregon, has a small lineup, but Benson’s sole guitar amp model has landed in the backlines of Chris Funk of the Decemberists, Casey Foubert [Sufjan Stevens], and several other prominent artists.
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This boutique maker in Portland, Oregon, has a small lineup, but Benson’s sole guitar amp model has landed in the backlines of Chris Funk of the Decemberists, Casey Foubert [Sufjan Stevens], and several other prominent artists. Having played guitar and bass in bands in the Pacific Northwest from the age of 17 (he’s 34 now), Chris Benson transitioned from tinkering around with broken tube amps to an apprenticeship at Verellen Amplifiers to setting up his own business, all with the aim of achieving very specific performance characteristics from his flagship model. The Monarch is a 15-watter based around dual 6V6s in cathode bias with a pair of 12AX7s for preamp and phase-inverter duties and a 5AR4 tube rectifier. Controls consist of Volume and Tone and a 2-way American/British voicing switch. Buyers can select a dual-EL84 output stage for a more Brit-leaning flavor, and there’s a range of output transformer options to tailor the build too (this one has the standard Hammond OT, said to be “linear and transparent”).

The diminutive head and its equally cute matching cabinet measure 13.5" x 8" x 8" and 17" x 19" x 10" respectively, and both are covered in cotton duck ticking, which is lacquered for durability. The styling might give the amp a nifty homebrew aesthetic, but it’s an extremely well thought out design, and a thoroughly professional production. Totally hand-built within a custom-made stainless-steel chassis supplied by an aeronautical parts manufacturer outside Portland, the Monarch’s circuit comprises Mallory signal caps, carbon comp resistors, JJ filter caps, and other select components in a point-to-point circuit buoyed by terminal strips. The 1x12 cab is made from dovetail-jointed solid pine in an open-back design, with a single Jensen P12N to enhance the amp’s American predisposition.

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I tested the Monarch with a T-style Danocaster Single Cut, a Gibson Les Paul, and a Thorn Artisan with three TV Jones pickups. While deceptively simple, the amp ran the gamut between sweetly clean blackface, edge-of-breakup tweed-meets-brownface, and floored plexi, all achieved between the balance of the simple controls. From crisp Tele snap to muscularly twangy surf on the Thorn to crushing classic rock on the Les Paul, the Monarch acquitted itself with verve and gusto. More importantly, it also retained a boatload of original character throughout. A big part of this little amp’s sonic beauty came from the way it achieved a gentle compression amid clean tones, which became more toothsome and touch sensitive as it segued through crunch and into full-on lead voices—all without a hint of harshness at the onset of distortion, yielding an extremely dynamic interaction between player and amp. It was loud enough to hang with a drummer in most un-miked club settings, took a range of overdrive pedals extremely well, and positively roared through a Port City 2x12 extension cab to which I introduced it just for kicks. For its extremely expressive voice and responsive feel—not to mention its compact design and unique looks—the Monarch set wins an Editors’ Pick Award.

TALL BIRD REVERB

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Outwardly this three-knob, tube-driven spring reverb looks similar to the classic Fender Reverb Unit and its ilk, but the Tall Bird employs a circuit all its own, and is tinier than most—a petite 13.5" x 8" x 8". Designed to be used in front of the amp only, it has separate Dry and Wet controls to independently relay your juiced-up proportion of each to the output: use Dry above noon to overdrive your amp; use Wet on its own for total reverb saturation; or, more often, blend the two for the perfect ratio. The third knob, Dwell, is essentially the “depth” control, driving the spring tank as desired to fine-tune the delay’s intensity.

Tested with the Monarch rig, the Tall Bird sounded outstanding at the majority of reasonable settings. It added beautifully lush yet unobtrusive reverb when used judiciously, and an extremely tasty surf splash with all knobs set at one o’clock, yet without washing out the guitar tone the way many units do. The Dry drive made a hip tube boost in itself, although if pushed too hard it did color the sound in ways that not every reverb user will desire. As a bonus, the reverb’s tail continues when you switch off the footswitch. Superb stuff for the spatially minded!

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MODEL

MONARCH HEAD & 1 X 12" CAB

CONTACT bensonamps.com
PRICE $1,799 Monarch head and cab together ($1,200 and $600 respectively when purchased separately)

SPECIFICATIONS

CHANNELS 1
CONTROLS Volume, Tone, American/British switch
POWER 15 watts
TUBES Two 12AX7 preamp tubes, two 6V6 output tubes, 5AR4 rectifier
EXTRAS Individual 8Ω and 16Ω speaker outputs
SPEA KER Jensen P12N in an open-back pine 1x12” cabinet
WEIGHT Head 17 lbs, cab 25 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS Lush, dynamic, and surprisingly versatile American-to-British tones. Great build quality. Fun looks. Good punching power for its size.
CONCERNS None.

TALL BIRD REVERB

PRICE $699 (when purchased as a set, $799 on its own)

SPECIFICATIONS

CHANNELS 1
CONTROLS Dry, Wet, Dwell
TUBES Two 12AX7s, one 12AU7
EXTRAS Footswitch to disengage reverb effect
WEIGHT 13 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS Great tube-driven spring reverb sounds, from subtle and unobtrusive to all-out splashy. Tube boost capabilities.
CONCERNS Taller feet would make top-of-amp placement easier.

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