Review: Magnatone Stereo Twilighter

Art Thompson reviews the Magnatone Stereo Twilighter.
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The story of Magnatone has many chapters, and while the final one ends on a bit of a sad note, there’s no denying the sonic innovation and stylistic élan that went into these unique amplifiers during the company’s heyday in the ’50s and ’60s. In brief, the roots of Magnatone go back to the 1930s, when a Southern Californian named Delbert Dickerson decided to build a steel guitar and amplifier for his daughter instead of buying her an expensive National or Rickenbacker setup. His instruments and amps soon caught on in the L.A. area, and by 1939, the Dickerson Musical Instrument Company was producing a line of steel guitars and amplifiers. In 1944, Dickerson sold his company to Gaston Fator Guitar Studios in Los Angeles, who ran it for a few years before selling it to Art Duhamell. It was Duhamell who changed the brand to Magnatone and renamed the business Magna Electronics Company, which also made radios and record players.

Magnatone underwent numerous changes in ownership throughout the intervening years, and was even part of the famed Estey Organ company for a time. The last tube-powered Magnatones were made in 1964 and though attempts were made to keep up with the times by introducing solid-state models, it was essentially over for Magnatone by the end of the 1960s.

In 2013, Magnatone was revived by Ted Kornblum, who put together an R&D team that included amp designer Obeid Khan (Ampeg, Crate, Reason) and long-time Neil Young tech Larry Cragg. The company now offers a line of hand-built U.S.-made combos, one of which is the Stereo Twilighter on review here.

This swanky looking model captures the signature styling that was bestowed on the Magnatone line by skilled cabinet designers during the Esty era. Mid-Century cool is trumpeted in the clean lines of this amp, which has 100 percent cotton covering, a slim front panel with “High Fidelity” written on it, and a woven tan grill with two gold-plated (14k no less) chevrons. The heavy-duty stitched leather handle even has “Magnatone” debossed on it. For a good part of their history, Magnatone amps were made alongside radios and record players, and so it’s not surprising that these amps exude some ’50s-era hi-fi chic.

The Twilighter’s rear panel is angled upward and contains a set of cream-colored “stove” knobs for the amp section, and black versions of the same for the “Stereo Pitch Shifting Vibrato” section dominating the center section of the panel. The controls include a 5-position rotary selector (off, mono, stereo, wet/dry, dry/wet), a FM/ AM (frequency modulation/amplitude modulation) switch, and Intensity and Speed controls. To the right are the external 1/4" stereo connections: dual extension speaker output jacks and a pair of line-out jacks.

Removing the rear panel (which is secured with four stainless-steel machine screws) from the solid-pine finger-jointed cabinet provides easier access to the five 12AX7s, two 12AU7s, four 6V6s, and GZ34 rectifier. The two 12" speakers plug into separate jacks on the chassis, as does the plug for the footswitch cable, which activates the reverb and vibrato/tremolo. The cable for the optional speed control pedal connects to the control panel.

The steel chassis slides out easily after removing the four stainless-steel screws that secure it at the sides, and inside we find a very neatly crafted circuit in which the majority of the caps, resistors, etc., are laid out on a thick glass-epoxy main board and a smaller sub board. All other connections to the chassis-mounted pots, tube sockets, transformers (the output trannys are Hybor), switches and the like are done via hand-soldered leads. This sturdily constructed circuit is quite compact considering that two separate power stages require a number of duplicated components.

The Stereo Twilighter has some useful updates over the original model according to Obeid Khan, who engineered the new Magnatone line. “It has Bass and Treble controls in place of the oldie’s single Tone knob, and the power amp has also been changed from cathode bias to fixed bias for the 6V6s,” says Khan. “For the vibrato, the new model features the original style silicon carbide varistors, but the LFO circuit that drives the vibrato modulators has been modified to allow the speed to be controlled with an expression pedal. It also allows much slower speeds with improved waveform consistency over the original LFO design, so now you can slow it down to choral rates. Another cool feature is if you pull the pedal all the way back, it parks the LFO and essentially bypasses it. You can now use the pedal on the fly or preset it, and footswitch it on and off.”

The true pitch-shifting vibrato makes Magnatone amps unique, and this fairly complex piece of circuitry gives the Stereo Twilighter a wide-screen effected sound—from subtle “chorusing” to rapid pulse—all with that colorful frequency modulation. Using the optional speed pedal to control the rate makes it a lot of fun, as you can use the vibrato to emphasize parts in a similar way that organ players change speeds on their Leslie cabinets. Very cool for comping jazz rhythm parts.

Setting the vibrato selector to “mono” narrows the soundstage of the effect considerably, which takes some of the fun out of it, but might be more useful in live performance where wide stereo effects tend to get washed out and hinder the amp’s ability to cut though other instruments. The Wet/Dry and Dry/Wet settings simply reverse which speaker gets the wet vibrato signal. The difference between the two is subtle, though the effect could probably be more dramatic if different speakers were fitted. This might be a good reason to order the Twilighter with a standard speaker alongside the costlier Celestion Alnico Gold.

Putting the selector on “AM” provides a basic volume-modulating tremolo effect, which is a nice option to have when some straight-up pulse is what’s needed to make a part stand out. The tube-driven tremolo only gets up to moderate speed and has very smooth sine-wave response, so you still might need a outboard trem pedal to do choppier or faster effects.

Everything goes down better with reverb, of course, and the Twilighter’s sounds excellent. The long Accutronics tank with four counter-wound springs, and the all-tube drive and recovery circuitry produces a classic ’verb sound with warm reflective qualities that works well for everything from blues to surf. You can turn the reverb on and off by footswitch, too. The included switcher has jeweled lights to indicate on/off status for the reverb and vibrato/tremolo (the latter even blinks in tempo to the speed setting), but these indicators require a 9-volt battery (or an AC adapter) to function. Fortunately there’s no drain on the battery if you leave the cord connected, as long as the indicator lights are off.

Putting the effects aside for a moment, the Stereo Twilighter is a fine-sounding amp that delivers excellent clean tones and transitions nicely into mild overdrive as you turn up the volume. There’s no master volume, though, and with a grand total of 44 watts pumping into two 12s, things get loud as you push toward breakup at high settings of the Volume control. We also tested the non-stereo 1x12 Twilighter, and thanks to its 22-watt output it was easy to drive it into distortion at a volume that compares roughly to a Fender Deluxe Reverb.

The voicing of the tone controls easily accommodated the many guitars we ran into the Stereo Twilighter—21 different electrics including one 8-string—and suffice to say this amp more than proved it’s worth as a viable stage rig, offering deep, clear tones at impressive volume levels. In all likelihood, unless your style is all about playing clean, you’ll need to use a distortion or overdrive pedal to get grind at controllable volumes from the Stereo Twilighter. We used Dunlop and Source Audio pedals during our testing, and both produced a useful range of distortion textures that sounded very punchy and defined courtesy the Stereo Twilighter’s abundant headroom.

In the world of boutique amps, there’s really nothing like a Magnatone with pitch bending vibrato, and this feature is also available in the 30-watt, 2x12 Single V and the 1x12 Twilighter.

Whichever model you choose, however, you’ll own a unique amp with a pedigree that can be traced back to one of the most interesting chapters in the history of American guitar amplifiers.


Stereo Twilighter

PRICE $2,999 street; 1x12 Twilighter $2,249 street


CONTROLS Volume, Treble, Mid, Bass, Reverb. Vibrato section: 5- position selector (off, mono, stereo, wet/dry, dry/wet), FM/ AM switch (vibrato/tremolo), Intensity and Speed controls
POWER 44 watts; 22 watts per channel
TUBES Five 12AX7s, two 12AU7s, four 6V6 power tubes, GZ34 rectifier
EXTRAS Stereo pitch-shifting vibrato. 2-button footswitch included. Input for option speed control pedal. L-R extension speaker jacks (8Ω), L-R Line out jacks. Four-spring reverb.
SPEAKERS Two USA Warehouse-made Magnatone Custom 12s (as tested). Celestion Alnico Gold speakers available at extra cost.
WEIGHT 55.5 lbs (1x12 Twilighter, 41.2 lbs)
KUDOS Excellent build quality. Great look. Beautiful stereo sound.
CONCERNS Might be too clean sounding for some.