Born in swinging ’60s England and spawned from the mating of instrument-maker Dallas and electronics company Arbiter (of Dallas Arbiter fuzz fame), Sound City amps were initially made in the back of the Arbiter-owned Sound City music store in London. The early designer was Dave Reeves, who went on to found another legendary British amp company, namely Hiwatt. Occasionally employed by Jimi Hendrix, Marc Bolan of T. Rex, Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen and the Who’s Pete Townshend, Sound City amps receded from the scene until Neal Ostberg and famed amp builder Steven Fryette obtained full rights to bring the brand back to life in 2016. Following on the heels of the more powerful SC30 combo (which we reviewed in June 2018), the company’s latest offering is the 20-watt SC20.
The sleek Tolex and piping design is a visual treat on the amp’s birch-ply cabinet, and the knobs and switches are recessed for protection. The SC20 comprises a basic system of two nonswitchable channel volumes — Brilliant and Normal — along with treble, mid, bass and reverb controls. While adjusting the SC20 is simple, the two channels and tone controls are highly interactive, so be prepared to do some twiddling to find your favorite sound. The good news is that this interaction affords an astonishing range of vintage British rock tones. The Brilliant and Normal channels are internally jumpered in parallel, so you can blend their individual voicings. Just be warned that the names are counterintuitive: Normal tends to accentuate a piercing high end and some deep lows, while Brilliant pushes more mids, with softer highs.
The amp’s valve complement consists of three 12AX7s, two 12AT7s and a pair of Mullard 6V6s running in fixed bias, with a solid-state rectifier employed to keep the voltage sag (and hence compression) to a minimum. (If you find the feel a little unforgiving, an overdrive pedal can help put back some sag.) The 20-watt output section drives into an efficient 12-inch 50-watt Sound City Power Speaker with a ceramic magnet. Also included is a great-sounding tube-driven Accutronics three-spring reverb.
It all adds up to a grab-and-go combo that’s amazingly loud for its size. Even with both channels set at only nine o’clock, the SC20 easily let me annoy the neighbors. And while the wide-ranging tone controls made it possible to dial in a sweet, Deluxe-style sound, this amp was born to produce classic British aggro rock. This baby begged to be played fully dimed, at which point it sang with rich harmonic overtones, yet still cleaned up well when I backed off the guitar volume. The SC20 definitely likes to have its power tubes pushed, offering up various levels of vintage-flavored overdrive at each level of my instrument’s volume setting. It also responded well to boost and overdrive stompboxes, however, with no effects loop, it’s not an ideal pedal platform.
The SC20 may seem pricey for an amp that doesn’t feature hand-wired circuitry, but the money goes toward a high-quality build, with a rugged double-sided PCB board and the kind of costly output transformer that’s needed to deliver such articulate grind. Notes Fryette, “The reason our amps cost more to make is that we make them here, and every step of the process is obscenely well vetted. Our chassis are beautifully powder coated, the cabinets are top-grade birch, and the grille cloth is an expensive, exact reproduction of the original Hiwatt material. The transformers are made in U.S.A., and the output transformers are paper wound to enhance the classic tonal recipe in accordance with the Sound City/Hiwatt signature.” The bottom line is, if you want to rock the house without breaking your back, you owe it to yourself to try out Sound City’s new SC20 combo.
PRICE $1,695 street
CONTROLS Normal and Brilliant channel volumes, treble, mid, bass, reverb. Power switch
EXTRAS Internal channel blending
TUBES Three 12AX7s, two12AT7s, two 6V6s
POWER 20 Watts
SPEAKER 12" 50-watt 8Ω Sound City Power Speaker
WEIGHT 35 lbs.
KUDOS Classic rock tones in a lightweight combo. Loud for its size