For all the head ’n’ cab options out there, there’s still something solid and comforting about a good combo. Grab the amp in one hand, your guitar in the other, and go. This issue we round up four new American-made 1x12 tube combos—the Bogner Helios, Dr. Z The Cure, Friedman Runt 20, and the Morgan MVP23—that spring from a broad range of inspirations to address myriad gigging needs. All of these amps were tested with a Fender Telecaster and a Gibson Les Paul.
BOGNER HELIOS 50 COMBO
For those combo fans who still need to rock the foundations of a sizeable stage may we present the Helios 50. The hand-wired head rendition of Reinhold Bogner’s ultimate modded-plexi has been tearing roofs off the sucker for a couple of years now, but some players—particularly those with strong right arms and sturdy backs—still like to haul their tone monsters in a single bound, so here we have it. Without too much of a deep dive into the logistics here (check the spec box for full control complement), the Helios conjures classic Marshall-inspired tones from the plexi-to-high-gain range with footswitchable channels, multiple voicings to capture ’70s and ’80s tones (the former bolder, the latter higher-gain), a footswitchable tube-buffered FX loop that doubles as a volume boost, and facilities to tweak other gain and EQ parameters. In other words, there’s a lot of Marshall-esque rock in one package.
In classic style, the Helios 50 Combo is powered by a pair of EL34 output tubes, which drive into a 12” single Celestion Alnico Cream with a 90-watt power rating. It’s all wrapped into a classic Brit-styled combo with the controls top-mounted, and although a pretty heavy lift at around 55 lbs, it still offers an impressive watts-per-pound ratio up against other big combos of yore. Open up the Helios’s chassis, and it’s easy to ascertain why Bogner needs to charge nearly $3k for the combo. The board does include some printed traces for switching and other functional elements, but it carries a lot of complex hand wiring otherwise, in a layout that’s as tidy as it is busy, with SoZo coupling caps taking most signal-related duties and a plethora of other quality parts throughout. In short, Bogner has thrown every trick in the book at this thing (a book he’s compiled after decades of working on the plexi Marshalls of many of the world’s best guitarists), and the results are impressive.
There isn’t room here to go into all the variables on the theme that this amp enables, but suffice it to say it’s one mammoth rock beast, and superbly versatile to boot. That being said, of the Helios’s two inputs—Plexi and Hot—I think the former, which yields an anemic response from both channels until their volumes are pushed hard, is largely dispensable. Hot is where it’s happening, and with Channel II engaged in particular, it’s a corpulent bundle of room-rumbling fun. (Bogner’s Jorg Dorschner responds, “The anemic response probably comes more from the single 1x12 combo situation. If you plug the amp into a 2x12 cab or 4x12 cab it loses that.”)
Consider that the Helios might not exude quite any straight-up Marshall sound from the golden years, but of course that’s the intention; what it delivers, instead, are the hot-rodded plexi and 2204 tones that many of us actually think of when the M-word is mentioned in relation to classic ’70s and ’80s rock. As such, you get a sizzling, raw, and raucous boatload of screaming tone just about anywhere you set it. I particularly enjoyed ’70s mode on Channel II with the Variac switched in, Bright on 1, and the Les Paul wailing for all its worth; a searing yet extremely tactile playing experience. In short, if you’re a combo fan looking for a semi-portable straight shot to that sound, you could do far worse than hauling a Helios around.
HELIOS 50 COMBO
PRICE $2,999 street
CONTROLS Vol I, Gain II, Vol II, Treble, Mid, Bass, Presence. Bright switches for both channels, ’70s/’80s voicing switch for Ch II, EQ bypass/Boost switch for Ch II. Bottom control and Variac Mode switch on bottom panel
POWER 50 watts
TUBES Five 12AX7s, two EL34s
EXTRAS Buffered FX loop with bypass switch and Return level (serves as footswitchable boost when no effects are inserted). 4/8/16Ω speaker outs
SPEAKER One 12" Celestion G12 Alnico Cream
WEIGHT 55 lbs
KUDOS A fierce, versatile bundle of hot-rodded-plexi-inspired goodness in one surprisingly compact package. Great build quality. Clever features.
CONCERNS The Plexi input seems rather pointless, and not entirely “plexi sounding.”
DR. Z THE CURE
Following in the footsteps of the Z-Lux, released a little less than two years ago, Dr. Z has stripped down the format to produce another broadly American-voiced combo called The Cure. Immediately impressive is the low price at which the long-established “boutique” maker brings in this hand-wired amp, and it’s worth noting up front that I can see no compromises made in doing so. The Cure eschews the Z-Lux’s onboard reverb and tremolo and halves the power to bring you 20 watts from a pair of cathode-biased 6V6s fronted by a single-channel preamp that merges tweed Fender and basic Marshall topologies, while also enabling some blackface-like shimmer and bark.
The amp does include, however, a footswitchable tone-stack bypass boost, with a Boost-level control right on the footswitch (which determines how much of the tone stack’s signal is dumped to ground, and thereby how hot your boost), as well as a lot of governance over gain staging and output levels. In addition to the Volume control, there’s both a pre-phase-inverter Master that follows the three-knob, cathode-follower tone stack (essentially Z’s Maz preamp), and a post-phase-inverter Level control. Around back is a simple series effects loop along with both Internal and External speaker outs. The first of these is routed to the combo’s single 12" Z-12, which is manufactured by Eminence and designed by Dr. Z to capture the rich, round sound of the mid-’60s Oxford speakers that came in many Fender amps of the day. Inside the chassis we find the usual neat Dr. Z construction, featuring a turret board loaded with Mallory signal caps and carbon-film resistors, plus a nifty surprise on the other side of the aircraft-grade aluminum box: a Triad output transformer, made by the same company that supplied transformers for the most desirable Fender tweed amps of the ’50s, and is now back in the game. The whole thing is housed in Dr. Z’s light, compact Studio cab, done in black with tasty Z-Wreck grille cloth, bringing the package in at a light 33 lbs.
Right out of the gate, The Cure proved itself an extremely versatile and great-sounding platform for whatever I had to throw at it. Just as it sits, it’s a dynamic and extremely playable little club-gig combo, with a richly textured sonic signature and a good range of punchy cleans to chewy tweed-inflected overdrive. It twangs and shimmers beautifully with the Telecaster injected, going appropriately gnarly with the amp’s Boost engaged, taking me easily from classic country to snarling garage-roots tones. Show it the Les Paul and adjust the gain stages accordingly, and it’s suddenly a surprisingly raucous blues-and classic-rock combo. The Level control works great, allowing you to dial in your degree of overdrive with the Volume and Master, and then set your desired output without radically changing the amp’s voicing or touch sensitivity—or just leave the Level full up for a surprisingly loud little belter!
The series loop worked great with a Mad Professor Silver Spring patched in for reverb, and the amp interacted beautifully with overdrive pedals I showed it, including an Xotic BB Preamp, BMF El Jefe, and JHS Angry Charlie. I really dig the sound of this newer Z-12 speaker, too, which is full, responsive, devoid of peaky highs, and suits the amp extremely well. In short, like so many Dr. Z designs, The Cure is one nifty handful of tone, and earns itself an Editors’ Pick Award.
THE CURE COMBO
PRICE $1,299 street
CONTROLS Volume, Treble, Middle, Bass, Master, Level
POWER 15 watts
TUBES Two 12AX7s, one 12AT7, two 6V6s, 5AR4 rectifier
EXTRAS Single-button footswitch with level control for Boost function. Internal and External speaker outs. Passive series FX loop
SPEAKER One 12” Eminence-made Z-12
WEIGHT 33 lbs
KUDOS A sweet sounding and surprisingly versatile “club combo.” very well built and delivered at a great price.
FRIEDMAN RUNT 20
In an effort to make his popular designs more accessible to the everyman or woman, Dave Friedman’s new Runt series scores big savings by using printed circuit boards (PCBs), while still employing quality components and a lot of hand-wrought assembly work. Friedman himself supervises every step of the manufacturing process, plays every amp, and even signs every chassis before shipping. We tested the Runt 50 head in a Roundup a couple issues ago, but this Runt 20 combo should appeal to a different enough crowd that it warrants a close look itself. In one compact package, the Runt 20 provides two footswitchable channels—the full Friedman BE-100-derived lead channel, plus a “simple clean” channel with just a Volume control and a 3-way bright switch—and delivers 20 watts from a pair of cathode-biased EL84 output tubes. Bonus features include a cabinet-simulated XLR D.I. output with voicing switches and silent recording capabilities (i.e. no speaker need be connected to supply a load), and a buffered series effects loop.
It all comes in a stout, cube-like cab that’s impressively compact on the two-dimensional plane, but boasts a little extra depth than the norm to coax a little more low-end from its Celestion G12M Creamback speaker. The look is entirely apropos of the Friedman sound’s British origins, from the black-and-gold grille-cloth, to the offset Plexiglas control panel—a nod to the very first JTM45 prototypes. The top-rear-mounted chassis in the combo version of the Runt 20, which is also available as a head, makes it a little tricky to access the D.I. functions or to plug in the included footswitch, and you’d likely need to remove the entire chassis to swap tubes, but that’s all worked around easily enough. Inside, a clearly laid-out PCB is populated with Mallory, Xicon and SBE (“orange drop”) signal caps and carbon-film resistors, and although the tube sockets make their connections straight to the board, the board itself is mounted sturdily to the chassis.
For those already familiar with Friedman’s amps, there will be no surprises in the juicy, snarling lead channel, other than perhaps that it translates so well to this 20-watt format and the diminutive cab it’s loaded into. And many players will be plenty surprised by how virtuous the one-knob Clean channel is. Clear, articulate, well-balanced (in large thanks to a very well-conceived 3-way bright switch), yet buoyantly toothsome, it’s a delight to play. And while it might not be the perfect clean voice for all occasions, it’s hard to imagine a much better one achieved this simply. But dirty is where the Friedman deed is best done, and in that department the Runt 20 is another pure delight. From wirey, bitey, Jimmy Page-style riffage on the Tele to chunky power chords and more singing, searing leads on the Les Paul, this thing simply works, and works well. Let’s call the Runt 20 Combo one smokin’ little compact box of rawk, and an Editors’ Pick Award winner as well.
RUNT 20 COMBO
PRICE $1,499 street
CONTROLS Clean Vol, Gain, Bass, Middle, Treble, Master, Presence; Clean Channel Bright switch; Channel switch: Lead Boost switch
POWER 20 watts
TUBES Three 12AX7s, two EL84s
EXTRAS Single-button footswitch for channel select; dual speaker outs with 8/16Ω switch; buffered series FX loop; speaker-emulated XLR DI with Ground Lift, Axis and Level switches
SPEAKER One 12" Celestion G12M Creamback
WEIGHT 41 lbs
KUDOS An enticingly compact Marshall-style combo that sounds surprisingly big and fierce. Classic hot-rodded British lead tones, and a good clean channel
California amp maker Joe Morgan has been gaining a reputation over the course of the past decade or so for his straightforward yet effective takes on classic British and American circuits, to which he generally adds a few extremely useful performance features. Morgan’s more affordable models—this MVP23 combo included—are now manufactured under Boutique Amps Distribution. In addition to making these hand-wired amps more accessible to players, it’s worth noting that the shift is also intended to rectify a few small-shop customer-service glitches that had plagued Morgan recently, including some notably long wait times. As Steven Elowe of B.A.D. puts it, “Anyone who has ever played through a ‘boutique’ amplifier knows immediately the difference between mass produced amps and the custom hand-wired masterpieces, but building amps by hand comes with inherent problems. If it’s successful and demand grows, there are usually only one to three people working on them, and the workload becomes impossible.” By partnering with B.A.D., Morgan now has, in addition to other resources, a full customer service and support crew. In short: the designers handle the circuits, but an experienced business team handles the business.
The single-channel MVP23 would appear to address the enduringly popular “18-watter” template, although its design isn’t so much straight-up British as it is a clever trans-Atlantic hybrid. Gain and Volume controls determine the clean-to-mean ratio from two gain stages via a full tone stack with Treble, Middle, and Bass. A final Power control governs a power-scaling network that takes the amp from a quarter of a watt to full power (stated as 23 watts) from its cathode-biased, dual-EL84 output stage. Inside the rugged little aluminum chassis the circuit board is loaded with quality hand-soldered components, including Synergy coupling caps and carbon-film resistors; and all pots, switches and tube sockets are mounted directly to the chassis itself. Covered in “Twilight” salt ’n’ pepper fabric that’s made in the USA and exclusive to Morgan, the Baltic-birch cabinet has a classy retro-chic look and is loaded with a 12" Celestion G12M Creamback speaker.
With either a Tele or Les Paul plugged in, playing tests confirm that the MVP23 strays creatively from the Brit-inspired roots of so many dual-EL84 creations. It delivers a kind of Vox-meets-Fender-blackface in its voicing, with a certain spanky crispness in the highs and upper mids, yet a richer midrange laced with dark, plummy notes. It’s a gutsy foundation with a warm, trenchant voice when kept clean, but it does go toward mild breakup pretty quickly and then into thick, meaty overdrive when pushed harder. As such, this combo rocks plenty hard all on its own, but it interacted extremely well with a range of overdrive pedals, too, which opened up its versatility exponentially. The MVP23 is a loud little beast, but the Power knob does rein in the bluster very well when needed. The MVP23 gets a little “brown” when you reduce the Power setting to below one o’clock or so, thus softening up the attack and squashing out a bit, so it behooves you to adjust Gain and Volume slightly to retain as close to the same tonality as possible. All said, and with its cool styling and cool sounds, the MVP23 is a fun variation on a well-tested theme.
PRICE $1,699 street
CONTROLS Gain, Vol, Treble, Middle, Bass, Power
POWER 23 watts
TUBES Two 12AX7 preamp tubes, two EL34 output tubes, solid-state rectification
EXTRAS Power scaling function. Dual 8Ω and single 16Ω speaker outs
SPEAKER One 12" Celestion G12M Creamback
WEIGHT 40 lbs
KUDOS A solid and stylish combo offering a good sonic platform from warm cleans to classic-rock crunch.
CONCERNS Power scaling induces a “browner” sound when used in excess, but works well otherwise.