Roundup: Four New 50-Watt Tube Heads Reviewed - GuitarPlayer.com

Roundup: Four New 50-Watt Tube Heads Reviewed

The 50-watt head remains a popular workhorse for guitarists who require the kind of power necessary to take it to a larger stage, while also valuing the headroom and full-throated voice that only large output tubes and big iron deliver.
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The 50-watt head remains a popular workhorse for guitarists who require the kind of power necessary to take it to a larger stage, while also valuing the headroom and full-throated voice that only large output tubes and big iron deliver. These four new options from respected boutique makers large and small all spring from classic archetypes to offer new twists and tones on some familiar templates. All were tested with a ’57 Fender Telecaster, a Gibson 1959 Les Paul Reissue, and a Novo Serus J with Amalfitano P-90s into a TopHat 2x12 with one early ’80s Celestion G12-65 and one Alnico Cream, a Fryette 2x12 with Fane F70s, a StoneAge 1x12 with an EVM 12L Classic, and a Two Notes Torpedo Live load box and speaker emulator with a variety of appropriate IRs.

FRIEDMAN RUNT 50

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Having established himself as a one-stop shop for modified-Marshall tone in all its glorious shades, Dave Friedman has just released his new, more affordable Runt series of amps designed for working musicians. The 50-watt Runt 50 head, like the Runt 20 head and combo, uses PCB construction to rein in the pricing, while employing the same circuits that Friedman has used in many of his hand-wired designs to achieve some of today’s most popular rock lead tones. Friedman tells us he took the lead channel from his mighty BE-100—essentially a high-gain-modified plexi with expanded flexibility (and a past GP Editors’ Pick Award winner), while the clean channel is “going for an American blackface front end.” Looks-wise, the Runt 50 cops an offset-chassis M-style aesthetic in a usefully compact cabinet that’s more the size of an 18-watter than a plexi, although it retains the big-transformer heft of the 50-watter that it is.

Given their origins, the control layout of each channel offers no surprises. It’s worth noting that the lead channel has a Boost switch to increase gain, while the clean channel has a 2-way Bright switch, and only the lead channel has a Master. Simple it may be, but the Runt 50 still provides some handy bonus features (see spec box), the most impressive of which is a balanced, speaker-emulated DI via XLR output providing direct recording or a mic-free link to the P.A., with switches for Level, Ground Lift, and Axis (i.e., Center or Edge mic position). The engine runs on two EL34 output tubes with four 12AX7s in the preamp, and solid-state rectification. As per the Runt ethos, the internals boast a sturdy main PCB populated with signal caps from Mallory and Sprague, and although the tube-socket connections are made directly to the board, the sockets themselves are also chassis-mounted for durability.

In the estimation of many players, plugging into one of Friedman’s creations has yielded a faster track to the classic hot-rodded Marshallstyle tone than firing up an actual Marshall. The Runt 50—despite its cost-saving ethos—proves to be no exception. Little needs to be said other than if you’re seeking easy access to the kind of archetypal rock grind and sizzle that’s launched a thousand hits, it’s right here and waiting. Assessed critically, the Runt 50 might fall a hair short of nuanced vintage- or boutique-grade tonal depths at those crossover settings where the lead channel’s crunch segues into more saturated lead tones, and the voicing here is characteristically bright and crispy throughout the amp’s range, but it’s a fun and inspiring ride all across the dial for anything in the broad basket of ’70s- and ’80s-inspired EL34-driven tones—and there are some smoking high-gain tones available with that Boost engaged, too. The clean channel also offers a better platform for sparkle and chime than the under-served rhythm voices on many more expensive channel switchers. In short, the Runt 50 is a good’un, and likely to make a host of classic rockers extremely happy.

SPECIFICATIONS

RUNT 50

CONTACT friedmanamplification.com
PRICE $1,799 street
CHANNELS 2
CONTROLS Clean: Volume, Treble, Bass, Bright switch. Lead: Gain, Bass, Middle, Treble, Master, Presence, Boost switch;
POWER 50 watts
TUBES Four 12AX7s, two EL34s
EXTRAS Single-button footswitch for channel select. Dual speaker outs with 4/8/16Ω switch. Buffered series FX loop. Speakeremulated XLR DI with Ground Lift, Axis, and Level switches.
WEIGHT 33.4 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS A compact and relatively affordable fast track to classic Marshall-style lead tones with a surprisingly good clean channel to boot.
CONCERNS None.

FUCHS ODS-II

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I can’t attest to whether “the Dumble sound,” et al, was Andy Fuchs’s prime inspiration for getting into the amp game, but it sure has given him a great peg on which to hang his hat. His Fuchs Audio Technology of New Jersey has become one of the larger and more successful proponents of that popular genre, and the ODS-II is the culmination of that passion. If the maker’s popular ODS—now refined into the new ODS Classic after 15 years—represents the classic take on D-tone, the ODS-II is here to fill an objective that might be defined as “let’s take an ODS and give it everything we can possibly think of to take its versatility and functionality off the charts.” There isn’t nearly room enough here (or virtually anywhere) to discuss all that the ODS-II can do; in brief, think of it as an ODS that gives you two full Dumbleinspired channels, one with Lead mode, masters on both plus a global master, mid boost and tone-stack bypass boost on both, 16-bit digital reverb (designed by Keith Barr of Alesis), two buffered effects loops (tapping different stages within the circuit), and a crazy ton of flexibility via the six-button footswitch that’s included.

Functionality extends to a built-in bias meter with check and adjustment points on the amp’s rear panel, so you can get the most out of any pair of 6L6GCs you pop into it, and there’s also a fan (with Hi/Lo/Off switch) to keep them cool. Fuchs’s construction employs a thick, double-sided PCB for the main board, loaded with quality components and completed with hand-wired connections, plus several smaller boards for various circuit stages. All tube sockets other than that for the internal 12AT7 output-tube driver are chassis-mounted and connected with flying leads, and transformers are all U.S.-made. A lot of thought has clearly gone into the layout, which, along with details such as DC filament supplies, helps to keep the signal crisp and the noise low. Outside, the ODS-II boasts what we might call “Double-D” cosmetics, in a squat, tank-like head with the optional luxury of a finely crafted hardwood cabinet.

You could write a book on the sonic variations available from this beast, so I’ll primarily address the amp’s core sound here: suffice it to say the ODS-II provides a great and accessible rendition of that popular D-sound for guitarists who seek it in more than just a “two- or three-trick pony.” Having two entirely different renditions of that delectable clean-plus-lead-plus-boost tone yields utterly unbridled versatility, and I can’t imagine there are many contemporary rock, jazz, or fusion players who couldn’t find something to like here. That sweet, rich, harmonically plump lead tone is available in abundance, sure, but I also enjoyed tapping two variations of clean tones at will, boosting to taste, and so forth. The digital reverb offers a good simulacrum of the studio effect, and to my ears, rather conversely, sounded better on lead tones than on clean (I still find it hard to beat a dab of analog spring reverb when you want to splash up a clean electric guitar), but it’s a sound many Dumble fans are likely to appreciate overall. If you don’t need this amp’s hyper functionality you might prefer Fuchs’s ODS Classic, but for a player looking to do it all in one compact and ridiculously flexible package, the ODS-II’s achievement makes it worthy of an Editors’ Pick Award.

SPECIFICATIONS

FUCHS ODS-II

CONTACT fuchsaudiotechnology.com
PRICE $3,995 street, plus $500 upgrade for hardwood cab, as reviewed
CHANNELS 2
CONTROLS Channel A & B: Gain (pull Boost), Bright, Deep, and EQ switches; High (pull Mid Boost), Mid (pull for frequency shift of Mid Boost), Low. Channel A: Master. Channel B: Drive, Overdrive Master, Tone, Reverb, Dwell, Level. Shared Presence and Master
POWER 50 watts
TUBES Four 12AX7s, one 12AT7, two 6L6GCs (will take EL34s with rebias)
EXTRAS Six-button footswitch for Channel, Overdrive, Mid Boost, Reverb. Speaker outs for 4Ω, 8Ω, and 16Ω loads. Preamp FX loop with Send and Return levels, series/parallel switching. Post-preamp FX loop. Built-in digital bias meter with check points and adjustment controls. Cooling fan with Hi/Lo/Off switch
WEIGHT 30.4 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS A cleverly designed and ridiculously versatile “double-D” in a relatively compact package.
CONCERNS Digital reverb might not be to everyone’s taste.

HI-TONE HT50 JP

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One glance at the Hi-Tone HT50 JP and fans of the bolder, punchier verges of British tone will know exactly what they are looking at; or nearly, anyway, since this hand-wired, American- made amp revitalizes a rare variant of the fabled Hiwatt DR504 circuit. Hi-Tone is the progeny of Hiwatt fanatics Clayton Callaway and Mark Huss, with assistance in “U.K.-based component sourcing and circuit accuracy” from Glynn Reeves, the son of late Hiwatt founder Dave Reeves. If you think all this implies that Hi-Tone goes out of its way to render its amps as accurately as possible to the original Hiwatt designs and build techniques, you’d be right: components are hefty and of high quality, the wiring work is impressively tidy, and Reeves-certified build techniques are adhered to throughout the HT50 JP chassis.

The JP differs, however, in an entirely sensible refinement of one of Reeves Sr.’s rare custom modifications of the circuit, bringing to it what can only be described as an improvement. (The “JP”, by the way, stands for Jimmy Page, and represents the variation of the classic DR circuit as built for the Zep guitarist back in the day.) Using another 12AX7 tube as a cathode-follower to drive a line-level signal, the preamp follows the first Gain control with a Balance control, which can be adjusted to provide a second, footswitchable volume control (with no tone suckage thanks to Hi-Tone’s use of Vactrol switching, rather than sending the signal all the way out the footswitch cable and back, as Reeves’s original design did). The result is not so much a high-gain lead option, as two selectable levels of volume from what is otherwise a standard single-channel Hiwatt-style circuit. “However,” Huss from Hi-Tone adds, “most of our users don’t seem to bother with the footswitch, and just use the Balance control as a mild gain control.” While these amps’ cosmetics and control layout always made them look much like high-end Marshall wannabes, a poke around the Hi-Tone reminds us that they were anything but, as the amp employs an entirely original circuit, tweaked at every turn to maximize punch, clarity, and headroom, with an EQ stage that is very different from—and arguably more flexible and effective than—the JTM45’s or plexi’s traditional tweed-Fender-derived cathode-follower tone stack (the cathode-follower before the Balance control is used very differently).

Fane has earned a reputation as the speaker brand of choice with this style of amp for reasons that were immediately apparent once I plugged the HT50 JP into the Fryette cab. The combination is bold, clear, and thumping, and a fast track to that pummeling Pete Townshend rhythm tone circa Live At Leeds (albeit in 50-watt, smaller-venue form), or, with an Xotic BB-Preamp and EP Booster stacked in front, a throaty, singing David Gilmour-ish lead tone. Whether footswitch-selected or just set and forgotten, the JP’s Balance control does indeed offer a useful, if subtle, extra. The classic DR504 circuit is still there in all its glory, but the added stage helps to tease out further nuances of gain staging, while adding an extra dab of flexibility. Cranked through the TopHat cab, the HT50 JP also copped other flavors of classic Brit-rock tone, and it’s one loud 50-watter by the time you hit the breakup zone. The Master helps some, but the amp really sounds its best with that knob rolled toward its higher numbers. All in all, this is a powerful and well-built amp at a very good price, and a great option for serious fans of Dave Reeves’ Hiwatt legacy.

SPECIFICATIONS

HT50 JP

CONTACT hi-tone-amps.com
PRICE $2,049 direct
CHANNELS 1
CONTROLS Input Volume, Balance, Bass, Treble, Middle, Presence, Master
POWER 50 watts
TUBES Three 12AX7s, one 12AT7, two EL34s
EXTRAS One-button footswitch for remote Balance (dual input volume) level. Dual speaker outs with 4/8/16Ω switch (buffered FX loop available for a $250 upcharge)
WEIGHT 42 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS A boldly authentic take on the classic Hiwatt DR504 circuit with a useful modification. Excellent build quality
CONCERNS Some unused holes in the chassis top should probably be closed off for safety considerations.

VICTORIA SOVEREIGN

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Long one of the world’s most popular makers of high-end tweed reproductions, Victoria has also launched several more original designs over the years, of which the Sovereign was one of the earliest, and most fabled. The Sovereign was originally designed in 1998 as a model called the Rockin’ Reverb, and was only ever built in small numbers due to the troublesome nature of the 6BM8 tube that powered its reverb circuit, and the microphonic EF86 in the preamp. Part of what has inspired proprietor Mark Baier to revive the circuit, however, is the recent improvement in newly made versions of a different tube. As he tells us, “When the new Tung-Sol EF806S was introduced, the world finally had a stable enough EF86 to get serious.” To keep hassles to a minimum, the new Sovereign drops the reverb option altogether, but includes a tube-buffered FX loop so you can inject your own, with both a Blend control for dialing in depth of effect, and a Level control, which doubles as a master volume or output booster when nothing is inserted into the loop. To further enable your gain structuring, the dual inputs present considerably different sensitivities to the preamp, 1 being noticeably hotter than 2.

Put simply, think of this unusual Victoria creation as a Marshall JTM45-meets-plexitype amp powered by a pair of EL34 output tubes (6L6s or KT66s can also be used with rebiasing), but with a juicy EF86 pentode preamp tube in front of the standard 12AX7 in the first gain stage, which can be dialed in via the Gain control to ramp up varying flavors of thick, creamy crunch and lead tones. Other bonus features include a Resonance control, which fine-tunes the low-end response, and a half-power mode accessible via the 3-way Standby switch. The Sovereign looks great outside, with a vintage-M-style dress that includes a lusciously tactile cloth in the sandwich-front design. Inside, the amp reveals the robust and high-quality standards we’ve come to expect from Victoria, following the company’s Fender-inspired eyelet-board construction long seen in its other products.

With the Gain knob at “0” and only 12AX7-induced gain via the Volume control, the Sovereign already puts out an extremely tasty rendition of mid-’60s, transition-era Marshall tone, with a chewy, tactile playing feel and a voice that’s classic rock ’n’ roll. Gradually add in the EF86, and things really get interesting. There is serious sizzle available here, but it’s old-school gain—fat, buoyant, raw, and slightly hairy without being too fizzy. The Sovereign’s character shines through as a feel thing as much as it does a quality of sound. Meaty, rich, and broadly appealing, it’s a player’s amp through and through. And although there’s plenty of flexibility to be found in its two-knob gain structure, versatile EQ, and highly functional FX loop, it’s utterly great as a set-and-forget platform—a delectable vintage-voiced tone cushion that offers a cozy ride for anything you want to lay out onto it. The half-power mode does its thing well, although it induces a softer, rounder, looser sound along with it. All in all, though, the Sovereign is very groovy stuff that delivers hip original sounds in a fun, “coulda’ been vintage” package.

SPECIFICATIONS

SOVEREIGN

CONTACT victoriaamp.com
PRICE $3,199 street
CHANNELS 1
CONTROLS Gain, Volume, Treble, Bass, Middle, Presence, Resonance
POWER 50 watts
TUBES One EF86, two 12AX7s, one 12AT7, two EL34s (can use 6L6GCs or KT66s with rebiasing)
EXTRAS Full/Half-power switching. Dual speaker outs with 4/8/16Ω switch. Buffered FX loop with Balance and Level controls
WEIGHT 35.2 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS Great build quality. Stylish looks. Compelling and superbly playable sounds that offer an original twist on mid-’60s Marshall goodness.
CONCERNS None.

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