We’ve always been impressed by the variety of amplifiers that arrive at the GP office for review, and between some of new tube models and those that model tubes, you can definitely have it the way you want it when it comes to price, features, and versatility. Boutique amps always cost more because of the amount of labor involved in building them, while the digital modelers that roll off of assembly lines in Pacific Rim factories can offer vast amounts of sounds for a relative pittance. Within these technological extremes is where things get interesting. Need something that you can practically stash in a glove box yet has features of amps thrice its size? Ever wondered what a six-speaker combo could bring to your soundstage? How about a 5-knob tuber that’s chameleon enough to cover Fender, Marshall, and Vox tones? No problem. In fact, many of these qualities will be revealed in this month’s selection of four new amps from Alessandro, Fender, Hughes & Kettner, and Line 6, all of which were wrung out by our testers using a variety of guitars from Fender, Gibson, John Page Classic, PRS, and Xotic.
ALESSANDRO CROSSBRED MUTT
“The Crossbred Mutt earned its name by being inspired by and designed to cover the sounds of vintage blackface and tweed Fenders, as well as Marshall, Vox and Trainwreck amplifiers,” relates George Alessandro. “It was to be a versatile, grab-and-go amp for working musicians, and it ended up exceeding my expectations.” This class AB amp uses two 6L6/5881 tubes to develop 40 watts, and has a Power control to vary the output from 100 percent all the way down to 5 percent, or about 2 watts. The Mutt carries a spacious-sounding spring reverb with a 12AT7 tube for drive and recovery, and there are two 12AX7s to handle preamp and phase-inverter duties. The circuitry is neatly wired by hand on a epoxy/glass laminate board, and the chassis and hardware are stainless steel to avoid magnetic interference. Components are top notch: Custom audio taper pots by PEC, Alessandro designed power and output transformers, custom foil/Mylar coupling caps, Alessandro-branded electrolytic caps (made by Mundorf), and silver-plated copper wire.
Unlike many boutique builders, Alessandro makes his cabinets in house, and kudos to their solid pine construction and tight, lightweight build. The use of an neodymium transducer delivers a speaker cab that weighs a mere 19 lbs, making for an easy carry to the gig with it in one hand and the head in the other. The semi open-back cabinet sounds cool too, providing a taut and balanced response with plenty of dimension.
Given its intentions to be a sort of jack-of-all-trades in the mid-power arena, the Crossbred Mutt accomplishes its goals very well. I’d pin it as more blackface Fender sounding overall, but it gets browner when pushed into overdrive, and it can be aggressive enough to cover the kinds of styles that you’d typically think of as Marshall territory. It has an excellent range of clean to mildly broken-up tones, and the juicy sounding reverb puts that classic blackface halo of ambience on it all. The Creamy/Jangly switch does pretty much what it implies, giving more of that Vox-y looseness and chime in the latter setting—great for Brit-pop covers—while the Power control lets you work the output tubes into a sweat for enhanced compression without incurring snarls from your bandmates for playing too loud. Alessandro’s creation works so well for getting the sounds you want that I’d recommend the Crossbred Mutt as a fine breed for anyone looking for a toneful companion that will play easily in practically any situation. It also has excellent touch sensitivity (getting a whiff of Trainwreck there), and it readily does it all with humbuckers or single-coils. I’m a dog enthusiast, but that has nothing to do with my fondness for the Crossbred Mutt. It’s just a really good amp, period.—Art Thompson
CROSSBRED MUTT SPECIFICATIONS
PRICE $2,400 street head (as tested); $2,800 street 1x12 combo
CONTROLS Volume, Treble, Middle, Bass, Reverb, Power (100 percent to 5 percent output power), Jangly/ Creamy switch
TUBES Two 12AX7s, one 12AT7, two 6L6s
POWER 40 watts
EXTRAS Stainless-steel chassis and hardware. Silver-plated wiring
SPEAKER Tested with Alessandro 1x12 cabinet with AHEP neodymium speaker
WEIGHT 28 lbs (head), 19 lbs (cabinet)
KUDOS Versatile range of Fender flavored tones that transition readily into creamy overdrive. Excellent build quality.
FENDER BASSBREAKER 15 COMBO
With their dark gray tweed covering, oversized pointer knobs, and block-letter nameplates, Fender’s new Bassbreaker combos, heads, and speaker cabinets look quite different than other Fender amplifiers. According to the marketing materials, the amps combine some essential aspects of the ’59 Fender Bassman with those of a certain similarly hallowed mid-’60s British combo based on the Bassman’s design. Unlike either of those classic amplifiers, however, the Bassbreaker 15 employs a pair of EL34 power tubes, which deliver 15 watts. Despite its modest wattage, however, the amp has a surprisingly big and dimensional sound. The Bassbreaker 15’s active Bass, Middle, and Treble controls function like fixed-frequency level controls; turn all three fully counterclockwise and the amp makes no sound.
They are very nicely voiced, with smooth highs, edgy mids, and tight and full lows (especially considering the size of the cabinet). A push-button Bright switch provides additional flexibility, though there is no indicator to tell you when it is engaged.
In addition to the amplifier’s Gain and Master volume controls, there is a 3-way Structure control for selecting Low, Medium, or High gain. The three settings are quite distinct, and also affect the response of the Gain and Master controls, so there’s lots to work with in terms of gain structuring. The sounds are fat, warm, and present, and the amp’s response lively. I was able to dial in pretty much the full spectrum of classic rock and blues tones, as well as some nice country and clean jazz sounds.
The combo’s Reverb control adjusts the level of the digital reverb, which has only one program—a small hall—that can’t be modified. It sounds pretty good, with a quick swell after a bit of pre-delay and a fairly rapid decay—but a traditional analog spring reverb (or a good model of one) would make more sense in an amp of this type. The Bassbreaker 15 contains a Celestion G12 V-Type speaker, which is a good match. You can bypass the internal speaker and use an external cabinet instead by connecting the cab to the Main Speaker output jack. In any event, an external cab may also be connected to the Extension Speaker output. The Bassbreaker series includes the BB-112 cabinet containing a Celestion G12 V-Type speaker ($249 street) and the BB-212 ($349 street) containing two, if you prefer to keep things in the family.
Additional features include effects send and return jacks and an XLR line out connector with accompanying Ground Lift and Cabinet Emulation switches. A Mute switch adjacent to the Power switch on the control panel disengages the power amp and the internal speaker but not the line out. The effects loop worked fine with several pedals and a rack compressor. The line out also sounded good, and the cabinet emulation imparted some subtle warmth to the direct preamp sound.
All considered, the Bassbreaker 15 is a compact, versatile, great-sounding amp with several smart features, and would be a particularly fine choice for more traditional rock, blues, and jazz players who don’t require channel switching or analog spring reverb.—Barry Cleveland
BASSBREAKER 15 COMBO SPECIFICATIONS
PRICE $649 street
CONTROLS Gain, Structure, Bass, Middle, Treble, Master, Reverb, Bright switch
POWER 15 watts
TUBES Three 12AX7s, two EL34 power
EXTRAS Main and Extension Speaker outputs, effects loop, XLR line out with Ground Lift and Cabinet Emulation switches
SPEAKER Celestion G12 V-Type
WEIGHT 40 lbs
KUDOS Compact. Versatile gain structuring. Great classic rock and blues tones with nice low end. XLR line out.
CONCERNS Limited reverb.
HUGHES & KETTNER TUBEMEISTER DELUXE 20
Hughes & Kettner has long pushed the envelope in bringing tubes and technology together, and aside from a brief fling with digital modeling in the zenTera combo, the company has continued to press on with designs that meld tube circuitry with features that are squarely aimed at modern players. To wit, the TubeMeister Deluxe 20 on deck here may be about the size of a shoebox, but it’s buff in the features department. Life begins with independent Gain and Volume control for the Clean and Lead channels, a shared 3-band EQ, and a rotary switch on the back that selects 20-watt, 5-watt, 1-watt operation, as well as a speaker-off mode for silent recording. The built-in Red Box cabinet simulator has “ambience emulation” for the XLR DI, along with four switches that select Vintage/ Modern, Small/Large, Mic/Line, and on/off.
The speaker modeling options alone make the Deluxe 20 a hip choice for home recording, but this is a qualified gigging amp that can hold its own with a band thanks to the surprising amount of volume that the dual EL84-power section can produce. It punches well above its weight class, and I found it very convenient to have the lower-wattage selections available for rehearsals and other situations where it was cool to be able to run the amp hard without overpowering the room.
As with all H&Ks, flicking on the juice illuminates the clear front panel in a blue glow that looks cool and makes it easy to see the functions on a dark stage. The orange tube filaments are also visible, adding to overall visual effect that makes these amps stand out from everything else. Driving into a Mesa/Boogie Slant Recto 1x12 cabinet, the Deluxe 20 delivered a nice range of tones with the Clean and Lead channels covering the bases for everything from crisp, pristine sounds to rock chunk to searing overdriven textures when the Boost is switched on. There’s some fizziness to the high-gain sounds that couldn’t be ameliorated even by rolling way back on the Treble knob, but otherwise the tone controls worked great with our selection of single-coil and humbucker guitars. The Clean channel’s grind is great for rhythm playing when you max the Gain, and the dynamic responsiveness lets you easily control it all with the guitar’s volume control.
Well equipped to handle styles ranging from blues and jazz to pop, hard rock, and metal, the Deluxe 20 has a lot going for it in a package that’s easily schlepped in its supplied padded shoulder bag. Given its features, tones, and flexibility for gigs and recording, the TubeMeister Deluxe 20 is one value-packed amp for the money. —Art Thompson
TUBEMEISTER DELUXE 20 SPECIFICATIONS
PRICE $699 street
CONTROLS Gain, Volume (each channel); Bass, Mid Treble. Push buttons for channel select and boost
TUBES Two12AX7s, two EL84s
POWER 20 watts
EXTRAS Selectable 20w/5w/1w power. Speaker mute. Built in Red Box DI with balanced XLR out and cabinet emulation. Effects loop. Tube Safety Control. Footswitch jack for channel and boost (footswitch not included)
SPEAKER Tested with Mesa/Boogie Slant Recto 1x12
WEIGHT 11.2 lbs
KUDOS Good range of clean to overdrive tones. Red Box cabinet-simulated DI output. Light and compact.
CONCERNS Footswitch not included.
LINE 6 FIREHAWK 1500
Decades ago, I reviewed the first amp modeling combo, coincidentally made by Line 6. Ever since, I have wondered why that amp and subsequent modeling amps chose to project the sound through speakers that added their own coloration to every model. The concept always seemed to work best when modelers like Line 6’s POD or IK Multimedia’s Amplitube software were heard through transparent PAs or studio monitors. Those systems let the full personality of the various amp models and their cabinets come through.
Apparently, I was on to something. Line 6’s new Firehawk 1500 uses a six-speaker system to reproduce amp and effects models in glorious, full-range stereo. In addition, its 1,500 watts provide enough clean headroom to avoid ever adding in the modeling amp’s own distortion characteristics. Instead it will always transmit the unadulterated sound of, say, an overdriven Marshall or slightly broken up Vox at any volume, from small room whisper to stadium stage scream. The massive headroom and full-range speakers also let you use the Firehawk as a hi-fi acoustic guitar amp.
Editing the sounds was easily accomplished right on the amp, and was even easier through a free editor app that connected my iPad to the Firehawk through Bluetooth. Both editing methods were intuitive enough to let me have a lot of fun right out of the box, but when I eventually got stuck the manual could have been clearer and more helpful.
To keep the initial cost down, Line 6 chose to introduce the amp with Firehawk FX modeling, rather than their new, much-heralded Helix software, but rest assured the Firehawk sounds are terrific. The character of a variety of modern and vintage amps came through clearly in these models, and they felt much like playing through the originals. I found I could further enhance the feel factor by adjusting the sag characteristic to taste. The way the amps and onboard effects responded to picking attack and changes in my guitar volume level rivaled any tube amp or analog pedal I have tried.
As good as the Firehawk’s numerous effects sounded, running some analog pedals into the front end helped add an extra layer of realism to the tones. The modeled amps responded just like the real thing to boost, overdrive, and fuzz pedals. Check out the Line 6 website for the many other things the Firehawk 1500 can do, but suffice to say it is an extremely well-thought-out product that offers a variety of sonic solutions for the gigging musician, including a Bluetooth music playback system for band breaks.
Years ago, famed amp-builder Alexander Dumble told Robben Ford that some day modeled sounds would match those of tubes, and on the evidence of the 200 amp and cabinet models in the Firehawk, that day is closing in. Is the Firehawk 1500 exactly the same as playing through a tube amp? Alone, in a blind A/B test, probably not quite yet. But in a band situation, having remarkable facsimiles of all these amp and effect tones at your disposal in a single combo might easily be worth any minute differences in sound or feel. —Michael Ross
FIREHAWK 1500 SPECIFICATIONS
PRICE $999 street
CONTROLS Preset and Bank Encoder, Tap Tempo button, Bluetooth Pairing button, Drive, Bass, Mid, and Treble, FX, Reverb, and Master Volume knobs.
POWER 1,500 watts
EXTRAS 200 amp models, cabinet models, and effects, remote editing app.
SPEAKERS Six, including a 12" woofer, compression driver, two 5.5" Stereo coaxial drivers
WEIGHT 65 Lbs.
KUDOS Great-sounding and -feeling amp models and effects reproduced in hi-fidelity.