EVER SINCE THE ADVENT OF ACOUSTIC STRINGED INSTRUMENTS, people have been trying to squeeze more volume out of them. Before amplification was invented, this typically meant tweaking the body’s size and construction elements to increase projection. Then came metal cone resonators, which provided more volume, but created a very different kind of acoustic sound. With the development of microphones and pickups came the ability to electronically amplify an acoustic guitar, but it was soon obvious that standard guitar amps, with their abundant midrange and limited high-frequency response, were not up to the task of accurately amplifying acoustic instruments. Amplifiers would have to evolve to meet the need, and this eventually led to the introduction of dedicated acoustic amps that incorporate multiple drivers, crossovers, and sophisticated EQ circuits.
Acoustic amps have been around for decades now, but fundamental questions remain as to how best to capture the goodness that’s going on in an acoustic guitar, send it through a wire to the amplifier, and have it pop out of the speaker sounding reasonably the same. This lack of consensus among acoustic amp makers is clearly evident by the three amps on review here. Each professes to be ideally suited for the task at hand, and each one goes at in a different way. So let’s see what’s up with these new offerings from Fishman, L.R. Baggs, and San- Greal, all of which were tested with a variety of guitars, including a Breedlove J350CR, a Godin 5th Avenue Kingpin, Hohner DL500 and HW300 cutaway flat-tops, a Martin D-28 (equipped with a Sunrise soundhole pickup), and a Martin Sustainable Wood Series dreadnought.
SETTING OUT TO CREATE A DIFFERENT KIND OF AMPLIFIER FOR ACOUSTIC PLAYERS, Fishman opted to go with a line array system comprised of six drivers and a soft dome tweeter mated to a 220-watt power section. Perched atop its tripod stand, the SoloAmp is a formidable affair. Fishman says the line array speaker configuration increases horizontal sound dispersion and improves penetration, and with the controls and I/O located in the bottom part of the enclosure, the SoloAmp is essentially a self-contained P.A. system.
The SoloAmp sports two sets of 1/4" and XLR inputs, and both channels have independent EQ, notch filter, and reverb controls; pad and phase switches; send and return jacks, a balanced output, and selectable 48-volt phantom power. Other details include a balanced out for the main mix, a stereo aux in for use with external sound sources, a tuner out, and monitor in and out jacks that make it possible to interface with other SoloAmp users in your group. The SoloAmp’s digital reverb has four presets that range from short room-like reflections to expansive hall effects.
Thanks to its straightforward EQ and a speaker design that is more hi-fi than M.I., the SoloAmp is both easy to use and very natural sounding. If you hate fussing with controls, you’ll immediately appreciate how little effort it takes to get tones that are open and delightfully free of midrange honkiness or annoying top-end rasp. There’s an almost stereo-like sense of imaging, and, of course, having the speaker aimed right at your head makes everything so much easier to hear. The SoloAmp sounded great with all of our test guitars, and its reverb sounds are clear and spacious, with no weird artifacts. It even worked beautifully with a pickup-equipped violin, which is an acid test for any acoustic amp. Hands down, the SoloAmp is an exceptional performer, and it receives an Editors’ Pick Award.
L.R. Baggs Acoustic Reference Amplifier
FEATURING A SLEEK MOLDED CABINET WITH WOOD PANELING ON A SIDES AND AN integral aluminum handle, the ARA is one of the more stylish acoustic amps on the market. Inside is a flat honeycomb diaphragm 8" speaker that Baggs calls a Balanced Mode Radiator, which is designed to provide a sound field of 140 degrees. Coupled with a discrete transistor preamp and a 200-watt digital power stage, this unique speaker provides a full frequency response without the need for a crossover network and additional low- or high-frequency drivers. The controls for each channel include Gain, Mute and Phase switches, active Bass and Treble (+/-12dB), Notch filter, quasi-parametric Low-Mid and High-Mid stacked pots, and Reverb level. Global controls include a Master volume as well as an Aux volume for controlling the level of external devices connected to either (or both) the 1/4" TRS or RCA Aux jacks.
The ARA also sports a lighted VU meter on each channel for setting input levels, a variable balanced D.I. out with a pre/post EQ and Effects switch, a 1/4" line out with pre/post master switch, a series effects loop for each channel, tuner out, footswitchable mute, and a voltage selector for 115V/60Hz or 230V/50Hz operation. The reverb is a spring type, which is built into the amp chassis.
The Acoustic Reference Amplifier isn’t the loudest of the group, but it offers a wider sound field than you’d expect from such a relatively small cabinet and driver. The tones are on the crisp side, with good definition and detail, and the low-end thrust was satisfactory with all of our test instruments. Dialing in the Low-Mid and High-Mid controls, both of which have a frequency control on the bottom and a level knob on top, can be a little tricky. But, with patience, you can find settings that will minimize any boxy tendencies and reduce those zingy artifacts that jump out when you hit the strings hard—particularly with piezoequipped guitars. The spring reverb is well implemented and has a warm, smooth response within its normal range. Turn it up more than halfway, though, and you start noticing some raggedness in the decay tails. The ARA may be just the ticket if you’re looking for a combo amp that doesn’t beam sound like a flashlight. In fact, its off-axis efficiency is exactly what’s needed when playing a room without the help of a P.A., and it’s what makes the Acoustic Reference Amplifier a cool choice for solo performers and small ensembles.
RESEMBLING A FLOOR MONITOR, THE IMC-1 FEATURES A WEDGE-SHAPED BIRCH-PLY enclosure with a black textured coating on the front and sides and a curved wood back. Housed within the pole-mountable cabinet is a patented 10" spiderless metal cone driver to handle the lows, and a neodymium-powered large-format planar (ribbon) driver for the highs. Downstream of the crossover, the amplifier section pumps out 400 watts of bi amp power—200 watts into each driver. The two channels are fully independent, though our test model sports an optional 12AX7 tube in channel 1 ($500), which is voiced specifically for electric guitars. Both channels pack Gain, Low, Mid, High, and Reverb controls, while channel 1 adds a variable notch filter for feedback suppression. (It would seem that the notch filter should be relocated to channel 2 when you opt for the tube.) Global functions include Monitor Level and Master Gain controls, and a 3-position Reverb Type switch. As with most modern acoustic amps, the IMC-1 has a fairly buff I/O complement consisting of front-panel line and XLR mic inputs, dual effects loops, a balanced direct out, and a balanced monitor input. The mic input has 48-volt phantom power capability.
The IMC-1 delivers a big sound with plenty of bass and a crisp top end. And with wattage to spare, there’s little feeling of compression when you hit the strings hard. This amp doesn’t require a lot of knob twiddling to get a happening sound, although I routinely had to pull back the mids and treble to mitigate honkiness and keep the highs from sounding too strident. The IMC-1’s ballsy response makes it a good choice for louder applications where you need extra punch to cut through a stage mix. It also offers increased flexibility thanks to Channel 1’s 12AX7 tube and electric-oriented voicing, which yielded a tight, articulate jazz sound with our soapbar pickup-equipped Godin 5th Avenue Kingpin. The digital reverb has three preset modes that range from small to hall. I preferred the latter setting’s enhanced sense of dimension, though some unnatural artifacts are noticeable when it’s turned up. The IMC-1 is a good-sounding amp with some unique capabilities, but it has some disadvantages in the value department—$2,899 is a lot to pay for what you’re getting here. (IMC-1 designer Barry Grzebik responds, “The amp was designed specifically with large venue live-sound touring in mind. There are many very nice amplifiers on the market that would not keep up with the stage volume present in large venues, or that are not physically formatted in a way that lets you integrate them into a large stage environment. We believe that in these large, professional environments the IMC-1 excels.”)