Red state or blue state, Ginger or Mary Ann, hand-wired or printed-circuit-board amplifiers—all contentious debates that continue to rage with no end in sight. Well, except for the Ginger/Mary Ann thing, because everyone knows Mary Ann is where it’s at. But I digress. When it comes to guitar amps, both hand-wired and PC-board schools of construction are valid, as proven by practitioners of the latter such as Soldano and the venerable Diezel—two manufacturers whose stature in the high-end amp world grows by the day. Still, for many guitarists, the art form that is a lovingly assembled, hand-wired amplifier is such a treasure that they’re willing to shell out the major bucks that these tone machines cost. The Budda Super Drive 18 and Chicago Blues Box Kingston 30 reviewed here represent the best-of-the-best in their respective construction camps, as they’re both exceptionally well built, wicked tone machines. Now maybe guitarists can quit squabbling over which construction method is best and get back to what really matters—playing with some righteous tone. I tested each amp with a Fender Tele, Gibson SG, and PRS McCarty.
Budda Super Drive 18
Sporting a finger-jointed pine cabinet, perfectly applied black Tolex, and a purple control panel adorned with chicken-head knobs, the Super Drive 18 simmers with a vibey, understated elegance. Inside the aluminum chassis is one motherboard that grips the majority of the Super Drive’s cathode-biased circuit, including the pots, jacks, and preamp tube sockets. The ceramic power and rectifier tube sockets are chassis-mounted, however. The front panel offers Master Volume, Bass, Treble, Midrange, Drive, and Rhythm Volume controls. The Midrange control also has a Pull/Modern option that scoops the midrange ever so slightly, and the Rhythm Volume control offers a Pull Bright function to add some pearly sparkle.
Plugging a PRS McCarty into the Super Drive 18, it was quickly obvious that this Budda walks the path of aggressive, meat-eating tones to attain its version of supreme enlightenment. For 18 watts, this sucker is loud, punchy, and big sounding, with nary a flubby low note to be found, even when running full-up. The Clean channel’s tones exhibit a bountiful zing with both the PRS and Tele, but these aren’t garden variety “pretty” clean tones, as they have a preponderance of snarly midrange. By backing off my attack, however, I was able to elicit breathier, less intense textures that shined with a lovely top-end detail. Switching over to the Drive channel, the Budda reaches levels of sonic nirvana by offering up enough gain to satisfy any player from a slow-burn blues dude, to a rocker-freak who can’t get enough dirt. But here’s the thing: Whether I dialed in my grind with the preamp via the Drive control, or simply cranked the Master to work the amp’s power tubes, the tones were always immediate, super-sensitive to the touch, and simply swimming in corpulent upper-midrange that sounded great with the Tele and simply went to another level with humbucker-equipped guitars. The term “modern vintage” comes to mind as the tones fell somewhere between Bluesbreakers-era Clapton, and more aggressive, early EVH tones. I don’t think I need to tell you how badass that is.
Chicago Blues Box Kingston 30
Cosmetically speaking, the Kingston 30 is a straight looker inside and out. The purple Tolex is, well, it’s purple Tolex! Does it get any cooler than that? Methinks not. Especially when it’s draped over a pine cabinet sporting finger-jointed corners. Inside the stainless-steel chassis you’ll find a dense, yet neat, point-to-point-wired circuit and a checklist of boutique accoutrements including silver-plated Teflon-coated wire, ceramic tube sockets, and custom made one-watt resistors throughout. And although the Kingston 30 ships with TAD short bottle 6L6s, the amp will also accommodate 6V6, 5881, or EL34 output tubes. The Kingston’s control panel, which dazzles with jewel-encrusted knobs that would make Liberace wet his knickers, offers Volume, Treble, Bass, and Reverb controls, as well as High and Low inputs, a Bright Switch, and a Harmonic Boost function that adds +4dB of gain when engaged. However, I thought one of the Kingston’s neatest features was the way the Extension speaker and Slave jacks are located on opposite ends at the bottom of the cabinet’s rear panel. Pretty stealthy.
Sweet Home Chicago
Tonally, the Kingston 30 manages to give off all of the bark, thump, and sing of a low-wattage vintage Marshall, as tactile, blossoming lead lines spew forth with brilliant clarity and a rich, pugnacious midrange. This little dude packs a hell of a wallop, as its tones are much larger than its diminutive stature would indicate. That said, the Kingston also exuded a sweet, almost airy top-end, much like a vintage Fender, when I simply backed off my Tele’s volume knob and lightend up my picking attack. But I had the most fun with a PRS McCarty plugged in and the amp’s Volume control turned up halfway. In this scenario, each note had a weight behind it that actually made me play less—and that’s because every note sounded so good, I had to savor each one. Even with the tastefully voiced Bright switch on and high settings of the Treble control, the Kingston never gave way to harshness or garbled notes. Most impressive, however, was the way the Kingston just kept howling when cranked all the way up, all the while maintaining a taut, firm low-end that allowed me to riff on power chords and have every one sound distinct.
Courtesy of a full-size Accutronics tank, the reverb adds just the right amount of dimension and space to the Kingston’s tones. It’s warm and rich sounding with a lovely drip, but even when maxed it doesn’t go into the surf zone. Not a bummer, however, as this reverb perfectly complements the amplifier’s burnished sounds. Bottom line: If you’re jonesing for a hand-made amp that delivers an astounding hybrid of high-caloric British and American tones, the Kingston 30 is the sonic equivalent of a cheese-drippin’ deep-dish pizza.