Crate Powerblock

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re halfway through the first decade of the 21st century, and many of the age-old promises for the new millennium have yet to be fulfilled. We’re still waiting for flying cars and vacations on the moon, and nobody is living in high-altitude condos like the Jetsons. Guitar amps haven’t changed much over the last few decades, either. They’re still big and heavy, and they look a lot like they did 40 years ago.
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It has often been said that form follows function, and beginning with the durable rough-hewn bare-wood cabinets that inspired the company’s name more than three decades ago, Crate has built a rich legacy of “outside the box” concepts that clearly show the company is less concerned with maintaining the aesthetic status quo, and more interested in advancing the frontiers of innovative, yet practical design. Fueled by this legacy of irreverence for convention, Crate created a fresh new guitar amp design that embodies the decades-old promise of futuristic wonder.

Brave New Amp

With its finned cast-aluminum housing, starkly black angled faceplate, and oversized silver logo, the PowerBlock exudes a truly modern sense of style. It breaks so many paradigms of conventional amp design that it can be a little disarming upon first encounter. Measuring 10" in width, and weighing-in at about 4 lbs, it’s difficult to believe that this little demon packs a stereo power amp that can deliver 75 watts per channel (150 watts in bridged-mono mode).

Despite the PowerBlock’s unusual form, however, its simple front-panel controls are easy to use and understand. There are the typical High, Mid, and Low controls, plus a preamp Gain control, and an output Level control. The Gain control adjusts the preamp drive, which responds like a tube amp—thanks to Crate’s tube-emulating FlexWave Evolution 6 circuitry (the PowerBlock is the first amp in the Crate line to feature the recently developed sixth revision of this circuit). The front panel also has a stereo headphone jack so you can use it as a personal practice amp.

The rear panel is loaded with a bunch of useful features. You get stereo CD Input RCA jacks, and left and right channel q" Line In jacks that can function as stereo Effects Loop jacks. A balanced XLR output (with separate Level control) provides a low-noise output for direct recording or live sound reinforcement. There are also three speaker jacks on the rear panel—one each for left and right channel stereo operation, and another jack for bridged-mono use.

To enhance the sound of the PowerBlock’s Headphone and XLR outputs, Crate added a unique speaker-simulating circuit that tames high-frequency gritch and reshapes the midrange to mimic the frequency response of a 4x12 cabinet. The speaker simulation circuit also processes the signal from the Effects return jacks, but the CD Input jacks are unprocessed to preserve the clarity of your prerecorded material.

Block Party

I tested the PowerBlock with a wide range of guitars and cabs, and I discovered it’s not the least bit finicky about what it’s connected to. The three tone controls have impressive range, and, with a little knob twiddling, I was able to get warm and balanced jazz tones, as well as some crisp, lively country tones from both a Tele and a humbucker-equipped archtop. The PowerBlock’s Gain control is especially impressive. Gain settings below “noon” (with the knob pointing straight up) provide tons of clean headroom, and the PowerBlock is more than powerful enough for loud jazz and country gigs—especially if you invoke the 150-watt option. Turn the Gain knob past noon, and you begin to hear the FlexWave circuitry adding some soft overdrive-style clipping.

With a Strat, I found a very expressive dynamic sweet spot with the Gain knob set to about two o’clock. Light picking sounded crystal clear, and a more aggressive attack brought out extra harmonic richness, thickness, and sustain. The drive increases dramatically as the Gain setting is advanced, and I was able to get some aggressive and tight crunch-rhythm tones, as well as grinding and punchy metal tones with a PRS McCarty and a 4x12.

The PowerBlock can serve as a handy headphone practice amp, as its speaker simulator helps to deliver an authentic-sounding miked-up tone to the headphone jack. I had a blast jamming along with some CDs, and it was easy to find the perfect balance between the prerecorded track and my guitar sound. And for those who like to record direct, the sound from the balanced XLR Line Out also has some convincing miked-up vibe, thanks again to the speaker simulator.

As I became more familiar with the PowerBlock, I began to think of other ways to use it. For example, you can plug your favorite amp modeler or preamp/processor into the Line In jacks and use the PowerBlock as a mini power amp. It could also serve as an emergency P.A. head for small gigs (that is, if you only need one mic input, don’t require phantom power, and have a low-impedance microphone adaptor or a high impedance mic) or to power a mini mixer. You could also use it to power an extra monitor mix, or, coupled with some hi-fi speakers or studio monitors, a CD/mp3 playback rig. Bottom line: What a great piece of affordable insurance against gear failure of all kinds.

I’m sure you’ll think of more ways to use this handy and compact problem solver, and for about 200 bucks, it’s truly an irresistible value. It may not be as cool as a flying car, but the PowerBlock proves that the future is closer and brighter than we may realize.