First Impression: TopHat Club Royale Mk2

The Club Royale has been TopHat’s best-selling combo ever since the model’s unveiling at the winter NAMM show in 1997. Rather than sit tight on a winning formula, however, as many makers do, founder Brian Gerhardt has continued to develop the template throughout the amp’s 12-year existence. Typifying this “push it further” ethos, the recently released Club Royale Mk2 (retail $1,829/street price N/A) represents a subtle but significant evolution in specs and components, while also borrowing from developments in the TopHat Custom Shop.
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The control panel on the latest version of this hand-built, 20-watt, dual-EL84 amp doesn’t give much away other than the updated model name— its Volume, Treble, Middle, Bass, Cut and Master controls and Bright/Fat Boost switch appearing identical to those on the previous incarnation – although the bigger cab with art-deco styling and light-up logo (borrowed from Custom Shop models such as the Supreme 16) do hint at new directions. The changes are far more than cosmetic, however, and lurk beneath the hood in the addition of a hefty choke (an inductor used as a power supply filter element), a larger Heyboer output transformer, and an EZ81 tube rectifier in place of the former GZ34 (and the solid-state rectification that preceded it). Add to this some general circuit tweaking, and it all shoots toward Gerhardt’s desired tonal goal: an amp that sounds, feels, and responds much more like his vision of the archetypal dual-EL84 British combo, namely, the Vox AC15.
 “I didn’t want to necessarily make the MK2 cleaner sounding, which often happens with a larger output transformer,” says Gerhardt. “Of all the traditional vintage amplifiers, the Vox AC15 had the largest output transformer relative to the output of its tubes. The original AC15 delivered a very big, fat feel with lots of air around the notes, and yet, it was never truly clean We worked hard to get the MK2’s balance correct, and to give it a bigger, more open sound that still compresses, saturates, and distorts like a snarly vintage amp.”

The Club Royale Mk2 has a broad, open tone with lots of harmonic saturation when cranked, but good clarity and definition throughout. Vintage Vox AC15 tones certainly come to mind, but there seems to be more chimey bloom and sparkle here at higher output levels than you might expect from a “small” vintage amp. And there’s also abundant low-end kick and serious grind when you thump it hard. In short, a small amp with big-amp tonal pretensions, in a revision that’s likely to please existing fans of the TopHat formula and win new ones along the way. —Dave Hunter

For more information contact TopHat, (919) 762-9688;