Five 30-watt Solid-State Combos Square Off

Solid-state amps typically get a bad rap from tube fanatics, some of it warranted—such as why transistor amps never seem to be as loud or dynamic as their tube-powered cousins. (Why does it always seem to take at least twice as many solid-state watts to equal the volume of a tube amp with a similar speaker configuration?) Then there’s the quality-of-tone issue that solid-state designers have wrestled with for ages—which is all about trying to devise circuits that sound and feel more tube-like.

Nevertheless, solid-state amps do have some advantages in that they’re lighter, more compact, and usually way less expensive than comparable tube amps. And a bonus to having all that silicon-based technology spinning under the hood is that today’s solid-state amps often feature onboard DSP.
The 30-watt 1x10 combos from Crate, Hughes & Kettner, Kustom, Marshall, and Tech 2 that were chosen for this group review all fall into the analog category—as none employ digital-modeling technology—yet they all offer either digital effects and/or analog-generated amp and speaker emulations. While there’s no arguing that these amps have impressive features for their incredibly low street prices, what really matters is how they sound.
To find out, all of the GP editors were tasked with evaluating these amps in our sound lab and other locales using a variety of instruments, including Fender Strats and Teles, Gibson and Epiphone Les Pauls, a Fernandes Ravelle, and a PRS McCarty.

Crate VTX30

Sporting some of the visual appeal of Crate’s larger V-series amps, the VTX30 ($359 retail/$229 street) offers such amenities as independent controls for the Clean and Solo channels, a non-chromatic tuner built into the top of the cabinet, and a bounteous 16 effects. Channels are selected via a button on the top panel (or by footswitch), and the only visual indication of the active channel is whether the button is in or out.
Sonically, the VTX30 is a mixed bag. The Clean channel sounds best when the Level control is turned no higher than ten o’ clock. Past this point, the crispness gives way to a progressively harsher sound. And whether you’re using humbuckers or single-coils makes little difference—this channel just doesn’t like to be pushed into the grindier territory that some players may seek for their rhythm tones.
To its credit, the Solo channel can be dialed-in for everything from light grind to raging distortion. The Shape control has enough range to deliver convincing metal tones at its full clockwise position (which provides a scooped mid/boosted treble configuration), but it’s easy to hear how a more expansive EQ could produce better results. Also, at very high Gain and Level settings, the Solo channel loses clarity and focus. There’s a two-dimensional quality to the VTX30’s tones—both clean and overdriven—that make this amp a little uninspiring.
The VTX30’s menu of effects is a blessing. The reverbs and delays are the most pleasing, and you can get three repeats from the Medium delay. The modulation effects are quite enjoyable, too—particularly as they’re configured with delay and/or reverb for added texture. The octave, T- and I-Wah, and doubler effects are icing on the cake. You don’t normally find such effects on pint-sized amps, so it’s a bit like getting a few stompboxes thrown in for the price.

Hughes & Kettner Edition Blue 30 DFX

From one of Germany’s top makers of tube amps comes the Edition Blue 30 DFX (349 retail/$250 street), which offers Clean and Lead channels, and a single set of tone controls. This handsome combo has a mostly closed-back cabinet with a slightly curved front, classy-looking speckled grille-cloth, and a control panel that backlights in blue when you switch on the juice. Other nice touches include a Jensen speaker, a dedicated CD player input, and a footswitch jack that allows you to use either a one-button or two-button footswitch to switch channels and/or activate the effects. A minor drag is that there’s no LED indicator for the Lead channel.
The Edition Blue 30 DFX is one of the louder amps we tested, but the price you pay for this is a raspiness that is difficult to completely dial out. The only way to obtain a pristine clean sound is to turn your guitar volume way down and then pick very lightly. This amp likes to grind, and the Clean channel is fully capable of delivering abundant overdrive when turned up—even with single-coil pickups. In fact, getting your lead tones from the Clean channel is a pretty cool way to use the Edition Blue, as the tones from the higher-gain Lead mode are noticeably mushier and less focused.
The Blue’s effects are available via the Preset Adjust knob, which, when turned clockwise, selects between chorus, flanger, and delay. The character of each effect also changes as you move the control. For the chorus and flanger, the parameters affected are speed and depth. For the delay, it’s time and number of repeats. The FX Mix control lets you quickly make adjustments to the effects level, and as the digital reverb has its own dedicated level control, you can add as much reverb as you like to any of the other effects. The delay selections go from very short slaps to a generous one-second with a maximum of four repeats.

Kustom Dual 35 DFX

Packing a boatload of features, the Dual 35 DFX ($260 retail/$179 street) looks sweet with its tan grille and white piping, and it’s the only amp in the group to offer a dual-voiced Lead channel. The Dual 35 also touts eight effects, which you select with a rotary switch. The system is cool in that you can instantly grab the effect you want without fussing with in-between settings, and the amp also includes two combination effects: chorus/reverb and flange/reverb.
The Dual 35 DFX is easily the loudest amp in this group. The most happening tones are unleashed by the Rhythm channel—which sounds quite clean at lower settings, and delivers very dynamic overdrive when turned all the way up. The Lead channel offers lots of gain, and it sounds great for metal when you dump the mids, and crank the Low and High controls. The only problem is that have to run the Gain wide open to match the volume of the Rhythm channel, and doing so produces a ridiculous amount of hiss.
The Preamp switch gives you a choice of brighter (U.K) or darker (U.S.) voicings for the Lead channel. It’s a cool function, but, unfortunately, the switch very quickly got stuck in the down position (U.S.) and refused to be coaxed back into service. It’s a slightly troubling development, as the same type of switch is also used for channel selection and effects on/off.
Most of the Dual 35 DFX’s effects are happening. The Spring setting delivers a decent approximation of a spring reverb, and the Hall position is quite cavernous. The Slap Back and longer Delay selections sound cool, with the latter being good for six repeats—which is second only to the Marshall MG30DFX. The modulation effects are right on—especially the combination effects—and the only letdown is the tremolo, which is rather slow and lacking in depth.

Marshall MG30DFX

Marshall has a good track record in the solid-state arena, and the MG30DFX ($369 retail/$229 street) is a solid contender that features cleanly executed cabinetry, independent EQ, and hip details such as speaker emulation on the line out and a selectable FDD (Frequency Dependent Damping) function that mimics the way a tube amplifier reacts with a speaker. Channels are selected with a front-panel button (or by footswitch), and an LED indicates when the Overdrive channel is active. The Preset Adjust knob serves up reverb, delay, chorus, and flange effects in that order, and the effect parameters—speed for the modulation effects, and decay time and delay time, respectively, for the reverb and delay—are altered within each selection as you turn the control. It would be great to be able to control the reverb mix separately, but one FX Level control is all you get.
The effects are well implemented. The reverb textures range from plate-like shimmers to expansive hall sounds, the delays cover the gamut from rockabilly-style slapback to fairly long delays (with an amazing ten repeats!), and the modulations vary from sweet chorusing to classic flange swooshes to fast rotary-speaker emulations.
The MG30DFX is a bit on the boxy side, but it sounds so organic that it’s easy to forget you’re not playing a tube amp. The clean channel has a fine balance of warmth and sparkle, and the Overdrive channel sounds rich and meaty—like you’d expect from a Marshall—and maintains excellent string-to-string definition and clarity when pushed hard at high gain levels. The amp responds well to changes in guitar volume, and it sounds equally cool with humbuckers or single-coils. The FDD circuit fattens up the tones when activated, adding a low-end tightness and focus that is often MIA in small solid-state amps. The MG30DFX is fun to play, very quiet (even on the OD channel), and it absolutely rules for practice and/or home-studio use.

Tech 21 Trademark 30

As with its smaller brother, the Trademark 10, the new Trademark 30 ($495 retail/$299 street) is a part amp/part studio-tool affair with a bevy of smart features. Dispensing entirely with effects—other than a nice sounding Accutronics spring reverb—the Trademark makes its, er, mark, via nine Character functions that make it possible to configure a lot of different amp sounds. For example, mate the Tweed “amp” setting with a High-Gain “mod” and a U.S. “speaker,” and you get a pretty decent emulation of an old Fender Deluxe. Switch things around to a British/Hi-Gain/U.K configuration, and the Trademark assumes a ballsy, old-school-Marshall attitude. The California setting yields excellent singing lead tones when combined with Clean and U.S. settings. Switch the mod function to Hot, turn up the Drive and dump the mids, and now you’ve got a wicked Mesa/Boogie Rectifier-type sound.
Mixing and matching different amps, mods, and speakers can yield some pretty cool results—which can work supremely well for recording when using the XLR direct out. However, you have to be a little more careful when using the Trademark 30 as an amplifier, as its Low control can cause major sub-harmonic flubbiness if you turn it more than halfway up on gainier settings. Clearly, the stock speaker can’t handle the lows this amp is capable of dishing out. Sure, you can always connect the amp to an external speaker cabinet, but to be taken seriously for live use, this amp really needs a heavier-duty speaker. That said, if you’re mainly looking for a small recording amp with proven D.I. performance, the Trademark 30 is better equipped than any amp in the group.