THE 100-WATT GUITAR AMP HAS LONG set the standard for tonal firepower. Before the advent of proper P.A. systems, guitarists had to rely on the volume delivered by their amp and speakers to project sound to the audience, and the 100-watt heads and 4x12 cabinets that were offered by Marshall, Hiwatt, Orange, Laney, Sound City, and others were developed specifically to answer the need to be heard. Fast-forward to today, and the 100-watt head is far from being an overpowered relic of the past.
Indeed, for many companies, the 100-watt tube head is their flagship product, offering the abundant headroom and thunderous volume that have always been earmarks of the breed, as well as features such as power reduction and cabinet voiced line outs that give them greater flexibility for use in clubs, recording sessions, rehearsals, and anywhere else that a smaller amp would seemingly be the better choice.
The four amps on review here from Egnater, Fender, Friedman, and Mesa all merit “bruiser” status courtesy of the their quartets of EL34s or 6L6s, but paired with a 4x12, 2x12, or even a 1x12 cabinet, they can be optimized to suit gigs of virtually any size. Most of them (Egnater Vengeance notwithstanding) are capable of powering down to half their full wattage, and the Mesa Lone Star can even drop to 10 watts for the ultimate in small-stage accommodation.
We tested these heads using PRS, Charvel, and Buzz Feiten guitars, and plugged them into 4x12 cabinets by Bad Cat, Mesa, Egnater, and Fender. Our guitar cables were from Asterope, Canare, and Monster; and head-to-cab connections were via Van Damme Blue Series cables.
DESIGNED TO SQUEEZE A LOT OF SOUNDS OUT OF TWO CHANNELS, THE Vengeance features independent Gain, Volume, Reverb and EQ controls, as well as four mini-toggle switches on each channel that activate the following functions: Tight, Bright, Gain boost, and Mid cut/flat/boost. A pushbutton channel selector also resides on the front panel, and on the right side we find global Density and Presence controls, a Master Volume, and a footswitchable 2nd Master— the latter being essentially a volume-boost function that can be preset on the included 6-button switcher to work on either channel or both. The Vengeance sports a series effects loop, which is configured in the same manner for activation on either or both channels via a 3-position mini-toggle on the footswitch (which connects using a standard XLR cable).
On the rear panel are two speaker jacks with an impedance selector (4Ω, 8Ω, 16Ω), bias test points and trimpots for the two pairs of 6L6 power tubes, a speaker emulated XLR recording out, effects loop jacks with Send and Return Level controls, and three 1/4" external switching jacks for channel select, mids select, reverb on/off, and effects loop on/off. The Vengeance looks menacing with its black-on-black theme (covering, grills, panels, knobs), and the steel chassis pulls out to reveal a high-density circuit with most of the components (including the tube sockets) mounted to PC boards—seven in total—with the pots also secured to the chassis for added strength.
Despite its multitude of knobs and switches, the Vengeance is easy to use. Channel 1 has a ton of clean headroom and responds well to however you configure the switchable functions, yielding crisp tones with the Bright switch on, and your choice of cut or flat midrange textures depending on how the Mids switch is set. I didn’t care as much for the boosted midrange sound, and the Tight switch reduced the bass a bit, but otherwise it was a snap to get deep, glassy clean sounds as well as dynamic crunch tones when the Gain knob was cranked up and the Gain switch activated. The Vengence can sometimes stand a little boost in brightness—especially with humbuckers—and the Presence control adds sheen and makes the overdriven tones cut through better.
Switching to channel 2 is like playing through a different amp, as the distortion comes on strongly as you nudge the Gain knob up from zero, and just keeps getting more aggressive from there—and that’s before activating the Gain switch, which boosts the front-end gain into the stratozone for practically endless sustain. The tones are very ballsy sounding, with excellent attack and definition, and the switching functions are very effective for getting the tones dialed in the way you want ’em—particularly the Mids switch, which yields a classic hard-rock/metal response when set flat, and badass sounding scoope-dmetal tones in the Cut position. As on the clean channel, the EQ is well voiced, and the Presence control is great for getting more slice from humbuckers. And speaking of cutting through, the 2nd Master is handy for delivering whatever amount of footswitchable boost you need for solos. I didn’t find it necessary to use the Density control with the 4x12, though it could be useful for pumping up the mass when playing though a smaller cabinet.
All in all, the Vengence delivers a lot of performance for a very affordable price. It’s definitely aimed at rock and metal players, so if that’s what you’re looking for it’s an excellent choice. —ART THOMPSON
PRICE $1,099 street
CONTROLS Both channels: Gain, Volume, Bass, Middle, Treble, Reverb; Tight switch, Bright switch, Gain switch, Mid Cut/Boost switch. Global Density, Presence, Master, 2nd Master
POWER 120 watts
TUBES Six 12AX7s, four 6L6s
EXTRAS Effects loop with Send and Return Level controls. External bias test points. Fan cooling. 6-button footswitch included.
SPEAKERS Tested with Egnater VN 412A cabinet
WEIGHT 43.6 lbs
KUDOS Excellent clean and overdriven tones. Great price.
FENDER SUPER-SONIC 100
ABLE TO DELIVER CLASSIC AND MODERN TONES, THE SUPER- Sonic 100 has two distinctly voiced channels—Vintage and Burn—both featuring independent controls. On the Vintage side you get Gain, Treble, Bass, Mid, and Volume controls, along with a 2-position switch labeled “Showman/ Bassman.” On the Burn channel the controls are Gain 1, Gain 2, Treble, Bass, Mids, Notch Tune, and Volume. A master Reverb control and a channel- select switch complete the front panel’s feature set.
On the back we find an effects loop with Send and Return Level controls, Preamp Out and Power Amp In jacks, dual speaker outs with 4Ω/8Ω/16Ω switch, and a Slave Out with Level control. There’s also an Arena/Club switch (100 watts/25 watts), and a Damping switch that affects how tightly the power amp controls the speaker. But perhaps the Super-Sonic’s most notable feature is an Automatic Bias Selector with Warm, Normal, and Cool settings. Forget about multi-meters and test points—now you can just run the power tubes harder or easier depending on whether you want optimal tone or optimal tube life. Way cool!
Plugged into the Super-Sonic 100 412 cabinet, the amp delivered hip Fender tones on the Vintage channel, which sounds big, clear, and dimensional. On the Showman setting the tones have that depth and bold midrange punch you get from that classic head, with the 4x12 cab adding mass and bolstering the lows to glorious proportions. Switching to the Bassman setting ups the gain and brightness to yield more dynamic saturation, with a rawer edge that sounds cool for semi-distorted rhythm parts and solos. Nice that you can footswitch between these settings too, as a blues or roots-rock player could easily find everything they need from this channel. The reverb sounds good too, offering warm, springy textures that cover the gamut from light reflections to drippy surf effects.
The Burn channel offers a completely different sound by virtue of its cascading gain stages, which let you dial in everything from light overdrive to long sustain. It’s great to have this channel to go to for heavier solos and rhythm parts, and it’ll deliver these sounds at blistering volumes, but it is really like switching to another amp, as the distortion sounds and feels more preamp derived compared to what you get from the Vintage channel. It sounded best to me with the Gain 1 and Gain 2 knobs sitting at around one o’ clock and the volume cranked up fairly high. This yielded plenty of distortion, good dynamic sensitivity, and more presence from the power section. Turning the gain up higher, particularly at lower volumes, tended to diminish some of that sense of detail and dimension. The Notch Tune control didn’t help either. This semi-parametric filter moves the midrange in brighter or darker directions, but it doesn’t work like a presence control.
The Damping switch and Automatic Bias Selector provide more subtle ways of tailoring the Super-Sonic to suit your needs, as does the Arena/Club switch, which tames the volume and is useful for getting more power-amp grind at lower levels.
All considered, though, the Super-Sonic definitely covers a lot of sonic ground, and its Vintage channel is so good that a case could be made for buying this amp just for those righteous Showman and Bassman tones. —ART THOMPSON
PRICE $1,199 street
CONTROLS Vintage channel: Gain, Showman/ Bassman switch, Treble, Bass, Mid, Volume. Burn channel: Gain 1, Gain 2, Treble, Bass, Mids, Notch Tune, Volume. Master Reverb control.
POWER 100 watts/25 watts
TUBES Seven 12AX7s, two 12AT7s, four 6L6s
EXTRAS Effects loop with Send and Return Level controls. Automatic Bias selector (Warm/ Normal/Cool). Arena/Club switch (100 watts/25 watts). 3-position Damping control. Preamp out and power amp in jacks. Dual speaker outs with 4Ω/8Ω/16Ω switch. Slave out with Level control. Four-button footswitch included.
SPEAKERS Tested with Fender Super-Sonic 100 412 cab with Celestion Vintage 30 speakers
WEIGHT 49.3 lbs
KUDOS Lots of tonal options. Excellent sounding Vintage channel. Automatic tube biasing.
CONCERNS High-gain tones lose definition at lower volumes.
FRIEDMAN BE100 BROWN EYE
EVERY FEW YEARS IT SEEMS, SOME AMAZING NEW TUBE AMP COMES ALONG and becomes a serious must-have piece of gear, generating a huge buzz and an even huger waiting list. Over the last couple of decades we’ve seen it happen with Matchless, Diezel, and Divided By 13 to name a few. Right now, the “It” amplifier is undeniably Friedman. Rack Systems founder and tone guru to the stars Dave Friedman has put the knowledge he gained from playing, studying, modding, and repairing the classics into a line of amps that bears his name, and his models have found their way onto the stages of tone freaks like Joe Bonamassa, Steve Stevens, Jerry Cantrell, and many others. And although we would have been happy to test a Dirty Shirley or Pink Taco, we were psyched to put the Friedman Brown Eye, or BE100, through its paces.
This amp looks like a very simple, plexi-inspired top with its seven-knob front panel, although the several mini-toggles on the front and back start to clue you in to the fact that it has a lot going on. Here’s what we found when we plugged in a PRS S2 Mira and a hum-singsing Charvel: The Clean channel is massive, with tons of headroom, a full, breathing low end, and gorgeous treble sparkle. We were so knocked out by the rich, ringing clean sustain that we didn’t feel the need to reach for the EQ, which is a good thing because there is no EQ for the Clean channel. This is Friedman’s Simple Clean circuit, and all you get is a volume knob, a 3-position Bright switch, and the Presence knob. Ordinarily that would freak me the hell out. I need EQ! I need control! But Friedman has somehow designed a clean channel that can be all things to all people, no matter what guitar, no matter what pickup. Bridge humbuckers, neck single-coils, you name it, all sound great. It’s an amazing feat and the Brown Eye pulls it off with aplomb.
Switching channels gets you into BE mode, which has a whole lot of tone shaping features, including 3-band EQ, a Voice switch, a Fat switch, a C45 voicing switch, and a Sat (as in saturation) switch. What this channel really has, however, is tone for days. At lower gain settings I could get perfect AC/DC rhythm tones and beautiful clean timbres if I picked lightly. Inching up the gain brought in Van Halenstyle crunch with humbuckers and beautiful Hendrix-y stringiness with single-coils. All of the tones are teeming with harmonics, depth, and three-dimensional clarity. The sounds have a brilliant high-end but never get screechy, instead they have a glorious, bell-like clang that will cut through any mix. Nice! The various switches are all subtle and musical, with the Fat switch being my favorite for beefing up Strat tones.
Although the BE channel has gain to spare, if you need more you can switch to the HBE, or Hairy Brown Eye, mode. This is akin to kicking a great boost in the front end and produces searing distortion and terrifying sustain. If that’s still not enough, you can hit the Sat switch in the back for even more smooth saturation.
Even with all this praise about how this amp sounds, it’s important to note how great it feels to be plugged into the BE100. Friedman was striving for a “bouncy feel with just the right amount of sag,” and he nailed it, by carefully selecting and matching the very best components. Truly great amps are living, breathing things that you play just like an instrument, and that’s what this is. It’s also extraordinarily flexible and could easily handle classic rock, pop, country, blues, and all but the most brutal forms of metal. One of the finest takes on the venerable plexi that I’ve ever tried. —MATT BLACKETT
BE100 BROWN EYE
CHANNELS Clean, BE, HBE
CONTROLS (Front panel) Bass, Treble, Mid, Presence, Master, Gain, Clean Volume, Voice Switch, 3-position Bright switch
POWER 100 watts/50 watts switchable
TUBES Four 12AX7s, four EL34s
EXTRAS Effects Return Level, half-power switch, Fat switch, C45 switch, Sat switch, Line Out
SPEAKERS Tested with Bad Cat and Mesa 4x12 cabinets
WEIGHT 43.5 lbs
KUDOS Rich, dimensional tones. Extremely flexible. Rock-solid construction.
CONCERNS A significant investment.
MESA LONE STAR
THE “BLUES AMP” GENRE IS SO DOMINATED BY MID-POWER offerings that it’s easy to overlook the blues bruiser of the crowd, the Mesa Lone Star. Ignoring for a moment that Mesa makes a 30-watt version of the Lone Star, the 100-watt head on review here is both a powerhouse and one of the most the most advanced amplifiers available in terms of tonal options. Designed to deliver a decades-wide spectrum of Fender-informed tones, the Lone Star Special gives you a “blackface”-style channel with a wide gain range, and an overdrive channel that, while essentially a slightly gainier version of channel 1, features a selectable Drive setting that activates another triode stage along with a dedicated Drive control and a 3-position voicing switch with Thick, Normal, and Thicker settings. In Drive mode, the Lone Star is basically deploying the same three-knob, cascading gain-stage preamp used in the famed Mesa Mark I, which could deliver searing sustain at any volume level.
Moving downstream, each of the Lone Star’s channels features independent Gain, Treble, Mid, Bass, Presence, Reverb, and Volume controls, along with a switch to set the power at 10, 50, or 100 watts. The fact that the wattage can be different on each channel has many implications for configuring tones, the most obvious being using a higher wattage setting on the clean side for increased headroom and a lower setting on the overdrive channel in order to be able to run the output tubes harder. Further, the 10-watt setting also cuts the power stage to two output tubes operating in parallel single-ended class A, which yields the rich breakup associated with small tube amps like the Fender Champ. This is a great option for those situations where you want that touch-responsive, saturated-output- tube tone, but at a far more giggable volume than a Champ could provide. In fact, this amp is damn loud in the 10-watt setting!
And that’s just the start of the myriad ways in which the Lone Star controls power and dynamic response. In the 50- and 100-watt settings, the tubes (a pair and quartet respectively) run in push-pull class AB—the standard for headroom and smoothness— and in any of the wattage settings you can also select tube or diode rectification (10- watt defaults to tube, 100-watt to diode); the former providing a looser dynamic feel and the latter yielding tighter, faster tracking of notes and chords. Even the power switch plays a major role by virtue of a Tweed position that reduces the incoming AC wall voltage throughout the circuit to give the amp a “browner” sound and feel. Conversely, you can set the switch to the Full position for maximum headroom and punch. It’s a ton of fun to play with all these options, and it certainly makes the Lone Star extremely adaptable for everything from low volume rehearsals to big stages.
The Lone Star also has a global Output control and a footswitchable Master Solo knob that can be preset for an overall volume boost. If, however, you subscribe to the less-is-more theory when it comes to tone, you can completely bypass all the circuitry related to the effects loop and the Output and Solo controls. All these functions can seem a bit daunting, but in reality, the Lone Star is so accommodating that you could do a gig with it using just channel 2, which, no matter how high you set the gain (and there’s a ton on tap), rolls back to a useable rhythm sound when you turn down your guitar.
On balance with its excellent clean response, lush-sounding spring reverb, and impressive palette of rich distortion tones, the Lone Star answers the call for an amplifier that can pretty much do it all. If you’re looking for a price/performance champion among U.S.- made amplifiers, you’ve definitely come to the right place. —ART THOMPSON
PRICE $1,799 street; 1x12 combo $1,949 street; 2x12 combo $2,099 street
CONTROLS Both channels: Gain, Treble, Mid, Bass, Presence, Reverb, Master Volume. 100/50/10 watts switch. Channel 2: Drive/Clean switch, Drive control, Thick/ Normal/Thicker switch. Global Output and Solo controls, channel select switch.
POWER 100 watts; switchable to 50 and 10 watts
TUBES Five 12AX7s, four 6L6s, 5U4 rectifier
EXTRAS Multi-Watt power amp. Class A single-ended operation in 10-watt setting. Bias Select switch (6L6/EL34). “Variac” power switch with Tweed and Full Power settings. Selectable diode or tube rectification. All-tube reverb with Bright/ Warm switch. Footswitchable Solo Level. Effects loop with Send Level control. Slave out with Level control. Hard Bypass switch (removes effects loop and Output and Solo controls from the signal path). Fan cooling with on/off switch.
SPEAKERS Tested with Mesa 4x12
WEIGHT 43.4 lbs
KUDOS Outstanding feature set. Superb range of clean to highly overdriven tones. Excellent reverb.