Four Mid-Powered Tube Amps

How many watts is enough? Well, depending on your style, your gigs, your band mates, and what kind of tone you’re going for, it depends. For my money, however, the range between 20 and 40 watts is the “sweet spot,” as you can get gig-worthy volume, some clean headroom, and also work-over those power tubes a bit for some authentic old-school grind. The four mid-powered tone machines reviewed this month represent a range of different thoughts on what you can do with a moderately powered tube amp.
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All were tested with a Fender Telecaster, a PRS McCarty, a Fender Eric Johnson Signature Stratocaster and American Standard Stratocaster, and a Gibson SG. And while 65 Amplifiers supplied their own 2x12 and 4x12 cabs, George Dennis did not, so both amps were run through a variety of boxes, including our in-house Marshall straight-front 4x12 (loaded with two Celestion Heritage G12M and two Heritage G12H speakers), and an early ’70s Fender 2x12 (loaded with an Eminence Red Coat and a Celestion Heritage G12M).

65 Marquee Club

Based in Southern California, 65 Amplifiers is a hit with boutique-minded pros (Peter Frampton, Steve Miller, 65 co-founder and Sheryl Crow guitarist Peter Stroud, and tons of Nashville session aces, to name a few) who appreciate the company’s decidedly British take on amp building. The Marquee Club head ($2,895 retail/street NA; 2x12 cabinet, $949 retail/street NA; 4x12 cabinet $1,595 retail/ street NA) sports absolutely airtight cabinet construction with expertly applied Tolex in a hip, two-tone color scheme. Although the

Marquee Club offers two channels, it’s not a channel-switching amp. According to 65, channel switching calls for a more modern-sounding phase inverter, and they prefer the tone of a simpler, purer signal that’s produced from an old-school design. However, the Marquee Club does offer a footswitchable Gain function on Channel One.

When I plugged my SG into Channel One, the Marquee reeked of vintage British tone, with a chunky, tight bottom, snarling mids, and an ultra-complex, ringing treble response—think of a Vox/Marshall plexi hybrid, and you’re darn close to realizing what the 65 brings to the party. The amp’s chime is definitely enhanced with single-coils, but there’s no trace of harshness when kicking in Gain, or turning up the amp all the way. In fact, when cranked, the Marquee’s tones stayed focused and ultra musical, whether I was bashing and chunkin’ low-

register power chords, or wailing on the back pickup of a Strat. And make no mistake, this bad-boy Brit imposter is loud. This is not a bedroom amp, whatsoever—and it doesn’t want to be. It sings with joy when the Volume is cranked even halfway, yielding a no-nonsense squawk that punches you right in the chest. Channel Two’s Color control is very, very subtle, but it did slim down some of the beefy bottom end—which was great when running into a 4x12, as low-end booty was more than plentiful.

The 65 Marquee Club isn’t for everyone. It’s a hand-made (i.e.—expensive) tone machine that needs to be let loose in a high-volume environment. But with its sensitivity to your personal touch—as well as to your guitar’s inherent sonic personality—the Marquee Club will make many a tone connoisseur very, very, happy.

65 Marquee Club
Kudos Ultra dynamic. Tough, squawking tones that ride the line between classic Vox and Marshall amps.
Concerns Unless you have a gig, don’t bother!
Contact 65 Amplifiers, (818) 919-4925;

Genz-Benz Black Pearl 30 212

A classy, yet imposing-looking amplifier, the Black Pearl 30 212 ($1,999 retail/$1,599 street) sports excellent cabinet construction (the silver piping is swish!), and an ultra-simple layout that gets you up and rocking in no time. My first impression of the Black Pearl was that it was a more modern, slightly more aggressive take on a Vox AC30. But further plank spanking proved the Black Pearl is more than that. With a Strat, this single-channel machine yielded stunning string-to-string clarity—whether I was going for clean, or more distorted tones. The 5-position Voicing switch—which has Deep, Bright, Natural, Dark, and Thick settings—works well for fine tuning a particular guitar. But, for the most part, I found the amp’s 3-band EQ more than powerful enough to dial in my guitars, so I left the Voicing switch in the Natural position. Blues and rock cats will revel in the Black Pearl’s dynamic—even organic—distorted tones, which clean up wonderfully when you lighten up your playing attack, or turn down your guitar’s volume. You can get funky clean to grindin’ mean, and all without stepping on a button. All of the Black Pearl’s tones sport a swift, tactile attack, which allows you to really shape a note with your hands.

The Black Pearl’s footswitchable—and adjustable via the front-panel—Boost function adds a tad more volume, but it mostly adds a touch more saturation for solos. (The gain level is adjustable with a front-panel control.) But don’t worry, that extra bit of distortion won’t cause you to get lost in a mix, because the Black Pearl cuts. It’s one loud mofo, and it never caves in, even when the Master Volume is dimed. If you’re in a situation where it’s too loud, however, the back panel’s 4 Tube/2 Tube switch will drop the Black Pearl down to a still gig-approved power level of 15 watts by turning off the outer pair of EL84s. The basic feel and tone of the amp stays the same for the most part—just not quite as intense. Flipping the Pentode/Triode switch to Triode mode, however, will get you a noticeably mellower and spongier attack and tone. If you set the amp to its Triode and 2 Tube modes, you’ve essentially turned a 30-watt fire-breather into an eight-watt, 2x12 combo that delivers searing, musical tones. Kudos to Genz-Benz for making a simple amp with well-implemented, useful features that make it ideal to use onstage or at home.

Genz-Benz Black Pearl 30 212
Simple to use. Looks great. Sounds even better. Well-implemented features.
Concerns The reverb, while cavernous, could use more springy drip.
Contact Genz-Benz, (480) 941-0705;

George Dennis Spit-Fire Dual Recti

As far as I know, George Dennis is the only company in the Czech Republic building everything from talk boxes to parametric wah/ volume pedals to all-tube amplifiers. Their Spit-Fire Dual Recti head ($1,500 retail/$1,320 street) is a straightforward, easy-to-operate amp that can thrive onstage, or at home at low-volumes (thanks to its hefty preamp gain). Cosmetically, the Spit-Fire is pretty tight—save for some peeling Tolex on the front left corner of its plywood cabinet. With my Tele running through the Spit-Fire’s Clean channel, the tones were crystalline, with nary a hint of harshness. I was able to elicit some wonderfully keening clean tones with humbucker-equipped guitars, as well—which isn’t always easy without a bright switch. In fact, there wasn’t much EQ tweaking needed at all. Every guitar immediately sounded right when it was plugged in. As you crank the Volume, the Clean channel begins to morph into musical, super-dynamic breakup that cleans up brilliantly when you back off your guitar’s volume control. Whether you play funk, jazz, country, or blues, the Spit-Fire’s Clean channel can handle all comers.

The Spit-Fire’s Lead channel offers a single Tone control, and that’s it for EQ options. And to flip-out incessant EQ twiddlers even more, the control’s range is pretty feeble, barely slimming the amp’s bass response as you turn it up. As with the Clean channel, however, I didn’t need to make any drastic EQ changes—even when going from a Tele to a PRS McCarty—to get some happening sounds. The Spit-Fire’s tones are searing, with an aggressive, modern edge sans any annoying top-end sizzle, as well as a throaty, singing midrange, and a tightly focused bottom. Backing off my guitar’s volume gave me a ballsy crunch that was perfect for chunky rhythm work, yet there was still enough top-end sheen so that dense, arrpegiated chords rang loud and proud. I dug the Spit-Fire’s reverb (supplied by a half-size Accutronics tank), as it punctuated the already ass-kicking tones with either subtle touches of ambience, or cavernous textures that came close to being “surf-approved.” There are actually two reverb controls on the Spit-Fire, but the layout is a head scratcher. The controls are global, but the Reverb knob is on the Clean channel section, and the Reverb Sensitivity resides on the Lead channel. Even stranger, tweaking the Reverb Sensitivity does absolutely nothing to the character of the ’verb. Reverb- and EQ-control issues aside, the Spit-Fire Dual Recti sounds great, and that’s more than half the battle—it’s damn near the war.

George Dennis Spit-Fire Dual Recti
Kudos Killer clean tones. Wicked modern-rock tones.
Concerns Ineffective controls. Bizarre layout.
Contact George Dennis, dist. by European Musical Imports, (201) 497-5079;

Victoria Regal

For 13 years, Victoria Amplifiers has been cranking out clever twists on classic Fender circuits. But the new Regal ($2,695 retail/street NA) is loosely based on early Valco amp circuits of the ’50s and ’60s. Cosmetically, the Regal, is, well, regal, with a ultra-retro TV cab design draped in beautiful vanilla Tolex. The nut of the Regal is its dual single-ended, class A design, which means a couple of different things. First, the Regal allows you to swap its stock Tung-Sol 6L6s with a combination of output tubes (EL34, 6550, 6V6, KT66, etc.)—all without re-biasing the amp. The single-ended design also gives off amazingly complex tones that are rich in even-order harmonics. In short, the amp is a tube-tone geek’s wet dream.

The drawback of the design, however, is power. For example, a dual 6L6-equipped amp running in class A/B—say, a Fender Pro or Vibrolux—will be louder, and will have more headroom. In addition, the power tubes on single-ended designs run hot. But what the Regal lacks in clean headroom, it more than makes up for in tonal intricacy. At low volumes, the amp’s clean tones are absolutely stellar, with a crystalline, yet rich high-end sparkle that exhibits as much complex sonic detail as any amplifier I’ve ever heard. As you crank up the Volume, the tones get richer and throatier, yet they stay focused and ultra-musical. The Regal’s 15" Weber speaker gushes with warm, taught lows and sparkling highs—all without harshness, or weird high-end artifacts.

The real fun begins once you start swapping tubes. Some of my favorite combinations were a 6L6 mixed with an EL34, which yielded tougher midrange tones, and a tad more top-end sparkle than the stock set. An EL34 and a 6V6 gave me a super spongy attack with loads of stringy detail, and a pair of KT66s produced a load more muscle and clean headroom.

The Regal’s reverb is magnificent. It can deliver subtle washes, or stone-cold, over-the-top Dick Dale-style tsunamis, and the amp’s tremolo circuit is as throb-o-licious as it gets. This is due, in part, to the Regal’s tremolo circuit, which works by modulating the bias of the driver preamp tube. This yields a deeper, more undulating trem that stays crystal clear—even when running the amp wide-open. Once you settle on a tube complement—and that’s hard, because it’s a blast to experiment—the Regal will reward you with high-caloric, vintage tones fit for a king or queen.

Victoria Regal
Kudos Three-dimensional tones. Easy power tube swapping. Killer reverb and tremolo.
Concerns Not enough headroom for some applications.
Contact Victoria Amp Co., (630) 820-6400;