Half-Stack Thunder Lizards

Stacks and half-stacks aren't for everybody. They aren't even for a lot of people who think they need them. High-wattage head-and-cabinet rigs are the dinosaurs of the guitar world -- their era may have passed, but kids of all ages still think they're cool.
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The continuing allure of the stack and half-stack owes a lot to the thunder-lizard appeal of the classic Marshall rigs. But the boys from Bletchley aren't exactly trapped in The Land That Time Forgot: The new Marshall JCM 2000 DSL100 ($1,599), a spectacularly successful 100-watt, two-channel head with reverb, recaps past triumphs while blazing new territory. It combines the hottest of hot-rodded Marshall sounds with clean tones of a clarity and complexity seldom if ever encountered on one of the British beasts. We tested it with Marshall's 1960B cabinet ($939), a straight cab with four 75-watt Celestion 12s.

Inside the heavy-duty, welded-steel chassis lies a forest of circuit boards and wires. The four preamp tubes are mounted on a PC board, while the four Svetlana EL34s are mounted on a sub-chassis, which houses a circuit board that can be removed independently of the other three boards for easier servicing.

While the 2000 represents a sonic breakthrough for Marshall, it's not cluttered with excessive options. Both channels share a single set of tone controls (treble, mid, bass and presence knobs, plus deep and tone-shift buttons), though you can set separate reverb levels for each. Each channel has its own volume and gain controls. There's also a clean/crunch button for "classic gain" on channel A and a "lead 1/lead 2" button on the "ultra gain" B channel. You can switch channels and toggle the reverb on and off via footswitch, but you must flick the tone-sculpting buttons manually.

It's misleading to think of the two channels as just clean and dirty. What sets the 2000 apart from other super-hot Marshalls -- besides the stellar clean tones -- is its extraordinary ability to capture all the sonic nooks and crannies between clean, crunch and bludgeon. The ferocity of channel A's higher-gain settings surpasses that of most amps' lead channels, while channel B generates ravishing clean tones with the gain pot backed off. More than on almost any other two-channel amp we've encountered, switching between channels felt like switching between two fine amps of varying character, each excelling at the entire crystalline-to-carnivorous gamut.

Clean headroom is not an issue here -- the 2000 is ridiculously loud. It's dangerous, actually -- as you crank the amp, it just sounds bigger and bigger, but never gets shrill. The vibrating of our arm hairs and the queasy sense that our internal organs were being rearranged suggested that we turn down long before our ears did. As with certain vodka cocktails and Italian sports cars, the sheer power of the 2000 has an insidious way of sneaking up on you.

Channel A's clean tones are sparkly and immediate with lots of glorious high-end detail. Engaging the crunch button lets you dial in an exceptionally brutish grind that bristles with midrange and low-end girth. It sounds meaner than most dirty channels. The EQ section is remarkably musical -- it's hard to find a bad-sounding setting. The tone-shift button cuts midrange, while the deep switch pumps up an already formidable low end.

Channel B is equally complex and aggressive. Its demeanor isn't creamy in precisely the old plexi Marshall sense, but it's smooth in a more muscular way. Opening up the gain pot elicits a sense of near comic horror: "It can't get any bigger -- this is ridiculous!" Like the Blob, it just gets fatter and scarier. But whatever the gain setting, the amp remains extraordinarily sensitive to volume pot and playing dynamics. And the clean sounds, while darker and thicker than those of channel A, lack nothing in definition and animation. The Accutronics reverb lends vintage-flavored wetness to both channels. If you must go the full-on Marshall stack route, the 2000 will get you there with practically unrivaled range and power. (Marshall reports that the amp will soon be available in a 50-watt model.)

The 2000 is so remarkable that it's tempting to urge players to forgo lower-priced stacks and save up for the real deal. But there are in fact some great-sounding and reasonably priced head-and-cab configurations that deliver true big-amp muscle tone at relatively pipsqueak prices. Ampeg's 50-watt R-50H Reverberocket ($699) is one of them. It doesn't begin to duplicate the 2000 DSL's primal wallop, but that's not its intent. Rather, it's a sly mix of stack and combo-amp flavors with an attractive color all its own -- and a real bargain price. This amp is a major price/performance winner.

The Reverberocket resembles its mid-'60s namesake in name only. It's a two-channel, all-tube head with reverb and an effects loop. It looks sharp sitting astride Ampeg's R-412 cabinet ($699) -- both units are covered with eye-catching checkerboard Tolex. Inside the amp's powder-coated-steel chassis are Marshall-style jacks, board-mounted pots and tube sockets, and two PC boards connected via ribbon cable. Our test model came with dual Groove Tube E34Ls and Sovtek 12AX7s. Construction looks solid throughout.

A single set of reverb, volume and tone controls regulates both channels; the overdrive channel clicks in additional gain and master-volume pots. Despite the fact that the two channels share the same EQ circuit, each has a distinct color. The clean side gives off lots of crispy sparkle with ample headroom. At higher volumes it breaks up slightly in a smooth and musical way while retaining its tight low end. The channel doesn't sound Fendery per se, but its shimmer and definition are remarkable for an EL34-powered amp. The overdrive channel excels at maintaining a big-amp vibe even with the master rolled back. We got great feedback and crunch tones at remarkably low levels without sacrificing body or bass response. This dynamic channel interacts satisfyingly with the guitar's volume control, and complex voicings remain clear even at relatively high gain. Neither channel showed a bias toward single-coils or humbuckers -- both sounded great. The Ampeg cabinet, with its four 60-watt Eminence speakers, is a winner too. Its fat resonance and 4x12 knock dramatically improved the sound of the less expensive heads.

The treble and bass controls have dramatic curves with lots of usable tones throughout their ranges. The midrange control, on the other hand, is subtle almost to a fault. While it sounds relaxed and sweet throughout its modest range, you can't dial in ultra-scooped mids or a boosted honk. The reverb has a good surfy splatter, though it can sound slightly detached from the note, almost as if there were a slight delay. The included footswitch lets you switch it on and off and change channels, but the same front-panel reverb setting applies to both sides. Footswitch and effects-loop jacks are easily accessible on the front panel, though the effects loop has no level or mix control. There's also a second front-panel input jack with a 6dB pad for use with high-output pickups.

The Reverberocket delivers both spanking-clean reverb tones and formidable grind. In both sound and styling, it checks in somewhere between a vintage-style combo and an in-your-face Marshall half-stack. feels a bit like plugging a good hot-rodded combo into a big closed-back cabinet. If you fancy some retro sauce on your half-stack ribs, you won't be disappointed by this big-amp bargain.