ONE OF THE WORLD’S FOREMOST BOUTIQUE amp makers is reaching out to a broader audience, and it’s doing so with a more affordable new amp called the Avalon, a model that outwardly— and indeed inwardly—might at first appear to be a world away from this California company’s wheelhouse. Ever since its inception in 1989, the Matchless brand has been synonymous with point-to-point circuits. And we’re not talking simply “hand-wired,” using turret boards or tag strips or eyelet boards, as employed by the vast majority of boutique amp companies. I mean literally point-to-point in which components are soldered directly to each other—a pot connected to a tube socket by the coupling capacitor itself, for example—with no intervening circuit board of any kind.
The Avalon changes all that. In order to bring the famous Matchless sonic signature to a more affordable package, head honcho Phil Jamison has essentially re-engineered the timetested C30 12AX7 channel circuit to fit a less labor-intensive platform, using a marriage of point-to-point, turret board, and heavy-duty printed circuit board (PCB) construction. As a result, the Avalon comes in at better than $1,000 under the retail price of a traditional PTP Matchless of a similar size. The range opens with the basic non-reverb head at $1,999 and our review sample, the Avalon 30 Reverb 1x12 combo, retails for $2,549. For that, you take home a single-channel 30-watt combo with controls for Volume, Bass, Treble, Cut, Master (bypassable), and Reverb, a 4xEL84 output stage with half-power switch, series effect loop, and several other features. Other than the familiar name and control layout, though, can a non-PTP Matchless still be a real Matchless? The short answer is, yes. For the long answer, let’s dig a little deeper.
While the large, extra thick, mixed-format board that represents the Avalon’s circuit makes a major change from the PTP guts of any other Matchless product, this is the only significant change in construction. The Avalon is still entirely handmade, uses the same transformers, chassis specs, and wiring work as its siblings, and the board itself is populated with the components Matchless has always used: yellow Mallory coupling capacitors, big 1-watt carbon-comp resistors, and hefty Americanmade filter caps. The first preamp stage (along with some others along the way) is still wired up PTP, while the bulk of the rest of the circuit is constructed in much the same timeless fashion as any classic Fender or Marshall amp, or the majority of those from other boutique makers, on what Jamison calls the “turret strip” sections of the board—solder terminals that really look more like miniature eyelet connections. Finally, the board’s pre-printed traces are reserved for the power supply and filtering stages, which arguably benefit from a consistent, repeatable layout. Jamison reveals that the only real alterations from the C30’s channel one circuit included dialing in the midrange sweet spot for a creamier breakup, and adding a few carbon-film caps to the usual array of carbon comps to attain a little more high-end sheen. As he puts it, “If you use carbon-film and carbon-comp resistors in the right sequences, it will add a whole other dimension to the amp.”
The Avalon’s board also represents Matchless’ first easily upgradeable platform. While the amp can be ordered with or without reverb, tremolo, dual channels, and so forth, it can also be returned to the factory to have any of these, and a range of other options, added at a later date.
I’ve gotten this far into things without detailing the Avalon’s most noticeable feature: the black enamel-coated chassis with Plexiglas front panel and display lighting. It’s an attention getter for sure, and looks great with this two-tone cappuccino vinyl (several other colors are available). Although I thought the backlit plexi might frighten off some of the purists, Jamison tells me the look has received a warm welcome at amp shows and from a few of the large dealers to whom he has introduced the model. For players enamored of the enduring solid-panel look with light-up logo, the traditional front panel is always available as an option. Either one guards a tubes-up chassis mounting, another new approach, but otherwise the cabinetry is up to the usual Matchless standards. The semi-open-backed combo cab conceals a Matchless-spec’d Celestion G12H- 30 speaker, as well as a long-spring reverb pan mounted in the bottom in a padded bag.
In addition to having made a name for its PTP construction, the Matchless DC30— the amp from which the Avalon circuit is derived—has long been known for its captivating three-dimensional bloom, and the Avalon retains that well. This is the clean sound that put the company on the map. It gives chime and shimmer to a Gibson Les Paul’s humbuckers, and sounds positively swirly and alive with the harmonically rich single-coils of both the ’57 Fender Esquire and Custom Shop Heavy Relic Stratocaster I tested it with. The class-A topology (typified by an output stage in cathode bias with no negative feedback, as found here) is known for its smooth transition from clean into clipping, and that’s the feature that has hooked many players on the Matchless sound in the past. The Avalon achieves it beautifully, too. With the Volume knob around 11 o’clock, Master bypassed, and both tone knobs just shy of noon, my Esquire attained a sumptuous bite that you’d still consider “clean,” but which segues into a stouter voice when single notes are picked hard, and merges into semi-crunch with double stops and power chords. Auditioned solo, this tone is impressive, but it really shines in a band situation, where the added high-harmonic sheen and punch help it cut through the mix.
Throughout the testing process, I had the Avalon set up in the studio, and after running through half a dozen other vintage and boutique amps in an effort to record just the right jangle-with-bite tone for a particular project, it occurred to me to mic up the Matchless. Switched to half power to make it easier on the ribbon microphone, I dialed up the tone easily, and the Avalon nailed it in one take.
Jamison says he’s really pleased with his reverb circuit these days, and he has reason to be. At lower settings, with the amp fairly clean, the Avalon’s reverb is heard more as an extra dimension than as an effect in itself, adding space and motion to the already plentiful swirl. Higher settings can easily achieve the watery sproing needed for authentic surf and rockabilly excursions, but at anything short of extremes the amp still displays its admirable note definition and dynamic response, the reverb riding with your playing rather than blubbering all over it.
Crank the Volume, adjust the Master to suit, and the Avalon dishes out toothsome lead tones that can still be reined in for recording or smaller venues (the 15-watt setting is, again, a bonus here). With the Master bypassed and the Volume up around 2 o’clock, we’re talking serious volume levels from a 1x12 30-watter, but this has to be my favorite mode of the bunch: wind the guitar’s volume down and you still magically achieve that blooming, clean chime; roll back up, and you’re reeling in old-school Vox-meets-Marshall wail and grind, but with added sweetness and clarity. Heady stuff. All in all, the Avalon achieves its goals smartly: it’s still not a super-affordable amp, but the cost savings of the board-based construction puts it within reach of many more budgets, without ever threatening to dent Matchless’ reputation as a manufacturer of professionalgrade amplifiers.
SPECS | Matchless Amplifiers, (310) 444-1922; matchlessamplifiers.com
MODEL Avalon 30 Reverb
PRICE $2,549 retail/Street price N/A
CONTROLS Volume, Bass, Treble, Cut, Master, Reverb
POWER 30 watts/15 watts
TUBES Five 12AX7 preamp tubes, four EL84 output tubes, one GZ34 rectifier
EXTRAS Series effects loop, half-power switch, reverb on/off jack (footswitch not included), dual speaker outs, switch for 4Ω, 8Ω, and 16Ω impedance
SPEAKER Celestion-made Matchless G12H-30 (8Ω)
WEIGHT 62 lbs
KUDOS Versatile and superb throughout the tonal range. Outstanding build quality.