New Acoustic Amps from Fender, High Cliff, SWR, and Trace Elliot

Comparing amplified and unamplified acoustic guitars is like comparing a digital piano to a real one -- the real thing wins every time. By definition, it''s a compromise to amplify acoustic instruments. But if you want to play to more than a handful of people, what else can you do? Here are four amps that offer a variety of ways to amplify your favorite acoustic. Each is unique, but all aspire to deliver rich, satisfying acoustic tone. I put them through their paces using a dozen different flat-tops and a variety of piezo, internal mic, and soundhole pickup systems.

Fender Acoustasonic Pro

Far and away the most potent and feature-laden amp in this roundup, the Fender Acoustasonic Pro ($1,399) delivers 160 watts (80x2) of stereo power into two 8" speakers and a piezo driver. It features separate 1/4" instrument and XLR mic channels, and it comes with 99 digital multi-effect presets (including 20 dual patches for sending different effects to each channel). A four-button effects-selection footswitch is included. The Pro also boasts innovative features for battling the twin evils of feedback and piezo distortion, and it packs enough inputs and outputs for just about any gigging situation. Despite all the features, this amp weighs a surprisingly light 45 lbs.

With the tone controls set flat, the Acoustasonic Pro sounds a bit like an electric guitar amp. Touching any of the tone knobs, however, instantly proves that this ain't no Twin Reverb. The 3-band EQ is very active, providing radical yet musical tone shaping. Slight boosts to the treble and bass knobs coax gorgeous fullness from any guitar. The midrange is surprisingly complex, and although I still felt the need to cut mids to achieve a groovy tone, the Pro responded beautifully to my adjustments.

All the tone in the world won't help you if your guitar is prone to piezo graininess or howling with feedback, however. Fender meets the feedback challenge head-on with a phase-reverse switch on the instrument channel (which Fender claims is useful for controlling feedback with a dual pickup system), as well as a master phase switch for the entire amp. There are also dual feedback filters for isolating two separate problem frequencies. Cool.

Fender deals with the perennial problem of piezo harshness in two ways: An "attack" control attenuates the harsh upper frequencies, while a patented String Dynamics control (a frequency-dependent limiter) cuts the vicious 6.3kHz frequency by up to 15dB when you hit the strings hard. These two features really work.

The Pro's effects sound good and are very clean. Some of the gaudier multi-effects programs (such as flange plus reverb) may seem geared more toward music-store gratification than real-world needs, but the spacious reverbs (rooms, halls, and plates) provide tone-enhancing air and dimension. And the ability to have, say, delay on the guitar and reverb on the vocal is pretty slick. The front-panel send and return knobs also make it easy to dial in just a touch of the effected signal, or instantly tweak an effect's mix. Although the effects can't be edited, up to four programs can be stored and recalled via front-panel buttons or the footswitch. Bottom line: The Fender Acoustasonic Pro is an easy-to-use, great sounding amp that packs a ton of performance for the money.

High Cliff Soundboard

The Soundboard ($1,398) is without a doubt the most radical amp in this roundup. Rather than having a conventional speaker, the Soundboard features a driver system that transfers string vibrations to a braced, spruce soundboard -- just like an acoustic guitar. This concept is especially advantageous for piezo-equipped acoustics because the Soundboard brings the warmth and timbral density of a resonating top back into the picture. (As piezos mainly amplify the vibration of the guitar strings -- and not the top -- they can produce harsh, cold tones.)

The 85-watt amp has two 1/4" input jacks (with separate gain controls), five bands of active EQ (plus shelving controls for bass and treble), a sweepable notch filter with up to 30dB of cut (for feedback elimination), and an effects loop with a return-level control. At 45 lbs, the Soundboard is an easy lug.

When I first plugged into the Soundboard, the tone was rather objectionable -- the mids barked, and the overall sound was very dark. It took a lot of tweaking to get the amp to sound good. Fortunately, the Soundboard's formidable EQ is highly effective for enhancing tone and controlling feedback. With one guitar, I cut 400Hz and 800Hz fairly drastically, boosted the treble, and also chopped 350Hz with the notch filter. This may sound extreme, but the result was a surprisingly natural and woody sound with no piezo graininess. Some might fault the Soundboard for its lack of brilliance, but if you think about it, most acoustic guitars don't sound excessively bright, either. There is something honest about the Soundboard's tone that makes me want to come back to it. But beware that plugging in a different guitar necessitates almost starting from scratch with the EQ.

Our Soundboard emitted strange rattles from the back of the cabinet, particularly at higher volumes. The back panel is very thin -- presumably for tonal considerations -- and it might benefit from a soundpost to stabilize it. Though the Soundboard provokes mixed reactions (some staffers never warmed up to the overall tone and the sound of the EQ; others liked the amp the more they heard it), kudos should be given to High Cliff for such a bold and quack-free design.

SWR Strawberry Blonde

Easily the most straightforward and affordable amp of the bunch, the Strawberry Blonde ($699) is an 80-watt, single-channel model with a 10" speaker and a switchable, piezo tweeter. Tone controls include 3-band EQ and an aural enhancer. Though not nearly as knob heavy as the other amps reviewed here, the Strawberry Blonde still has plenty of features, such as a side-chain effects loop, spring reverb, phase switch, headphone jack, and a tuner out. The amp tips the scales at a very reasonable 40 lbs.

The Blonde's tone is exceedingly bright. Guitars with onboard EQ are definitely recommended to keep the high-end in check. I even turned the amp's tweeter off at one point and tried to dial in a more balanced sound with the amp's treble knob and the guitar's EQ. This eliminated the screech, but the tone proved dull and unsatisfying. Interestingly, a Stratocaster equipped with a Fishman Powerbridge yielded the most balanced sound through the SWR.

The aural enhancer affects several frequencies at once. Though extreme settings can exacerbate piezo harshness, this function is the key to unlocking the Blonde's best sounds -- especially when used in conjunction with the amp's EQ.

The Strawberry Blonde puts out a lot of sound, and its phase switch can effectively eliminate feedback. Still, it's shocking how fast 80 watts gets devoured when amplifying an acoustic. Fortunately, there's an XLR out for sending a direct signal to the P.A. The Blonde will appeal to players who thrive on piezo tone, and need an affordable, easy-to-use amp.

Trace Elliot TA100R

The TA100R ($2,149), an updated version of the original Trace Elliot acoustic amp (reviewed in the Nov. '91, GP), offers redesigned digital effects and four 5" speakers. The 100-watt amp sports two independent channels: Channel 1 features low- and high-level inputs, input gain (with a pull function for activating the effects), and low- and high-trim tone controls. Channel 2 has two low-impedance, balanced inputs (1/4" and XLR) and an input gain knob with the aforementioned pull function. The XLR jack makes it a breeze to use the TA100R as a small, self-contained P.A. system -- great for solo or duo performances. There is also a master volume, 5-band graphic EQ, a switchable notch filter for reducing feedback, and a master level control with a "pull shape" function that changes the amp's overall EQ curve. The TA100R is covered with an attractive leatherette material and weighs in at a very portable 37 lbs.

To obtain the most natural sound, the TA's manual suggests initially setting all the EQ controls flat and disengaging the notch and pull shape. In my tests, this produced a midrangey tone that was in need of serious help. Engaging the pull-shape function instantly took care of the honkiness (by cutting 900Hz by 6dB and boosting the lows and highs), making the amplified guitar tone more musical. However, because some of the most annoying piezo traits lurk in the extreme treble range, I also cut slightly at 10kHz, and boosted 3.5kHz a bit. This kept the tone brilliant without being shrill.

The sworn enemy of the acoustic-electric player is feedback, and the Trace gives you two means of combating it. A front-panel notch filter allows you to isolate and eliminate howling frequencies simply by rotating the knob. Unfortunately, since there's no way to control the depth or the width of the notch, aggressive settings can have a big effect on the tone. The graphic EQ also proved effective at minimizing howl. Another feedback squelching feature is the amp's rear-panel phase switch, which puts one speaker out-of-phase with the other three. In addition to reducing feedback, this feature imparts enhanced clarity and projection to the sound. As I found it necessary to run the speakers out-of-phase to get any serious volume from the TA100R, I wish the switch was on the front panel.

Once dialed in, the TA100R is pleasant and musical in a slightly hi-fi way. It reacts well to different guitars, and its onboard digital reverbs and delays add airiness to the sound and are a breeze to operate. The reverbs lack dimension compared to many outboard units you could patch into the effects loop, however. The TA100R isn't terribly loud for a 100-watt amp. There's sufficient volume for solo gigs, but with a loud band you may find it necessary use one of the amp's XLR outs (you can choose between pre- and post-EQ flavors) for sending a direct feed to the P.A.

Wrapping Up

With a little bit of tweaking, it's possible to get a usable tone out of all of the amps reviewed here. Do any of them make my guitar sound as righteous as a Crosby, Stills, and Nash record? No. Are they cool enough to get people singing along on a gig? Absolutely. The SWR Strawberry Blonde has the grooviest price point and is very straightforward. The Trace Elliot TA100R is more than triple the cost of the SWR, but it sounds richer and sports considerably more features. The High Cliff Soundboard gets the Most Intriguing award for its innovative spruce soundboard and warm tone. The champ of this roundup, however, is the Fender Acoustasonic Pro. Its combination of great tone and brilliantly conceived features makes it the choice for coffeehouse singer/ strummers and duos.