It’s often said that style is everything. But while most amp manufacturers build tastefully executed and pleasantly attractive designs, few seize the opportunity to make a stylistic statement as boldly as Orange or Speedster. And why not? Should amps be relegated to the backline like mere appliances, or is it okay if they steal a bit of the spotlight too? That’s for you to decide, but once you hear the great tones produced by these fine amps, I think you’ll be attracted by their sound as well as their looks.
Orange Rockerverb 100
Founded in London by Cliff Cooper in the late ’60s, Orange derived its name and stylistic direction from Cooper’s music store, which he dubbed with the thoroughly mod moniker Orange. Thanks to their unique preamp and tone control design, early Orange amps offered an alternative British voice and soon became attractive to guitarists seeking stouthearted tone and an outrageous new look. But as amp trends changed in the ’80s, Orange faded into the unseen shadows of the marketplace, waiting to emerge again in the late ’90s.
While its appearance is similar to the classic Orange amps of yore, the Rockerverb 100 boasts an entirely new circuit developed by one of the UK’s reigning tube lords, Adrian Emsley. The all-tube design boasts two footswitchable channels that offer everything from taut clean tones to well-controlled and finely detailed overdrive. While the early Oranges used hi-fi style Baxandall Bass and Treble controls and a unique passive bass roll-off rotary switch (the mysterious F.A.C. knob), the Rockerverb’s Clean channel’s tone control circuitry is more Vox-derived, and the Dirty channel’s tone control circuit is more like a Marshall’s. The Clean channel’s two gain stages provide tons of dynamic headroom, and the Dirty channel’s four high-gain stages can produce much more overdrive than any previous Orange design. The Rockerverb’s most powerful control is its Dirty channel’s Gain knob, a double-pot that regulates the gain of two stages simultaneously, providing an awe-inspiring range of overdriven textures from just one knob.
Driven by one of the 12AT7 tubes, the Rockerverb’s short, three-spring, medium-decay Accutronics reverb tank delivers an ambient dimensional quality that’s reminiscent of a blackface Fender’s reverb. The Rockerverb’s reverb affects both channels equally, and it works surprisingly well with the Dirty channel, even at higher gain and reverb settings. (With some high-gain amps, higher reverb settings can turn the tone into an incoherent and cacophonous roar.) The reverb is also footswitchable for those who prefer to keep their distortion tones dry.
The Rockerverb 100 is equipped with a rear-panel Output Valve Selector switch that allows it to accept 6L6, 6550, or KT88 tubes (or valves, as they prefer to say in the UK). There’s also a pair of output tube fuses on the rear panel. If an output tube fails, one of these fuses will disable it and its complementary partner, leaving the second pair of tubes operational. The amp will remain functional (albeit at half power), so you can make it through your gig. There’s also an LED that illuminates to identify the problematic pair. Cool feature!
Squeezin’ the Orange
The Rockerverb 100 really comes to life when teamed with a 4x12 and a hearty humbucker. It seems ideally voiced for a quad of Celestion Vintage 30s and a PRS McCarty (yet it also performed admirably with a Strat). The Clean channel’s texture and tonal balance reminded me of a Vox AC100, with plenty of thickness in the midrange and a full, focused, and tightly controlled low end. Its dynamic response is impressive too, with a forceful and percussive chest-crushing attack that doesn’t soften even with the Volume knob wide open. If you’re looking for frighteningly loud clean tones, you found you’re ticket right here.
Despite its name, the Dirty channel can also produce impressive clean tones when its Gain knob is set below ten o’clock. Advancing the Gain knob further provides a rush of detailed and dynamic overdrive, with ever increasing harmonic content and dial-it-where-you-want-it sustain. Always refined and musical, the Rockerverb 100’s overdrive tones are never short of spectacular. Even the highest–gain lead tones are articulate and touch sensitive, and each note in a chord rings with its own clearly defined voice. Any way you look at it, the Orange Rockerverb 100 is an exceptional amplifier, and its fresh-yet-retro design warrants high praise.
Speedster Class A ”40”
Back in the late ’90s, Speedster rolled into the amplifier world with the introduction of its first design, the Deluxe. Powered by a pair of 6V6 output tubes, the distinctively styled head/cab combination evoked the appearance of a vintage racecar, while its circuit closely followed a blackface Fender’s time-proven topology. On the strength of the Deluxe, Speedster production cruised along for a few years and then the company quietly disappeared into the sunset. In 2003, original co-founder Cory Wilds and guitar enthusiast Joe Valosay revived the brand under the protective wing of high-tech electro-mechanical manufacturer Jevco International. The Speedster line has returned with the addition of a new model, the Class A “40,” which features a unique circuit, designed by Eric Collins, that seeks to capture the two most coveted British tones in a single amp.
Equipped with four cathode-biased EL84s, its output stage closely resembles a Vox AC30’s, however, the Class A “40” preamp instead sports a Baxandall bass and treble circuit for a different tonal voice and range.
The amp’s most innovative feature is its Dual Voiced Preamp’s single-coil/humbucker switch. Denoted by graphic pickup icons, this switch revoices the preamp at three different circuit points to optimize its frequency response for either pickup type. In single-coil mode, the bass is deep and full and the treble is clear and extended. In humbucker mode, the preamp’s low-end roll-off shifts to a higher frequency, producing a leaner, tighter, and more detailed bottom that’s perfectly tailored for fatter-sounding pickups.
Humbucking mode also increases the preamp’s upper-midrange and lower-treble emphasis for more aggressive bite while simultaneously attenuating the highest frequencies to mellow the top end and eliminate the unpleasantly beamy “ice-pick” syndrome. Since these last two functions are tied to the Preamp control, their effect becomes more noticeable at lower Preamp settings.
The Volume control is a post phase-splitter master volume pot that disconnects itself from the circuit when turned fully clockwise. Speedster disassembles the Volume pots and carefully cuts away a small portion of the carbon track to produce a “dead spot” that provides this function. The incurably master-volume-phobic can rest assured that the Speedster’s Volume control is indeed completely out of the circuit when it’s set to the Bypass position.
As the Class A “40” is primarily sold as a head/cabinet combination, it’s essentially a two-piece combo. The unique anodized-aluminum speaker grille is punched and engraved on Jevco’s state-of-the-art, computer controlled, metal working machines. The head’s faceplate is also anodized and engraved aluminum, but in addition, it also sports a time-honored 3D metal finishing treatment that’s often seen on hot-rod dashboards, aircraft cowlings, and even inside expensive watches. You can do some cool stuff when your parent company runs a world-class machining facility.
The cabinet is loaded with a pair of series-wired 8-ohm Eminence Red Coat Stonehenge speakers for 16-ohm total impedance. The cabinet’s two-piece back panel is staggered to form a 2" vent that allows the speakers to breathe while also enhancing the bass response.
Thanks in part to its unique single-coil/humbucker switch, the Class A “40” sounded perfectly voiced with every guitar I tried. EL84s are famous for their chimey top, complex midrange, and lively dynamic response, and they’ve rarely sounded better than they do in the new Speedster. In single-coil mode, there’s layer upon layer of ringing clarity and colorful swirling texture, and in humbucker mode the amp can adopt a more assertive, vintage Marshall-like stance that begs for some classic Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton riffs. Thanks to the efficient Stonehenge speakers, the amp is quite loud, even when set to half-power mode. The deceptively simple Baxandall tone control circuit can provide flat, humped, or scooped mids, and just about any other frequency response shape you’d desire. Don’t be fooled by the simple controls, this amp has a lot of tonal flexibility. If you’re looking for an amp that’s sure to attract wide-eyed admiring stares, and can also produce a vast variety of killer tones with just about any guitar, the Class A “40” may be right up your alley.