By Art Thompson
It’s no secret that most boutique amplifiers offer craftsmanship that is beyond what can be delivered for a production-line price. Handwired circuits are expensive to build, and that’s why some boutique manufacturers have begun to offer lower-cost models with PC board circuits. Ex-Matchless chief Mark Sampson—a diehard proponent of point-to-point circuitry— launched a PC board amp just before Matchless went under in 1997. And though Sampson has since designed a series of handwired amps for Bad Cat, he recently cooked up a new PC board model for SMF—which was co-designed by noted stompbox builder Rick Hamel.
On face value, the 15 Watter ($2,199 retail/street N/A) might seem pretty run-of-the-mill—a two-channel, class A design that uses a pair of EL84s to drive a 12" Celestion Vintage 30 speaker. But with its oval grill, staggered controls, two-tone graphics (other colors are available), and spinning-LED gear logo, you just know the 15 Watter is something different. It also packs a 4-band EQ with an active mid circuit, a reverb tone control, and an adjustable cabinet hatch that allows you to tune the box for any degree of closed- or open-back response.
The 15 Watter is unusual in that its entire tube complement (which consists of five 12AX7s and a 5AR4 rectifier) is housed inside the chassis. Sampson says he put the bottles inside for noise considerations, but that location will definitely call for tools and a lot of patience if—make that when— a tube goes bad during a gig. (Samson tells us that future production models will have a removable panel that allows access to the tubes without dropping the chassis.) You can’t fault the circuit’s integrity, though. The pots are mounted to the chassis, the tubes are gripped in ceramic, board-mounted sockets, and the wiring is clean and carefully routed. A clever friction system allows the sonic hatch to be positioned anywhere between its fully open and fully closed positions. The hatch is the most notable rear-panel detail, as the 15 Watter has no effects loop or extension-speaker jacks.
The 15 Watter is easy to use once your eyes get accustomed to the layout of the controls. The Cruise knob at the far left is your clean volume control. Its wide gain range allows you to dial in anything from crystalline tones to tough, overdriven textures that are perfect for bluesy solos or rock rhythms. The High Gear channel is automatically engaged when you click the master volume from its off position (this can also be done via the included footswitch). You can then set the distortion level using the High Gear knob, and control the overall volume with the master.
As with all of Sampson’s designs, the knobs have a ton of effect on the sound. The High Gear control provides everything from lightly distorted textures to furious grind, and the 4-band EQ (which is shared by both channels) is extremely effective. You get gobs of action from the passive bass, treble, and bright (presence) knobs, and the active midrange control is all-powerful in its ability to deliver everything from wicked scooped tones (when you put it on zero and crank up the bass and treble) to classic sounding Marshall colors to ballsy Matchless-style vibes. The 15 Watter isn’t fussy about control settings, however, and it seems that no matter where you set the knobs, cool tones pour out.
I found the amp to be a little more meaty sounding with humbuckers, but whether you’re after crisp rhythm colors, buttery blues tones, or scorching overdrive, you’ll find it with minimal effort. The 15 Watter’s reverb is deep and vibey, and the handy tone control lets you dial-in the sound for smooth reflections or aggressive crashing.
The sonic hatch provides an organic way to tailor the 15 Watter’s tones. I preferred it in the fully open position, which allows the sound to spread out more readily and bounce off the walls. But if you’re playing a bigger stage or simply need more bass thump, closing the hatch is the way to go. Being able to optimize the amp in this manner is a particularly hip feature, and it’s something that you definitely can’t do with EQ alone. The 15 Watter is capable of hanging with a band in a small club, but, at 62 lbs., it weighs as much as many 30-watt 1x12 combos. I wish it had the extra headroom that two more EL84s would provide.
The 15 Watter is a unique animal with a spectrum of tones that are intensely satisfying. Some players may be loath to buy a tube amp that looks solid-state, but there’s kind of a parallel with the Porsche Boxter in that regard, as you can’t easily see its powerplant either. With its bold tones, stout workmanship, and decidedly non-vintage styling, the 15 Watter is an alternative for tube aficionados who are looking for something that doesn’t scream tweed or Tolex. Sampson and Hamel were definitely thinking outside of the box when they created the 15 Watter—it’s a boutique amp for the modern set.