I know many guitar aficionados prefer to spend most of their money on amps, then guitars, then pedals. While in many ways I’m the other way around really. Although I wouldn’t mind spending around £2K for an amp or a guitar once I’ve saved up, my guitar will always take precedence as the highest ticket value item. For me the guitar is the start of the tone journey, and so much of what is important in handling a guitar and achieving great tone and dynamics is impacted by the quality of the guitar. So in my book it is vital that the guitar feels and performs / plays effortlessly, which means you might need to invest a little to get something great, but you should definitely be able to get something pretty awesome for around £2K - if you’re really lucky then closer to £1K. Anything less than that means that you are taking a hit on substandard parts somewhere along the line - whether electronics, fixtures or material construction.
To date my most expensive amp is my Carvin V3MC - which was around £1K, which is my current preferred upper limit for amps, although I do aim to get a MESA/Boogie Express Plus at some stage - probably the 5:50 - which power-scales from 5 to 50 Watts and is thus suitable for home use - albeit at a princely sum of around £2,150 credits of the realm. I run a stereo rig with a solid-state amp on the left channel and a tube amp on the right - currently Boss Katana KT100 + Carvin V3MC. I also have a twin backup in the shape of a Fender Mustang IV and Hughes & Kettner 18 Twelve - even though the former does not take pedals particularly well, and I’ve mostly evolved along pedal-platform lines. My Katana is modelled on EL34s, and the Carving runs EL84s - which gives me a sophisticated dynamically rich and harmonic mix.
I was looking to replace both the Mustang and H&K at some stage, but I’ll probably keep the latter for now. I don’t really have space to accommodate more than 4 combo amps though - in 2 stacks of 2. I prefer Combo amps because of the easier power requirement / cabling, safety, portability etc. but have often wondered if I should not have acquired a couple of speaker cabs and gone with a Head + Cab solution. I’m still open-minded about things - particularly seeing how excellent the new Mark Tremonti Head and Cab are - I might have made different decisions now versus then.
But then again - I love what Boss is doing with its combo amps. I already have a Katana KT100 and Katana Mini, and as per a previous post - will most certainly be acquiring a Katana Air shortly after its release - as it provides a superb fully wireless practice amp solution - something I’ve always been keen on - so that was the first big Boss surprise. Second surprise was the new Katana Artist 100 - essentially mostly the same controls as the KT100, but with a number of additions and refinements - including brand new speaker evolved from the Waza Craft Amp Speakers and updated voicings across the Acoustic | Clean | Crunch | Lead | Brown range of Channels - now with more dynamism, clarity and sparkle - so that’s likely another certified acquisition - just a question of when and how the logistics will work - will it replace the Mustang for now? - that is probably the most likely scenario. I was for a long time thinking of replacing that with a Peavey Vypyr Pro 100 - which is around the same price as the new Artist. I would really have liked to see Blue-tooth on the Artist too, as that is one of the big sell-in factors for the Katana Air - versus plugging your Laptop in via USB cable.
The EVH here is just a different flavour with the slightly more aggressive 6L6 tubes than the recent EL34s - I’ve always liked these amps, a big EVH fan - and they have proper power-scaling unlike most amps. Greg Koch’s signature Koch amp is a wonderful more vintage-styled boutique tube Trem/Verb amp with a whole plethora of tone-shaping options - really cleverly engineered with 2 different banks of dials both on the front and top. It is however not practical for home applications as it comes standard as 50Watts and has a diode/triode power scaling feature which only takes it down to 25 Watts - which is way too loud for home-use. My Carvin has 7 Watts at the lowest level and the dial is barely moved a millimetre or two for playback, while my Katana output is scaled to just 0.5 Watts - and I rarely take the master volume over 50% of that.
So I’m most enamoured by the tones and functionality of the new PRS Mark Tremonti MT15 lunchbox amp - which power-scales down to 7 - on par with my Carvin. If this were in Combo format I would not hesitate to snap it up - very reasonably priced too. Then we have probably the most innovative amp in this listing - the new Vox NuTube-run amp - power-scaling nicely from 150 Watts down to 1/100th of the output volume. From early demos it seems to have retained most of its classic Vox tone profile - those sparkly cleans and crisp overdrives - also with a tonne of tone-shaping options. The one big minus here is the lack of front-facing dials - Also 150 Watts is way more than I’m ever going to need really.
So these 6 are the ones that most intrigued me from this year’s NAMM crop - the Boss ones are definite - the Koch a no-no because of its lack of home-friendly power-scaling. I do like the new Vox approach, but am not wholly convinced. And you can’t go wrong with an EVH - like I said earlier - I currently have a preference for Combo amps - so right now the Mark Tremonti is not quite right for me - although it does sound amazing.
Amps are listed by Brand then Name:
This has to be the king of the mini amps now - fully wireless, everything available and fully controllable out of the box - with further options then available via Boss Tone Studio via Blue-tooth. 30 watts mains powered, and 20 Watts battery-powered for 12 hours or so (surely less!). These are fairly pricey relative to size, but so worth it really - Boss will sell these by the bucket-load!
This is not a huge step up from my existing Katana KT100, but is overall significantly refined and improved - and from the demos I've seen sounds more sparkly and dynamic throughout its range - obviously much of that is to do with a brilliant new more responsive and dynamic speaker, but the key algorithms have been tuned and improved for this amp too. I have so much on my wishlist currently I had not really factored in getting a second Katana. I also feel that Boss misstepped here by not enabling blue-tooth Tone Studio manipulation. Other than that this totally looks like the new standard for affordable solid-state amps.
There are so many variations of EVH amps now - in Head, Combo, 1 x 12, 2 x 12, lunchbox etc. varieties. Surely they should just engineer the amp to be able to take any number of different tubes - rather than endlessly releasing different tube-versions of essentially the same chassis etc. This is possibly the most full-on version to date - making the most of the more aggressive tonal profile of the 6L6s. I have long had one of these in my sights, but I'm not currently sure how to fit it in!
The above demo demonstrates the superb versatility and dynamism of this amp, and how cleverly it has been engineered for different routing and control options. It's the other end of the scale from the Mark Tremonti in terms of gain-on-tap, and is likely to appeal more to a vintage bluesy style of player vs an out-and-out rocker. Also as stated in the intro - it power scales only from 50W to 25W - which is quite a bit too much volume for home-use really. Gorgeous amp though and quite different to the rest.
I don't know what I was expecting here, but then neither did Andertons - selling out all 15 of their allocation within moments on pre-order, and then having to immediately order 50 more. The Amp & Cab sound superb - nice sparkly cleans, and tight mid-focused distortion with plenty of dynamic range. Everything here is really crisp and tight and direct. The nicest sounding PRS amp for me to-date - and at a wonderful price-point. I'm hoping Paul releases a combo version of this eventually which I would totally snap up.
Props to Korg / Vox for pushing the NuTube innovation. The mini Vox's that came out last year sounded great - the new Ibanez NuTube screamer lacked the punch and sparkle of its more traditional predecessors, but did nevertheless have some audible amp-like dynamics - possibly just needs to be tuned better! Seemingly no such problem with the new MVX though which certainly sounds like a Vox-style amp - and with a plethora of additional tone-shaping options. It's early days yet though, and we still haven't seen much in the way of head-to-head tests - but what I heard was encouraging. I don't mind the light up blue either - the H&Ks have always done that, and the new Mark Tremonti pleasantly switches from Blue (Clean) to Red (Distortion) - I'm all for pretty lights, and I still think that the Vox has retained some of its earlier brand markers. It's still early days for NuTube, and this will surely evolve and improve - I certainly don't mind supporting a technology which is easier to service and maintain - and more reliable - we just need to get the tonal dynamics exactly matching - the older tube types - which is also still the challenge for the solid-state brigade.
In truth, none of the amp technologies are perfect yet - they all have their specific weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. I love the sound of tube amps, but not the hassle that comes with running and maintaining them. I want something which is reliable, easy maintenance, low power requirement and instant on/off - which are all aspects which count against tube amps - also weight typically too.
Modelling technologies are getting closer and closer all the time, but are not quite there yet - perhaps the NuTube is the definitive replacement and just needs time to advance and evolve - perhaps there is something better waiting in the wings. For my purposes though I will continue to use a mix of the formats - to generate interesting and rich dynamics across a stereo soundscape.
I also saw a demo of a full frequency 4-speaker amp which split out the wet and dry signal, and allowed you to mix back in the unadulterated dry signal for supremely enhanced acoustics - this is surely and idea that needs supporting. Amps can still get a lot cleverer - even though there is nothing quite as clever as the Boss out their currently, there surely will be again. Boss have got lots of things right already - but there is still a way to go to satisfy all. The battle will only be won when traditional die-hard tubers find something that unequivocally matches the output of their old-school rigs!