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Preferred Stereo Amp Setup - Principals and Understudies, Solid State and Tube - A Personal Selection!

AmpsBossCarvin AmplificationCombo AmpHome-Play AmpHughes and KettnerMESA/BoogieModelling AmpSolid State AmpTube Amp+-
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When I started down this road many moons ago, my intentions were to keep things as simple as possible - but that particular rule book has long since been torn up and thrown under the bus. My rig has evolved pretty organically into a stereo setup - where I always have and most likely always will have a Solid-State amp on the Left Channel, and an All Tube variety on the right (along with 40 or so pedals in my pedal-chain).

 

My current incumbents are the Boss Katana KT100 and Carvin V3MC - both combo amps and with respective 100 and 50 watt equivalent output, but more importantly - the ability to power-scale down to 0.5 Watt (Katana) and 7 Watts (V3MC). Even though I use my amps as essentially clean pedal platforms, I still like to have those amps as full-featured as possible - to give me further versatility and different playback options as potentially required at any stage.

 

The 4 amps I currently have at my disposal are the 2 aforementioned ones (Katana and V3MC), and then backups courtesy of a Fender Mustang IV V2 and a Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister 18 Twelve. To be fair I’ve not used those latter two for a few years now.

 

Every few months I review the Amp landscape out there and decide how best to upgrade my current setup which is so dominated by pedals. I’ve already long since decided to upgrade the Boss Katana 100 to the Katana Artist one of these days - it has a few extra tone components to it, and a proper innovative Waza Craft speaker - as well as a front-facing, more accessible control panel. On said solid-state side I had long considered acquiring a Peavey Vypyr Pro as a secondary instead of the Fender - and as much loved by one Pixxy Lixx, now better known as Steve from Boston. While since the recent launch of the new Hughes & Kettner Black Spirit 200 Combo - I think that may rather be the one for me - although there is something of a step-up in price.

 

Over on the Valve/Tube side I have no intention of ousting or replacing my Carvin V3MC yet as such - it just works great for how I use it. I have though been long considering getting a MESA/Boogie Express Plus 5:50+ Combo for backup / rotational purposes - so long in fact that it’s now discontinued! There are still a fair few in the dealer network though as far as I can tell - and hopefully if I bide my time, a bargain can be struck somewhere along the line - or I can get a lightly used second-hand one.

 

Generally when I am looking for an Amp - I tend to have the following criteria in mind:

 

KEY AMP SELECTION CRITERIA

  • Combo : Preference for Combination Amplifier and Speaker Cab Units - less cables and connections - easy to stack on top of each other as long as I keep it to 4 (2 x 2)
  • Front-Facing Control-Panel : Key Control Settings must be easily visible for settings cues - as well as easily accessible
  • Independent 3-Band EQs : 3 Band EQ per Channel
  • Multi-Channel : Ability to switch from Clean to Rhythm to Lead Channels ideally
  • Pedal Platform : Must work exceptionally well as a Pedal Platform Amp - great articulation across all gain stages and effects
  • Power Scaling : Ability to scale down to at least 7W if not lower - for home-play-back
  • Output : Ideally no less than 50W Total Output

I feel that much like with the mythical holy grail guitar trying to combine Les Paul, Strat and Tele tones into a single instrument - the same template for amps is combining Fender, Marshall and Vox. Something that 3rd Power Amps believes it has achieved with its Kitchen Sink Head - but has yet to replicate fully in Combo format.

 

Boss’s Nextone series of amps tries to do something similar with its simulated Power Amp Tube Selector - 6V6 | 6L6 | EL84 | EL34 - which cover the most popular amp power tube types - including the holy grail trilogy. I though feel that in many ways the Boss Nextone is a sort of slimmed-down / streamlined Katana in many respects and prefer the overall versatility of the Katana - where surely Boss could combine the two concepts with just one additional nifty selector.

 

I have a soft spot for the Yamaha THR series and Boss Katana Air for tiny practice amps - but besides some of the Roland Amps - BluesCubes and Jazz Choruses, there’s not much else in the current solid-state landscape that really catches my attention. Blackstar do some interesting versions, as does Laney - but nothing appeals to me as much currently as the Boss Katana Artist and brand new Hughes & Kettner Black Spirit.

 

Over on the Tube / Valve side of things, I have always loved the neat compactness of my Carvin V3MC, and while the Distortion voicings could do with some fine-tuning improvements, the clean channel is just stellar. I found the V3MC entirely of my own accord - a sort of junior variant version of an almost MESA style amp - with lots of different controls for tweaking voicings and bright caps and intensity/thickness/frequency-response - as well as full 3-Band EQ plus Presence for each of the 3 Channels - it certainly knows how to cram in the features.

 

For a secondary rotation amp here I long wanted to get a MESA/Boogie Mark V, but as that does not scale down quite far enough for me on the power side for home-play - it looks like the Express Plus 5:50+ is the more suitable candidate for my setup. These were discontinued a year or two ago now, but I’ve still seen a few floating around in the retail channels. If REVV were ever to do a combo amp which had all the flavours of the Generator 120 and power-scaling down to 5 or 7W - then that would be a prime contender too. Also if PRS ever made a combo version of their Mark Tremonti MT15 I would add that to the consideration as well.

 

I want all my amps to feature stellar Clean and Drive channels - hopefully in multi-channel configurations. Yet it’s somewhat odd how little mainstream innovation and development there has been for these sorts of amps for a while. The Boss Katana and Hughes & Kettner are definitely the two most interesting evolutions that have come around for some time.


Boss Katana Artist 100 Combo - £469

I believe the Katana series is still probably my favourite Amp series out there and the most perfectly conceived one overall. I feel there is still scope for improvement here - for instance being able to use a Bluetooth iPhone app with all amps like you can on the Katana Air. And also the inclusion of the Nextone Series' Power Tube Selector - 6V6 | 6L6 | EL84 above and beyond the base core EL34 voicing derived from the BluesCubes. I feel that all the feature set is there now, but some elements just need to be better surfaced on the core Katana range - so that you can get more out of those amps - without using the USB-connected desktop-based App - which I still find a touch clunky. As with the various modelling larger scale pedals - Axe-FX, GT-1000, Helix, HeadRush etc - I feel this particular arms race is almost as much about the usability of the interface - and getting a good looking easily learnable interface is critical to a lot of these more capable modern amps. In that regard the Hughes & Kettner Black Spirit may currently have a slight advantage in the interface looks department, but both amps could do with significant improvements to their control topologies - digital and physical. The lack of visible markers on the H&K knobs is a significant issue really - as mentioned by Henning Pauly. Overall I still feel the Katana has an edge - it's more affordable, relatable and usable overall - and I've been able to get amazing sounds out of mine - as has Dave Simpson with his - although we both set up our amps vastly differently - where it took me the best part of a day to get everything tuned in just right. I still feel that the Katana is the amp range that is setting the pace of where things are - and more amp-builders need to catch up with this new reality. At the moment H&K, REVV and Suhr are on the curve - while all the others are significantly behind on product development.

 

KEY SPECS

  • Total Output : 100W
  • Power Scaling : 0.5W | 50W | 100W
  • Channels : 4
  • Speaker : 1 x 12" Waza Speaker
  • Effects : Multi-Effects Onboard including Boosts, Modulations, Delay and Reverb
  • EQ : Shared 3-Band EQ plus Presence
  • Presets : 8
  • Resonance : 3-way Mode Switch
  • Line Out Air Feel : Rec | Live | Blend output modes
  • Speaker Out : 8Ω | 16Ω
  • Effects Loop : Single Return and Send
  • Connections : Line Out | USB | Footswitch
  • Dimensions : 630mm x 515mm x 248mm
  • Weight : 19 kg

Hughes & Kettner Black Spirit 200 Combo - £1,100

The engineers at H&K have really excelled themselves this time - although like with many amps of this type I think you need to be very disciplined when dialling in to your own preferences - you need the patience and due diligence to see you through here. And often the tones aren't quite as instantly appealing as with an equivalent Tube amp - you definitely need to take some time to dial things in properly here - which was actually the same for me for both my Boss Katana and Carvin V3MC - for each amp I take the best part of day when dialling things in - checking against a wide range of inputs from my extensive pedal-chain and ensuring even handling of different gain-stages and effects - much like you would at a mixing console. The analog transistor-based 'Bionic' / 'Black Spirit' technology is not too dissimilar in concept to that employed in Origin Effects RevivalDRIVE pedal - where the whole of the amp circuit - power section, transformers etc. has all been replicated with transistorised type components. Meaning you get the equivalent of Tube Sag / sponginess and frequency response - with lively dynamics and bright articulation - in effect all the typical Tube-amp attributes. You then have all the Boss-style digital effects on top of that - with 128 presets, RED Box AE DI and lots of really cool secondary functions - particularly when you deploy the separately available midi footswitch. The price is somewhat justified by the R&D of this new technology - but you will need to spend some time with it - tuning and dialling it in to your preferences - it's not necessarily one of those amps that instantly sounds great. Note that Boss for instance spend a lot of time engineering tonal sweetspots for dials set to the 12 o'c position - which is really not the case for most amp-makers. For some the sweetspot range can vary vastly between 10 and 2 o'clock on each knob/dial. So be advised that this amp has great potential - but you may have to put in a shift to get there.

 

KEY SPECS

  • Total Output : 200W
  • Power Scaling : 2W | 20W | 200W
  • Channels : 4
  • Speaker : 1 x 12" Celestion G12H-75 Creamback Speaker
  • Effects : Multi-Effects Onboard including Boost, Modulations, Delay and Reverb
  • EQ : Shared 3-Band EQ plus Presence
  • Presets : 128
  • Resonance : Single Control Dial
  • Sagging : Single Control Dial
  • Speaker Out : 8Ω | 16Ω
  • Effects Loop : Single Return and Send
  • Connections : Midi In+Out | Footswitch
  • DI Out : Red Box AE
  • Dimensions : 450mm x 445mm x 290mm
  • Weight : 14.9 kg

Carvin V3MC 50 Combo (discontinued) - c£1,100 when new

I really like my little Carvin and I searched high and low for said amp back in the day - tracking it down in Germany when I first got it (No UK Carvin Dealers at that time) - even then I believe it had just recently been announced as discontinued. I was very specifically looking for a multi-channel MESA Mark Series kind of amp with lots of tone-shaping features and a really spanky bright clean channel, and this delivered for me on every level. It has been solid and reliable since day one, and once the speakers were properly broken in it has a wonderfully articular core tonality which is quite distinct to my current left-Channel Boss Katana. I don't feel the Crunch and Distortion channels are quite up to the lofty heights of the Clean, but they are more than up to the job with some smart pedals in advance. This has been the perfect Pedal Platform amp for me for many years now, and I'm always surprised how little known this gem is - particularly on this side of the pond.

 

KEY SPECS

  • Total Output : 50W
  • Power Scaling : 7W | 22W | 50W
  • Channels : 3 - Clean | Crunch | Lead
  • Speaker : 1 x 12" Carvin GT12 Speaker
  • Effects : Reverb
  • EQ : 3-Band EQ & Presence per Channel
  • Speaker Out : 4Ω | 8Ω | 16Ω
  • Effects Loop : Single Return and Send
  • Connections : Midi Out | Line Out | Footswitch
  • Dimensions : 406mm x 450mm x 236mm
  • Weight : 16.4 kg

MESA/Boogie Express Plus 5:50+ Combo (discontinued) - c£2,000 when new

As mentioned in the intro, I've long admired and thought about getting the more complicated Mark V amp, but have decided that the simpler 2-Channel Express Plus 5:50 is the more suitable choice for me - particularly for its greater suitability for home-play. This still has the 5-Band Graphic EQ which you can apply to both or either Channels - and fine-tune with each Channel-specific Preset Depth control. You also have a 'Solo' sort of boost control on this amp, but as with most of these amps you would do well with utilising the footswitch/es - which allows you to activate and select those cool additional functions. Also even though 2 Channel - each of those splits out into Clean/Crunch and Blues/Burn - so it really is a versatile amp. This is the priciest amp on this list by a factor of 2 near enough - but really gives me that significant flavour of the Mark V that I like. Recently MESA have turned to making simpler amps - like their California Tweed and Fillmore - but I've always liked their more full-featured Mark Series amps - including the JP-2C. It w be interesting to see if MESA will one day return to the smaller more complex amps again of the type I like, or whether those types are now largely in the past.

 

KEY SPECS

  • Total Output : 50W
  • Power Scaling : 5W | 25W | 200W
  • Channels : 2, 4 Modes - Clean/Crunch + Blues/Burn
  • Speaker : 1 x 12" Celestion Custom 90
  • Effects : Reverb per Channel
  • EQ : 3-Band EQ per Channel + separate 5-Band Graphic EQ
  • Speaker Out : 4Ω + 4Ω
  • Effects Loop : Single Return and Send
  • Connections : Footswitches
  • Dimensions : 580mm x 495mm x 298mm
  • Weight : 24.5 kg

Final Thoughts

As with most of my gear - I actively seek out innovative and new takes on this mostly fairly old-fashioned technology. Both Tube and Solid-State amps have been around for a very long time, and even DSP is at mainstream levels now - but not too many amp-builders are genuinely looking to move things forward.

 

Apart from all the DSP amp-modellers and the current trend for built-in DI's - seen both on the new REVV and SUHR amps (alas Head versions only so far). We've not seen to much invention and innovation really beyond that of Boss and now Hughes & Kettner. I feel that there is ample more scope for better Tube substitute technologies - which still work with analog components, but once which are more robust and pliable. Solid-state and digital technologies are becoming ever better, but there is still a few percent difference in most voicings - and solid-state is still very much on the catch-up trail.

 

In terms of Pedal-Platform use - in my circumstances for instance - I have so many smart tone-generating pedal-based components - that I'm a lot less reliant on the amps for generating those nuanced and richly textured harmonics. Some of the pedals these days are just incredible - and if you really need some sort of Tube component - you can quite easily offload that to your pedalboard as such.

 

I still seek out clever amps though - compact and smart format combo amps - which give me clean Pedal Platform Power - as well as high-fidelity stand-alone playback too - so I can choose to use pedalboard-board-generated tones or more direct amp tones. This is why even though 99.99% of the time I am wholly Pedal Platform - I still sometimes like to let the amps stretch their own legs as it were.

 

I've learned the hard way on what works for me from different types of amps - and I feel I get the best tones when the Tubes - real or virtual and core tunings are slightly different - this is where you get the best texture and richness in tone - in a way that you simply cannot with two identical amps set up the same. It's the same philosophy as an orchestral composition where you layer up the different parts of the string, brass and woodwind sections to create those truly evocative harmonic textures.

 

The weird thing about my selection is that my 2 Tube amps are both discontinued - but there really don't seem to be equivalents to those coming through the ranks any more. I'm still really captivated by what Boss and Hughes & Kettner are doing - and which Blackstar are sort of working on to a degree. But there is no equivalent evolution on their Tube counterparts. Apart from what REVV and Suhr are doing - a lot of development seem to be looking increasingly backwards to simpler times. Letting the Digital amps handle the more complex scenarios and the Tube amps largely just freewheeling with the same old same old.

 

I still hope to see more capable compact combo amps along the way - but fear right now that manufacturers may be moving along from there. In that case I'm quite happy to support the greater innovation of the solid-state brigade - who seem to be genuinely trying to make things better than simply resting on their laurels. I use both types currently as I can still discern sufficient differences in output and feel. I do believe though that the day will be soon upon us when solid-state will be on an entirely equal footing to Tube amps - and hopefully you can then select different core characteristics - per Boss's Nextone selector - but with Katana style range - so I can still have my combination of EL34 and EL84 tube tones.

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