Hugely popular in its native Canada, Traynor amps are a formidable force from north of the 49th parallel and its line includes a variety of quality tube amps. The company’s latest “lunchbox” amp is the Dark Horse DH15H, little brother to the company’s Iron Horse model.
The Darkhorse has a cool, old-school public-address-amp vibe, with a matte-gray-finished steel chassis, exposed transformers, perforated tube cage, and vintage Bakelite-style knobs. The DH15H has a small footprint – 111/2″ x 5″ x 6″ – and weighs 11 pounds. Its tube complement includes a pair of JJ Electronics 6V6s (producing 15 watts in high-power mode), a single Electro-Harmonix 12AU7 power tube (producing two watts in low-power mode), and two Sovtek 12AX7 preamp tubes.
The front-panel layout is straightforward; there’s a 1/4″ input jack, controls for Gain, Bass, and Treble, a three-way Mode switch, Master Volume, jewel light, Standby/6V6/12AU7 switch, and a Power switch. The three-way tone switch has a Brit setting that positions the tone stack after the second tube stage and before the phase splitter, with a midrange boost. The USA setting positions the tone stack between the first and second tube stages and, lastly, the Pure setting bypasses the tone stack entirely. The rear panel has a standard power socket, a single 1/4″ 16-ohm jack and a pair of 1/4″ 8-ohm jacks. Also notable is the easy-access tube cage – just remove four thumb screws and remove the cage for access to all five tubes.
We tested the Darkhorse with a Fender Custom Shop 1960 reissue Strat with the stock pickups and a Gibson Les Paul Standard Plus with Burstbuckers. We also used a variety of speaker cabinets, among them, a open-back 2×12″ loaded with a pair of Celestion Vintage 30s, an open-back 1×10″ loaded with a Celestion G10 Vintage 10 and a Randall 4×12″ closed-back cab loaded with Celestion greenbacks.
With the Mode switch set to USA and the Strat plugged in, the Darkhorse hit the Fender mark nicely when using either of the two open-back cabinets. The amp delivered a clean, punchy tone with a round low-end and the mids slightly pulled back. The two-band EQ is voiced well and offers just enough depth to quickly dial in tone without having to noodle too much. Even with the Gain control dimed and the Master pulled back to about 12 o’clock (still in the USA mode), the amp presented clean, thicker overtones with just a hint of overdrive. Cranking the Master volume along with the Gain control and pushing the power tube, however, results in a thick, smooth overdrive at a fairly loud volume; this little amp has more horsepower than one would expect.
The overdrive gets boosted when you switch into the Pure Mode (completely bypassing the tone controls) and, thanks to Burstbucker humbuckers in the Les Paul, the Darkhorse produced a classic crunchy distortion with a respectable amount of sustain. We wouldn’t, however, classify the DH15H as a high-gain amp, since the preamp section is on the tamer side and needs the power section to be driven hard for higher-octane distortion. Since the amp relies on its power tubes for a good portion of the overdrive, the Darkhorse has a more natural, open overdrive sound with none of that thin, buzzy top-end you can get from too much preamp clipping. The only downside is the overall volume may be a bit loud for some situations, while the low-power setting with the single 12AU7 – which brings the volume down to a nice apartment/practice level – does suck out a bit of that punchy 6V6 sound. But pairing the DH15H with the 4×12″ closed-back cabinet helps it get a thicker, trashier sound with a bit of thump to the low-end in both the USA and Pure Modes. Clearly, there are a lot of tonal possibilities with this amp.
The Traynor DH15H Darkhorse is a compact, lightweight head with a surprisingly big punch and a range that covers a fair amount of territory from the U.S. to British tube tones. And of course, there are plenty of fat, toasty Canadian tones, too.
Traynor’s Darkhorse DH15H
This article originally appeared in VG October 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.