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76 Watts the Hard Way

The VG Low-Watt Boutique Tube Amp Shootout
 
Amps

For many electric guitarists, the sound coming out of an amp is just not happening until power-tube saturation enters the tonal spectrum, with the richness and warmth you just don’t get with pedals and preamp overdrive circuits. And there’s only one way to get the big bottles rockin’ – turn up the volume!

Doing this with a 100-watt stack in a small space like a living room or a home studio can lead to interesting opportunities. The first being the chance to finance the college education of an audiologist’s child. Another is pulling into the driveway and being greeted by one’s neighbors doing their best imitation of the torchlit, pitchfork-wielding welcoming committee at the end of Frankenstein.

As the word “tinnitus” became common in the vocabulary of rock musicians and the supply of vintage Fender Champs dwindled, a number of well-known boutique amplifier builders saw a need (and opportunity) arise. Their response was to supply some of the greatest-sounding and best-built low-wattage amps ever made.
With these factors in mind, we thought it might be interesting to give a test listen using a handful of low-watt practice/recording amps built by some of our most familiar builder names. Here, along with a bit of background on each builder, is what we found.

The Builders

BAD CAT

Bad Cat Amps: James Heidrich got into guitar building when he took his daughter to the local chain music store and was shocked at the prices. A do-it-yourself sort of guy, he built his own guitar and then built some more and started selling them. Shortly after, he started buying, selling, and repairing amps. During that period, a Matchless amp entered the shop, and James was impressed with its sound. When Matchless went out of business, James acquired the technical info and vendor list from Rick Perotta, then looked up amp guru Mark Sampson and made a deal to design a circuit. Bad Cat Amps was born.

CARR Mercury

Carr Amplification: Steve Carr is an experienced guitarist who always had an interest in gear, along with a degree in aerospace engineering. He started hanging around an audio repair shop and mentioned to the proprietor that he wanted to be an apprentice. The owner told Steve, “Just go out and build an amp.”

“That’s how I learned how to do it,” Steve says. He then tracked down a schematic for a Fender Champ, and put one together. In 1998, he introduced his first model, the Slant 6V, built two for a dealer in North Carolina, and he hasn’t stopped since.

EMERYS

Emery Sound: Curt Emery started playing guitar when he was 13 and went on to get a degree in electrical engineering. He started building low-wattage amps for one reason – all the amps he was playing were way too big! Curt saw building a smaller amp as a simple necessity for his own recording. After repairing amps for years, Curt started building amps for other people in 1997.

REEVES

Reeves Amplification: Bill Jansen had a background in consumer hi-fi electronics when he got hooked up with some people in England who supplied him with vintage Marshall amps. In 2002, he started importing amps from England based on Dan Reeves’ classic ’60s HiWatt designs.

SIMMONS

Simmons Amp Repair: Skip Simmons joined a band when he was 20 and soon discovered he was the only guy who had any inclination or aptitude for fixing the old tube amps they were using. He started repairing amps and built his first Retropolitan in the early ’90s because, “Someone pestered me for two years to do it.” Spurred by that and his firm belief that a 100-watt amp with a stompbox in a living room just doesn’t sound that good. “Everyone needs a tweed Princeton!” he says.

TOPHAT

TopHat Amplification: As a youngster, Brian Gerhard built kit amps by Dyna Kits and got into amp building in 1994 as a sideline. Three years later, he took on a partner, which allowed him to make 100 of what would become the Club series. With a strong aversion for high-gain and modded amps, Brian’s impetus was to continue a classic design. “When things are good, like with a small-block Chevy, there’s no reason for it to go away. These amps have proved their worth every year.”

TORRES

Torres Engineering: A working musician in the San Francisco Bay Area, Dan Torres just happened to look at his Mesa Boogie and blackface Fender amps one day in 1981, and suddenly panicked. He realized that if they died, he’d lose his sound because there just weren’t many qualified amp repair people. He picked up some old books on amp design at a used bookstore. “I read them starting at 8 p.m., and by five the next morning, I knew how amps worked.” He started building low-wattage recording amps because of strong demand from area players.

VICTORIA

Victoria Amp Company: Mark Baier one day started wondering how a computer worked. He went to the library and got a bunch of books on electronics, starting with works pre-1960. His theory was that if he learned how tubes worked, he’d figure out how transistors worked. He never did figure out how a computer worked and, at the same time, put his guitar playing on hold and his tweed amps in storage. Years later, the need to play re-emerged at a time when very few were making decent tube amps. He then bought a Fender Bassman reissue, “But the difference between that and my original Bassman was night and day.” So he dug out some of his old tweed amps and tried to copy them. “By the time I was done, I could’ve purchased five vintage Bassman amps,” he laughs. He took the amp to a guitar show, and received enough response to justify making more.

Visuals
Without a doubt, you’re reading this because you care first and foremost about true tube amp tones, sounds, and “feel.” But amplifiers are also about the aesthetic. Whether your tastes are hardcore vintage or retro funky, today’s boutique amp builders have something guaranteed to tickle thy fancy. Our thoughts on the “look” of our troupe goes like this:

Bad Cat Mini Cat: “I’m not here to play no retro game!” Thoroughly modern, individualistic, and an imitator of nothing. Controls are on the front and can be read without having worked as a typesetter at a metropolitan newspaper. A variety of coverings make it easy to complement everything from home furnishings to idiosyncratic stage attire.

Carr Mercury: The round speaker port says “retro” while the control panel, with its myriad of overdrive and wattage selections, shouts “modern choices.” Looks as good as it sounds.

Emery Sound Superbaby and Microbaby: Frank Lloyd Wright built amplifiers?! Who knew? The artful blending of wood, metal, and (plexi)glass would have pleased the world’s greatest architect – greatly.

Reeves Custom 6: “I’m a Brit and I’m here to talk to you about that tea party in Boston.” Very purposeful-looking, with English accents to the workmanship. Would fit well in Pete Townsend’s home studio.

Simmons Retropolitan: Like a ’40s radio equipped to handle the rigors of being sent to the front lines in WWII. Hand-buffed steel plates in front of the speaker say, “I’m the man!” Available in almost any covering, the two amps we tested couldn’t have been more different; the first was tightly wrapped in brand new upholstery that looks like it was intended for 1950s automobiles. The second was sprayed with pickup truck bed liner, ending all complaints about fragility – trying to scratch it with a quarter only resulted in wearing down the grooves on the edge of the coin! The liner material is quite thin in reality, adheres closely to the wood, and seemed to enhance (rather than detract) from the tone.

Top Hat Portly Cadet: Elegant and sophisticated with its cream tolex and black corner protectors. Would look at home in Donald Trump’s living room.

Torres Boogie Mite: Sturdy, industrial metal. Heathkit meets Terminator. Also, if you’re allergic to chicken (head knobs), this is the only one here without ‘em.

Torres Champ: Unlacquered tweed. Should look great (meaning decades old) in short order. Compact with clean lines, just like the original.

Victoria 5112: Beautifully lacquered tweed. ‘Nuff said.

Victoria Regal: Cream tolex in a big box says “amplifier” the way Rolex says “wristwatch.”

Sonics
These amps share a number of characteristics. They are all extraordinarily quiet, a result of top-flight components assembled carefully by people with experience. They also all sound very full and round, even the smallest among them. They are all extremely responsive to touch and guitar volume control adjustments.

Our test guitars were a Gibson ’57 Goldtop reissue, and an ’89 Fender ’62 Stratocaster reissue with two Van Zandt Blues and a Lindy Fralin bridge pickup built like, and sounding like, a Tele bridge unit. Strings were D’Addario XL .010-.046 sets, cables were George L’s .225 black-covers, and picks were Dunlop Gator Grip .96s. Using either guitar revealed no quirks among any of the amps. The humbuckers characteristically pushed the amps to more overdrive sooner; the single-coils provided a traditionally cleaner sound with more treble and bass. The most notable overall result was that, no matter which guitar was mated with which amp, the combination sounded terrific.

Bad Cat Mini Cat

Bad Cat Mini Cat.

Bad Cat Mini Cat

Bad Cat Mini Cat
Size (W x H x D) 14×14.5×6.75
Weight (lbs.) 15.0
Power Tube EL84
Preamp Tube(s) 12AX7
Output 5
Speaker Size (inches) 10
Speaker Rating (ohms) 8
Speaker Manufacturer Jensen
Cabinet 13-Ply Birch
Inputs 1
Line Out Yes
Headphone Jack Yes
Price $869
badcatamps.com (951) 808-8651

Any range of distortion at any volume. Bass and treble controls, though passive, are quite effective (note that the bass knob needs to be turned counterclockwise for more low-end. 10″ speaker offers increased bass and presence over similarly-sized amps that characteristically have 8″ cones.

Carr Mercury

Carr Mercury

Carr Mercury

Carr Mercury
Size (W x H x D) 20.75×17.75×10
Weight (lbs.) 40.0
Power Tube EL34
Preamp Tube(s) 12AX7(x2), 12AT7
Output 1/10, 1/2, 2, 8
Speaker Size (inches) 12
Speaker Rating (ohms) 8
Speaker Manufacturer Eminence
Cabinet Dovetailed Pine
Inputs 1
Line Out No
Headphone Jack No
Price $1950
carramps.com (919) 545-0747

With four power settings and three distortion choices, its versatility is unsurpassed. The two lower power settings offer instant Boogie-like singing tone, while the upper two provide a more edge-based distortion for classic blues and rock. One of the cleaner amps on the 8-watt setting for jazz buffs. If you like Coco Montoya and his lyrical solos, this is the one for you. Gorgeous tones, no matter where the knobs are set.

Emery Sound Superbaby

Emery Sound Superbaby

Emery Sound Superbaby
Size 13x6x5
Weight 6.5
Power Tube Various
Preamp Tube Various
Rectifier Tube Various
Output 6-12
Inputs 1
Line Out No
Headphones No
Price $699
emerysound.com (510) 236-5113

Audio Disneyland. Able to accept an amazing variety of tubes, this one will turn you into a valve connoisseur in short order as you try new bottles and discover that no two tubes sound alike. A tube-lover’s best alternative to a solidstate modeling amp. Want British tone? Drop in an EL84 or EL34. American sound? 6V6 or 6L6. And unlike the modeling amps, this is the real deal: point-to-point and glowing filaments. Unmatched tone and quite affordable compared to buying different amps just to get different power tubes.

Emery Sound Microbaby

Emery Sound Microbaby

Emery Sound Microbaby
Size 13x6x5
Weight 5.0
Power Tube Various
Preamp Tube Various
Rectifier Tube Various
Output 1-2
Inputs 1
Line Out No
Headphones No
Price $699
emerysound.com (510) 236-5113

Lower output than the Superbaby. More sustain at lower volume.

Reeves Custom 6

Reeves Custom 6

Reeves Custom 6

Reeves Custom 6
Size (W x H x D) 24×20.75×9
Weight (lbs.) 41.6
Power Tube EL84
Preamp Tube(s) 12AX7
Output 6
Speaker Size (inches) 12
Speaker Rating (ohms) 16
Speaker Manufacturer Eminence
Cabinet 13-Ply Birch
Inputs 2
Line Out Yes
Headphone Jack Yes
Price $1350
reevesamps.com (513) 451-1071

Unadulterated HiWatt/EL84 sound, because that’s all it’s got. Crisp crunch and Brian May sustain. Big box means big presence, and the 16-ohm speaker sounds simply awesome.

Simmons Retropolitan

Simmons Retropolitan

Simmons Retropolitan

Simmons Retropolitan
Size (W x H x D) 15x16x8.5
Weight (lbs.) 29.6
Power Tube 6L6
Preamp Tube(s) 12AX7
Output 7
Speaker Size (inches) 10
Speaker Rating (ohms) 8
Speaker Manufacturer Eminence
Cabinet Customer Choice
Inputs 1
Line Out Yes
Headphone Jack No
Price $795
skipsimmonsamps.com (707) 678-5705

The best tweed Princeton you’ve ever heard. Skip is the Indiana Jones of the amp-building world, gleaning treasured Black Beauty filter caps from the most unlikely sources. Many of his components don’t sound like the originals – they are the originals. At full distortion, the bottom feeds off itself in seemingly everlasting, euphonious-yet-brutal sustain while the high-end, though distorted, remains articulate. It’s like encountering Sasquatch and finding that not only is he a half-man, half-ape who haunts the woods of the Great Northwest, but that his favorite pastimes are quoting Shakespeare and discussing the play of light and shadow in the drawings of Monet.

TopHat Portly Cadet

TopHat Portly Cadet

TopHat Portly Cadet

TopHat Portly Cadet
Size (W x H x D) 15×13.5×7.25
Weight (lbs.) 19.0
Power Tube 6V6
Preamp Tube(s) 12AX7
Output 5
Speaker Size (inches) 8
Speaker Rating (ohms) 4
Speaker Manufacturer TopHat
Cabinet Baltic Birch
Inputs 1
Line Out No
Headphone Jack No
Price $799
tophatamps.com (714) 447-6700

Two extra switches provide a world of tonal possibilities. The bright switch can get a single-coil equipped guitar into Telecaster heaven and brighten up a dark-sounding guitar with humbuckers. With the Bright switch off, single-coils sound extremely round and warm. The boost switch increases sustain at lower volume settings and sounds best on with single coils. Equal parts Marshall and Fender in tone, it’s like a Champ with more tonal choices. The 8″ speaker sounds much larger.

Torres Boogie Mite

Torres Boogie Mite

Torres Boogie Mite
Size 12x8x8
Weight 8.4
Power Tube 6005 x 2
Preamp Tube 12AX7 x 2
Rectifier Tube 5Y3
Output 3.5
Inputs 2 (High and Low)
Line Out Yes
Headphones Optional
Price $595
torresengineering.com (650) 571-6887

Carlos Santana in a little gray box. The only two-channel amp in our test group, the Boogie Mite offers instant singing sustain from the first channel with a surprisingly clean second channel for those jazz buffs among you. The edge in channel two is equal to the sustain in the first channel in terms of tonal character. Lots of cool features make this a very versatile choice.

Torres Tweed Champ

Torres Tweed Champ

Torres Tweed Champ

Torres Tweed Champ
Size (W x H x D) 15×13.5×7.25
Weight (lbs.) 18.8
Power Tube 6V6
Preamp Tube(s) 12AX7
Output 5
Speaker Size (inches) 8
Speaker Rating (ohms) 4, 8 or 16
Speaker Manufacturer Jensen
Cabinet Lockjoint Pine
Inputs 2
Line Out Optional
Headphone Jack Optional
Price $895
torresengineering.com (650) 571-6887

It’s a Champ. A really, really good Champ. Its tone, drive, size and vibe are exactly what you’d expect… and desire. If you’ve been flogging yourself because you can’t find or afford a ’50s tweed unit, give it a rest and call Dan. It’s doubtful you’ll be disappointed. And don’t even start with that “cache of ragged tweed” line.

Victoria 5112

Victoria 5112

Victoria 5112

Victoria 5112
Size (W x H x D) 20x16x10.5
Weight (lbs.) 23.0
Power Tube 6V6
Preamp Tube(s) 12AX7
Output 5
Speaker Size (inches) 12
Speaker Rating (ohms) 8
Speaker Manufacturer Jensen
Cabinet Clear Pine
Inputs 2
Line Out No
Headphone Jack No
Price $1095
victoriaamp.com (630) 820-6400

A Champ + a big cabinet + a big speaker = the essential Fender tone, with more bass and more presence. For Fender tone freaks, this one is positively bewitching. Its concept, design, and execution are so brilliant yet straightforward that it begs the question, “Why in blazes didn’t someone think of this before?”

Victoria Regal

Victoria Regal

Victoria Regal

Victoria Regal
Size (W x H x D) 22x21x10.5
Weight (lbs.) 44.2
Power Tube 6L6
Preamp Tube(s) 12AX7
Output 15
Speaker Size (inches) 15
Speaker Rating (ohms) 8
Speaker Manufacturer Eminence
Cabinet Clear Pine
Inputs 2
Line Out No
Headphone Jack No
Price $2395
victoriaamp.com (630) 820-6400

The 15″ speaker and huge cab make this amp sound big two rooms away. Not loud, just really biiiiiiig. Its long-spring reverb is so lush it’ll have you surfing in Minnesota in January. The only amp among these to offer tremolo (tube-driven at that). With both the speed and intensity knobs dimed, the hardwood floor beneath it was pulsating perceptibly with nothing plugged into either input. Its rich tone and more-money-than-Howard-Hughes visuals kicks this amp right out of the category of love and into full-on triple-X audio lust.

Really Cool Stuff
Bad Cat Mini Cat: The interaction between the Volume and Master controls offers an extraordinarily wide range of clean and distorted tones. Available in a wide variety of coverings. Leather cowboy handle.

Carr Mercury: In addition to having the most switches, it has a two-way On switch that changes its polarity. If you’ve ever gotten a 110-volt kiss from a Shure, this is really, really important.

Emery Sound: A Mad Scientist complement of tubes makes it extremely convenient to get started in the world of tube tone. Curt also offers an unbelievably beautiful solid mahogany 1×10″ cab with a Weber Blue Pup that was used for testing the heads.
Reeves Custom 6: Has 4-ohm and 8-ohm speaker outs in addition to the 16-ohm for the speaker you get with the amp, making it easy to use extension cabs of your choice.

Simmons Retropolitan: The phrase “open to suggestion” reigns supreme. If there’s a covering, speaker, handle, wood or internal tweak you desire, just ask. Also, of the two Retropolitans supplied, one had a boost cut for you clean freaks.

TopHat Portly Cadet: Also comes in a variety of coverings and grill cloths.

Torres Boogie Mite: Boosts on the Volume, Mid, and Bass knobs. Line out with volume. Headphone jack with volume. Speaker on/off switch. Also available as a kit.

Torres Tweed Champ: Can be wired eight ways: with choke, without choke; with tone knob, without tone knob, etc. Want a Supro? You got it! Also comes as a kit and Dan says anyone who has replaced a pickup or a tone pot can put it together in less than a weekend.

Victoria 5112: Lacquered tweed. Ooooooh.

Victoria Regal: The most expensive amp in our test, and worth every penny. For the classic blues, rock, country or jazz player, it has everything you need, nothing you don’t. A nice matching piece for a classic Bentley.

Vs. Vintage
Few things on Earth are as beautiful to a vintage guitar enthusiast as a vintage amp. I love my ’64 Fender Vibro Champ. Unfortunately, I’m at least the 11th person to love it. A quick look inside by a knowledgeable professional will reveal that very few components outside of the cabinet, chassis, and tube sockets actually sat on Fender’s shipping dock. Nothing lasts forever, and that is particularly true of not only vacuum tubes, but filter caps, solder joints, and all kinds of other things inside vintage amps.

Buying a vintage amp and expecting it to work and have all the components be original is analogous to purchasing a ’57 Chevy and expecting it to arrive with original tires. What’s more likely is that the vintage amp is a variety of parts of various qualities installed by a variety of technicians of various talents on a variety of occasions.

The amps featured here have new or NOS components installed (recently) by someone who has an excellent reputation as an amp builder. While it’s certainly true that the older amps have a vibe and arguably a tone that is unmatched, the amps in this survey all sound great, they’re available and they come with warranties.

The Envelopes Please
Most Traditionally Traditional: Torres Champ

Most Traditional But with the Two Most Desirable Mods: Top Hat Portly Cadet

Most Portable: Bad Cat Mini Cat (15 pounds and it has a 10″ speaker)

Most Versatile-Sounding at the Flick of a Switch: Carr Mercury

Most Versatile-Sounding at an Organic Level: Emery Sound Superbaby and Microbaby

Most Likely to Make Boogie Tone Freaks Swoon in Ecstasy: Torres Boogie Mite

Most Likely to Make Fender Tone Freaks Swoon in Ecstasy: Victoria 5112

Most Likely to Make British Tone Freaks Swoon in Ecstasy: Reeves Custom 6

Most Clean-Sounding: (Tie) Torres Boogie Mite channel two and Carr Mercury on 8-watt setting

Most Range of Distortion at Greatest Variety of Volume Settings: Bad Cat Mini Cat

Most Rare, Most Rare Tone, Most Rare Parts: Simmons Retropolitan

Most Likely to Make a Person Say, “My Gawd, I Can’t Believe How Big That Thing 1.) Looks 2.) Sounds and/or 3.) Makes the Floor Go Up and Down: Victoria Regal
And the Winner Is…
Why looky here, it’s you. Because never before has such a variety of well-made, great-sounding amps of this type been available. Ever.

The fact of the matter is that most musicians, even those who work on a daily basis, do most of their practicing, studying, composing, and recording at lower-than-stage volume. That said, the amp that you want may or may not be here. The amp that you need probably is.



This article originally appeared in VG‘s July 2005 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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