A Guide to Combo Amps

This review first appeared on the website Music After 50.

This time around we’re going to highlight several very cool, best-in-class combo amps — so before we get down to brass tacks, let’s get some quick background:

The term ‘combo’ in amp-speak simply means the speakers and electronics are ‘combined’ in the same cabinet. This is opposed to a head and separate speaker cabinet ‘stack’. Both have inherent pros and cons: the combo is simple, straightforward and compact. And, there’s something for every guitarist in varying price points.

However, one combo conundrum is that the smaller, less wattage amp may not be loud enough for what you need, and a larger rig just may throw your back out. I’ve got my chiropractor on speed dial, thanks to the tone-heavy girth of my 40-watt, 3×10” speakered Gretsch Variety (thank you Dr. Sherman).

Another age-old amp question is: what’s better, tube vs. solid state? And guess what – no surprise here — this ultimately falls to a player’s taste, along with individual tonal and volume needs. However ‘tube’ (or thermionic ‘valve’ as they are referred to across the pond and elsewhere) remains the de-facto standard by which amp tone is measured.

It’s the warmth, purity, and essence of the beloved vacuum tube that initially powered the first amps of yesteryear, and that continues to satisfy today. In fairness, today’s solid state offerings (and hybrids) have come a long way in terms of tone and features. On the solid state plus side is the low upkeep factor (hey, no tubes to change), the expanded clean headroom, and usually much less weight to lug around.

With the holidays right around the corner, here’s a few combos that caught my eye (and ears) – hey Santa…hint, hint…

LINE6 DT50 Combo
LINE6 DT50 ComboAvailable in 1×12” and 2×12” Celestion speakered configurations, the Line6 DT50 sets a high bar for cutting edge technology and flexibility with a deft combination of a Bogner tube amp design and sophisticated digital modeling.

At the tonal heart of the DT50 is its Voicing switch that selects one of four combinations of Analog Components Switching plus digital signal processing (DSP) to mirror a traditional sound set-up for an American Clean voice (think Fender), British Crunch (ala Marshall), British Chime (Vox-y), or Modern High Gain (Mesa Boogie) voice.

Any voice can be assigned to either of the DT50’s two channels, so the potential variations are a tone tweakers dream. Switch to the Low Power Mode and get all those killer overdriven sounds at a lower, neighbor friendly volume. Lots of nice (and usable) bells and whistles here with the DT50!

BUGERA V22 Combo
BUGERA V22 ComboLooking for some tasty tube tone with cool looks at a great price? Then by all means check out this 22 watt, 2-channel (Clean and Lead) bad boy from Bugera. With a preamp and output/power all tube configuration of 3 12AX7 and 2 EL84 respectively, you can run the gamut of clean vintage tones to fuzzy, overdriven crunch. Choose the Normal or Bright input, set your 3-band EQ (Bass, Mid, Treble) along with Presence and Reverb and have at it. The back of cabinet Mode switch allows selection between Pentode (full power) and Triode mode (approx. 40% less) for added tonal flexibility.

CARVIN BEL AIR Combo
CARVIN BEL AIR ComboChances are you probably haven’t stumbled across a Carvin amp at your local music shop. A factory direct (with the exception of their three California retail shops) and American-made company since 1946, Carvin delivers great bang-for-the-buck quality. A cool example is the all tube designed, 2-channel, 50 watt, 2×12” Bel Air combo.

Its channel one delivers shimmering glassy clean tones while the channel two’s SOAK control lets you dial in subtle overdrive to full on classic rock distortion. A lush tube driven 3 spring reverb and a selection of custom color coverings may just entice you for a test drive. Don’t worry, there’s a 10 day no-hassle money back guarantee for all Carvin products.

RIVERA VENUS 3 Combo
RIVERA VENUS 3 ComboIf chic boutique looks and righteous tone are what you’re after, then take a gander at the Rivera Venus 3. This compact, all tube, single channel Class ‘A’ (think Vox-y singing responsiveness) combo is light on poundage but huge on sound indeed. Features include a push-pull Gain boost for amazing sustain, built-in Accutronics 3 spring reverb, and a rear panel Vintage-Modern switch to cut the power to 7 watts – great for practice and recording at lower volume levels, while still retaining the original tone and timbre. The Venus 3 is available with either a 10” Vintage Gold or 12” Celestion G12-Heritage 30 speaker.

Chris Grova writes instruments and gear reviews as “Gear Guy Chris” for Music After 50, where this review first appeared.

2 thoughts on “A Guide to Combo Amps

  1. You missed a few of the ‘classic’ tube amps, most notably the Laney. I have a Laney VC30210. 30 watts of pure tube tone with 2 10″ speakers. Perfectly voiced for blues. It has a serious ‘Drive’ switch and a ‘Bright’ switch as well. This amp delivers sweet tone at any volume, but cranked, it compares to none other. It has sort of a cult following, as not many people know who Laney is. He was Robert Plant’s guitar player BEFORE Jimmy Page, and started building ’boutique’ amps before they were popular. For under a grand, they just can’t be beat with a stick!

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