Adventures in Bass Amplifier Buying.

So I haven’t bought a new bass amp in more than 10 years. I’ve been playing bass for a couple of decades now, and in that time I’ve owned a variety of “boom boxes”: a Peavey Microbass (which went back almost immediately due to a rattling front grill), Marshall Bass State combos (a B30 and B65), an Acoustic Image Clarus head paired with an Acme Low B1 cab, and an incredibly heavy Gallien-Krueger 2×10 combo. I’ve seen the transition from class A/B to class D, being a very early adopter of class D with the AI Clarus, and I’ve also tried many, many pedals and preamps along the way. With electric bass, as with electric guitar, the amplifier is an integral part of the voice of the instrument – even though bass is completely comfortable with being DI’ed, you still need something to hear yourself on stage, and most stage monitors just will not cut it. Even if they have the necessary frequency response, the voicing is often not suited for bass and gives a rather flat, lackluster sound. This can be remedied through using something like a Sansamp bass driver DI… or a bass amp!

As a sound engineer, I’m very conscious of the impact that loud backline has on the front of house (FOH) sound. In fact, many club setups rely on the backline to carry the majority of the instrumental sound, with the house PA being responsible mainly for vocals, acoustic guitar, and maybe keyboards. This of course, means that the sound engineer has less than complete control of the mix, and needs to work with the musicians to achieve a workable balance. This can be fine, especially if the musicians are professionals, but I have vivid memories of just how loud something like a full Marshall stack (100 watts, two 4×12 cabinets) can be – with something like that cranked in a small space, you can pretty much forget about hearing anything else. Duncan Fry, whom I regard as a mentor, wrote in one of his books that the hardest gigs are the loud shows in small clubs, not the arena or stadium shows! Loud guitar amps are a large contributor to this. Now I’m not saying that loud amps are bad… but the fact that I turn 45 this year and still have normal, undamaged hearing is a testament to me keeping a healthy distance from these devices.

My main playing out amp for the last 12 years has been a Hartke A25 – a 25-watt, solid state kickback combo built like a brick outhouse:

Hartke A25 (source)

I can’t quite remember how I ended up with this amp, but I recall that I needed something relatively light and small to act as a personal monitor, and this amp was the best-sounding one I could find at the time. I don’t play with loud drummers and put the amp as close to me as I possibly can. The A25 is noticeably heavy (11 kilos/24 pounds) for its size (8″ driver, no horn) and has never let me down, the only sonic problem with it being that the XLR output is rather noisy and as a result never gets used. It also has a number of features that I rarely use such as the bright control and adjustable limiter. I also do not like the carpet covering, which is a lint & dirt magnet and in my opinion an indication of cost-cutting – professional PA speakers, for example, are always either painted or made of moulded plastic. My single biggest gripe though, is the top strap handle: it’s so small that I can’t get my knuckles through it, which makes carrying the amp a rather painful affair. So I decided it was time for a upgrade.

I made up my mind early on that I did not want to go any heavier than the A25, and so set an upper limit of 12kg/26.4lbs. Unlike my ears, my back has not aged so well and I have paid the price for carrying too-heavy gear over the years. Nowadays, if heavy stuff needs moving, somebody else can do it! After considerable research, this was my shortlist (prices in Singapore dollars as of July 2022):

Ampeg RB10830 watts8″ speaker10.5kg$279
Ampeg RB11060 watts10″ speaker10.2kg*$459
Ampeg RB112100 watts12″ speaker11.8kg$699
Blackstar U3030 watts8″ speaker10kg$365
Blackstar U6060 watts10″ speaker12kg$415
Hartke HD2525 watts8″ speaker11.2kg$210
Hartke HD5050 watts10″ speaker15.4kg$310
* Yes, the 10″ combo is actually lighter than the 8″, despite being physically larger and with twice the power.

You’ll notice a common theme here besides the weight – none of these feature a kickback design. I have found that although this works really well for small spaces where the amp has to be very close to you, the shape of the cabinet, a) makes it difficult to carry and pack into vehicles and, b) makes it almost impossible to get a cover that protects the entire amp, because of the way the cabinet is cut away at the back. In practice you can generally set your amp on a chair and get the same effect, especially if you are seated. So I shouldered my American Standard precision and spent an afternoon going around Singapore, and here are my results:

Ampeg RB110 (source)

Ampeg Rocketbass: These combos look and sound superb, especially the larger ones which have the fully adjustable SGT circuit (the 8″ combo only has an SGT button, rather than separate drive and level controls). They have a lovely warm tone which can be round and tubey or jagged and grindy depending on how you set the SGT (Super Grit Technology, as opposed to Super Valve Technology, SVT) controls. They are also nice and light, especially the 12″ model which delivers a full 100 watts to its internal speaker. The two larger models also have XLR outputs with ground lift. Tone-wise they are relatively limited in that they don’t have much variety on offer besides the “Ampeg Sound”, which they do superbly well.

Another interesting thing I discovered was the way the SGT circuit interacts with the volume control – refer to image below. If you engage the SGT switch and set the SGT level control to zero, you get no sound at all, which suggests that it is a separate overdrive channel. On the other hand, if you turn the main volume control to zero, you ALSO get no sound, regardless of whether the SGT circuit is engaged. It thus seems like the volume control is acting as a combination clean channel level control and master volume. If this is the case, I would much prefer the SGT sound to be added to the clean sound, with the level control acting as a blend between the clean and overdriven signals. This would would also allow the SGT circuit to be used as an almost-clean-boost if needed.

Ampeg RB110 Control panel (source)

I could easily have settled for one of the Rocketbass combos, but they were the first stop on my list and I wanted to try as many amps as possible that day. Yamaha Singapore also have a rather strange policy of not keeping stock on hand at their retail outlets – you have to pay for the amp and then come back in a few days to collect it. So I moved on.

Blackstar U60 (source)

Blackstar Unity Pro: I was VERY surprised here: I fully expected the U60 to be the amp that I took home – I had watched a bunch of reviews and videos and it seemed to be the most versatile of the bunch, with its three voices, semi-parametric midrange, chorus and compressor. I also liked the fact that it had both gain and volume and a professional feature set that included pre-master volume XLR out with ground lift, headphone output and one additional post-master volume XLR out for adding a powered extension cabinet. I also really like the Blackstar handle – unlike a normal strap handle it sits up enough to allow you to get your entire hand through without the edges being pinched, really great. However, try as I might, I could not get a good basic tone out of either the U30 or U60. The classic voicing I found too bright and clanky, the overdrive was harsh and buzzy, and the modern voice was just ok. The chorus struck me as sort of gimmicky (“good for 80s Chinese pop” was the opinion of the salesman, a truly candid young man) and the compressor added a HUGE level bump without seeming to change the dynamics of the signal much. So a somewhat frustrating but very eye opening experience. I remember trying these combos when they first came out in 2018 and not really liking them – seems like things have not changed!

Hartke HD25 (source)

Harke HD series: In Singapore CityMusic are the distributor for both Blackstar and Harke. When I got there I tried the Hartke HD25 and HD35 first, my plan being to reacquaint myself with the Harke sound before moving on to the much better, or so I thought, Blackstar sound. As noted above, I was really surprised – the Harke combos both sounded superb straight out of the gate, even with the EQ set completely flat. While my A25 has a completely aluminum cone, these have the newer hydrive speakers which are an aluminum inner cone bonded to a paper outer, apparently the best of both worlds. The sound was warm yet punchy with loads of low end despite the diminutive size of the units. I really liked the simplicity of the controls: a single volume control, fixed three band EQ, line in and headphone out. No XLR out, but not a problem for me, especially at the price point. And just like the A25, these combos are also heavy for their size: the 8″ HD25 being almost as heavy as the 12″ Ampeg, which has four times the power! Finally, I greatly appreciated the fact that these were the only combos in my list with a solid metal speaker grille as opposed to flimsy cloth stretched over a wooden frame.

So in the end the HD25 was the winner! I would have chosen the HD50, but my back balked at the thought of dragging 15 kilos/33 pounds up and down stairs and through narrow doorways. That plus the fact that Hartke also make the HD500, a modern class-D powered 2×10 combo packing 250 watts which is only 200 grams (7 ounces) heavier than the HD50!!! Wonders never cease… Next upgrade perhaps. Plus a hand cart…

Stay tuned for a full review of the HD25 coming before too long. Thanks for reading.

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