Bowlus Bass Blog

All things bass (electric, acoustic, and upright) related.

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Location: Fremont, Ohio, United States

I am an attorney by day, but that's really just my "backup gig" in case this whole "musician thing" doesn't work out. ;^) I was been blessed with the opportunity to write freelance reviews for Guitar World's Bass Guitar Magazine, and I contributed regularly from the Spring of 2006 up until Bass Guitar Magazine's demise. This was, in itself, a dream come true, and an opportunity for which I am truly grateful. But this was a stepping stone to bigger and better things, and I am now the Editor-in-Chief of Bass Gear Magazine ( Our first issue came out in August of 2008, and we are now the leading bass review magazine, worldwide. Of course, on the topic of my true blessings, I have a wife and two kids, all of whom I greatly adore, so my time for music/bass/songwriting/performing, and yes, even the occasional practicing, is not infinite. Nevertheless, I really enjoy my time spent playing bass, writing and recording songs, and just getting to "play" with all that great gear! This blog is a result of these external interests...

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Combo Shootout!

Well, I had a little bit of time to do a shootout, but instead of doing some of the things I really need to, like update my 1x10 and 1x12 shootouts, instead, I did the shootout that no one asked for and no one probably cares about - the combo shootout! To be honest, I had been meaning to do this for a while, especially after picking up those Hughes & Kettner combos. The group is fairly diverse, but they all count as combos, so what the heck.

Here are the contestants:

Here are the deets, such as I could find them. The quoted wattage is into the internal speaker(s) only, unless otherwise stated.

SWR Baby Blue II (2x8, plus 5" mid, 160w @ 4 ohms, 42 lbs)

Eden CXC110, aka Time Traveler 10 Combo (1x10 w/ coax tweeter, 200w @ 8 ohm, but 330w @ 4 and 420w @ 2, 39 lbs)

Roland Bass Cube-100 (1x12, w/ coax tweeter, 100w @ 8 ohm, I think, 37 lbs, 8 oz)

Fender RAD Bass (1x10, 25w, pretty light - need to weigh)

Phil Jones Bass Briefcase (2x5", 100w @ 4 ohm, 28 lbs)

Hughes & Kettner QC 412 (1x12, 400w @ 4 ohm, 43 lbs)

Hughes & Kettner QC 421 (2x10, 400w @ 4 ohm, 64 lbs)

Trace Elliot Twin Valve Combo (1x15, 100w, all-tube, heavy )

My Skjold Custom 5, which is normally my 'test bass' is at my band's practice room, so I used another bass that I am very familiar with, my primavera/redwood/wenge/wenge MTD 535. Unless otherwise noted, I set the tone controls flat, although on combos with the 'Enhance' knob, I did tweak it slightly (see notes, below). For combos with compression, I did most of my testing with the compressor set off.

In no particular order, here are my observations:

SWR Baby Blue II - this has become my 'reference combo' and it probably gets more playing time than any other rig I own, since it is also my primary personal practice amp. It is full, smooth and articulate, with very good definition even on the low B. It is not super sparkley up high, but you can certainly dial in some more brightness. It is fairly well balanced from top to bottom, but has more upper midrange presence than most. I had the Enhance set at about 9 o'clock. Volume-wise, it is certainly louder than you expect from its size, and it does not break up, even when pushed close to its limits.

Eden CXC110 - I had the Enhance barely on, compressor off, and the 'Warm' switch engaged (most of the time), with other tone controls set flat. It is has more low mids than the BBII, and less upper mids, with an overall darker tone. It is somewhat hollow through the mids compared to the SWR, but with a brighter - though somewhat 'clacky' - high end. Engaging the 'Warm' switch helped smooth out the high end, I thought, and seems to fill in the mids some, too. The difference is subtle, but on the whole, I prefer it engaged. It is not as loud as the BBII, and does not stay as tight/controlled on the low B when pushed. I will say, though, that this combo, in particular, gets a notable bump in performance when you add the extension cab (more on that later).

Roland Bass Cube-100 - this amp is a bit louder than the BBII, and has good tonal balance from top to bottom, with a strong attack and good articulation. The way the gain stages are set up, you can dial in some 'overdrive', but this seems to mean that you get at least some hint of overdrive (the tone/extent of which varies from model to model) when you push the max volume. On the whole, though, I love this 'feature', especially when playing with the amp modeling. It is not as smooth as the SWR, and in truth, the tone and attack sound a bit synthetic. The perception that you are hearing some 'digital artifacts' is ever-present, IMHO, regardless of the control settings, though it's not a major issue, and you may not hear it in a mix. Also, even with the compressor turned off, it sounds like a compressor/limiter is working in the background. This amp has LOTS of very cool features, which I didn't really get into, since the other combos don't offer anything like it. But, if a variety of models and effects appeal to you (and they do to me, to an extent), these features are definitely usable, and not mere gimmickry. Unfortunately, it is a fairly noisy amp.

Phil Jones Bass Briefcase - This diminutive combo is not as loud as the rest (not counting the RAD Bass), and when you are hitting the low B at near max volume, it is not as thick, loud or powerful as the others. But this is to be expected. Two 5" drivers can only move so much air (the amp gets much louder when driving an external cab or two). The midrange is somewhat similar to the BBII, with a bit more clarity and presence in the upper mids and more air to the highs. At low volumes, it does a low B very well, and the tone is very full range and quite impressive. But, the lows do definitely compress at higher volumes. This combo in particular reacts to where it is positioned within a room, and placing it in a corner will help you get more low end at higher volume. This unit can be battery powered, which is pretty cool, but I ran it on AC power for this shootout.

Fender RAD Bass - this combo has been in my stable for a long time. I have always liked its tone (and at the time I bought it, I thought it was just about the best sounding combo I had heard), but it just is not all that loud. Back when I was playing it regularly, I only had 4-string basses, and it always did fine. With a 5-string, though, the RAD really compresses like crazy on a low B. It doesn't fart or break up, but it gets very little volume out of a B-string. The midrange balance is fairly similar to the SWR, though not as smooth/full, and the highs are a bit thin and also kinda 'clacky.' You can tame the highs a bit with the EQ, but they remain kind of thin. When you push the volume limits it seems that there is a built-in limiter that is fairly aggressive. Still a very cool little amp that sounds good to my ears, but is best saved for 4-string basses.

H&K QC 412 - this combo (and its sibling) are much, much louder than anything else (so far). It is massively powerful, and very dynamic. The tone controls are probably the most frustrating of the group, though, and this is complicated (enhanced?) by the fact that the three gain stages (I am counting the tube drive as one) also have a very audible effect on the tone of the combo. Set roughly 'flat', it has a fairly vintage vibe to it (with a more potent and tighter attack), but hitting the 'Punch' switch yields a more modern tone. But there is just a ton of tonal variety from changing up the gain stage settings, and it's hard to get a grip on just what it sounds like, since the tone changes depending upon the volume. On the whole, it is a very impressive sounding amp, but kind of difficult to dial in specific tones at specific volumes. With some familiarity, though, this amp can really shine. At the highest volumes, the low B does tend to compress a bit, but I am talking at really loud settings. The 412 has a more rich, complex and warm midrange than does the 421, but again, the 421 is bigger on the low B.

H&K QC 421 - most of what I said for the 412 applies, but this combo is even louder, almost to the point of being scary! If anything, the 421 is even harder to dial in, tone-wise, especially in the upper mids. The midrange on the whole is not as warm and inviting as that of the 412, but with some time spent tweaking the controls, you can certain dial in a variety of midrange-pleasing tones. The 421 handles a low B better at high volume, though, and never breaks a sweat, even when driven to stupid loud levels. The grill, however, starts to vibrate at higher volume settings - I plan on installing some rubber grommets or something to address this. Like its smaller sibling, this is a tremendously powerful combo that takes some getting used to, but rewards the patient.

Trace Elliot Twin Valve Combo - Tubes, baby! This is the only all-tube combo in the group, and you can definitely hear it. It is nearly as loud as the H&K combos, and delivers a great deal of heft and gravitas, even at lower volumes. This amp has a killer low B, though I should add that I bought this particular combo from Steve Azola, who did do some modification to the porting (and a few other tweaks, as I recall), and I think the low B performance benefited from this. It has the most midrange texture of the group, and is more harmonically rich (no surprises, here). It is a tad warmer than the BBII, and a hint of grind at the higher volume settings. I get the impression that the amp has more to offer, and the single 15" is running out of usable excursion. I've never tried an extension cab with this combo, but that might be very interesting.

Well, I tried to jot all this down pretty quick, and I reserve the right to edit, amend, add to, or detract from this shootout at my whim. I'll probably try at least some of these combos with an extension cab or two, and I will update as I can. Until then, I submit the above for your reading pleasure (or lack thereof), and for further discussion.

Edit: Well, I recently picked up two more combos that I need to spend more time with, but which also deserve attention. The first is a 1966 Ampeg B-15-N. You know this amp, but up until now, I had not had one in my stable as a reference. This particular unit appears to be in fine working order, and sounds great, but I think I am going to send it to Jess Oliver and have him really go over it with a fine tooth comb. That warm, full, 'glowing' tone is really something.

The second newcomer has me really excited. It's the Phil Jones Flight Case. This amp is very lightweight, nicely compact, more loud than you would expect (but still adhering to the laws of physics), and more than anything, it just sounds sooooo good. More to come, but at first blush, the Flight Case is very impressive.