PRS's first channel-switching amp combines sophistication and articulation
By Jon Chappell
Senior Editor, Harmony Central
Paul Reed Smith first emerged as a force among guitar makers in the 1980s by meeting the needs of working musicians who demanded high-quality instruments. PRS guitars offered unparalleled quality and craftsmanship, beautiful design, and many refinements. But what really made them popular was their versatility and utility.
PRS may be relatively new to the amplifier game, but judging from the 2-Channel "H" model I recently tested, that same combination of common sense and innovation has made it from the fretboard to the circuit board. The "H" is the first PRS amp to feature two channels. They're named Lead and Clean respectively, but I think that's a little misleading: While they do exhibit very different personalities, they both can grunt, sing, or sparkle depending on how you set their knobs and how you play your instrument. Each channel has an identical set of controls: knobs for Volume, Treble, Middle, Bass, and Master, as well as a Bright switch. Only the Reverb knob does double-duty.
On many channel-switching amps, there's a "good" channel and then "another" channel. Not here: Each channel would make a fine and fully complete amplifier by itself. And whether you're using the front-panel toggle or the included footswitch, channel changes come without so much as the slightest pop or lag.
Boutique? Try battle-ready
The phrase "boutique amp" gets thrown around a lot these days. And while it's tempting to apply the term to a high-quality handbuilt amp like the 2-Channel "H," I'd describe it as a really great production amplifier that stopped off at the custom shop on its way to the marketplace.
The "H" navigates the fine line between vintage inspiration and contemporary aspirations. Six 12AX7 preamp tubes drive a fixed-bias 6L6-equipped power section to provide 50 watts switchable among 4-, 8-, or 16-ohm loads. To help give its tone more articulation, the "H" is equipped with a proprietary Heyboer transformer. The rear panel also sports an effects loop with separate send and return controls and a second speaker output. I tested the head with an impressive PRS Stealth Cabinet housing a pair of Celestion Vintage 30s, along with the trusty old 1x12 cab that serves as my studio reference for guitar amps.
One head, two souls
Trying to put tone into words is always tricky—every tube amp seems to be "warm," doesn't it?—but it's especially hard with the 2-Channel "H" tube head. To really appreciate this amp, listen to it with a guitar you know well. It's rare that an amplifier manages to cover such a wide range of tones while allowing your instrument and playing technique so much influence. But while some tube amps center on a classic blues warmth, the "H" definitely rides the edge and cops a more aggressive attitude.
This point hit home when I plugged in a Telecaster equipped with a series/parallel bridge humbucker. The difference between the pickup's two settings seemed greater than usual—the parallel position had more edgy twang; the series position more bark and bite. Both sounded great. Next, I tried four different Strat-style guitars. Through most amps, they sound pretty similar. Hearing them through the "H" was like taking dust off a pile of old photographs. Each guitar's individuality came through. In all, I plugged in seven different guitars, and fell back in love with a few that I hadn't touched in years. The "H" draws out the true—and best—character of your guitars' tone.
While it's true that each channel can cover a wide gain curve, the Clean channel's open upper mids and focused low end make it ideal for rhythm parts. There's not a lot of sag, even as you dial up the gain into overdrive—which comes on very progressively. I loved the way the master volume boosted the loudness without coloring the sound very much. This gives the Clean channel ample headroom if you want it to sparkle, but also lets you push it at relatively low volume without sounding nasal.
The Lead channel brings the midrange forward, gets distorted faster, and offers incredibly rich harmonics. I really liked the way I could dial in a violin-like solo tone, then back off the guitar's volume to get a perfect crunch rhythm/alternative lead sound. The preamp's compression is such that it warms up the signal subtly without letting it disappear into the mix.
Both channels' tone controls deserve special mention. Most amps have one or two good settings. The "H" has many, which allowed me to find an ideal sound for every guitar I tried. You can firm up the bass without sounding tubby or dial in some bite without losing the tone's richness. The bright switches add shimmer without making things strident, and add even more clarity to the amp's already articulate voice. Finally, the reverb is among the best I've ever heard—lush, long, and not even a little bit boingy.
I started testing the "H" before I learned how much it cost. Frankly, I was expecting it to be more than double its price of around $1,500. That may not be cheap, but it's certainly within reach of serious working players. And with two channels boasting so much sonic range, the 2-Channel "H" can handle just about any situation or style. This amp ain't no boutique—its home is the bandstand.