When the Carr Mercury was released, it quickly gained nearly mythical status amoung guitarists. Generally mentioned in the same breath as its price, the Mercury was nevertheless regarded as an economically sound propostion by those who had been fortunate enough to have actually played one.
A single 12” combo amp with variable output ranging from a tenth of a watt up to a surprisingly loud eight, the Mercury really started to hit its stride just as players were acquiring both the time and wherewithal to begin searching for great sounding, low-wattage boutique amps for home studios and quiet jams. As an added bonus, bedroom appropriate levels also enabled other household members to pursue nonmusic- centric activities – like sleeping. The Mercury’s unique power-scaling abilities placed it in high regard within this burgeoning, less-is-more set.
It might then be tempting to summarily dismiss the Mercury as just another boutique offering destined to suffer an unfulfilled existence, languishing in a non-descript, suburban McMansion, to only occasionally be called into service for multi-thumbed renditions of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
It would also be wrong.
Just take a gander at the backline the next time you catch a really good band at a local club. Players are getting hep to the idea of keeping levels down on stage, and an amp as flexible as the Mercury sits well with this new, I’d-actually-like-to-hear-the-changes ethos.
Steve Carr and his crew have recently introduced an off-shoot of the original Mercury, sporting a 10” Eminence Lil’ Buddy in place of the standard 12” speaker and a correspondingly smaller cab. Carr Amplifiers was gracious enough to send us the resultant Mini-Mercury prototype so we could have our own go at mangling a few Nirvana songs.
Everything In Its Right Place
The Mini-Merc’s good looks and impeccable workmanship will do little to mute its detractors’ cries of “bedroom amp,” with our sample featuring the handsome “Clipper” colorscheme of crème and blue tolex, a $150 option. The top mounted controls consist of Volume, three-position Boost, Treble, Bass, Reverb, Output – offering 1/10, 1/2, 2 and 8 watt settings – and a mini Cut switch, which handles the tone-shaping chores when either of the two Boost stages are engaged. Even the handle on this thing feels luxurious, featuring thick, evenly stitched leather attached to polished metal mounts. A peek into the back of the amp shows off the Merc’s Eminence speaker, Analysis Plus speaker cable, JJ EL34 power tube and three preamp tubes – an Electro Harmonix 12AX7 and 12AT7, and a Groove Tubes 12AX7C. Next up are two bias test points and fuse holder. Even from this vantage point, the amp’s build quality exudes thoughtful, pragmatic craftsmanship.
“Just for perspective, the 12” version (of the Mercury) has more apparent headroom and a bit more of a Fender vibe to its clean tone – the Lil’ Buddy likes to be overdriven. To me the 10” is wonderful at home and in the studio, but if you are going to play out, the 12” would be the better choice due to its added bandwidth and headroom.” – Steve Carr
Setting the Output setting to 8 watts, I plugged in a Junior and left the boost out to sample the Mini-Merc commando style. With the Volume around noon and easing the Treble and Bass controls both up to two o’clock I was greeted with a raucous, gritty, mildly overdriven tone with a nice clean top-end. Rolling back the guitar’s volume and tone knobs cleaned things up a little, but the pleasing graininess remained. Turning the Merc’s Volume up to three o’clock added plenty of girth, so I decided to roll the Output back to the 2-watt setting to see how much tone I might lose. The amp, as expected, sounded quieter, but surprisingly gave up little “size.” Dialing the Output back to the 1/2-watt position gave up some presence, but was still usable as an additional tonal variable for recording, and is more than inspirational enough for quiet jamming or practice. Plugging in a Tele while scrolling through the same settings produced some of the warmest, most pleasant-sounding Townshend-esque overdriven and clean tones I’ve heard, although it was a little disarming to hear them at such manageable volumes.
Sticking with the Tele, I kicked in the boost. This pulls the Treble and Bass controls out of the circuit and then proceeds to pummel the shit out of the preamp – in a very positive, loving fashion – like June Cleaver putting the hurt on a deserving Eddie Haskell. I dug the sound of the Boost control on full more than the mid setting, and found it preferable to roll back the Tele's volume while in the full Boost position to obtain the lesser amounts of dirt provided by the middle setting. Rolling back the guitar's tone knob, playing in the neck and neck-bridge positions and cranking the Merc's Volume to two o'clock and Output to 2 watts produced one of the most spot on Brian May impersonations I've yet to encounter, something to keep in mind if The Darkness ever decide to get back together and hold guitar auditions.
Cranking the Output up to full while leaving the Boost full up brought even more smiles. Playing double stops in the fifth position on the A, D and G strings yielded "Money for Nothing," chewy, vowel-y sounds that were about as far away from Bakersfield as a Tele is allowed. Plugging the Junior back in prompted the Cut switch to be called into service to tame some of the excess highs, but continued to allow the Mini to generate amazing, flexible tones. Its non-denominational nature regarding pickups and guitars is refreshing - a 'bucker equipped LP yielded just as satisfyingly juicy tones as a Strat with surprisingly few adjustments. Even while sticking with the Tele I was able to cop surprisingly close approximations of such disparate tonal benchmarks as Mark Knopfler's Les Paul, Roy Buchanan's "Nancy," in addition to the previously mentioned, Brian May circa-'78 tone. The design of the Boost circuit has really hit the ball out of the park and adds an amazing amount of flexibility into the Merc.
Is every aspect of the Mini-Merc perfect? While this amp leads you to believe it may be possible, it does have a few shortcomings. The reverb got too wet way too soon for my liking, and remained off for the majority of the testing, but would excel for low-volume surf gigs at the local tiki-bar. In all fairness, it seems like it would be difficult to voice it to work well with each Output level and could just as easily have ended up sounding too washed out at lower Output settings. Of course, I might just be sick of reverb after decades of Link Wray covers. Also, the 1/10-watt Output setting offered up less than spectacular clean tones, sounding weedy and thin until the Volume is around three o'clock, well after becoming overdriven. Clean tones are more pleasing at the 1/2-watt setting, but don't come into their own until the Output is at 2 watts.
The next point is more of a design choice, and isn't really a bad thing per se - but don't enter into a relationship with this amp thinking it's dynamic in a clean-tooverdriven via pick attack sort of way. It does respond delightfully to input cues, but in a different, warm-drive-to-earthy-crunch fashion. When the Mini-Merc's Boost is full up, all bets are off and about the only way to get a less than stellar sound is to leave the Cut switch up with a particularly bright, high-output pickup, such as an overwound Firebird mini-humbucker or P-90.
The Final Mojo
Despite all of the flexibility offered by the variable Boost and Output controls, perhaps the Merc's biggest draw is its unique coupling of an EL34 with a 10" speaker. It allows the hemp-coned speaker's characteristic honk to handily complement the EL34's warm chime and crunch, resulting in a unique and refreshing sound. And honestly, if you've ever uttered the words "British" and "Top Boost" in the same sentence, the Boost circuit alone is worth whatever price Steve wants.
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you want a flexible, riff-inspiringly good, low-wattage amp.
eight watts is simply not enough.