||Download Example 1
Clean with Fender American Strat
||Download Example 2
Dirty with '74 Les Paul Custom
||Download Example 3
Dirty with Brian May Red Special
|All clips were recorded with the amp into a Krank 1x12 cabinent with Eminence Legend V128 speaker with Shure SM57 6" from grill using a Chandler LTD-1 into Pro Tools. No EQ, with a touch of room reverb via Altiverb.
I love magic. Ever since I was a little tyke, I went out of my way to see a great trick. From watching magicians on late-night talk shows and prime-time specials to hanging out at the magic shop at amusement parks and bugging the store owner for hours on end, there was a level of fascination that never let up, even to this day. There’s just something about somebody making the unbelievable believable that is so entertaining, awesome and inspiring. Anyway, one day not too long ago a strange new amp arrived on my doorstep from a company called HipKitty Products. Since I’d never heard of them, I had no preconceived notion of what to expect. What did this amp have in store for my ears… what kind of magic? Would it be a cheesy card trick, or was it gonna saw the lady in half?
The Kitty Box
The Kitty Box looks a whole lot like a blackface Fender Bassman head right down to the head box design and simple control layout (Hi/Low input, Bright switch, Volume, Treble, Mid, Bass, Master). The main physical difference is that you can choose just about any color you’d like to complement the red control panel with white knobs. The amp is made right here in the USA and is a fully hand-wired, 50-watt all-tube design. Unlike the classic Fenders, the Kitty Box comes with a pair of EL34s, but it can also accommodate 6L6s or 5881s with simple user-serviceable bias adjustment points on the back panel. There are three 12AX7 preamp tubes and a switchable tube (5AR4) or solid-state rectifier that toggles into a standby position between them… nice addition! Completing the back panel is a pair of speaker outputs (speaker, ext) and a 3A fuse.
Spoiler Alert: You cannot dial up a bad tone no matter how hard you try with the Kitty Box head.
With the combination of Fender-ish looks, Marshall-like tube choices and Mesa-styled switchable rectifiers, it was anyone’s guess as to how the Kitty Box was going to sound, and the suspense was killing me. I opted to start with my ’74 Les Paul Custom plugged directly into the Hi input and blast it out through a Krank 1x12” cab with an Eminence Legend V12. All controls were set to five, with the exception of the Master Volume, which was turned off so I could listen to the changes as it increased in volume. The rectifier was set to solid state, and the bright switch was off. Slowly bringing up the master while playing revealed that this amp has a very unique voicing… somewhere in the Marshall 2204 camp, but with more clarity and a notably different midrange focus. It was hard to tell if the mids were voiced lower or higher than a Marshall, but they were definitely present and super articulate yet somehow forgiving in the way they handled the pick response. Marshalls can be very hard on some players in the way they reveal nuances both good and bad. The amount of grind produced with the volume halfway up was plenty enough to bring the Les Paul into AC/DC territory and then some in terms of gain. Backing off the volume knob on the guitar easily exposed the clean tone many of us look for in a single-channel amp. Digging into the strings harder produced more gain without any tonal collapsing, and it opened up an onslaught of harmonic overtones that were pure ear candy. Wanting to see how far the amp’s gain could go, I pushed the volume to 10 (master was still around 5) and once again was treated to sonic heaven. So much clarity and gain at once isn’t easy to come by in my experience… you usually lose something in the process, but not in this case. Sustain went on for days and the amp held its own without collapsing or bottoming out on low notes. It’s got both a killer lead and rhythm tone simultaneously… and that is a good trick! Now that I’d had a chance to hit the higher gain territory, it was time to back the gain down a bit and listen to the tone circuit. I engaged the bright switch and was amazed how immediate the pick response was. Of course it was brighter but not in an “ice-pick” way that so many Bright switches tend to expose. The designer obviously did a lot of testing to find the right combination of bright enhancement without brittle artifacts. Fiddling with the Treble, Mid, and Bass controls, I couldn’t find a bad sound, even in the most extreme settings. I literally pulled the treble and mids out completely and found that it pulled off the “woman tone” vibe easily, while still retaining the utmost clarity. It felt like an active tone circuit with extremely wide range and interaction between the controls, but it is in fact a passive design. A big thumbs up on that!
Now that I’d played with the controls, it was time to switch the rectifier over to the tube setting. The 3-way toggle stops in the center to place the amp on standby, a thoughtful and safe addition. As soon as the amp had switched over to the tube rectifier, it opened up a world of VOX-like personality. The mids changed significantly and the amp began to chime like there was no tomorrow, with a beautiful and wide-sounding sparkle. Unlike some tube rectifier designs, this one doesn’t flub out the bass at all. The Chinese 5AR4 tube is nothing special in terms of collectability, but in function it works like a charm and sounds nothing short of fantastic.
Having enjoyed the Les Paul to the fullest (I think I clocked in three hours on that guitar alone), I moved on to a variety of guitars ranging from Strats to a Danelectro U2 and Baritone to a Brian May guitar with Burns Tri-Sonic pickups. Time and time again the Kitty Box proved ready to take whatever instrument was plugged in to new sonic territory, no matter if it was clean or ultra-overdriven. It also played nice with a variety of cabinets ranging from a Marshall JCM800 to a Mesa 1x12” with a 100- watt EV speaker. Mind you, this is not a modern metal amp, but it does a mean job of covering ‘80s-style high-gain tones, and even metal from that era and earlier. It just doesn’t allow you to scoop that much midrange out of the tone. To me it’s a non-issue, considering the tonal flexibility of the amp and the fact that guitars live in the midrange zone. For clean tones, I found that it rivaled many Fender amps I’d played, and it easily pulled off great chicken pickin’ tones as well as spanky and funky Strat sounds. All the while the amp remained quiet and stable with no surprises in function. And if you’re worried that 50 watts might be too much power for you, relax, the master volume is fantastic, and while it does sound unreal at loud settings, it certainly holds its own when pulled down to a whisper. No attenuator needed.
Nits ‘n’ Picks
Though I can only find good things to say about the tone of the Kitty Box, there were a few cosmetic issues that stood out when looking at the head box. On the front sides where the angles met, there were some visible seams in the covering that could have been executed better. The metal corners were most likely hammered into place and didn’t have a super tight fit, leaving a bit of space between them and the wood. Also, I found that the grille cloth on the front wasn’t attached uniformly and looked a bit stretched to one side. And while this isn’t a cosmetic issue, the back panel is positioned quite low and might allow enough open space to leave a tube vulnerable to being broken from a protruding object. Pretty unlikely—but I would’ve liked to see the back panel a little higher for more protection. It does certainly leave plenty of room to keep the tubes cooled. These are small nits that don’t affect the tone or performance of the amp, but a few small changes could be made to bring the cosmetics in line with the tonal perfection of the amp itself. The devil is in the details! (I subsequently spoke with Neal from HipKitty about our concerns, and he informed me that they have updated their headbox to include Marshall-style plastic corners on the bottom as well as back of the headbox. The tolex and grille have been tightened up to be in line with the cosmetic specs of modern amps.)
The Final Mojo
The Hip Kitty is one tough act to follow. There is more magic in this amp than any I can recall playing in quite a long time. It might look basic from the simple controls and lack of bells and whistles, but it is a sophisticated and complex-sounding amp that can accommodate just about any style you throw at it. The only trick left is for me to magically materialize some cash to pick one up for myself.
you want a magical tone machine that can transform itself into just about any flavor at any volume.
you have to have more channels, switching, knobs and FX loop.