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Paul Reed Smith’s tube amplifiers, like the company’s guitars, walk a fascinating line between tradition and mold-breaking innovation. They’ve found favor among tone connoisseurs like Warren Haynes and David Grissom—players who like fat, classic sounds somewhere between clean and gritty. But PRS’s new hand-wired, 100-watt Archon was designed to court metal and hard rock guitarists. It’s capable of both punishing distortion and big clean tones, and it marks an impressive debut in the tough-to-crack world of heavy amplification.
Lord of this World
The Archon (from the Greek term for “ruler”) is clad in PRS’s striking “stealth” design, which combines black vinyl with a flamed maple faceplate stained with a transparent charcoal finish. The aluminum chassis, knobs, and mesh ventilation grates are also black, highlighting Smith’s golden John Hancock on the faceplate. It’s beautiful to behold, especially when perched atop the matching solid pine, finger-jointed 2x12 cab with its Celestion Vintage 30 speakers. (PRS recommends pairing the amp with their closed-back birch 4x12 for even bigger tones.)
The amp boasts first-rate components: chassis-mounted Belton tube sockets, high-quality shielded wiring, handwired boards, and Alpha pots mounted on the front panel. It employs six 12AX7s in the preamp section and four 6L6GCs in the power section. The output is switchable between 50 and 100 watts. An external trim pot and handy multimeter contacts make it easy to adjust tube bias without disassembly. With two speaker outs and selectable ohmage (4, 8 or 16), you can pair the head with a variety of speaker cabinets.
The amp’s clean and dirty channels each have dedicated bass, midrange, treble, preamp gain, master volume, and bright boost controls. The clean tone of a high-gain amp is sometimes treated as an afterthought, so it’s nice that the Archon makes it easy to dial out dirt. Master depth and presence controls provide even more tone-sculpting power. It’s a bummer that there’s no onboard reverb, though there is a serial effect loop for external effects. A two-button footswitch for channel and effects loop switching is included.
By Demons Be Driven
With all controls at noon and bright boost on, I could clearly hear every nuance of my pick slicing across the strings. Notes sustained evenly and impressively, each with tremendous punch. Blindfolded, I might have thought I was playing through a 4x12 cabinet.
Easing my pick attack for clean arpeggios made mids and lows and feel looser and wider, while snappy Jerry Reed-style fingerpicking highlighted how tight and responsive the amp can be at the same settings. One of the Archon’s greatest strengths is its ability to get so many tonal variations via pick-attack variation, from subtle blues lead work to driving, Stones-style rhythms to warm jazz progressions.
After such a beautiful array of clean tones, it’s a bit shocking to hear the amp’s hell-raising overdrive channel for the first time. Its power, dynamic responsiveness, and capacity for detail are impressive.Tones have a cool three-dimensional vibe that sometimes feels like two different amps working in perfect harmony.
Chunky fifths played through the Les Paul’s bridge pickup yielded a tremendous roar with thick, woody mids, round highs, and a deep, drum-tight low end. The low-end response softened slightly when I switched to playing low-register Clutch riffs, creating a fat, robust tone that felt like a cross between a Mesa Dual Rectifier’s larger-than-life delivery and a fluid, midrangy Marshall. Cranking the master volume to 11 o’clock was like waking a dangerous beast. Here the amp is blisteringly loud, and the low end feels like a medicine ball to the ribs. Thanks to the responsive EQ and presence controls, I never encountered the abrasive buzz-saw sound prevalent among many high-gain amps.
The overdrive channel is remarkably flexible. Setting the controls at noon with the gain knob at 11 o’clock produces modern hard rock tones perfect for drop-tuned Tool and Alice in Chains riffs. Raising the presence and treble knobs while dipping the midrange to nine o’clock provided fast low-end response well suited to old-school Metallica-style thrash. Boosting the mids while pulling back lows and highs is perfect for barreling ’70s/’80’s British metal. The amp’s brawny midrange makes it slightly trickier to achieve the razor-like edge needed for some extreme forms of modern metal, but the amp handles low B, A, and even G tunings exceptionally well, never sacrificing tightness or detail, even within full chords.
The Archon has such ludicrous amounts of gain on tap that you don’t need to do much dialing to obtain enormous tones. If you’re willing to make the power amp sweat a bit, you’ll find that many of the Archon’s tightest and heaviest tones don’t require preamp saturation.
Paul Reed Smith sets the bar high with the Archon. Its exceptional build, outstanding cleans colors, and ruthless but defined overdrive position it among the today’s top hard rock and metal amps. It’s rare that an amp capable of such brutal overdrive can generate such deep, detailed clean sounds. This may not be the only amp that performs so capably at both extremes, but it’s one of the best.