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Apart from having one of the most rock ’n’ roll names on the planet, Steve Grindrod is best known for his impressive curriculum vitae as an amp builder, with almost four decades spent in R&D at Marshall and Vox. In 2008, he was snapped up by the Wharfedale company, which launched Albion in 2009. Albion’s first amps were essentially tweaked Wharfedales, but Grindrod’s own designs began emerging not long thereafter.
The latest of these is the Gulfstream series, a Chinese-built line of 6V6-driven amps dressed in boutique-style livery and designed to deliver American/Brit channel-switching features at a value price. The Gulfstream comes in 15- and 30-watt versions and can be purchased as a head or combo. For this test I checked out the 2x12 GS30C combo.
It’s No Lightweight
The GS30 and GS15 are very similar, and apart from wattage, the principal difference is that the larger amp features two additional power tubes and a 2-channel setup. Channel A is actually quite simple—just a preamp volume, a tone knob, and a voicing switch. Channel B features an EQ section with bass, middle, and treble controls, as well as gain and volume knobs. There are also two toggle switches for gain and voicing. Both channels share a master volume control and onboard tremolo and reverb.
Loaded with a pair of Albion 12" speakers, the cabinet is sturdily built and sports two handles—it ain’t a lightweight. The amp shipped with three 12AX7s for the preamp and four Tungsol 6V6GTs in the output section. A look inside the amp itself reveals all circuit-board construction, which appears solid and well mounted. One concern, though, is that the input and output jacks are plastic and mounted directly to the board. It’s a cost-driven decision that keeps the street price and manufacturing costs lower, but I’ve never felt this was a justified savings. Metal jacks connected to the board via wires is infinitely more reliable and, should the need arise, quickly repairable. A standby switch, which is an almost requisite feature for minimizing wear on tubes and filter caps on a tube amp at this power level, is noticeably absent.
On the back panel, you’ll find an effects loop and an input for the included footswitch, which controls channels switching, reverb, tremolo, and the effects loop. The thoughtfully designed footswitch layout is nice, the box is solid, and LEDs keep you from having to guess what’s on or off. The unit connects to the amp with what looks like a standard, 5-pin DIN/MIDI style cable, so you’ll never have to track down a proprietary one, should it fail.
Cross the Channel
Channel A is the most American or Fender-y of the two, and the voicing switch acts as a mid-cut—essentially serving the function of a tweed/blackface selector. I plugged in my Telecaster and dialed up a relatively clean sound—relative because you hear a little grit even at a fairly low volume. The extra sizzle is nice, but you shouldn’t expect the crystal-clean tones of a Fender Twin Reverb.
With a little more volume, the Gulfstream starts to open up. The lightly driven sounds become fuller and the bottom end blooms significantly—imagine a low-wattage amp pushed to its limits and you’ll get the idea. From there, things get louder, but not much more distorted.
A switch to a Les Paul to thicken things up with humbuckers generated a nice, crunchy overdrive, once I got past the lower volume range. Barre chord-based riffs sounded great on the Les Paul when the volume was at 12 o’clock, but beyond that threshold I felt the tone lacked a little depth and sounded less dimensional than the complex, all-enveloping sound you associate with a vintage Fender.
Channel B is the more British-voiced of the two, and the real keys to channel B are the switches for gain and voicing. Those familiar with the top boost feature on AC30s will have a pretty good idea what the latter does. Simply put, it toggles between a round, full sound, and a more cutting, bright tone.
The gain switch, however, really sets the scene for exploring the potential of channel B and enables you to move between standard and high-gain modes. The interactive nature of the gain switch, gain control, and volume can take you from mild grit to a nice overdrive rhythm, and then into high-gain distortion. The high-gain voice is more in line with classic rock-style crunch than metal saturation. So while you probably won’t use a wall of Gulfstreams in your Slayer cover band, the highest-gain mode is very musical and gives notes from either single-coils or humbuckers a lovely singing quality. Leads are a joy to play and individual notes sustain beautifully. Yet even with the high-gain switch off, the Albion gives chords the kind of nice Marshall-flavored crunch you’d associate with AC/DC’s Malcolm Young or Sloan’s riff master Patrick Pentland.
With the voicing switch in the top-boost position, you don’t get trademark Vox chime, but making a clone probably wasn’t Grindrod’s goal. And in fact, if I had to wrap up this channel in a sentence, I’d say it occupies a nice middle ground between a JTM45 and Vox-like chime. I never got a super-clean sound out of channel B, but I much preferred channel B’s cleaner tones to channel A’s.
The master output section is effective for keeping tones consistent and intact throughout the range, save for the very lowest volumes, which is typical of any master volume amp. And if you use this amp in a studio, practice space, small club, or large club, you won’t notice dramatic loss in tone moving between high- and medium-low volume settings—a great quality in an amp with a worth that can’t be overstated.
The effects are less useful, and the reverb in particular is subpar given how much effort was put into making the GS30 a classically inspired tube amp. Digital reverb has its place and can sound good, both as a spring replicator on a pedalboard and for mimicking halls, cathedrals, and chambers, which aren’t exactly portable. In this case, though, the reverb doesn’t fit the classic vibe of the amp, as it adds an artificial sheen with a pulse that’s more like a washed-out delay than a reverb. It’s not useless as an effect, if your taste leans toward more contemporary digital reverbs, but fans of traditional amp reverb are likely to be underwhelmed. The tremolo sounds much better and produces everything from a mellow throb to choppier modulations just short of intense helicopter effects. It isn’t the fastest tremolo, but speed is a matter of personal preference.
With vintage-inspired looks, transatlantic tonal reference points, a company name that highlights its ties to the Sceptered Isle, and a model name that celebrates the Yank/Brit bond, the Gulfstream is targeted to the guitarist looking for a boutique amp that bridges the American/British tone divide, but may not have the budget for one. Albion should be applauded for their efforts and it’s a niche we’d like to see develop.
Given the Albion’s price, most players won’t mind things like the mini-toggles and thinner, less road-worthy vinyl that help make the amp more affordable. If 15 watts is enough power for your needs, the GS15 (which is essentially channel B and the master section) makes an intriguing alternative to the GS30. Still, in the GS30, Albion has produced an amp that delivers timbral flexibility and great sounds without breaking the bank.