3rd Power Amplification British Dream Amp Review
June 14, 2011
Clips recorded into Pro Tools HD9 through Apogee Symphony I/O. Mic Pre is Chandler LTD-1, no EQ, no FX.
If your dreams revolve around British amps, the two kings of color are Vox and Marshall. There isn’t much you can’t squeeze out of a vintage AC30 and a plexi Marshall—from Beatles and Hendrix tones to Petty and Page sounds.
So when Jamie Scott of 3rd Power Amplification decided to design the ultimate Brit-flavored amp, he knew he wanted to merge those two legends into a single amplifier. The result of his efforts—the British Dream—boldly combines great-sounding interpretations of those two voices with an effects loop and a power section that's switchable between 15 and 30 watts.
Scott has been down this road before. His very successful 6L6-powered American Dream [reviewed November 2010], combined brownface and blackface Fender flavors to excellent effect. The completely handwired British Dream uses a pair of EL34s, an EF86, and three 12AX7s in as a jumping off point for its Anglo signature.
While this 56-pound combo isn’t exactly compact (it’s also available as a head), it's both lighter than a vintage AC30 and significantly less hefty than a ’68 Marshall half stack. Dressed up in black vinyl with white lettering, piping, and chicken head knobs, the British Dream looks original, stately, a bit mean, and very rock ’n’ roll.
Construction is top-notch and incorporates 3rd Power’s proprietary Switchback triangular speaker enclosure and tuned triangle port for getting more of an open-back tone, if desired. The latter is especially thoughtful given that AC30s have an open back and Marshalls cabs are closed-back. The cab’s side ports enable venting of the preamp and power-amp tubes, which are isolated in a separate compartment to reduce vibration. The vents are removable to facilitate easy tube changes.
The British Dream’s front panel is divided into three sections: ’59 AC, ’68 Plexi, and a Presence/Power/Standby section. In the ’59 AC section, you’ll find a single 1/4" input and Volume, Brilliance, and Top Cut controls. The Brilliance knob is a 3-way Off/1/2 switch. The ’68 Plexi section has a 1/4" input and traditional Marshall-style controls—Volume, Treble, Middle, and Bass. The third section has a Presence control for both channels, as well as a standby toggle for switching between 15 and 30 watts. The back panel has an IEC power cable input, mains, and fuses, a 16 Ω speaker output followed by dual 8 Ω and 4 Ω outs, and the effects loop jacks. The removable triangular port is held in place by three screws and has a convenient leather loop for pulling it away from the cab.
As the owner of a ’64 Top Boost AC30 and ’68 Plexi, the sounds of these amps are forever burned into my memory. And it was startling to discover just how well the 3rd Power captured so many of the sonic and performance characteristics of both classics.
A Brian May Red Special guitar with Burns Trisonic pickups and phase switches seemed like a logical enough choice for testing the Vox-inspired ’59 AC channel. And with the volume at 2 o’clock, the Brilliance switch off, and the Top Cut on zero, the sound was pure Queen. Manipulating the various phase switch and pickup combinations on the Red Special gave me easy access to “Brighton Rock,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Killer Queen” tones. Without the benefit of May’s Rangemaster driving the front end, the British Dream didn’t deliver quite as much gain as Brian’s tone, yet the amp could still be aggressively bright. Adjusting the Top Cut moved me to a more tame and contoured treble edge.
With an Epiphone Sheraton in hand—a recipe for Brit Pop nirvana if there ever was one—the ’59 AC channel took on a very different character. Even with the volume set around 2 o’clock, the guitar and amp seemed linked via a tube-driven central nervous system. Single notes seemed to leap off the speaker and chords were rich with harmonics and sustain, and at times it seemed you could feel the Sheraton vibrating in harmony with the sounds leaping from the British Power. Because the Sheraton created a thicker sound than the Red Special, I opened the volume up all the way, giving the British Dream a jangling and raw character that suggested the EF86 was working overtime. But no matter how hard I pushed the amp, it never collapsed and the break up always tended toward sweet saturation.
Without a master volume, 30 watts can become very loud, so I switched over to the 15-watt mode. There was a noticeable volume drop, but not at the expense of richness or character. In general, pushing 15 watts, the tone was more compressed and a little smaller sounding at higher settings. The more obvious difference was how the power drop affected the feel. From that perspective, it took a bit more work to get notes to jump and explode than in the 30-watt mode. But the convenience of a lower-power setting is huge. Because 3rd Power uses a non-master volume design, this power option really expands the amp’s potential. [Scott responds: “I agree with this observation, but I’d like to add that I voiced the Presence circuit to really have an impact on half-power mode. If you dial Presence up to 3 or 4 o’clock, it really makes half-power mode rock.”]
Removing the back port to better approximate the open-back feel of an AC30 opened up the sound significantly, filling the room with a big, but less directional sound. It would be nice to make this change without removing screws, but I suspect the design keeps the British Dream from rattling with unwanted vibrations.
There’s nothing in the world quite like the smack-in-the-face raw power of a great Plexi. And though the British Dream doesn’t have the horsepower of your typical Marshall, it does a fantastic job of capturing that spirit. With a Gibson Custom 1958 Les Paul Plain Top VOS, a bump in the mids, and the volume cranked up to 4 o’clock, the 3rd Power gave me the familiar power-chord wallop and sustain I know from my Marshall.
The 3rd Power’s tone controls will be familiar to any Plexi owner too. The mid control affects both volume and gain dramatically, and the midrange cuts in that special way that screams Marshall. Backing the volume down to 1 o’clock steered the Les Paul into AC/DC rhythm territory. Most interesting was how close the single 12" Celestion came to a 4x12 in terms of response. Perhaps it didn’t blow my pant legs like a leaf blower, the way some Marshalls will. But the dynamics of guitar and speaker interaction were startlingly similar.
Though the British Dream’s ’68 Plexi channel has a very distinct, Marshall-like voice, it still enables the character of individual guitars to come through loud and clear. Strats exhibited their signature spank, and P-90s barked mean and raw. It’s a testament to good amp design when guitars retain their personality and character, and the British Dream walks the line between transparency and authority with aplomb.
With the British Dream, 3rd Power gives Vox and Marshall lovers a killer one-two punch in an amp that’s considerably more compact and manageable than either of those legends. The tones are amazingly authentic, if slightly more modern at times, and the response is startlingly spot on for a 1x12 combo attempting to approximate the sound of much more monstrous cabinets. The addition of the proprietary cabinet design and removable back panel gives you both open- and closed-back sounds in one package.
Personally, I would prefer a single input and channel switching over dual inputs, as that design necessitates an A/B box. At times, I found myself wanting a master volume or power scaling to bring the levels down for recording, but the ability to switch from 30 to 15 watts gets you most of the way there and is invaluable for a gigging musician. In the end, 3rd Power has once again come up with yet another winning and imaginative design—one your aching back and bandmates will thank you for, if you’ve been hauling around an AC30 or plexi to gigs.
you want AC30 and Plexi tones in a single, relatively small package.
you prefer channel switching and a master-volume control.
Street $2699 - 3rd Power - 3rdpower.com