Premier Guitar

Cicognani Imperium H-150 Amp Review

February 11, 2010

Download Example 1
Classic Crunch - 15W setting
Download Example 2
Clean - 50W setting
Download Example 3
Modern Lead - 15W setting
All clips were recorded with a Gibson Les Paul Double Cut w/humbuckers into Cicognani H150 head with matching 4x12.  Mic'd with a Sennheiser e609 and a Rode NT1 into a Focusrite Saffire PRO 24 DSP using Logic Studio.
Manufactured in Italy by pro audio equipment manufacturer FBT, the Cicognani (pronounced: chee-koh-nah-nee) Imperium H-150 head with 4x12 cab is a beautiful-looking rig. The black tolex and silver grillecloth with stainless steel logo screams good design. It’s very similar in appearance to a Mesa, but there is one thing that really sets this amp apart from a Mesa Boogie aesthetically: the insane amount of LEDs on the controls. Turn it on and the amp comes to life in bright blue, green, and red. The use of individual LEDs on the digitally encoded pots, in place of the usually arbitrary numbers 1 through 10, can be a bit intimidating at first, giving it the appearance of a hard-to-use piece of gear. It really isn’t true, though, as I discovered after diving into the completely programmable valve amplifier with 127 selectable and user storeable presets (accessible from the control panel or a MIDI footswitch). This combination of valve tone and modern technology provides the guitarist with a perfect blend of both worlds. The Imperium is not a modeling amp designed to replicate other amplifiers; it is an analog tube amp all of its own, but with digital user preset and recall capability, it’s setting the bar a bit higher for other amps of its ilk.

Loaded for Bear
The Cicognani Imperium H-150 is a class-AB1 amplifier with five 12AX7 preamp tubes and four 5881 power tubes. There is only one input provided, along with three EQ controls—Treble, Middle and Bass is all you really need when it comes to a well-voiced amplifier—as well as Gain and Volume controls. A final Master volume control for live use can’t be preset, but the rest are programmable, so when you adjust them to creat and save a preset, or use a MIDI footswitch to toggle presets, you’ll see the front-panel LED indicators on the pots light up according to the level positions. These LEDs also make it easy to see your settings no matter what stage lighting conditions you have to deal with, which is a good thing.

There are six sound buttons for selecting pre-installed amp sounds: Clean 1 and 2, Sexy, Crunch, and Lead 1 and 2. This allows you to create presets in any given Sound mode and switch to other presets in other Sound modes, like having a six-channel amp, or even six different amps at your fingertips, all with presets accessible via MIDI footswitch. Also on the front panel are the four buttons for the four pre-preamp effect loops available on the back of the amp. Any stompbox effect placed in these loops can also be stored with your presets, using any number of them simultaneously. The manufacturer says that with some time and experimentation, this will enable you to use multiple effect types and loop assignments to nail the specific tones of particular artists or songs and save them as presets—giving you flexibility similar to that of a modeling amp, but with analog, all-tube circuitry. Rounding out the front panel are a two mode buttons: one switches between classic and modern voicings. The other, labeled Hi, Mid and Lo, allows you to switch between the three different output power levels: 150W, 50W and 11W. This is an innovative approach to allowing you to achieve the tone of a cranked valve amp at lower volumes.

The back panel provides a MIDI In and Thru for the footswitch to control the user-created presets. There are three mono speaker outputs provided at 4, 8 and 16 Ohms. Also, there is a Slave Out, which is interesting—for one, I don’t know of any companies using that term since the ‘70s. This is cool for guitarists who may own a vintage amp with a Slave In but no Slave Out, such as the Sound City 120 that is my workhorse. This would allow the Cicognani to be the master, providing the tones, while still utilizing the power of the other amp. The wheels did begin turning in my mind about running both the amps together this way, but the prospect of having to listen to my neighbors complain curbed the thought.

On the back, five individual effects loops are provided; one is a post-preamp loop for running an equalizer or other rack effects. The other four are pre-preamp effect loops for stompbox effects, which can be selected from the front panel of the amp. Two knobs control the mix and level of the effects connected to these four loops. Individual ground lift switches are provided for the effect loops, plus a ground lift for the amp itself. There’s also a 9V (1500ma) wall wart-type power supply input with four 9V outputs, so you can power each stompbox individually, as long as you provide external power by plugging a 9V supply into the back of the amp.



Ready to Rumble
I first plugged into directly into the Imperium H-150 using a Gibson Les Paul DC with Burstbucker pickups and a Monster cable. Selecting the bridge pickup with the volume and tone all the way up, I started out in 11W to see what the amp could do at a lower wattage. With the Clean preset setting, Treble at 12 o’clock, Middle at 11, Bass at 12, Gain at 11, Master at 10 and the Volume dialed all the way clockwise, the amp was very transparent, with most of the tone of the guitar coming through. There was a small amount of distortion on the overtones, so I rolled back the volume on the guitar a quarter of a turn and backed off the Gain to 9 o’clock. This helped with the distortion on the overtones for cleaner tone. With the volume on the guitar still the same, I pushed the Clean 2 preset, which backed off the Middle to 11 o’clock and pushed the treble to about 1. The sound was still warm on the bottom end and provided a little more presence on the high-end frequencies. While still in the same setting, I decided to switch from the Classic to the Modern setting. This setting seemed to compress the tone, which made the guitar and amp sound a bit flat, so I switched back. Selecting both pickups, I backed off the bridge pickup a quarter of a turn but still felt that the tone was a bit too dark and flat. It seemed that I wasn’t really using the tubes at their full potential at 11W. So, I switched to the 50W power setting and was treated to a more responsive amp, with the sparkling cleans I was trying to achieve at the lower power level. Turning up the heat to 150 watts the volume didn’t change much, but it provided more bass and a punchier midrange.

Bringing it back down to 11 watts, I decided to move on to the Sexy preset. Backing off on my bridge pickup just hair, I wanted to see if I could get the same sound of lower-wattage valve amps. Cranking up the Master volume to 3 o’clock to light up the tubes, the sound that came from the amp was a classic blues tone with a good amount of sag. Although not as musical as lower-watt amps loaded with EL84s, the H-150 did deliver a nice blues tone with great responsiveness. Moving on to the higher gain settings, I switched to the Crunch preset. In the 11W mode the amp really lit up, delivering a healthy dose of classic British rock tone. The Imperium H-150 would be especially useful for recording at low volumes, or for the bedroom player who needs the sound of a valve amp, but can’t reach the volume necessary to hit the “sweet spot” in the tubes. Moving on to higher volumes, I pressed the 50-watt switch, which raised the volume, reminding me of the Marshall DSL50 I used to own. Heading away from the Classic Crunch, I decided to venture into Modern territory. In Modern mode, I found that the sound fell somewhere between a Marshall and a Bogner. Delivering smooth bass response and a good amount of presence from the midrange without sounding too shrill.

The Final Mojo
The Cicognani H-150 is very innovative and very versatile. The three different power settings worked out wonderfully. While you may get lost at first among the flashing lights, it was easy to dial in a good tone, or just tweak the amp’s six Sound presets a bit. The EQ controls are straightforward, but don’t allow a great amount of range when turning them left or right. The effects loops worked outstandingly well—both delay and modulation effects sounded lush, and without affecting tone. They also reduced the stompbox noise compared to plugging directly into the effects and then to amp’s input. Using the effects loop coupled with a MIDI footswitch controller offers a lot of possibilities as well. You’ll need one to access the 127 user-definable presets, and you can use it to switch through the six amp “sounds” as well. Cicognani makes one for use with the H-150 with heavy-duty steel casing, a numeric LCD screen and a 9V output to power your stompbox effects, but you can use other MIDI switches if you prefer.

The only thing I would change is the speakers in the cabinet. I found the Jensens somewhat thin-sounding, so the choice of them is a little puzzling to me, especially from such well-thought-out amplifier. I will say that the amp is matched well with the cab, which is beautifully built out of 13-ply poplar plywood, and the added option of closed or open back allows for a lot of experimentation. The Imperium H-150 from Cicognani seems to be a one-stop amplifier and effect switcher that provides good tone at all volumes.
Buy if...
you’re looking for an analog all-tube amp with modeling amp versatility.
Skip if...
you’re looking pure simplicity, or a cab with more low end.
Rating...


Street $1999 (Head); $999 (Cab); $319 (MIDI footswitch) - Cicognani - cicognaniamps.com  fbtusa.net 



Ready to Rumble
I first plugged into directly into the Imperium H-150 using a Gibson Les Paul DC with Burstbucker pickups and a Monster cable. Selecting the bridge pickup with the volume and tone all the way up, I started out in 11W to see what the amp could do at a lower wattage. With the Clean preset setting, Treble at 12 o’clock, Middle at 11, Bass at 12, Gain at 11, Master at 10 and the Volume dialed all the way clockwise, the amp was very transparent, with most of the tone of the guitar coming through. There was a small amount of distortion on the overtones, so I rolled back the volume on the guitar a quarter of a turn and backed off the Gain to 9 o’clock. This helped with the distortion on the overtones for cleaner tone. With the volume on the guitar still the same, I pushed the Clean 2 preset, which backed off the Middle to 11 o’clock and pushed the treble to about 1. The sound was still warm on the bottom end and provided a little more presence on the high-end frequencies. While still in the same setting, I decided to switch from the Classic to the Modern setting. This setting seemed to compress the tone, which made the guitar and amp sound a bit flat, so I switched back. Selecting both pickups, I backed off the bridge pickup a quarter of a turn but still felt that the tone was a bit too dark and flat. It seemed that I wasn’t really using the tubes at their full potential at 11W. So, I switched to the 50W power setting and was treated to a more responsive amp, with the sparkling cleans I was trying to achieve at the lower power level. Turning up the heat to 150 watts the volume didn’t change much, but it provided more bass and a punchier midrange.

Bringing it back down to 11 watts, I decided to move on to the Sexy preset. Backing off on my bridge pickup just hair, I wanted to see if I could get the same sound of lower-wattage valve amps. Cranking up the Master volume to 3 o’clock to light up the tubes, the sound that came from the amp was a classic blues tone with a good amount of sag. Although not as musical as lower-watt amps loaded with EL84s, the H-150 did deliver a nice blues tone with great responsiveness. Moving on to the higher gain settings, I switched to the Crunch preset. In the 11W mode the amp really lit up, delivering a healthy dose of classic British rock tone. The Imperium H-150 would be especially useful for recording at low volumes, or for the bedroom player who needs the sound of a valve amp, but can’t reach the volume necessary to hit the “sweet spot” in the tubes. Moving on to higher volumes, I pressed the 50-watt switch, which raised the volume, reminding me of the Marshall DSL50 I used to own. Heading away from the Classic Crunch, I decided to venture into Modern territory. In Modern mode, I found that the sound fell somewhere between a Marshall and a Bogner. Delivering smooth bass response and a good amount of presence from the midrange without sounding too shrill.

The Final Mojo
The Cicognani H-150 is very innovative and very versatile. The three different power settings worked out wonderfully. While you may get lost at first among the flashing lights, it was easy to dial in a good tone, or just tweak the amp’s six Sound presets a bit. The EQ controls are straightforward, but don’t allow a great amount of range when turning them left or right. The effects loops worked outstandingly well—both delay and modulation effects sounded lush, and without affecting tone. They also reduced the stompbox noise compared to plugging directly into the effects and then to amp’s input. Using the effects loop coupled with a MIDI footswitch controller offers a lot of possibilities as well. You’ll need one to access the 127 user-definable presets, and you can use it to switch through the six amp “sounds” as well. Cicognani makes one for use with the H-150 with heavy-duty steel casing, a numeric LCD screen and a 9V output to power your stompbox effects, but you can use other MIDI switches if you prefer.

The only thing I would change is the speakers in the cabinet. I found the Jensens somewhat thin-sounding, so the choice of them is a little puzzling to me, especially from such well-thought-out amplifier. I will say that the amp is matched well with the cab, which is beautifully built out of 13-ply poplar plywood, and the added option of closed or open back allows for a lot of experimentation. The Imperium H-150 from Cicognani seems to be a one-stop amplifier and effect switcher that provides good tone at all volumes.
Buy if...
you’re looking for an analog all-tube amp with modeling amp versatility.
Skip if...
you’re looking pure simplicity, or a cab with more low end.
Rating...


Street $1999 (Head); $999 (Cab); $319 (MIDI footswitch) - Cicognanicicognaniamps.com  fbtusa.net