Hughes & Kettner Tubemeister 5 Amp Review
Germany-based Hughes & Kettner have long been one of the most successful premier boutique amp builders in Europe. Known for a blend of high fidelity and stinging, detailed highs, their creations have held been fixtures on the backlines of hot pickers from Alex Lifeson to Michael Wilton, and Allan Holdsworth, to name a few. Though H&K are known in many circles for building monsters, they successfully ventured into low wattage territory with their popular Tubemeister 18 (which was really just a very small monster). Now the company has released an even more miniaturized amp bearing their namesake, the Tubemeister 5.
Have Amp, Will Travel
The Tubemeister 5 borders on adorable. Not the words you’re average H&K user associates with their rig, but in this case it’s very true. The pint-sized five-watter weighs in at only 7.65 pounds, and fits perfectly into its (yes, we’ll go ahead and say it) petite carrying case. Visually, it's a dead-ringer for the larger models in the Hughes & Kettner line, with a clean and striking look of Plexiglas and polished metal.
The entirely tube circuit begins with a single 12AX7 preamp tube, then moves to the power section that's fueled by a 12BH7 dual triode tube that runs in push/pull mode. Oversized transformers aid the power amp in producing the strongest, cleanest output signal possible for five watts and keep the tone from flubbing out and mushing up at higher volumes.
Just like the Tubemeister 18, this particular Hughes & Kettner amp is pretty simple and straightforward. Three EQ knobs for bass, mid, and treble shape the overall tone of the amp, which feed the signal into the gain and master volume controls. There's also a little switch for changing between clean and overdriven modes between the Bass and Master controls. Even though the amp has only one channel, moving to the Drive mode revoices the frequency response of the three EQ controls—making them more sensitive for shaping mid and high gain tones.
The Tubemeister 5 was designed to essentially be a highly portable, studio-ready version of their larger models—including the already diminutive Tubemeister 18. In keeping with this train of thought, the amp comes packed with an integrated Red Box XLR direct out, which makes it a cinch to run the amp directly into a mixing console. The direct out has speaker simulation, so for players who want to lay down a few tracks without lugging a speaker cab around, it's a great option that's always active.
Just like its bigger 18-watt brother, the younger Tubemeister kicks out serious grind that is quintessentially Hughes & Kettner with surprising volume to back it up, too. It’s not always the cleanest amp with certain pickups—par for the course with an amp this small—but it's got very surprising range.
A Telecaster and a 2x12 demonstrated the Tubemeister 5’s capacity for high detail and the ability to be super punchy and thick for its size. It’s the presence of the signature Hughes & Kettner hi-fi quality that really impresses though—a foundation of luscious mids and tight lows that belies the amp’s tiny dimensions. The combination of the Tele's bridge pickup and my increasing pick attack revealed the amp's touch sensitivity, giving me a bright stinging lead tone when I cranked the Gain control up to about 1 o'clock.
Despite the company's best intentions to deliver the most clean tone possible, the amp gets dirty once you set the Master and Gain controls past noon—right at the sweet spot where the cleans started to warm up and sag a little. Dropping the volume control on the Tele about 1/3 or so helps eliminate some grit. That was much harder with a Dimarzio Tone Zone and Evolution-equipped Charvel So Cal. The pickups just drove the amp a little too hard for playing crystal cleans at medium to high levels. Still, the light gain raunch that resulted sounded fantastic, if a little bit piercing in the highs. A quick adjustment of the Treble will nip that problem in the bud, however.
The amp's Treble control is also vital to dialing in the Drive mode, which is the real star of this show. The EQ controls each take on a different sweep, dynamic, and personality in the Drive mode, but none has a more noticeable effect than the Treble control. Move it up from the 12 o'clock position while playing the D and G strings in unison, and you can hear it sweep through a huge range of high-end frequencies ranging from warm to razor-like. It really works like a combination of a presence and treble control and can really help the amp rise above a crowded mix.
In the Drive mode, the Charvel and the amp's raging distortion were a perfect match for quick, heavy riffage and sky high runs and bends. Even at extreme volume levels—which were always much louder than I expected—the lows stayed focused with galloping triplets and hand-heavy swipes.
For studio cats that love high gain tones, the Tubemeister 5 is a killer choice. The amount of overdrive on tap is impressive, focused, and full throughout the amp’s range. The cleans are nice, even if the heavy-duty transformers can't quite overcome the limitations of low wattage to get really clean at loud volume levels. But if you're in the market for that quintessential hi-fi tone that put Hughes & Kettner on the map, and you don't want to lug around one of their larger, weightier amps, it’s worth giving this little monster a try.