VHT Special 6 Ultra Amp Review
May 17, 2011
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Ultra Channel, Rhythm
|Clips recorded with a 2008 Fender American Stratocaster (clean) and 1978 Gibson Les Paul Custom (Ultra Channel).|
These days, VHT is focused on making all-tube amps as accessibly priced as possible. This was achieved by moving much of the production process overseas to help lower the cost to the player. The results, in terms of tone and value, have been impressive. New models have proven big hits among players, especially the mod-friendly Special 6—which became VHT’s first foray into the affordable amp realm a couple of years ago. The new handwired, 6V6-powered Special 6 Ultra head reviewed here (which is also available as a combo) is the latest evolution of the Special 6 concept.
A Sturdy Foundation
VHT had DIY amp modders in mind when it first came up with the Special 6, and that mindset seems to have carried over to the Special 6 Ultra. The design is based on a eyelet board that’s handwired in China with components that are easy to access, remove, and swap out. The diminutive 6-watt package is fueled by a single 6V6 power tube— which can be converted to an EL84 using VHT’s socket adapter—and two 12AX7 preamp tubes.
The Special 6 Ultra expands on the original Special 6’s Volume, Boost, and Tone controls with the addition of a tube-driven effects loop, wattage attenuation, an 11-position Depth control, a 3-way Texture switch, a Line Out jack, and an additional gain stage. I would have liked the Clean and Ultra channels to be footswitchable, but they’re only accessible via their individual inputs. I suspect this helped lower costs, and one could also argue that it keeps the circuit simpler and the signal of higher fidelity. I appreciated that the variable Watts control was accessible from the front panel rather than the back. It ranges from 6 watts, fully clockwise, to a mere half-watt at its minimum setting, and the knob is continuously variable so you can select any position between the two for very satisfying flexibility.
Low-end response is governed primarily by the amp’s 11-position Depth control, while the 3-way Texture switch enables you to select two levels of high-end harmonic roll off or bypass the effect entirely. VHT modeled these controls after vintage post-production studio equalizers, such as the highly regarded Pultec EQP-1A, and they help tailor the tone of the amp to the guitar and cabinet being used.
Considering how inexpensive the Special 6 Ultra is, I wasn’t expecting the controls to have such a sturdy feel throughout their range. The only exception was the Volume knob, which doubles as the amp’s Boost control when it’s pulled out. It felt a little flimsy in both modes, but that might be due to the pot’s design. The boost can also be activated via a single-button footswitch (the Volume knob must be pulled out for this to work, however).
Love at First Feel
After connecting the Special 6 Ultra to a matching open-back VHT 2x12 cabinet loaded with the company’s ChromeBack 60-watt speakers, I tested it first with a Stratocaster, and then a Tom Anderson-equipped ’78 Les Paul Custom. I plugged the Strat into the Clean input, selected the neck pickup, set the Volume, Tone, and Depth controls to noon, maxed the Watts knob, and lightly fingerpicked. The resulting tone was strong and dynamic, with a little grit when I dug in harder.
After playing with different Depth and Watts settings, I noticed the effect of the Depth knob was much more noticeable at higher wattages—due, no doubt, to the increased headroom that allowed the lower frequencies to shine through. In general, though, the amp had a considerable amount of boom and bloom in the lower spectrum. With Depth cranked, the Tone control proved its true worth: It was very effective at adding definition to the amp’s muscular foundation, and it went from smooth, jazzy tones with subtle upper mids in the most counterclockwise position to crisp, biting rhythm tones perfect for country playing at the opposite end of its range.
The Texture switch had a rather understated effect on Clean-channel tones. Its high-end roll off wasn’t all that noticeable until I activated the channel’s Boost mode, which added grit to the tone. In the middle position, the Texture switch not only let the high end through unrestrained, but added a considerable amount of volume and punch that was surprising to hear from a 6-watt amp.
Heavy Metal Thunder
With my Les Paul tuned up and ready to roll, I plugged into the Ultra channel and reset the controls to noon. In this configuration, the Ultra sounded very reminiscent of an old Fender Champ, with a somewhat honky midrange that barked with a vintage feel and impressive detail.
The Texture seemed like it was designed for this channel, as it had a much more perceptible effect there than on the Clean channel. Moving from far left to far right rolled off more high end, but seemed to add more midrange, as well. A dedicated midrange knob would have been a nice addition to really dial in the tone at this point, but getting great tones with the amp’s minimal controls was a snap regardless.
The Special 6 Ultra was certainly capable of producing more than just Champ-like classic-rock tones. After maxing the Ultra control and activating the boost function, I was startled at the immense amount of liquid gain pouring out of the amp’s speakers. I unleashed ’80s hard-rock tones with ease, though I had to keep the Ultra below 3 o’clock to keep the tones warm. Higher Ultra settings resulted in an almost solid-state-like high end that was less pleasant to my ears but that some players might like for metal riffing.
The Special 6 Ultra crams a whole lot of tone and flexibility in a compact, affordable amp. There were moments where I felt a Midrange control and footswitchable channels would have been handy, but additional bells and whistles would take away from the Special 6 line’s core ideal—simplicity reigns supreme. The fact that VHT has promoted the amp as mod-friendly is a nice tip of the hat to the DIY community, and they deserve props for that. And it’s quite refreshing to see a major amplifier company pay special attention to the growing modding community that shows their love of guitar gear through their soldering irons and inquisitive attitudes.
But as a standalone unit, the Special 6 Ultra excels. With killer, easy-to-dial-in tones and a price that’s less than many high-end pedals, it won’t be surprising if this amp becomes ubiquitous in studios and on stages everywhere.
Watch the video review:
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