Reason SM50 Review
September 9, 2008
The Reason SM50 is a unique take on an old favorite: 50 watts of vintage-flavored, fixed biased EL34 goodness – with a twist. Brought to us from amp designer Obeid Khan and cabinet maker Anthony Bonadio, the Reason Amplifier company is a relative newcomer to the scene, although neither partner lacks experience in the industry. Obeid designed, among other things, the Vintage Series amps for Crate while working for St. Louis Music. Anthony designed and built speaker enclosures for other high-end amp makers. The company took shape when Obeid approached Anthony about a cab for his new amp.
From all outward appearances, the SM50 looks like most other current amps. Our sample sported black tolex with a tan stripe on the front behind the gold Reason logo. The grills, control plates, handle mounts and even the back panelscrews were all gold – in fact, about the only thing that wasn’t gold on this amp is the input jacks. With the black and tan tolex combination, it gave the amp a classy, yet surprisingly subtle appearance.
Under the hood, the SM50 features two Amp Doctor EL34s, a mix of JJ’s and EH 12AX7s for the five preamp slots and a GZ34 rectifier tube, all pointing to Obeid’s predilection for vintage amps. The black silk-screened front panel features Power and Standby switches; Volume and Hi-Cut knobs for the Stack channel; Bass, Mid, Treble and Volume for the Normal channel; a Normal/Stack/Bright rotary switch; knobs for Tone and Volume for the bright channel and High and Low input jacks.
The back panel harbors no surprises, featuring a jack for the supplied footswitch, effects send and return jacks, two 4Ù speaker outputs, two 8Ù speakers outs and one 16Ù jack. The back panel is rounded off with a couple of fuse holders and the AC inlet. As with the rest of this amp, there is more here than meets the eye. Reason has decided to go with a parallel effects loop, reckoning that most guitarists will be placing stompbox effects in front of the amp, saving the higher-end, rackmounted delays and preamps for the effects loop. As such, the loop adds no additional circuitry and offers a 100 percent wet, line level signal.
Plugging into the SM50 for the first time is a little disorienting – this thing is freakin’ loud for 50 watts. In fact, it reminded me of that old Bowie song, “Moonage Daydream” on Ziggy Stardust, specifically the line, “I’ll be a rock n’ rollin’ bitch for you.” This thing positively screams, making me wonder on more than one occasion if the guys over at Reason weren’t having a go by sending us a 100-watt head with a 50-watt panel. A quick look around their website indicated the SM50 is the highest output amp they make and I can understand why – this amp pushes more than enough air for any situation [the company says that they also produce the same circuit in a 25- watt combo].
Obeid had indicated he was a Strat fan and that the SM50 played well with the contoured single-coil contraptions, so I grabbed one to check the amp out. Initially, running through the Normal channel, I was a little disappointed. The SM50 initially sounded weak and thin. I tried flicking the Normal/Stack/Bright switch and finally lit on a nice crunchy sound, although I was having difficulty groking the amp in general. The two things I came away with were that the SM50 has nothing whatsoever to do with living room amps, ever. There is no pussyfooting around here, if you want some crunch, turn up the Volume, whichever channel you happen to be using.
"...this thing positively screams, making me wonder on more then one occasion if the guys over at Reason weren''t having a go by sending us a 100-watt head with a 50-watt panel. A quick look around their website indicated the SM50 is the highest output amp they make and I can understand why"
The second thing is once you have acclimated to all of the ear-drum pummeling glory that is the SM50, the Normal/Stack/ Bright setup is a great way to get three distinct vintage flavored tones without ever sounding strained or running the risk of that bees-in-a-bottle, high-gain sound.
Starting with the Normal channel, the Reason delivered a firm kick in the pants with a distinct, JTM45 vibe. The mids were nice and fat here, encouraging judicious use of the tone knob. Rolled back it retained a more modern feel; cranked up, it was 1973 all over again, giving a fat, splatty Strat sound that needed nothing to fatten it up. Rolling the selector switch over to the Bright channel added a hobnail boot to the amp’s pant kicking foot and was able to get really close to the SRV/plexi dirty-but-defined Strat sound. The Tone knob here has a really unique – but thoroughly musical – curve, adding in mids to a certain point then bringing in some additional dirt at around 8 on the dial. Start at zero and then roll in enough to suit – the tone control’s curve is not unlike a Tube Screamer’s. Like the Normal channel, turning up the Volume and moving some air really brought the amp to life. Not that it doesn’t sound good clean, but you’ll be relying on your guitar’s volume knob for clean up duty – this amp sounds too good dirty.
Luckily, Obeid and crew created two really kick-ass channels to incorporate into the third Stack channel, which in an nutshell is both the Normal and Bright channels in series with an additional gain stage – the Stack channel’s Volume – and an additional tone shaping device via the Hi-Cut control, which came in useful when pushing the Bright channel’s Tone control for some extra grit. In “Stack Mode,” every knob on the control panel’s face is active and the results are more impressive than even the individual channels on their own. To continue with the ass-kicking analogy, this channel is Gene Simmons’ dragon boot having a go at your backside. Sonically, this channel sounds like a modded JCM800, or maybe one of those supermodded plexis from the eighties before anyone cared what they were worth unmolested. The Stack setting delivered tons of dirt and midrange thicker than a chocolate shake, accentuating the chunk already eloquently established by the Normal channel. Shredders, punk rockers and geezers alike will dig what this channel has to offer.
The Stack setting is a lot of fun and like the other two channels, plays nice with P- 90s and humbuckers, but you can tell this amp is sweet on Strats. It touches on past tones easily enough – like Blackmore and Bolin on the Normal channel. The Bright channel can get close to Rory Gallagher tones in addition to the previously mentioned SRV huge-clean-dirty trick. But the Stack Mode allows for some just flat-out, raucous fun. Since the gain never gets out of control, dynamics and picking nuances remain at all but the most bombastic settings. Switching between pickups keeps their character intact, making the SM50 a painfully loud, good time – in other words, a perfect rock n’ roll amp.
The Final Mojo
Unfortunately, due to logistics, we weren’t able to pair the SM50 with one of Reason’s cabinets and I’m really bummed we didn’t – I’d love to hear this amp as Obeid and Anthony intended. But, through a tall 4x12 cab loaded with Celestion V30s, this thing sounded glorious in a “I’m gonna cut you” sort of way. If you’re a Strat guy, you’ll be pissed if you don’t check one out. If you’re into P- 90s or humbuckers, you’ll dig it too, but maybe not quite as much. Either way, if you like vintage tones, and would like to use them as a jumping off point to make some too-loud rock n’ roll, give the SM50 an audition.
you simply want to crank it up and sound glorious
there is anyone with delicate sensibilities on your block
MSRP $2295 - Reason Amplifiers - reasonamps.com
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