The original Supro amps were produced by Valco and sold through department stores in the ’50s and ’60s. Despite their built-for-beginners status, these humble amps have often served as secret weapons for great guitarists, notably Jimmy Page during Zep’s early years. Supros lack the power of Marshalls and the rich, balanced tones of Fenders, but their explosive presence and rude overdrive have lent a punky edge to many great recordings.
Valco folded in 1968. But about a decade ago, famed amp designer Bruce Zinky revived the brand. The Supro name changed hands a few years ago, and now Dave Koltai of Pigtronix fame runs the show, releasing new Supro models while retaining many of Zinky’s innovations.
New Supros aren’t clones—they’re made from modern materials using modern manufacturing techniques. But don’t mistake them for generic amps with a bit of retro-cool window dressing. Consider the new Saturn combo: It’s not based on a particular vintage model, and its innards are strictly 21st-century. Yet it nails the unvarnished aggression of the best Supro combos while adding meaningful refinements. If you love the Led Zeppelin I sound, chances are you’ll dig this amp.
The U.S.-made Saturn is the smallest amp in the current Supro line, a single-channel combo with tube reverb and tremolo. It puts out 15 watts via a pair of 6973s—tubes found in many second-tier ’60s brands, and currently experiencing a bit of a renaissance. (The rectifier tube is a vintage-accurate 5U4.) Saturn’s solid-wood cabinet houses a 12" custom-voiced Eminence speaker. The amp’s controls are simple: volume, bass, treble, reverb level, and tremolo rate/depth. The knobs, logo, grille, and “rhino hide” vinyl provide an authentic ’60s look.
Inside is a different story: Parts are assembled on a pair of modern circuit boards, with board-mounted pots and jacks. (The components in old Supros are linked via terminal strip.) The boards are oriented at a 90-degree angle to each other, with some tubes pointing down toward the floor and other face inward toward the speaker, though they’re all accessible without disassembling the amp. The transformers are custom-made to Zinky’s specs.
But despite its modern construction techniques, Saturn’s creators seem to have designed the amp with reverence for the colors and quirks that make Supros special.
Biased for Badness
Like old Supros, Saturn is a cathode-biased “Class A” amp, and the trademark qualities of that architecture are front-and-center here. Tones are lively, responsive, and loose. Highs crackle with energy. The amp transitions to distortion at relatively low levels.
On the other hand, Saturn isn’t particularly loud. It’s definitely powerful enough to annoy your neighbors, but it may not be sufficiently beefy for gigs with aggressive drummers unless you have good monitors and a reliable sound person. You can pretty much forget about obtaining crystalline tones at anything more than modest volume. And while Saturn’s lows aren’t thin, they’re hardly weighty—this amp doesn’t do “chunk.” (Actually, modern Supros tend to have noticeably stouter lows than original models, but still, don’t expect to see many metal players using them. However, blues hounds, early Zep freaks, antique R&B aficionados, and indie troublemakers will probably relish this sound.)
For the players likeliest to cherish amps of this type, these traits are features, not bugs. Saturn doesn’t thump like a Marshall or spank like a Fender, and that’s part of the point. Instead, you get blunt, ultra-present attack and an attitude I can only describe as “snotty” (in the best possible punk-rock sense). Tones tend to feel literally in-your-face in that “Communication Breakdown” way. And recording guitarists will love how Saturn delivers high-octane overdrive at relatively low levels.
Set the Controls for … Whatever
Saturn’s 2-band tone controls are limited but effective. The bass pot’s taper is a bit odd—lows come on suddenly and strongly at around 10 o’clock, as opposed to easing in gradually. But chances are you’ll just dial in a setting that suits your pickups and park it there. Meanwhile, like the best small Fender tweeds, Saturn boasts phenomenal dynamic response.
Many users will simply turn the amp up till it growls and then scarcely touch the thing, sculpting tone via their hands and guitars. In fact, players of this persuasion are likeliest to dig Saturn the most.
For all the snippets in my audio demo (see the online version of this review), I simply set the tone controls at noon, advanced the volume 80%, and then scarcely touched the amp except to tweak the reverb and tremolo. I felt no need to alter the volume or tone settings, even when switching between the ’63 Strat, ’80s Les Paul, and Gretsch-like “parts” guitar heard in the demo clip.
Wet and Wobbly
A hefty, four-spring tank delivers gooey-good reverb. The tremolo is equally lovely, if quirky in a signature Supro way. It’s relatively restrained—maximum settings throb, but never chop. Also, the response varies according to the volume settings.
Again, these are features, not bugs: As Dave Koltai explained to me, these traits are inevitable side effects of the Supro circuit, which employs output-tube tremolo, and whose modulation depth is limited by the cathode-bias architecture. Want to play an accurate cover of “How Soon Is Now?” Get a damn Twin Reverb. Meanwhile, I dig how Saturn delivers a cool variation on the familiar Fender flavor. You can toggle the reverb and tremolo via footswitch (sold separately).
Saturn delivers a great mid-century American sound in an authentic-sounding but technologically innovative way. Some might balk at spending $1,400 on a small, circuit-board amp, but Supro didn’t simply clone some vintage circuit—Saturn’s creators clearly invested much time and ingenuity in capturing a classic color while delivering such meaningful improvements as lower noise, greater bass response, and roadworthy construction. At this price, you could buy an original Valco amp—maybe more than one. But frankly, Saturn is likely to sound better than any of them, and it definitely stands a better change of surviving the stage and the van. It’s a compelling option for guitarists seeking cool vintage tones from outside the Fender/Marshall/Vox axis.
Watch the Review Demo: