When I first encountered Panama amps, I was certain the company was named for Van Halen’s hit song. It’s one of the defining songs of the hard rock genre, after all, and Panama (the company) was getting a reputation for good, affordable hard-rock amps.
The Van Halen link isn’t real. But the reality might be more interesting. Panama amps come from Panama—the country—and are built at the base of Volcán Barú, an active volcano and the highest mountain in Panama. It’s not unreasonable to think that volcanic forces were an influence on the new Fuego X, a 15-watt EL84-driven amp aimed at the metal player.
Fuego X is Panama’s higher gain sequel to its well-regarded Fuego 15. It is fired by two EL84 power tubes and three ECC83 preamp tubes. If you’ve used a modern, channel-switching amp before, you’ll find the Fuego X’s control panel extremely intuitive. The front panel features independent EQ and volume controls for the clean and drive channels, and buttons for the clean channel’s bright mode, clean/drive selection, and the drive channel’s high and low gain modes. A mini-toggle switch lets you select between a modern or vintage voicing.
Red LEDs indicate which channel is selected and which mode of the drive channel—low or high gain—is active. The included footswitch lets you change channels as well as gain modes. The rear panel features jacks for effects send and return, preamp output and power amp input, and connecting to a 4-, 8-, or 16-ohm speaker cabinet.
I tested the Fuego X with an Ernie Ball Music Man Axis Sport through a Celestion-equipped Marshall 1x12 cabinet. Starting off clean with the bright switch off, the amp sounded robust with a slightly dark quality that gave full chords a nice, warm glow. When I engaged the bright switch, I got a glassy top end that lent blues licks sting and complex chords extra definition. This is a metal and hard-rock-oriented amp, so the Fuego X’s clean channel isn’t as pristine as, say, a JC-120, but if you keep the channel’s gain set below 9 o’clock, you’ll be decidedly on the clean side of the dirt spectrum—especially if you lighten up on your pick attack. Move past 9 on the gain knob and you start to hear a slight edge that adds thickness and dimensionality. With the clean channel’s gain maxed, you get an almost Tweed-like breakup that is fantastic for rhythm parts.
Switching over to the drive channel, with the gain set around 10 o’clock, all EQ knobs around noon, and the vintage voicing engaged, the Fuego X raged. Even at this relatively conservative setting, the little bruiser generates heavy JCM800-type crunch and heft—taking on an in-your-face persona that proved perfect for metal mayhem. Alternate-picked shred licks popped with impeccable note clarity, 16th-note low-E-string riffs were articulate and felt immediate and responsive, and power chord rhythm guitar figures felt sharp enough to slice your head off. There’s a lot of treble content if you want it, and I found that if I moved the treble past 3 o’clock, things could start to get a little too bright for my taste. But if you keep the treble in check, the brightness becomes an advantage—giving the Fuego X a lively and vivacious quality. Flipping the mini-toggle switch to the modern voicing changes the tone stack’s slope resistor, which also tames the brightness a little. This mode sounded slightly warmer and has a very 5150-like flavor.
In low gain mode things are already pretty aggressive, but switching to high gain kicks the heat up even further, adding a palpable boost in volume and gain. Held notes seemed to sustain forever and Zakk Wylde-style pinch harmonics explode with ease. Even when I detuned to dropped-C and maxed the gain, note separation remained excellent and the amp stayed surprisingly noise-free.
Heavy players who believe 100 watts is the only road to metal heaven may be deterred by the Fuego X’s 15. The fact is, you can generate delicious, meaty, even aggressive sounds without destroying ears and leveling blocks. I actually had an easier time getting massive sounding tones with the Fuego X than I’ve had with some really big amps.
Given how huge this 15 watts sounds, though, it’s hard not to wish the amp had a power scaling feature that could bring it down even further, say, to 1 watt or so. The reality for recording guitarists living in close quarters to neighbors is that a 15-watt amp cranked could still render a visit from the noise police.
The tone variety from the Fuego X is impressive. And while Panama markets the Fuego X as a metal amp, I found it to be equally cool for less aggressive rock styles, classic rock, blues, and pop riffs. At a street price of only $599, Fuego X is among the more affordable amps in its phylum and is built with features like independent EQ controls for its two channels that many competitors don’t offer. This tiny beast can hold its own against other amps both in its price range and at many times the cost. That affordability often comes at the expense of reliability, but in the case of the Fuego X, there aren’t really any compromises or quality issues. Whether you are looking for a stellar live amp that you can crank to the heavens or want a killer recording amp, the Fuego X is worth a look and listen.