Ratings

Pros:
Punchy, powerful, rich and dynamic. High-quality construction. Inspiring “alternative British” disposition.

Cons:
Expensive. Hard to swap preamp tubes.

Street:
$2,999; VE212F cab with Fane A60 alnico speakers $1,649

Hylight Custom 50 VR504
aokguitars.com


Tones:


Ease of Use:


Build/Design:


Value:
 

Although they were viewed as upstart rivals to fellow British amp makers like Vox and, in particular, Marshall, the original Hiwatt creations were very different animals. Big, bold, punchy, powerful, and capable of being very loud and clean, they were the product of an audiophile-like approach to guitar-amp design and construction, and they fast attracted a cult of heavy and famous followers as a result. Several manufacturers have honored the early Hiwatts with their own versions in recent years. But the new British maker Hylight aims squarely at the heart of the ethos that drove Hiwatt founder Dave Reeves—right down to the old-school point-to-point wiring and the name Reeves first gave to his fledgling business before it became Hiwatt.

Hylight Electronics, which was resurrected by Andrei Nicula in 2018 after acquiring the Hylight name, builds British-made versions of the original circuits—though they add a few modern features like effects loops. They’re all rendered with high-quality components, and muscular enough to fill an arena with sound. The 50-watt, EL34-driven Hylight Custom 50 VR504H is built in homage to the original Hiwatt DR504 circuit. It’s a great amp by any standard, but as an alternative to the most common amp voices out there, it’s full of possibilities.

Custom By Name
It’s hard to blame the uninitiated for thinking the original Hiwatts were Marshall wannabes. The similarities in aesthetics and control-panel layouts were certainly enough to suggest Marshall’s inspiration. Under the hood, though, nothing could be further from the truth. Dave Reeves’ circuit for the original 50- and 100-watt Hiwatts—replicated here in Hylight’s Vintage Reissue Series—were unique at almost every stage. The tone circuits differed substantially, and where Marshalls loved to get dirty, Hiwatts aimed for maximum power and headroom.

The Custom 50 is faithful to that design philosophy. It generates a conservatively rated 50 watts from a pair of EL34 output tubes. It’s also wired up with four ECC83s (aka 12AX7s) in the preamp and phase-inverter stages. Controls include normal, volume, and bright volume for each of the two channels, plus shared bass, treble, middle, presence, and master volume dials. (Hiwatt amps had master-volume controls as far back as the mid ’60s—well before Marshall added the feature.) The rear panel features a mains voltage selector, effects loop send and return, mains and HT fuse sockets, dual speaker outs, a 4-, 8-, and 16-ohm impedance selector, and a line out.

The head itself is robustly built and hefty. It measures 24.75" x 9.75" x 11" and weighs 41 pounds. Inside, the narrow turret board is neatly hand-wired with a tidy single row of yellow polyester Vishay capacitors and mostly carbon-film resistors. A second board hosts the bigger power resistors, diodes, and some of the smaller filter caps in the power supply and output stage. Transformers are made in England by Trans-Tronic to original Partridge specifications.

On the chassis’ top side, there’s a metal plate to electronically shield the big output tubes from the smaller preamp tubes—just like vintage amps of this type. The shielding is great for keeping the amp quiet, but it makes replacing the tubes more difficult. Switching the EL34s means navigating a tight space, and you have to remove the entire chassis to swap the ECC83s—a pain for habitual tube-switchers out there. All in all, though, the Custom 50 is impressively and sturdily built. It definitely evokes the workmanship that typifies the glory years of British amp manufacturing.

The Hylight’s EQ profile is a bundle of midrange thump, tight low-end wallop, and high-end chime.

The accompanying Hylight VE212F speaker cabinet, by the way, is a 2x12 enclosure made from Baltic-birch plywood and loaded with a pair of optional Fane A60 speakers—a newer Fane design that players dig for its clarity, dynamism, and balance. (Fane speakers have become all but inseparable from Hiwatt legend.) The cabinet is nearly a closed-back design, save for the narrow lower port that improves distribution of more low-end content.

Watts Happening
Whether you put humbuckers, P-90s, or Fender single-coils in front of the Hylight, it’s as punchy, powerful, and dynamic as its inspiration. With the master volume reined in and the preamp volume up high, the Custom 50 will elicit many flavors of crunchy classic-rock grind depending on the guitar and pickups. At these settings the P-90s in my Novo Serus J are full of bark and bite, while the PAF-style humbuckers in my Nik Huber Orca sustain and sing at surprisingly civilized volumes. The amp also benefits from jumping the normal and bright channels, by routing a short cable between their number 1 and number 2 inputs, which enables you to blend the two channels together and push the output section even harder.

Where many classic British amps can have a sizzly side to their personalities, the Hylight’s EQ profile is a bundle of midrange thump, tight low-end wallop, and high-end chime. As much as anything, though, the Hylight is a monstrous clean machine that stays bold, tight, and crisp as you push the volume—almost daring you to test its limits. And man, it gets loud in the process.

Cranked and raging is where this amp shines. It’s also where you’ll find the brash, clanging Townshend tonesof Live at Leeds, and David Gilmour’s wailing lead sounds. Just like Gilmour, you may find the need for overdrive or a fuzz to get those extra-dirty high-octane lead tones. But as you’d expect, the Hylight is happy to accommodate such additions to your signal chain. I tested the amp with Tsakalis Six, Gas FX Drive Thru, and JHS Angry Charlie overdrive pedals, and each of them worked beautifully.

The 2x12 cabinet is also an impressive creation, and it sounds as solid and gutsy as its robust construction implies. The alnico-magnet Fane A60 speakers are a tasty, upmarket choice here—blending ceramic-like guts and aggression with alnico sweetness and dynamics. They’re rich-sounding, responsive, and feel especially versatile.

The Verdict
The Hylight Custom 50 VR504H is an impressive homage to the original Hiwatt 50-watt amps. It’s also a reminder of what made those amps so original and potent. It’s a dynamic alternative for guitarists looking for classic Brit-stack tones, and dishes more thump, clarity, and headroom than most amps from the Marshall or Vox camps. That headroom and full-frequency responsiveness make it a willing partner for pedals of all kinds. But it also sounds great completely naked, even at low volumes. The Fane-loaded VE212F cabinet is a delicious pairing, too, at all levels. At more than 4,500 bucks for the whole head/cabinet setup, it’s a spendy rig. But, in terms of Hiwatt authenticity and power, it certainly delivers on its promise.

Watch the Review Demo: