Given the constraints and long hours involved with running a one-man operation, Craig Wildenradt of CEC Amplification is really something of an overachiever. His Nashville company has already impressed with the 15-watt Suckerpunch combo, has an 80-watt behemoth under development, and recently unleashed the 10-watt Toll-Free Express reviewed here.
The Express is Wildenradt’s answer for the travelling musician who likes a little kick and growl from an amp, no matter how small. With its miniature frame and miniscule weight, the Express is designed to accompany you from the practice hall to the studio to the stage. But it’s how big the Toll-Free Express sounds doing it that distinguishes this diminutive monster.
The Toll-Free Express offers a simple control array. There’s one instrument input on the lower right-hand side with an On/Off/Standby switch and an LED indicator. The five white chickenhead knobs cover the basics—Master, Bass, Middle, Treble, and Gain. There’s also a Hi-Cut switch that enables you to move between the regular output and one with a shaved high end when engaged.
The backside of the Express features three separate output jacks (4, 8, and 16 Ω) for matching speaker impedance. This output option may look like it takes up needless real estate, but it also seems far more durable than those plastic impedance selectors that can show wear after repeated coin or flathead screwdriver use.
You’ll find some nice components nestled within the 1/2" Baltic birch walls. This 10-watt growler ships with two JJ 12AX7s in the preamp and one SED “Winged C” EL34 in the power amp. You’ll also find custom-wound O’Netics power and output transformers, Audience Auricap capacitors, and Vishay low-noise resistors. There’s certainly no cost-cutting going on here.
All the guts are housed within a 14.5" x 9.5" x 9.5" enclosure, which essentially makes the CEC the size of a tall shoebox. Dressed from head to toe in a leathertextured, gunmetal gray vinyl, the amp has the appearance of a futuristic military device. The dovetailed corners are adorned with robust metal brackets and a tightly woven black-and-silver grille cloth is home to the CEC Amplification logo. Weighing in at a touch over 20 pounds, the Toll- Free Express is sturdy, to say the least, and it feels like it will weather just about any storm—nice to see in an amp that’s billed as portable and road-ready.
I tested the Toll-Free Express using an 8 Ω 4x12" cab with Celestions Vintage 30s, as well as a Gibson Les Paul, a Fender Stratocaster, and a Fender Telecaster.
After dialing up a tone recipe that seemed fit for the Les Paul, I turned the Master volume a little more than half way up, set the Gain at about 20 percent, and got a sweet, harmonic break-up. Trying to achieve this level of tube saturation on, say, a 50-watt, non-master volume head would get you an eviction notice in most neighborhoods. But the Express managed to communicate the wholeness of the Les Paul tone without ripping the roof off the house. Rolling down the Master even to the 30 percent range still gives the amp a surprisingly weighty tone, most notably in the bottom end. And there was no need to aggressively re-EQ the treble at this considerably lower volume—a testament to the amp’s intrinsic balance.
I switched over to the Telecaster and increased the Master, Treble, and Gain to roughly 75 percent of full. At these settings, the Express continued to exhibit a knack for very plush crunch, but with a bit more of that characteristic British sizzle. And flipping to the bridge pickup gave a quick-strike lead tone, like Jeff Beck’s early Yardbirds jams. While picking out “Heart Full of Soul,” I needed a rhythm tone with less bite for the verses. Rolling off the guitar’s volume did the trick, and left me with a powerful, full-house strumming tone. The early Beck comparisons are apt given that the Express more often than not evokes a classic Vox without all the spiked high-end. But even those more aggressive and biting tones are available if you want them. Just kick up the Treble.
The Stratocaster is a fine match for the Express too, and a great blank canvas for conveying a Strat’s inherent bell-like harmonic qualities. Both the Stratocaster and the Telecaster benefited from the Hi-Cut switch, which gives both guitars greater reach across the tone spectrum at high-gain settings where they can become piercing and unwieldy. It’s a great tool for any treble-prone guitars.
Craig Wildenradt’s CEC Toll-Free Express is an exceptional and thoughtful piece of amplifier design. It’s built to readily handle pickups of any kind and output level with its highly dialable EQ—all while kicking with a classic rock authority that makes it sound bigger than it really is. While the clean tones are quite good for an amplifier of its size, its true strength lies in the mid- to high-gain crunch. If you’re looking to power a massive stack or work in really big rooms, you may want to skip this one unless you’ve got stellar monitors. However, the Express will feel right at home at smaller clubs and studios, and you’ll be surprised how much 10 watts working full time can sound stadium-huge.
if you need wholesome, hearty gain and stinging Brit tones at bedroom levels.
you’re looking for lots of clean headroom.