With a full line of affordable handwired amps, VHT has nestled into a comfortable corner of the vast, sometimes overwhelming amp marketplace. Building much of its line overseas allows the company to offer working musicians a taste of boutique quality amplification for a fraction of the price. And VHT’s designers do their homework, producing amplifiers based on venerable tone platforms we know and love, yet enhancing them with tweaks that serve modern players’ needs.
The Special 12/20 RT combo we have in for review this month is a shining example of the VHT design philosophy. Like the VHT Special 6, the 12/20 RT is based on golden age American combos, but delivers more usable volume than its little brother, plus expanded tone-shaping control and amazing effects-pedal friendliness. Loaded with a 12" VHT ChromeBack speaker, the 12/20 RT is meant to be a portable, throbbing nerve center in your rig, not just another link in the chain.
Clean Layout, Robust Controls
A quick scan of the 12/20 RT’s controls will tell you that this little beast offers much more tweakability than the vintage Fenders it’s based on. Let’s start with tube selection. The amp ships with 6V6 power tubes, but is designed to accommodate easy tube swaps, allowing you to obtain your favorite valve flavors with ease. Your tube choice affects the amp’s volume as well: Set the high/low power voltage switch behind the removable rear panel to low volt position for 6V6s or EL84s and 12-watt output, or select the high volt position for 6L6s or EL34s and 20-watt output—hence the 12/20 moniker. At these output levels, we have something of a Princeton Reverb/Deluxe Reverb hybrid with the flexibility to generate British tones via the EL34/84 option.
To further adjust the output, the main panel includes a wattage control that descends to less than one watt for practice situations, as well as a pentode/standby/triode switch that reduces the output by about half when in triode mode. Depth and tone knobs adjust low- and high-end response, and a texture switch allows further adjustment to the 12/20’s high-frequency roll-off point. Vibrato and reverb controls offer a little extra adjustment power as well, with a slow/fast switch for the vibrato speed and a deep reverb position, accessed by pulling up the knob. A single volume knob with footswitchable pull-boost tops off a full, but well laid-out array of controls.
All the pedal excitement happens around back, where you’ll find a 9V DC jack for powering pedals, and a level-adjustable effects loop. Footswitch, line out, and speaker output jacks complete this ample collection of input and output delights. It’s a feature surplus, for sure, but I found that the amp’s ease of use was excellent, and its fine overall build quality left nothing on this VHT seeming like an afterthought.
That Special Feeling
With the 12/20 in pentode mode, I plugged in a Strat and got loose with some scratchy Jimmy Nolen funk rhythms. I was getting nice dynamics and touch sensitivity, with plenty of warmth on the Strat’s middle pickup, having turned the depth control fully clockwise for maximum low-end extension. At 12 watts, I was getting similar headroom to a Princeton Reverb, clean to about ¾ of the way up. With the volume knob maxed out, the amp’s breakup character was very close to a vintage Fender flavor as well—scooped, but with perhaps slightly more midrange emphasis. With the footswitch, I kicked on a touch of the 12/20’s cavernous tube reverb, giving some acoustic energy to a gritty three-dimensional single-coil sound with a deep, crisp bottom and sweet, but cutting high-end harmonics. From barking Stones-like stabs to chimey country leads, I could get a variety of convincing American tones by working the guitar’s volume knob. Harmonic complexity was nearly as good as my vintage Champ, but I only noticed the slight deficit when switching quickly back and forth between the two.
I had to work for it, but I found several usable tremolo settings, my favorite being a surprisingly rich slow throb. The boost switch was one of my favorite features, giving me a perfect volume and gain boost for solos with a quick stomp on the second footswitch. It was a great match for the Strat’s bridge pickup, juicing up the midrange and rounding out the sound for a bluesy, low-gain lead tone with good sustain. Turning down the watts control a bit got me into medium-gain territory, great for classic rock crunch at studio, but not band-level volumes. While it was a useful feature, I found that the tone quality dropped off significantly after ¾ up on the knob.
Turning the depth knob all the way to the left got rid of the mud my Les Paul’s neck humbucker initially produced. The 12/20 is a warm-sounding amp, even with the tone knob all the way up. At the brightest depth setting, the Les Paul was evenly voiced, and with the guitar’s volume knob rolled back, I didn’t have to dial the tone knob back too far to get a punchy jazz lead tone with decent headroom at full amp volume. Hitting the boost switch got me to the amp’s maximum level of tube saturation, with a medium-gain crunch that retained the guitar’s character nicely, showing only a slight loss of bass definition. It was perfect for a mellow, creamy Allman Brothers “Blue Sky” tone with a touch of fuzzy texture and crisp attack on the edge of each note.
For higher-gain sounds, I ran VHT’s V-Drive overdrive pedal through the amp’s effects loop and powered it with the onboard 9V power supply. I got amazingly low noise with this setup—a night-and-day difference between this and running the pedal between my guitar and amp in typical fashion. The pedal sounded transparent, like a natural extension of the amp itself, and I could evoke recent Santana lead sounds with ease, generating snarling and syrupy tones with increasing harmonic complexity as I goosed the pedal’s drive.
If you’re looking for a versatile tone machine voiced mainly for cleans and tasty vintage Fender-combo breakup, the 12/20 RT needs your attention. Being warm and sweet, it’s probably a little friendlier to single-coil guitars, though I found many great tones with my Les Paul after a bit of searching. VHT was smart to retain a pure single-channel design, as it gives you a solid foundation to expand on, should you choose to do so. It offers classic amp essences with convenient features that even purists would have a hard time ignoring, especially considering the price.