Don’t get me wrong – tolex has been battle-tested and proven as one of the great upholstery successes of our time. It’s great when you’re on the road, humping a half-stack from club to club and bumping it into every door frame and banister you can find – what material holds up as well? But the fact is that most of us are not on tour anymore; those halcyon days have transformed into children and a mortgage. And while you may have once taken pride in that towering Marshall stack, leaving it on proud display in your bachelor pad, your wife likely has other ideas now – namely a living room set. Most married men will tell you that the stack rarely wins.
"Formed in 2007 by Steve and Scott Campbell, two accomplished cabinet makers and lifelong musicians, Trillium Amplifier Company has been born into the middle of an amazingly creative boutique scene"
Fortunately for those maturing gearheads stuck in the furniture-gear gambit, the boutique market has spawned a variety of amplification options that merge the worlds of form and function. Models from companies like Ark Amplifiers and Red Iron Amps have proven that you can have solid tone and a design that aspires for something more than the status quo. These amps trade tolex for enclosures made of exotic, decorative hardwoods and with painstaking attention to detail. It’s certainly not a new idea – Ken Fischer’s Trainwreck amps were long ago encased in beautiful wood cabinetry that matched their legendary sound – but it seems that more manufacturers have finally wised up to the fact that a sizable percentage of guitarists need an amp that can be tolerated outside the studio.
Formed in 2007 by Steve and Scott Campbell, two accomplished cabinet makers and lifelong musicians, Trillium Amplifier Company has been born into the middle of an amazingly creative boutique scene. While no one would mistake these amps as recreations of the wheel - both designs in the Archetype Series are single channel, low-wattage amps - the company brings an exciting Art Deco flourish to the proceedings. Featuring finely figured woods and curvaceous lines, the company''s top-of-the-line Empyrean and Seraph combos are completely custom-built and promise to be spouse approved.
The Empyrean (em-puh-ree-uh-n) stands as the company''s flagship model, and for good reason. The 2x12 combo has an imposing, broad shouldered frame, standing 29” high and 27” wide; at the top of three gradually shrinking sections, the amp features a stylized Art Deco explosion of tube-generated heat, giving the entire thing a Dick Tracey meets Palm Beach feel. The Empyrean is available in a variety of exotic woods and striking veneers – I suspect one will feel as if they are buying a fine piece of furniture. Our review model featured nothing less than a cabinet constructed with quilted walnut and maple veneers. The front panel, made of laser-etched cream pearloid, keeps things simple, running three knobs – Volume, Treble and Bass – horizontally across its face. Two 12” Weber 50-watt ceramic speakers sit diminutively inside the cabinet. At 45 pounds, the Empyrean features geometric, wooden handles at its side, which actually functioned better than I anticipated; the combo felt manageable and easy to tote.
The finishing work on the Archetype Series is fairly stunning – the joinery work is uniformly great, and each amp comes with a crushed velvet cover – which makes you scratch your head over some of the minor oddities you find. The Seraph’s power switch sits all the way near the bottom of the amp’s rear panel, hiding underneath the power cord, requiring you to reach over the amp and grope around awkwardly when you’re done playing. While this may be a minor complaint, I tend to (unknowingly) do things like that with an eight pound guitar hanging from my neck. With so much of this amp comprised of premium hardwoods, it frequently made me nervous to hit the switch.
Also of note was the Seraph’s front panel design. Vertically positioned, the top knob is Bass, followed by Treble and finally Volume. It would have been nice to have the Volume knob first, as that’s where I tend to do most of my tweaking [Trillium responds that they are limited to one chassis for now, although it may be addressed in future models]. One of the Seraph’s front panel knobs was missing; two of the knobs on the Empyrean were looser than I would have liked. None of these points were big – nothing that couldn’t be fixed or ignored – but it did make me wonder how they slipped through the design process unnoticed.
Form Meets Function
So it’s safe to say that these amps could easily blend into an otherwise off-limits room. But with seven, single-ended, Class A watts, you’ll want to play these as well. The heart of the Archetype Series lies in the M1-7 amplifier, designed and built by audio/electrical engineer, Art Nace, in Mesa, Arizona. Billed by the company as, “more efficient than any other single-ended, Class A amplifier available,” the amplifier incorporates a proprietary Transflux Power Module (TFPM), which offers an audiophile-quality signal-to-noise ratio of -65 dB. And while I was initially skeptical of the claims (as it tends to happen in this job), after days of playing, I do have to admit that this is one of the quietest amplifiers I’ve played through. Even with my guitar and the amp set at full tilt, removing my hands from the strings rewarded me with a lot of nothing – no hum, no hiss. Only with all of the knobs cranked to the right, including those in the amps’ EQ sections, was there the hint of audible buzz.
The Empyrean shipped with a JJElectronic 6L6 GC inside, while the Seraph featured a 6V6 power section, similarly equipped by JJ-Electronic; both amps featured a single ECC83 tube in the preamp. The amps are exceptionally flexible, capable of hosting a variety of preamp (12AT7, 5751, ECC83 and 12AX7s) and power tubes (6L6, 6V6 and KT66s). Changing the tubes has a substantial effect on the character, response and headroom of each amp. Both models shipped with alternate tubes in packages enthusiastically marked, “Try me!” – more on this in a moment.
While some players might find the amp’s “quick sagless response,” to be a little much at times – with hot single-coils and humbuckers, notes had a noticeably aggressive attack to them – players looking for articulation will find it here in spades. With a cutting top-end, the Empyrean would be suitable for studio work requiring a lot of top-end shimmer and bite. Rhythm playing could get a little stiff at times, but pushing the 6L6s into saturation fattened things out nicely and gave the amp a little more soul. I spent
the most time playing around with a neck-mounted P-90 on a Les Paul; the warm midrange of the pickup complimented the amp’s high-end character well.
Moving to the Seraph was something of a revelation; after playing on the 6L6-equipped Empyrean for more than a few hours, the 6V6 tubes brought a new fatness to the Archetype series. The new tubes helped eliminate some of the excessive bite that was present in the Empyrean, although I still initially struggled to tame the highs when I plugged in the Esquire. The 6V6s retained some of that crystalline edge, but there was a lot more midrange richness to be found. Pushing the amp into overdrive with a combination of P-90s and humbuckers rewarded me with beef; of course, at seven watts, there’s nothing crazy here, but roots rockers will definitely fall in love with the Seraph’s organic disposition.
In fact, I liked the sound of the 6V6s so much that I plugged one of the extra tubes into the Empyrean. It seemed like the right move; there was more body to the sound, it broke up sooner and had a completely different air surrounding it.There was messiness, an organic disorganization in the sound when cranked; the bottom-end loosened up and the “sagless” stiffness I had felt before receded somewhat into the background – perfect for the first few bars of “Last Dance With Mary Jane.” It felt entirely more rock n’ roll and provided an intriguing – and strangely appropriate – juxtaposition to the amp’s finely finished exterior.
The Final Mojo
If you’re seriously looking at Trillium’s Archetype Series, you likely have money to spend, a relentless desire to set yourself apart from everyone else or a spouse with an ultimatum. Either of these amps will fit the bill nicely, giving you a furniture-grade look and a cool, low-noise circuit to match. And if you don’t have five grand to blow on a piece of gear, the company’s Signature and Standard series will allow you to get your hands on some equally good-looking cabinetry and the same M1-7 amplifier design. Either way, you might finally get to keep an amp in the house.
you’re looking for a slick combination of exotic wood cabinetry and crystalline tone
it means dipping into the college fund
MSRP Empyrean starting at $6490 Seraph starting at $5790 - Trillium Amplifier Company - trilliumamps.com
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