The EL84-powered TubeMeister 18 marks an interesting deviation from the company’s usual medium-to high-wattage fare.
From cars to cameras, Germans have a well-deserved reputation for building good stuff. So it’s natural that the boutique guitar and gear trade flourishes in Teutonic regions. Hughes & Kettner was one of the first German boutique brands to really thrive. And since the company was founded in 1984, its gear has been used by such big-name players as Alex Lifeson, Allan Holdsworth, and Tony MacAlpine.
The EL84-powered TubeMeister 18 marks an interesting deviation from the company’s usual medium-to high-wattage fare. It’s built with studio musicians and low-powered tube-amp lovers in mind. But it also packs an impressive array of bells and whistles more typical of its bigger brothers.
At just 11 pounds, the brick-shaped TubeMeister 18 fits in a padded carrying case that made it a breeze to transport the amp between the Premier Guitar offices and my practice space. When you turn it on, its Plexiglas faceplate glows with the same blue hue seen on the company’s Triamp, Puretone, and Duotone heads.
The front panel features controls for Clean and Lead channels, which are switchable via a Channel Select switch or an optional footswitch. Both channels share a 3-band EQ, though each has its own Master and Gain controls. To kick in even more gain and volume, you can select the Lead Boost feature from either the front panel or the footswitch.
Unlike most amps, many of the TubeMeister’s tone-shaping controls are on the back panel: Next to the series effects loop and footswitch jack is a specially designed version of the company’s famed Red Box direct output circuit—the cabinet-emulating DI box that put H&K on the map—and a Power Soak knob. While the TubeMeister’s DI Out is always available to run out to a mixing desk, the Power Soak reduces maximum wattage down from 18 watts to 5 or a single watt.
One of the coolest features of the TubeMeister 18 is its ability to keep power tubes at optimum voltage levels. This is accomplished with the amp’s internal Tube Safety Control (TSC ) circuit. According to Hughes & Kettner, this feature automatically and continuously adjusts power-tube bias to prevent bias drift. On the back panel, a set of LEDs indicates power-tube status. When the LEDs are off, the tubes are operating at optimum bias levels. If one LED flashes and another stays on, the tube corresponding to the flashing LED is generating too much voltage and needs to be replaced, while the other is shut off but doesn’t need to be replaced. If one LED is on for more than a few minutes, this indicates the tube doesn’t produce enough voltage and needs to be replaced. These same LEDs also work with a tube-biasing circuit that’s activated by inserting a guitar pick into the slot next to them. Handy stuff!
This blue wonder packs an awful lot of punch for such a tiny amplifier. Unlike many small-wattage amps that tend to emphasize midrange frequencies, the TubeMeister 18 covers crystal-clear cleans, British-infused rhythm crunch, and heavy molten leads. But while it travels each of these tone territories quite well, careful use of the controls, proper choice of cabinet, and of course, the proper guitar are all key to getting the most out of this very capable amp. In my initial tests, I routed the head to an Eminence-equipped Epiphone Valve Junior 1x12 cab and plugged in a Fender American Special Telecaster.
Flipping to the neck pickup and spanking out a few open chords on the Clean channel at full power gave me a pretty spectacular tone right off the bat—with a glistening sheen on the high end and a lot of detail in the attack. And it lent surprising bite to the stock Tele neck pickup, which typically has a pretty subdued, rounded tone. The Clean channel sounded crisp and clear up to about 3 o’clock on the Gain and Volume controls. Hitting the strings hard at this point revealed a fair amount of give in the lows, but I also found that lighter picking recaptured some of the articulate, piano-like highs that were more prevalent when Gain was around 10 o’clock.
Switching to the Tele’s bridge pickup brought out an entirely different beast— one that roared with thick overdrive and railed with slicing harmonics. The tight, hi-fi-ish Hughes & Kettner voicing was still there, but there was also a fierce growl that was perfect for classic-rock rhythm work. I was particularly impressed with the amp’s responsiveness to guitar volume-knob tweaks—rolling off the volume a touch gave me more of a vintage, bouncy vibe. And it’s very cool to be able to move between a big, powerful clean tone to a snarling bark by simply flipping the pickup switch.
The TubeMeister’s Lead channel was impressive, too—there’s enough gain on tap for everything from blues to hard rock and metal. AC/DC and Mountain riffs had the same tight voicing and articulate highs that the clean channel exhibited, only with a creamy distorted foundation. Kicking in the Lead Boost pushed the amp into headbanger territory. The most impressive aspect of this channel—with and without the Lead Boost engaged—was how well it reacted to my picking technique. Played with a more fluid, lax style, the notes were bouncier and lows and mids had more give, while tighter, more percussive picking firmed things up considerably— coaxing a perfect thrash tone that kept up with furious triplets and quick power-chord riffing.
To hear how this little blue-eyed devil would push a 4x12 cab, I routed it to an Emperor 4x12 with Weber C1265 speakers and plugged in a 1978 Greco GC-700 Les Paul clone. With this setup, the TubeMeister took on a more massive character but with the same balanced, high-fidelity tone. However, while that treble clarity worked really well with the smaller Epi cab, the highs bordered on harsh with the Emperor. Luckily, this was easily remedied with the guitar’s Tone knob and moderated Treble settings on the amp—although some of the amp’s trademark detail was also sacrificed in the process. In the end, I found that the TubeMeister sounded more dimensional with the Epi cab’s single speaker than with the Emperor’s speaker complement.
Hughes & Kettner did a fantastic job designing and building the TubeMeister 18. It serves up great tones in a portable package that’s very accessibly priced. It has a high-fidelity tinge that’s typical of many other Hughes & Kettner amps— which means it won’t replace or replicate the unique voices of a vintage Fender or Marshall—but in terms of quality, flexibility, and diversity of tones, it’s one of the best small-wattage amps out there.
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Street $599 - Hughes & Kettner - hughes-and-kettner.com