Matchless'' Avalon incorporates partial PC-board construction for more affordable boutique sound
At the beginning of the boutique amp boom
in the late 1980s and early ’90s, one of the
biggest names being bandied about was
Matchless. Original designers Rick Perotta,
Chris Perotta, and company co-founder Mark
Sampson were huge Beatles fans, and that
jangly AC30 sound drove them to start analyzing
and repairing vintage Voxes imported
from the UK. Eventually, they took the next
logical step and began building handwired,
roadworthy interpretations of the iconic AC30.
Sampson, Rick Perotta, and John Jorgenson
(who would later go on to gain acclaim for
his work with Will Ray and Jerry Donahue in
the Hellecasters) came up with the company’s
most famous designs—the now-legendary
DC30, Chieftain, and Lightning—which became
staples for artists as diverse as Jimmie
Vaughan, Hank Marvin, Alex Lifeson, and Toad
the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips.
But by 1998, the company had serious financial troubles and had to close shop. Amp nuts everywhere lamented Matchless’ demise and the original amps skyrocketed in value overnight. Just prior to Matchless MK I’s implosion, they hit on an idea that might have saved the company, given time. The idea: offer more affordable amps that incorporate the same quality components as other Matchless models, but in a circuit with limited PC-board construction, channel switching, and footswitchable reverb.
So, they gave it a whirl. The Superliner series was supposed to include three models, but only the 40-watt, EL34-powered Starliner Reverb 2x12 and the 15-watt, EL84-powered Skyliner Reverb 2x10 ever got off the ground—and in extremely limited numbers. According to Phil Jamison—who became Matchless’ production manager in 1994 and helped get the company back on its feet in 2000—fewer than 10 Starliner and Skyliner amps were produced, and several of them were returned due to faulty operation.
For more than a decade now, Jamison and current owner Geoff Emery have kept Matchless going steady and strong by offering most of the original amp designs and coming up with innovative new models for a wider array of players—including those with high-gain needs. They also recently began offering more affordable amps, first the EL84-powered Avalon 30 and now the EL34-powered Avalon 35, that incorporate top-shelf components in a design with partial PC-board construction. It’s a move many boutique builders have made since the beginning of the recession.
Consumer products in general often have names that convey a gross inflation of their true worth, and guitar gear is no different. But sometimes those lofty-sounding names aren’t far from the mark. Look up “Avalon” and you’ll discover that, in Arthurian legend, it was the island where King Arthur’s magical sword, Excalibur, was forged. I don’t know if that’s what Matchless was going for, but I like the possible comparisons the name suggests.
For a lot of players, acquiring the Avalon 35—which retails at $2629 (with reverb, $2599 without)—isn’t going to be as easy as lifting the amp from an enchanted stone, but compared to the similarly featured SC-30 combo, it’s a relative steal. Likewise, despite having a feature set that’s rather primitive by modern standards, the amp isn’t without its magic. Inside, the Avalon combines two EL34s, five 12AX7s (three for the preamp, two for the reverb), a 5AR4 tube rectifier, and the same quality components used in other Matchless amps—including robust transformers— in a class-A, cathode-biased hybrid circuit that uses both point-to-point, turret-style construction, and cost-cutting PC-board elements. The front panel features Hi and Lo instrument inputs, Standby and On/Off rocker switches, and six “chicken-head” knobs—Volume, Bass, Treble, Cut, Master Push/Pull, and Reverb. Like the front panel, the rear panel is simple and intuitive. It features jacks for an extension cabinet and the built-in 30-watt Celestion G12H speaker, a three-position Impedance selector, jacks for the series effects loop and optional reverb footswitch, a fuse receptacle, and a standard IEC power-cord receptacle.
The amp weighs a hefty 62 lbs. and measures 21 ¼" W x 23 ¼" H x 11 ¼" D. My construction niggles are very minor. First, though the Avalon’s dimensions are comparable to the original SC-30 1x12 combo, the unusual height may be an awkward schlep for shorter players, who may have difficulty carrying it straigh-tarmed without bumping or dragging it on the ground. Second, though there are labels above the front-panel controls, they’re hard to read without squatting. Otherwise, there’s almost nothing to fault in the Avalon’s construction. The black covering is virtually flawless, the silver piping is cleanly cut and applied, and the salt-and-pepper grillcloth looks fantastic. And let’s not forget the badass rear-lit logo—one of the most iconic looks in all of ampdom.
The Matchless Avalon 35 features a hybrid circuit with both PC-board-mounted components and point-to-point-wired, chassis-mounted tube sockets and controls.
Wielding the Blade
I tested the Avalon with a nice variety of guitars, including a ’60s Strat reissue with Custom Shop Fat ’50s pickups, a PRS Ted McCarty DC 245 with 57/08 humbuckers, a Schecter Ultra III with splittable mini-humbuckers, and a Gretsch G6118T-LTV with TV Jones Classics. With each axe, the tones were dynamic, detailed, and varied. The key to the variety is the Master Push/Pull knob, which enables you to go from needling AC30 glory to higher-gain, Marshall plexi-type sounds at less problematic volumes. For the former, you’ll want Master Push/Pull disengaged (pushed in) so you can experience the open, airy feel that comes when you let the Volume knob control both gain and output. For rock and hard-rock sounds, turn Master Push/ Pull to a lower setting (so you don’t get blasted in the face) and crank Volume toward its upper regions for rich distortion. As with most master-volume amps, this convenient feature is very practical, though it slightly darkens the timbres and decreases some of the to-die-for dynamics. With Volume and Master Push/Pull nearing their limits, things can get splatty and fizzy, but the same can be said of a lot of classic amps.
The Avalon’s EQ is remarkably interactive, too. As with classic Vox and Matchless circuits, Cut shaves off high-end frequencies as you turn it clockwise. When it’s completely counterclockwise, you get those glassy sounds made famous by the Who and the Fab Four. With it maxed, you get a thick, scooped-out tone that could accommodate jazz cats or rock guys looking for notched mids. While jazz cats won’t be the first to gravitate to an amp like the Avalon—and the same probably goes for hardcore rockabilly guys—I got fat, neck-pickup jazz tones and bristling rockabilly bombast with the Gretsch.
The Treble and Bass knobs work like they do on other amps, and the latter in particular has much more impact than many other tube amps. Dime it, and you get more mids for a honkier sound—but in a musical, absolutely usable way. Bring it back a bit, say, to three or four o’clock, and you get muscular, in-your-face tones. My playing runs the gamut from heavy-handed rock/rockabilly riffing and chording to a lot of hybrid picking, so I eventually settled on Volume at two or two-thirty, Master Push/Pull off, Bass at two o’clock, Treble dimed, Cut off, and Reverb—a three-spring unit that adds nice dimension but less depth than I’d hoped—at two o’clock. This let me get the broadest array of tones, from all-out brashness and crystalline detail to full, rounded notes by going from a heavy pick attack to curling the plectrum under my index finger and strumming with my thumb. With the Strat, I got deliciously detailed quackiness in the in-between positions—perfect for Southern rock flavors or funky chording like in Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” With the Schecter, I got raw, in-your-face indie-rock sounds using the bridge pickup. The PRS yielded everything from Zeppelin-esque PAF sounds to fat neck-pickup tones that would make SRV proud.
The Final Mojo
Like a lot of aficionados of high-end anything, guitarists can get pretty hung up on certain details before they’ve even tried a product. They might dismiss an amp for even minimal PC-board construction or because it wasn’t designed during a certain period of the company’s history. There’s a kernel of wisdom in some arguments over such minutia, because the longer you play, the more you realize your sound is the sum of all the little things—from your pick gauge to how hard you fret and what kind of tubes are in your amp. But we all know such obsession can be crippling, too. The trick is to do your homework and find great equipment, and then focus more on your playing and your ear than on your gear. That’s what most of our heroes did (or do). And that’s why I really dig the new Matchless Avalon 35. It offers an excellent balance of flexibility, durability, and quality tone.
you revel in bristling, dynamic EL34 tones and simplified flexibililty.
you want more sophisticated control of surf-able reverb.
Street $2500 - Matchless Amplifiers - matchlessamplifiers.com