A potent amp of many personalities—from blackface to brawny high gain.
Paul Reed Smith started building amps in 2009, although it happened through more serendipitous circumstances than you might suspect. Smith met amp designer Doug Sewell at the Dallas Guitar Show, where their respective booths were back to back, and after trying Sewell’s offerings Smith was so impressed that he bought every amp Sewell brought to the show. Before long, Sewell was relocating to Maryland to spearhead PRS’ amp division. PRS amps have since become a hot ticket, and are now a staple in the rigs of artists including Derek Trucks, David Grissom, and Warren Haynes.
The relatively affordable Asia-built Sonzera line are the newest members of the PRS amp stable. It includes a 50-watt head or combo, and a 20-watt combo. For this review, I tested the two-channel 50-watt combo, which comes equipped with one 70-watt, 12" Celestion V-Type speaker, a JJ ECC835 and three 12AX7AC5 HG tubes in the preamp section, and two EL34s in the power section. (The 20-watt combo features two 6L6 power tubes, rather than EL34s).
Clean and Mean
Each channel on the Sonzera has an independent set of controls for reverb, bass, mid, and treble. The clean channel has its own master and volume controls, while the gain channel has independent level and drive knobs. The two channels share a presence control. Sonzera comes with a footswitch for channel switching and activating the reverb, and there’s a series effects loop in the back for patching in time-based effects.
I tested the Sonzera with an Ernie Ball Music Man Axis Sport and a Fender Stratocaster. And on the amp’s clean channel, it’s easy to hear a strong blackface vibe. That’s no small coincidence. PRS says Sewell’s ideal clean sound is built on elements of Eric Johnson’s stereo Twin Reverbs and Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Vibroverbs. And, in fact, in his pre-PRS days, Sewell built an amp called the Texaverb designed around that formula. The Sonzera’s clean tones sound like direct descendants of that idea: bold, beautiful, and multi-dimensional with lots of headroom.
The gain channel also provides a path to cool, cleanish tones. If I set the level and all EQ knobs around noon, with the drive knob set to approximately 7:30, I got a beefy clean sound that was excellent for dark, woody, neck-pickup jazz lines (on a solidbody no less) and pop-rock arpeggio chords with ringing open strings. (The latter sounded especially excellent with the bright switch activated.)
The Sonzera is very touch sensitive, and a variety of sounds are possible just by varying the force of your pick attack—even in high-gain mode. With a light touch, arpeggiated chords sounded atmospheric and rich. With a heavy-handed pick attack the same arpeggios morphed into gritty, Sunny Day Real Estate-style sounds. Strummed chords went from almost-pristine clean, with the neck pickup engaged and the guitar volume notched back a hair, to light crunch when I used the bridge pickup, maximum guitar volume, and an aggressive attack. And while the Sonzera is a two-channel amp, guitarists accustomed to using guitar volume to tailor their gain may have a field day with the new PRS before they ever get around to using the two-switch capabilities.
Big and Beastly
Speaking of gain, the Sonzera puts a ton at your disposal. Setting the drive knob to 9 o’clock delivers quintessential British-rock crunch. Even at this conservative setting, the Sonzera can sound beastly, and simple open-A-string chugs alternating against D-and-G-string dyads sounded massive. Moving the drive knob past noon yields sounds reminiscent of a circa-’80s modded Marshall. At near maximum drive levels, the Sonzera produces what can fairly be called a wall of gain. But what astonished me was the note definition that remains at these gain levels. Whether I played complex chord voicings that I wouldn’t dare play on other hyper-juiced amps or detuned 16th-note riffs, the Sonzera stayed articulate and responsive.
The Sonzera shines as a blues machine, too. With my Stratocaster in hand and the gain around 11 o’clock, presence at 1 o'clock, bass at 11 o'clock, mid at 9 o'clock, treble at 2 o'clock, and the bright switch on, I was deep into SRV tone realms. Bright, stinging (but never piercing) single-note licks and chordal riffs a la “The Wind Cries Mary” had a glassy snap that will make blues lovers drool.
It’s worth noting the payoff that comes from having independent reverb controls on each channel. I set up the clean channel with a ton of reverb to get a nice, lush pad of sound and set up my gain channel with negligible reverb so I could play sharp, percussive, and un-muddied riffs. With a shared reverb, the same scenario would require two pedal switches. This more-streamlined approach enables fast, dramatic shifts.
Though it looks understated, Sonzera delivers a wide range of killer sounds. It can cover everything from pop to blues to math-metal with ease. That Sonzera delivers this many sounds at around 900 bucks is equally impressive.