A mainstay rock ‘n’ roll amplifier maker delivers an impressive acoustic surprise.
Hughes & Kettner has thrived as an amp builder for three decades, making some landmark amps along the way, from the hybrid ATS series to 1995’s 13-tube, 6-channel TriAmp Mark 3 to the zenTera modeling amp from 2000.
While Hughes & Kettner has always delivered the goods for electric players (particularly those geared toward high-gain shredding), the German company didn’t offer much to the acoustic player until the new Era 1, a small but powerful, 250-watt amp that could be a formidable contender in a tough category where natural sound is everything.
Tiny Tower of Power
Cosmetically speaking, the Era 1 is also a departure for Hughes & Kettner. The company’s signature look these days is a clear acrylic front panel that glows blue when the amp is fired up. But the Era 1 is distinctly less flashy and comes in a modest wooden enclosure that calls to mind an old home-speaker cabinet. (It’s also available in black vinyl.)
Hughes & Kettner definitely kept downsizing trends in mind when designing the Era 1. At about 13" x 11" x 11" and just a hair over 20 pounds, it’s very compact and portable. With the help of acoustic-amp pioneer Michael Eisenmann, one of the minds behind AER amps, Hughes & Kettner managed to cram a lot of useful features into the little Era 1. They also figured out how to generate a lot of volume and headroom from the 8” speaker and 1” tweeter that make up the speaker compliment.
The past few decades have seen major leaps forward in acoustic amplification. You can even find fairly natural sounding amps at affordable prices these days. But as high as the bar is set, I was struck right away by how lifelike the Era 1 sounds. At times it sounded so natural that I almost didn’t feel like I was using an amp at all, but a really loud acoustic guitar alive with pretty overtones and detail. And I do mean loud: The amp is distinctly powerful—with acres of headroom to spare.
The top-mounted panel features controls for three channels. The first two have ideal control sets. Each has a high-resolution mic/instrument input, located on the rear panel. And though the EQ controls are simple—just bass, mid, and treble—they offer more than enough tone-shaping flexibility. The third channel has a single volume knob for auxiliary in and a mini jack for plugging in a playback device. A fourth channel, also on the rear panel, doubles as an effects loop.
The EQ mode button that appears on channel 1 and 2 is a thoughtful feature, which activates a preset for steel-string or nylon-string guitar. This came in handy when I switched from my Breedlove to a Taylor Academy nylon-string, which sounded a hint more round and dulcet when the button was engaged to nylon mode.
The Era 1’s effects cover a broad swath of sonic territory. Among the 16 total effect presets, there are five different reverb types, four delays, chorus, and flanger—all of which are controllable with a single effects volume knob. And though you don’t have multiple parameter adjustments for each effect, the variation in the presets provides more tone options and control than your average acoustic amp. The long delay, for example, can be set between 170 and 800 ms, while the short delay ranges between 20 and 170 ms.
All of the effects sound terrific. Slow, gentle fingerpicking in DADGAD tuning sounded great with the reverb “church” effect engaged, creating a lush wall of sound. The “flanger + reverb” works well for vibey modal solos. And even purists should find use for the more subtle effects, like “reverb room dark,” when the effects volume is set relatively low.
The outputs provide flexibility to handle various gigging needs. The options include a DI out for the first and second channels (which can be routed before or after the EQ). There are also 1/4" and phone outs, and an optical S/PDIF Toslink out that’s handy for digital recording purposes.
The Era 1’s range of potential applications and compact size are enough to recommend it for any gigging acoustic guitarist. But its realistic, full-bodied tone at any volume level—to say nothing of its equally impressive digital effects—make it one of the best options out there, regardless of your playing style. If you’re inclined to be biased by the heavy rock associations with the brand, you’d be wise to re-think your preconceptions.
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