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SWR Headlite and Amplite Bass Amp Reviews

SWR''s micro bass amps maintain that SWR sound in a portable package.

Certain iconic bass amps are known for their signature sounds that astute bassists can tell apart the same way a guitar-amp gourmet can tell a Fender from a Marshall while blindfolded. Ampeg equals warm and aggressive. Gallien-Krueger tends toward an edgy bite. SWR is known for its modern, hi-fi sounds defined by clear highs, deep lows, and scooped mids.

Over the years, I’ve owned two classic SWR amps, the Bass 350 and the SM-400. Both provided high-fidelity, authoritative tones. So when I received the Headlite and Amplite heads, my first question was, would these new designs capture the trademark SWR sound?

The quick answer is yes. And more. Let’s look at some of the details.

Headlite: The Tiny Amp with Full-Sized Features
Nearly every major bass amp company has come up with a mini rig. SWR may be fashionably late to the party, but they’ve put this extra time to good use. Though it’s tiny, the Headlite remains true to both the SWR sound and feature set. I was amazed at how SWR managed to sneak a 3-band EQ (with adjustable frequency centers), a compressor, an enhanced Aural Enhancer, an effects blend, and an XLR direct out (with adjustable output level, pre/post selection, and ground lift) into an 8.5" x 9.75" package that weighs less than 4 pounds. The Headlite even sports a 12AX7 tube, just like its bigger siblings.

Download Example 1
Headlite - Aural Enhancer
The Headlite offers another of my favorite features—a front-panel mute switch connected to a rear-panel tuner out (although it’s labeled “Direct Out”). The mute also cuts off the XLR direct out, so you’re not tuning into the house sound system. A light on the front panel serves double-duty, flashing yellow when the compressor engages and blinking red when the input clips. A power-amp clip light indicates when the amp is hitting its maximum level. In fact, the front panel is jampacked with lights—six lights and four colors (red, yellow, blue, green) in all.

As you might expect, shoehorning all these features into such a diminutive package necessitates a few trade-offs. For example, many of the controls use a knob-in-knob design. For example, a tone knob’s inner ring cuts or boosts a frequency band, which is set by the knob’s outer ring. Likewise, another knob has FX Blend on the outside, and Comp (compressor level) on the inside. Although a careful bassist would have no problem with the Headlite’s durability, I didn’t feel it would be as sturdy as a typical full-sized rig.

Upon first glance, the other question most bassists would have about the Headlite is whether there’s enough power in this tiny box. It all depends. The amp is rated at 400 watts RMS into 4 ohms. The manual doesn’t spec 8-ohm output, but typically that would be about 250 watts. Because the amp doesn’t go down to 2 ohms, you can plan on using one 4-ohm cab or two 8-ohm cabs to hit maximum power. Given the right cabs— which would need to provide sufficient cone area and greater than 100 dB efficiency—the Headlite should be able to keep up with most bands playing at moderate volumes.

Headlite Tones: Looks Little, Sounds Big
To test the Headlite, I plugged in my G&L L-2500, a 5-stringer with plenty of highs, lows, and punch. To match the Headlite’s tiny size, I hooked it up to my very efficient, 4-ohm Euphonic Audio Wizzy 12 cab. SWR has its own Golight cabs, including a 4x10, a 1x15, and a 2x10. These cabs are efficient (105 dB) and should mate well with the Headlite, but watch the impedance because some are 4 ohm while others spec at 8 ohm.

I set the Aural Enhancer to the “classic” 200 Hz center, dialed it to the 1 o’clock position, and left the three EQ knobs on their detented flat settings. (Thank goodness for those detents—the tiny black indicator dots on the knobs are all but invisible unless they’re right in your face.) Happily, this setting yielded the classic SWR sound with a solid punch to each note. Pushing the Enhancer’s shift button provided a warmer version of the same sound, with the scoop center moved up to 600Hz. Pressing the Enhancer’s knob defeats its function, providing a flat-EQ sound suitable for acoustic instruments. Engaging this button to remove the Enhancer’s deep bottom and crisp edge that worked so well for electric bass, I played an Azola BugBass electric upright through the Headlite and was rewarded with a full, warm sound. I should add that the Headlite’s compressor did a good job of leveling out the sound without totally squashing it.

Amplite: The Headlite As a One-Knob Wonder
SWR’s new Amplite delivers the Headlite’s power amp without all the additional controls and features. It has just one knob on the front that adjusts—you guessed it—the amp’s volume level. The only other action on the Amplite’s front panel is a set of power level indicators that show when you’re getting all the output the Amplite has to give. Poking around the back of the Amplite, I found a pair of Speakon connection jacks, a combo ¼"/XLR input jack and a pass-though output jack for sending the same signal to additional amps.

I tried an Aguilar Tone Hammer preamp pedal straight into the Amplite and its signal easily drove the Amplite. I also ran the Preamp Out from the Headlite into the Amplite, connected a 4-ohm speaker cab to each unit, and used the Headlite’s Master knob to adjust the volume of both devices. Whether slaving with the Headlite or powering a separate preamp, the Amplite is a handy amp to keep around for an extra bit of oomph.

The Final Mojo
The Headlite and Amplite came in one thickly padded, divided bag with plenty of room for speaker and power cables. I thought it ironic that these two tiny amps ship with a 6', 12-gauge speaker cable and a long, heavy power cord. Combined, they weigh nearly as much as the Amplite itself. For my own micro amps, I carry a 2', 16-gauge speaker cable that gets the job done just fine.

I do have a few quibbles. One is that the knob indicator dots are nearly invisible. Another is that these two amps have alwayson fans. Although they’re not loud, they are audible and might knock the Headlite out of contention for recording studio or home practice if you’re fussy. Neither of my tiny amps with similar power specs has a fan, and a buddy’s micro amp has a heat-sensitive fan that only comes on when it’s needed. SWR might consider changing the fan design to boost the Headlite’s versatility. Finally, the feet on these amps are made of a fairly hard material. As a result, the amp may slide while you’re making adjustments.

In all, the Headlite captures SWR’s signature tone and packs a lot of features into an incredibly small package. An optional footswitch includes muting, effects-loop switching, and a tuner to make the device even more convenient. So if you’re after a tiny amp that works well with electric bass, the Headlite (and its Amplite sibling) might be just the answer.
Buy if...
you need a versatile micro bass amp and you can get the job done with 400 watts at 4 ohms.
Skip if...
you play loud, loud, loud—or soft enough that you’d notice the internal fan—or you’re rough on your gear.

Street: Headlite $700, Amplite $550 - SWR Sound -