Fight Club: 50 Watt Guitar Amp Battle Royale

In my quest to find the perfect 50 watt guitar amp, I recently took the opportunity to test drive four different amp heads: the Marshall DSL50, Splawn Competition, Egnater Renegade, and Marshall JVM205H. I played them through a variety of 2x12 and 4x12 cabs, with a variety of Celestion and WGS speakers. I also used a variety of humbucking and single coil guitars in arriving at my opinions. Here are my non-scientific findings:

Marshall DSL50
Features: 4
The DSL's features are the worst of the bunch. It has two channels, Red and Green, but they share an EQ that never sounds right on both channels at the same time. Dial down the bass on the Green channel and the Red sounds anemic. Dial up the bass for the Red channel and the Green becomes booming and flubby. Each channel also has two "modes", but as with the channels it's impossible to switch between them without adjusting volumes and EQ settings. In a live situation that makes them unusable.

Sound: 8
The best sound on the DSL is the "Crunch" mode of the green channel. It is AC/DC to the bone. With an overdrive pedal in front of it, it can easily produce old-school hard rock and metal tones. The clean tone is acceptable. "Gain 1" of the red channel is a nice modern high gain tone, but can be a little anemic sounding without some EQ tweaks. "Gain 2" has more gain than I ever want or need. Overall the DSL provides a good range of Marshall tones...that unfortunately won't play nice with each other without constantly tweaking the single EQ they all share in common. The good news is that it works really well with pedals. Overdrives and distortion pedals can be used to flavor your sound without any trouble. Phasers and wahs are nice and chewy, and delays sound great in front or in the effects loop. The Marshall was also the least compressed of the bunch, and cleaned up the best when rolling back the guitar's volume knob.

I found the best use for me was to dial in the "Crunch" mode of the green channel. From there I could roll back the guitar's volume for clean-ish tones, kick on an OD pedal for high gain tones, and then us OD1 of the red channel for a solo boost.

Quality: 6
The DSL is what I call "modern Marshall" quality, i.e. not as good as the amps they made up to about the mid '80's. Corners have been cut to keep the cost down and make them easier to mass produce. The nuts are all plastic. It's PCB construction. The circuit is fairly quiet, but there is a decent amount of physical noise when you turn it on...from the transformers I guess. It sounds like a nuclear reactor power up. You can almost feel yourself being sterilized.

Splawn Competition
Features: 8
The Competition's features are more well thought out. It only has one channel (it's big brother the Quickrod has two), but the channel has three "gears". To put it simply they are: high gain, more high gain, and lots more high gain. It also has an adjustable solo boost; a fantastic feature that works really well for adding more volume for solos. All three "gears", an extra "mode", and the solo boost are accessible via a rugged footswitch. The "mode" is only accessible via the footswitch, and to be honest I don't know exactly what's happening when you activate it, although it seems to add a bit more high end. In addition, the effects loop is volume-adjustable and essentially acts like a built-in attenuator. Awesome for cranking the master volume to get the power tubes working, while maintaining a reasonable output volume! It is also switchable between 50 and 25 watts via a Pentode/Triode switch. It's a really great set of features, but I do have to say the way the footswitch operates is very confusing, changing based on which of the "gears" is selected on the amp, and it never felt very intuitive to me.

Sound: 5
The Splawn is a hard rock amp, period. It doesn't do clean, or subtle shades of overdrive. It does one thing: modern sounding, bright high gain. The various "gears" and "modes" it boasts are all minor variations of bright high gain. At the same time it is really bassy, almost too much so. I had to keep the bass down around 4 most of the time. Search as I might I just couldn't dial in the classic mid-rangey roar that I like to hear. It was always thick and sizzly, with an "odd" sounding mid-range that just never seemed to cut in a live band situation. It's sound is compressed, and didn't clean up well with my guitar's volume knob. It didn't do well with my pedal board either; didn't sound right with my delay or phaser. Putting an overdrive pedal in front of it is like lighting a birthday candle with a blow torch.

Quality: 10
The high quality components in the Splawn evidence themselves in its almost eerie ability to stay dead quiet. There is almost no physical or signal noise to speak of. Every component in this amp is top-notch. It is a bullet proof musical tool built to never break down. End of story.

Egnater Renegade
Features: 10
The Renegade is the most feature-rich and well thought out of the bunch. It has two channels: clean and dirty. Each channels has its own EQ and Reverb settings. Each channel is also switchable between 18 and 65 watts, and has a "tube blend" feature that lets you morph between EL34 and 6L6 power tubes. So in other words, one possibility is to have the clean channel set to use 6L6 tubes at 65 watts for a punchy tone and plenty of clean headroom, and the dirty channel set to use EL34's at 18 watts for maximum bark and breakup. Cool! Like the Splawn it features an adjustable solo boost (though it's a bit touchy to get dialed in just right). The footswitch architecture is a thing of beauty. Of course it allows you to switch between channels and hit the solo boost, but it also allows you to switch the reverb and effects loop on and off, and make them assignable per channel. For example: you have a chorus in the effects loop that you only want to hear on the clean channel. Easy: flip the switch near the "Effects Loop" button on the footswitch to "Clean", and the effects loop will only be active when the clean channel is engaged. Step in the dirty channel and the effects loop is muted automatically. The Reverb button works the same way. It's genius, I tell you! (And very intuitive.)

Sound: 5
The Egnater lacks the lows and highs of both the Marshalls and the Splawn. It has a very mid-focused tone that some might even call boxy. This makes it less fun to play alone, but in a band it sounds better. The frequency range it inhabits helps it cut through the mix. I also found that to sound its best this amp really benefits from a 15 or 20 minute warm-up period. The Renegade was quite compressed as well. After a couple weeks I found its sound almost "papery" and annoying. Despite its great effects loop and switching options I could never get it to sound quite right with my pedals either.

A few more observations: The gain channel was frustrating. A certain part of low end EQ seems inextricably tied to the gain circuit. There is not enough low end until you turn the distortion up quite high. However, when the gain turned is up enough to get the bottom end happening there is way too much gain and noise. On a different note, while being able to blend between 6L6's and EL34's seems really cool on paper, in reality it was just kind of "meh". Not enough benefit to outweigh the staggering cost to re-tube this monster when the time comes....10 tubes total!

Quality: 5
The Egnater was the noisiest of all the amps. With the gain dialed up only half way there was a fair bit of white noise. There is also a fan in the back to keep the tubes cool that puts out a certain amount of physical noise. At gigging volumes it's not a big deal, but it could be when recording, particularly with combos that can't separate the speakers from the head section. All the knobs and switches had a "cheap" feel to them. There was also no "vibe" for me with the Egnator....that intangible quality that makes an amp fun to play.

Marshall JVM205H
Features: 9
Marshall obviously learned their lesson after producing the DSL, because everything its feature-set lacked is present and accounted for on its newer sibling, the JVM. Most importantly, both channels have their own independent EQ sections. Other features include: three modes per channel, parallel and series effects loops, two independent digital reverbs, and two master volumes, all accessible and assignable via the foot switch. It ends up being very close to the Egnater in terms of functionality and user friendliness. My only quibble is with how the foot switch works. For boosting a solo via a foot pedal I am used to simple latching switches, were you click one button "on" and "off" again. The Marshall foot pedal, however, saves each batch of settings (including a the second master volume) as preset, making it necessary to step on one switch to engage your solo boost "patch", and a different button to re-engage your original patch. It took some getting used to.

Sound: 9
Each channel on the JVM has three "modes": green, orange, and red, which correspond with increasing levels of gain. The Clean/Crunch channel takes you from squeeky clean to roughly JCM800 levels of gain, and is voiced like a classic Marshall. The OD channel takes your from JCM800 to high gain insanity, and is voiced like modern gain, with tighter bass and more scooped mids. (I wish Marshall had instead left it voiced more like the Clean/Crunch channel, the classic Marshall sound.) My favorite mode on the Clean/Crunch channel is the orange mode. On the OD channel it's the green mode...though the orange is nice too. The red mode on both channels sounds like it's gone beyond the sweet spot to my ears.

The JVM and the DSL sound quite similar. I would characterize the DSL and being voiced a little brighter, the JVM darker. The classic Marshall roar is present and accounted for in the JVM, but for medium gain tones I prefer the DSL's green channel Crunch mode. In the higher gain settings the JVM noses ahead. For the gigging musician that needs quick access to a variety of tones and a solo boost there is no question that the JVM  wins over the DSL.

Quality: 7
Like the DSL, the JVM is "modern Marshall" quality, i.e. not stellar like the Splawn, but not annoyingly cheap feeling either. The circuit is fairly quiet in all but the higher gain modes, and there is not as much physical noise as the DSL.

Bottom Line
After listening to all these amps extensively in a quiet atmosphere, recording with them, and gigging with them many times, the Egnater and Splawn are now gone. The Marshall DSL and JVM remain. This test reaffirmed in my mind that Marshall is an icon for a reason. There is just something about the way Marshalls sound that works in a band setting. They sit where you need them to in a live or recorded mix. As much as I wanted to like the Renegade and the Competition for their great feature sets, I simply could not fall in love with their tonal range. I guess that makes me a Marshall guy.


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