Hughes and Kettner are known for their 'meister' series of amps. Enter the Grandmeister 36 Amplifier but is it any good?
Hughes and Kettner Grandmeister 36 Amp Inside & Out Review
As always, because this amp is a major release for Hughes & Kettner and is priced where many people can afford to buy it this is a really long and in depth review.
For me, Hughes and Kettner have been around for a very long time, offering that 'German' build of quality and used by many top guitarists. But most of those amps that I used to see really were beyond the reach of ordinary guys like myself as the pricing was commensurate with being a rock god too - and I'm not one of those either. So the H&K amp stayed in the background of my mind over the years. Eventually though I did meet a number of talented musicians that indeed used H&K amps.
To be honest, I thought that they often sounded a little on the 'tinny' or 'toppy' side and suited some guys and not others - I guess its all down to the playing style etc. that different people have, so I never did buy one... not even a second user one. Well what happened to change things around (I believe) for H&K? it's a strange thing that often guys would talk about the 'red box' DI box from Hughes and Kettner (relating to the studio stuff I have done) and less so about the amps. Various guys I know used to ask me about those 'H&K' amps and what did I think.
I did have knowledge (at that time) of the DI box which was (and is) a great and very useful tool, but I could not truthfully say anything about the amps because I had never had one of those. I kept on thinking though. Eventually, I was over in the USA and spotted a 'Tubemeister 36' in a Guitar Center and I was so near to buying one it was unreal. Here was, (it seemed) one of those fantastic looking H&K amplifiers that I could afford! I flipped on the power and played a while and it sounded OK in the confines of a GC store (I was limited somewhat as I did not have my guitar there) and liked the general things about the amp - but it was just a quick look.
I'm sure many readers have done the same and some will have got out the plastic (or even money :-)) and bought one. But I persisted in NOT buying one for a good 18-24 months without the Tubemeister 36. In August 2013 I decided to thumb through Thomann website (rather like a GC website) and they had a returned Tubemeister for less than £600 ($900) so I bought it on the basis that if it was not for me I would send it back. But while waiting for it to arrive H&K launched the Grandmeister... and I could have kicked myself - hard! Oh well, I could invoke my 30 day return.
I DID check out the Tubemeister 36 and this review was going to be about that amp until I found the Grandmeister 36. So I took a close look at the Tubemeister then sent it back and ordered the Grandmeister 36. In fact I got one of the very first ones around. I also ordered the floor pedal for the review and as soon as it arrived I set out to video and write this review. I have had some health issues recently that are on-going, but below is the belated review of the Grandmeister 36.
THE AMP IN REVIEW
The amp under review : click for larger images
I specifically wanted the amp to come with the floor pedal just so I could get a 'feel' of exactly how this amp works as Hughes and Kettner designed it to be - including all those sounds they pre-programmed in to the amp. I always believe in showing exactly what you get as the manufacturer intended - good or bad, so this amp's review is absolutely no different. Like the Tubemeister 36 before it, the Grandmeister is a looker... if it was female who knows what could happen :-), but fortunately for me (and the amp) its just a tube amplifier that lights up! But it does look cool, just like the larger H&K amps still do.
You can see on the front of the amp that it differs from the Tubemeister because there are more 'push buttons' than the older Tubemeister and there's that ubiquitous switch on the right hand side of the amp. But from a distance the look is sort of similar to the Tubemeister. The Hughes & Kettner logo is still proudly displayed (whether you like it or not!) on the front of the amp in that iridescent blue that seems to light up the stage somewhat. Personally I like it, even if it is a bit gimmicky and no doubt increases the cost of the amp.
The rest of the amp is metal chassis and top and bottom plate with two nondescript side covers and (what looks like) chrome handles so you can easily pick the amp up. BTW this amp comes with a nice padded case so its easy to move around, but alas, the floor pedal is an option (approx. £125.00 or around $180 maybe).
From the outset, the build quality seemed to be there in this amp. It's a solid chassis and when bolted together with those end plates its a really sturdy build. To get inside you need to remove the end plates, being careful to stop the 'top' from dropping down. Care also needs to be taken where the lighting strip meets the top plate of the amp to avoid damage to the unit. There is also a bottom plate to get in to the chassis electronics.
One of the endplates you remove to get to the tubes and chassis.
I'm not sure of the thickness of this chassis but it does appear to be more than adequate for using this amp on the road, so there are no issues with this amp for that use regarding the chassis rigidity.
INSIDE THE GRANDMEISTER 36 AMPLIFIER
You can tell right away that this amp has been manufactured in a modern plant using high quality flow soldering machines. When I looked recently at an Orange Jim Root Terror #4 the difference in circuit board soldering was staggering and the Grandmeister was far superior to that (by the way, the Orange was also made in China). It just shows that judging an amp by the exterior only as many reviewers indeed do, shows you little about what you are actually buying. Check out my Orange Jim Root #4 review on this website and see for yourself!
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Looking at the chassis above the first impressions are of a very neat multi-layered amplifier board and daughter boards linked with coupling wire. This is really great, because if your amp suffers with a big issue on one of those boards it's a simple matter to replace the board without the expense of replacing the lot. It's quite common practice these days and is not really a problem with those link wires. I also noted that the effects board and the switching board are modules that can be replaced reasonably easily which makes sense as repairing most of that stuff could easily cost you more than the board costs in the first place. I guess it's one aspect of our throw away society that could actually save you money later on.
I also saw those big fat resistors that help with the power reduction (I'm pretty sure) and were mounted so that the air can get around them to cool them, you would not really want one of those going bang anytime soon right? The power supply Transformer DOES NOT SUPPORT OTHER VOLTAGES so if you buy an amp that is a different voltage than the voltage that the amp power transformer handles then you will need either a step up or step down transformer accordingly. And maybe a Warranty* see below.
It was VERY hard to see the main board in the Grandmeister 36 without stripping the whole amp down, so I never really got to do that, but suffice to say that the main board, the daughter boards and the effects boards all looked great build quality. There are at least two fuses in the amp which can blow:
The Transformers appear to be non-branded transformers and are probably not generic but will be made for this exact amp or for this 'series' of amps as no doubt there is likely to be a whole bunch of these amps from the 36, the 18w and smaller but that is of course shear speculation on the part of the reviewer at this point of time as H & K tell me nothing.
The Grandmeister 36 uses a different type of power reduction than say a YJM100 from Marshall, whereas the Marshall amp uses similar techniques to London power design of power reduction, this Grandmeister 36 seems to employ large resistors to 'load' the amp and dissipate the output voltage as heat. From 36w to 18w they simply turn out the lights on two of the EL84 tubes, but for the other reductions these resistors come in to play reducing the 18w to 5w then 1w then no output to the speaker. I saw something similar on the review of the Laney Studio Amp also made in China.
Maybe over time these resistors could 'drift' away from their specified ratings and affect the output (so the output may then not be as accurate as stated for each power reduction button on the back of the amp) only time will tell.
As you can see on this image the chosen output lights up for those dark stages (or indeed dark bedrooms LOL) so there is no getting it wrong any time soon.
On the Grandmeister 36 Hughes and Kettner have introduced something called TSC (a Trade Mark) short for Tube Safety Control. This is in my view similar to many solutions out there that look after the tubes in the amp better than you can! This circuit will adjust the tube bias to improve the tonal output of the amp (bias only applies to output tubes) and H&K claim to extend the tube life. In reality, this just seems like an auto bias electronic design and they can say this because if you use tubes that are out of bias then of course the tube life shortens in any case.
But the thing is, this circuit continually monitors the tube bias setting so I guess that the claim to longer life tubes does have merit and is not fantasy.
Notice the Led for each tube... and any funny business can be seen easily when you use the tube matching by simply putting a pick in to the slot shown above as they say. It's all documented under the amp base so no need for instruction manuals here. Basically this will show if you have mismatched power tubes - and matched tubes work better as a sort of push pull system inside the amp. Don't confuse this with Biasing which is different.
Simply put though, better matched tubes will give you a better operating amp and you might even hear the difference (but I doubt it), but biasing an amp incorrectly then you will undoubtedly hear it. The TSC tube matching is also automatic (you don't have to use a pick if you don't want to), so you can see if the tubes are matched or there is a problem. This amp shows all tubes are good and matched within the limits set - it should do they were an aftermarket matched set that I fitted. The two inside and the two outside tubes are matched pairs so if you switch to 18w output don't be surprised to see two of these Leds off... its normal.
OTHER I/O ON THE AMP
This amp has more features than you can shake a stick at so let's just cover the rest of the I/O on the back of the amp before we get too excited!
As you can see there is ample I/O on this amp with some things as a bonus such as the Red Box Direct Injection output and speaker emulator operated by a button on the rear panel. This DI is great for throwing right to a desk as my playing example below shows the result to the desk and directly from the desk in to the video camera. BTW you can't have the DI without one of two speaker emulator settings. Another feature (for the 18w and 36w outputs only) is that the output from the red box DI also increases when you switch from 18w to 36w mode. But the other outputs have a constant drive out of the red box DI and this is by design.
The FX loop is serial so it works correctly and simply. It's good to see as well as the MIDI in, a MIDI out that also carries a through MIDI in case you need that signal for other gear. The noise gate knob is a little like having a threshold knob but is more involved than just that. It's a hard/Soft control (they say) and changes the attach AND threshold parameters simultaneously with something called IDB (a Trade Mark). Basically turn the knob right for a more sensitive noise gate and left for a less sensitive one. The default is in the middle. Sounds like my wife.
AMP FRONT CONTROLS
Now, if you're a techie type of guy that gets on with computers and similar digital stuff, then the control knobs on the front of the amp will not bother you, but if you're not like that, and expect a control knob to just work then you might get a surprise - at least at first. You see, these knobs don't actually show you what the amp is set to!
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If you look at the enlarged view of the knobs above then you will see that each knob does have a point on it showing the position... but here's the rub, that's just the position of the physical knob. If you take one of these knobs, say the mid for example, and start to rotate it, at one point you will see that the store button on the fascia flashes momentarily... THAT is the actual position of the knob for that channels (think preset) setting. So in this way, you could 'realign' the knobs to show the true reflection of each knob for any given channel (preset). The only one you can not do that to is the MASTER for obvious reasons.
So all of those knobs are there really TO SET the actual preset settings for the knob. The procedure is simple, turn on the amp, get the channel and settings (and effects, more of that later) as you want it all... set it up with the knobs and controls and press and hold the SAVE button to save those settings on a given channel. Of course there's much more to it all than this, as the amp can save well over 120 settings which can be applied and recalled with the (optional) MIDI pedal really easily - one reason to buy the midi pedal from H & K.
Lastly, note that the Bass, Mid and Treble are all PASSIVE controls just like a great tube amp should have.
EFFECTS IN THE AMP
If there's one reason to buy the Grandmeister over the Tubemeister 36 then this is it! You have arrived! The effects section is quite comprehensive really, and you don't have to have any of those external pedals (if you don't need them) as many effects are built right in to the amplifier. The Grandmeister 36 has THREE independent effect modules with reverb, delay and modulation effects and a noise gate. All effects are independent of each other so if you want to use the lot that's no problem.
The reverb knob, when set fully left turns off the reverb from the signal path; and also the delay level and the intensity knob when fully turned hard left bypass the effects for those knobs too which is very useful in reality.
The FX Mode. When you press the FX Mode access button on the front panel, this enables the control knobs to be seen as controls for the effects... check the control panel image below and you can see that a number of knobs have 'other' settings that control the effects. Once you press the FX button these knobs act accordingly. It all sounds difficult but like I said in the video, its quite intuitive once you get the hang of it. It took me just 5 minutes to understand how they worked. So once you have adjusted the effects as you want them, then press the FX button again, which returns the control knobs to amp settings rather than effects settings. Remember to press 'save' to store those settings to the channel (preset).
So the amp has: Reverb, Delay, Chorus, Flanger, Phaser and Tremolo effects which are all digital and very nice indeed. Oh and don't forget the noise gate as that could be seen as an effect!
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But all of these effects and channel settings can be a real pain if you can't control it all.
CONTROLLING THE AMP
Because the Grandmeister 36 is really a digitally controlled amp in parts with underlying digital technology as well as analogue this amp can be controlled beyond anything (well almost) that you might consider reasonable for such a low cost package and high class amp. The amp is midi controlled as we said above, so there are 4 banks of presets, each with 32 presets to store - totaling 128 presets for your master work of sounds. Now that's a lot of sounds right? and managing it all could get to be hard work. But if you have a midi controller then its relatively easy.
I chose to purchase (for this review) the FSM-432 Mark III to control this amp for the review and to see exactly what the sounds in the presets were set to at the factory. I always like to hear what EXACTLY the manufacturer thinks are great sounds. No manufacturer will intentionally put gear out with crap tones unless they are idiots. I hate to say it but I could name a few that have done. But in this case the Grandmeister 36 was nigh on perfect with great sounds right out of the box, but they would be, right? this is a real tube amp and not some imitation carried out with a bit of sand on a chip.
The FSM-432 Mark III Midi Board as reviewed
Now then, with this board (or ANY good midi controller) you can easily see the presets, choose one, set the amp with what you like and save it to that preset. It's easy. With this pedal a child could do it... so keep the kids away or your sounds might go belly up sometime soon. But this amp, as I have intimated is far more than just a channel select by midi.
In fact you can change a load of parameters in REAL TIME such as:
So its entirely possible to control the delay, the treble and bass (push full on), the Mid (pull full off at the same time) and other things too. Changing those parameters in real time is something like what I used to do with a Triaxis 15 years ago or longer... and the result makes jaws drop! when your tone mutates to something else. H&K themselves have said that just three or four years ago this would not have been possible? Wrong of course, that level of control was on the Mesa Triaxis (all analogue preamp) and still is!
The Midi controller itself (H&K) can be used with TWO expression pedals to control anything above, and as well as being set up for the regular banks etc. it can be set up with just the flick of a switch to work as an effects switching unit. A Midi pedal that actually does what it says on the tin! The Pedal has a preset mode which I used, but also has a 'stomp box' mode for selecting individual effects on the fly.
Talking of midi there are 16 channels and the amp can probably be set to Omni mode but I did not find the info for that in the manual. Lastly, bear in mind that there is an 'APP' that you can download so you can remotely play with the settings, presets etc. It's a cool idea, but honestly, it seems that H&K don't realize that Apple products are typically just 15% (or less depending on who checks) of the total market of Tablet Computers out there. So they want to limit their audience right?
Maybe they should wake up a little and realize that everyone does not necessarily use Apple, and that Apple is in fact the minority when it comes back to computing platforms. It's just my opinion of course but I'm sure they were thinking of the USA market when they made their choice of 'Apple only' as those products are slightly more prevalent than the rest of the world - but they still remain minority even in the USA. And that's a fact! Personally I did 'have a go' of the app with a borrowed Apple tablet but would have much preferred to see a multi platform application and maybe you would too - with Android tablets less than $75 in some places. It does work, but to be honest I don't see this as much of a 'real life' idea as they might. It's a bit of a gimmick really.
TUBES AND THINGS
Now it's a well known fact that on the Tubemeister that there is a little silicon amplifier on the input stage of the amp, just to boost things a little. And although I struggled a little to see the main board on the Grandmeister 36 I think this amp utilizes the same affair. The addition of a little chip before the preamp tubes seemed OK on the Tubemeister (at least in theory), but once again just like the Tubemeister, the signal going through that little chip does not remain completely analogue, right?
For me it matters not, indeed no more than placing a TS808 in front of the amp, which utilizes similar methodology for driving the amp. In fact I have seen so many countless great guitarists do it that it's almost par for the course - I could say 'these days' but frankly they were doing that 30 years ago or more right in to - you guessed it - analogue amps. So who cares? The analogue guys who believe that a signal is somehow destroyed with the inclusion of that little chip that's who! But don't worry, especially if you are not one of them. To me it's simply a natural progression and sounds good. Better having one of these Grandmeisters than having an 'emulator' of a tube amp, right? Like Carlsberg... probably!
Now for those pesky preamp and power amp tubes. I ALWAYS check the vacuum tubes in an amp because there is some not so good tubes floating around out there. The Grandmeister 36 had Chinese unbranded tubes in the preamp (12AX7) and in the Power amp (EL84).
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The tubes fitted in the Grandmeister 36 were a variety of Chinese tubes of a no brand origin (H&K don't make tubes) so they are fitted by the third party company that H&K use to make this amp in China. While it's true to say that they do work, and that the amplifier does have protection against bad tubes (it needs it with these in there) I don't really think that these fitted tubes are commensurate with the quality of the rest of the amp.
So what did Tony do? I went and found some TAD selected 12AX7 tubes and fitted those, and found a quad of highly matched SOVTEK tubes from 2010 and also fitted those too. The Chinese jobbies are purely there as an emergency spare part if in the unlikely event one of the decent tubes should fail.
So I guess you get the idea from the above pictures. H&K say that its a specialist job to change the tubes in this amp. Poppycock (emphasis on the cock) whoever came up with an amp that you don't have to bias, and you simply plug in the tubes - then say it's a specialist task has been snorting something and its not a Pepsi equivalent! I also think that these replacement tubes tamed the 'toppy' aspect of the amp just a little bit but I guess most users might not even notice the difference, I just wanted to say that just to be as complete as I can with my findings of this amp.
OK so far? well I am too, and I could not wait to plug in this amp to see exactly what you get for the money. While I'm on that subject - you get a cloth style carry case to carry this amp around in... in case I did not mention it... after all it's a lightweight amp (but only in physical weight) but not light on the features.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS PLUGGED IN
Many readers will know that I tend to favor Marshall 1960 A or B cabs for their overall tone and I find that no matter what amp you have it will sound great through that particular 4x12 Marshall cab. Hughes and Kettner do make some nice cabs, but as I always have cabs at my disposal I used what I had without spending more money on something that I basically already have. So for the review I simply used a Marshall 1960A 4x12 cab and you can check the Marshall site for the specs of those if you want.
OK I screwed up... I did not take a single picture of the
sitting on the Marshall 1960a... here's the nearest I got!
OTHER GEAR USED FOR TEST
For this review I decided to use my Gibson 'Spotlight' Custom Shop Les Paul, firstly because many guys have never seen one of those, and secondly because I simply wanted a change from Ibanez. Oh and lastly because I could... so there.
I purposely went completely out of my way on the setup of this amp for the audio (read video) review of the sound. Yes that's right, as on so many occasions - I kept the presets COMPLETELY FACTORY STANDARD for the whole of the test. Here's my reasoning as I have often described it before: No manufacturer (except one who wants to fail) puts preset sounds in their equipment right out of the box that is c**p. But I could name a few.
You know what? You would not believe the number of times I have heard rubbish coming out of amplifiers, preamps, simulators, pedals and the like where manufacturers think they have their finger on the 'pulse' of the buyers and those 'great presets' when in reality as much as 90% were rubbish. Really hard to believe but perfectly true. So I adopted the stance of seeing just how good or bad those factory tones or presets really are. Of course I later try the amp or device out with my own settings just as you would, but its nice to see what you're getting for that very hard earned cash, right?
So for that all important video with the audio I played the amp and guitar DIRECTLY in to a mixer with the Red Box DI, mixed it on the spot in to the video camera and you have exactly the way this amp sounds right out of the box. I'm pleased to say, that of the 128 presets and sounds stored in this amp there was not a single preset that was junk... not one. EVERY tone in the presets was killer, in one way or another.
This is the video inside and out review I developed for my YouTube channel:
I used channel 3 on this video on stomp 3 which gives you a fabulous lead guitar tone with just enough delay and reverb etc. Notice the Marshall 1960a cab in the video.
This IS a very long review, and I cannot hope to show you each and every feature of this amp. But I hazard a guess that you have NEVER seen any review close to this 'inside and out' review that I have developed. I have also spent many hours on the 'inside and out' video on my YouTube channel HERE and if you have never seen my channel then you should because most videos are rather like this written one. Basically YOU CAN TRUST THEM!
Overall, this Grandmeister amp has been a rather great amp and there are always some 'good' and not so good points that I would like to point out before I give the amp a final score, so here we go:
1: Awesome sounds!
2: Awesome presets!
3: Very well made amp
4: Serial effects loop (hoorah)
5: Variable output that keeps the tone
6: Neat App for Midi Control of the Amp
7: Red Box DI built in to the amp
8: Great Presets... set them, store them, forget them they just work!
9: Nice Noise Gate for the heavier stuff
10: 4 Channels and BOOST on EVERY channel. from the sublime to the ridiculous in gain.
111: Nice tote bag
LESS GOOD POINTS
A: Priced a little high for a Chinese amp
B: Really nondescript Tubes from the factory (they could do better for this price)
C: No Android APP
D: UK and European Pricing* (see below)
E: Midi Pedal is an OPTION (a little skinflint mode dare I say especially for the UK*)
F: No Bluetooth link for the Tablet control
GG: The Amp can get hot on the top (check my 'fried egg' video) :-)
Overall this amp does offer value for money. But not necessarily for the UK.
Let me explain why. If you check the price of this amp at http://www.thomann.de (in Europe) they sell the Grandmeister for approximately £840.00 (it does fluctuate depending on the Euro) and offer a three year warranty and 30 day exchange if you are not happy. If you buy this amp in the UK you will (most likely) pay around £150.00 to £200.00 MORE in any UK dealers. Why? It's simple, the UK pricing structure is set higher (usually because some manufacturers think the UK is a money tree and they can 'get away' with it). That's just my opinion of course.
What stops you from buying a Thomann amp then? Well, H&K in their wisdom to support higher UK pricing state that if you buy a Grandmeister that is NOT 240 Volts for the UK then your warranty is void. Nice company policy. However, There is a tolerance among standards of mains voltage and that is: a 10%+ tolerance of accepting higher voltage. So let's do the math's: Thomann Grandmeister is 230 Volts + 10% = 23 Volts = total 253 Volts. Aha... the 230 Volt product is safe and just for good measure, Thomann throw in their own THREE YEAR warranty.
Now THATS what I call setting the record as it should be written. Well done Thomann. If anything, I think that this is actually the biggest niggle of this amp - live in the UK and we'll screw you. Mine was from Thomann thank you very much. But what about that score Tony, you have harped on about the good and bad points (notice other reviews don't talk about this stuff?) so what's the score? Actually this amp is so good I give it a 9 out of 10. What happened to the last point? Well I always think that if you're a smarty pants manufacturer that it always comes back to you in the end. And so it did.
You should however stop wasting time and buy one of these, it's up there with some of the higher priced things out there, it's compact and looks good and sounds even better (just how the wife started out) :-) Alas she changed LOL. Remember I bought this amp and pedal just as you would. Trust me on this, buy the amp and don't waste your time on the latest 'simulator' you will not be sorry. This amp is better.
So there is the last word on the Grandmeister 36 as far as I am concerned. Buy It!