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Searching for the Best and Smallest Bass Amplifier

Discussion in 'Amps, Mics & Pickups [DB]' started by macmrkt, Aug 23, 2004.


  1. macmrkt

    macmrkt Banned

    Dec 4, 2002
    A big thanks to all the thoughtful members of talkbass.com for sharing their experiences. I wouldn't have been as successful in my search for better sound without your help. I hope my comments are helpful to others.

    I apologize in advance for the length of this post. I don't know how to express this correctly in a short form.


    Qualifiers: My search was very limited in scope. I wanted the smallest and lightest setup. I cut off my search below 12" based cabinets as I decided they would be too big and/or heavy. I'm know that I eliminated lots of otherwise great gear. I am now a double bassist, but for 25 year, played bass guitar exclusively. My comments are based (pun not intended!) on the results I got from DB. However, I've found that my bass guitar results usually mimic DB results. Additionally, my performance parameters, for the purposes of these comments, are acoustic jazz, in small rooms, up to about 15x40 with medium to high ceilings. Roughly the size of a small jazz club. I don't know what results one would get in larger rooms, on big stages or playing louder music. My jazz trio is a moderatly loud group. The pianist uses a Roland 700 keyboard through twin EV PA speakers. The drummer is heavy handed. Having enough power and most importantly, clarity, is a requirement. Lastly and most important, the setup must "sound like my bass, only louder." Although this sounds like an objective demand, I found this to be a lot more subjective than I would have expected.


    My References: The list of basses and amps I've owned is extensive. Bass guitars ranged from Fenders to Foderas, from Pedullas to Ken Smiths, from Steinbergers to Zons. Amps have been from Mesas to Edens, from Euphonic Audios to Polytones, from G&K's to Ampegs. EUB's have included Azolas, Kydds and NS Designs. Like many of you, it would be easier to list what I haven't owned! My favorite bass guitar setup, and I suppose a bit of a reference, was a Steinberger XL2 (for that grand piano like clarity) through an original Ampeg B15 (tweaked by a high-end audio engineer) for the richness of tubes.

    My current DB setups are a Wilfer 3/4 solid wood, an Eberle 3/4 Hybrid and an Eminence EUB. I've tried numerous pickup and string combinations to get the best sound, to my ears, out of each instrument. My tests were run with various K&K's and a Realist. Cables were all Monster Studios. I like the modern sound, as opposed to 'old school.' The amp reference is an Acoustic Image Contra with and without the EX extension cabinet.

    This is where the quest began. I think the Contra is an amazing product. It enabled me to get rid of much bigger rigs (how bout an Eden 100/1000 pre/amp with 2-210XST's!) The Contra gave me deeper bass, better definition and clarity on EUB and DB. The Contra's build quality, useful functions and size became my reference for many months. I thought I was done searching. But over time, I started to wonder if I could get a better sound, without an increase in size. This was partly motivated by the band members telling me they couldn't hear me on some tunes, especially Latin style pieces, where I wasn't 'walking'. No matter the settings, I eventually decided that I wanted my definition to improve. Was there a better micro bass setup out there? I decided to have a look.

    My search of available products that met my parameters left me with few choices. They came down to the Phil Jones Bass Briefcase and the Acme B1, running off the Contra's head. In my testing, both would be used in comparison with the Contra. I tested them over the course of several days, both in low volume solo settings for pure tone results, and with the group in higher volume situations.

    Results: What a pleasure it is to work with each of these products. They are all winners in my book. But there are differences. First the low volume results. The Contra was richer and deeper than the Briefcase at low volumes. But the best was yet to come...that was using the Contra's head to drive only the Acme B1. This Contra head/Acme B1 setup was much better defined than the Contra with its own cab, more even in response and somehow richer and truer. It made a profound difference. The all-ply EUB Eminence sounded like a fine 3/4 DB. Remarkable. There wasn't even that much of a volume loss switching from the 4ohm Contra setup to the 8ohm Contra head/B1.

    The band results went a bit differently. The Contra could play louder than the Briefcase, limiting the Briefcase tests to lower volume trio tunes. In this setting, the Briefcase was better defined than the Contra. My bass never got lost. The band actually played better. The same result was found with the Contra head/B1 over the Contra with its own speakers. The B1 had better definition, clarity and never got lost, no matter what the tune. The band played better, but for whatever reason, I played a lot more intensely. I could hear/feel/express in a way I hadn't previously. This was not a small improvement. My bandmates were happlily surprised. I was happily surprised.

    I remember having a similar experience 30 years ago when forced to use the house amp in a club. It was an all tube Orange guitar amp, my first high-end tube amp experience. It was the best peformance I had given up to that date.

    My Conclusion: For me, the 'best' small setup is any Acoustic Image head with an Acme B1. I have a Focus on order as well as a second B1. The Briefcase, is my ultra small rig where lower volumes are expected. I'll be fooling around with ganging two of these together in the future. Thanks again to Phil Jones Bass, Acoustic Image and Acme for their inspired designs.
     
  2. tombowlus

    tombowlus If it sounds good, it is good Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 3, 2003
    North central Ohio
    Editor-in-Chief, Bass Gear Magazine
    Great review! Just curious, though, as to the limits of the volume from the Briefcase. For instance, would it hold its own for an ABG amp competting with two acoustic guitars and a minimal drum kit? Could you do reasonable volume practice sessions with a full drum kit and two electric guitars? Or are we talking just for personal practice and quiet sessions where, say an URB with minimal amplification, would suffice?

    Thanks, Tom.
     
  3. Interesting review - I was wondering if you'd tried the Contra (and/or the Contra Extension) with the "Magic Triangle" (or other device) under the front of the cab to tilt it slightly, thus minimising the coupling to the floor, and so reducing the "boominess" of the Contra.

    - Wil
     
  4. macmrkt

    macmrkt Banned

    Dec 4, 2002
    Thanks Tombowlus for the comment. I only tried the Briefcase with my Eminence EUB, which has a Realist pickup. Although this is from memory, the Realist has a lower perceived output than K&K pickups, or of course, mag pickups from a bass guitar (I've tried lots). Yet with the Eminence, I was able to be heard nicely in rehearsals with an upright acoustic piano and a medium volume drummer. I had the gain up near full on the Briefcase and it was placed close to a corner and on the floor, to max the bass. The EQ was flat. It's OK to run the gain up that high as I think it's a linear taper volume control (as opposed to an audio taper). With an outboard preamp and a higher gain piezo like the K&K's or a BG, I'm guessing you'd be close to covering your situations at with room to spare. Do keep in on the floor and near a corner. I say this as I used to bottom out 2 Eden CXM110's with a WT400 head running an NS EUB with a jazz trio, whereas the same rig with my Warwick Thumb could drive a large bar with a 5 piece electric rock band. All of my comments are based on 4 string basses. Note: I'm a fan of the overall design of the Briefcase. That's partially due to the fact that it matches the design parameters of many successful high-end audio speakers. So I will work with it, if you know what i mean. Phil Jones mentioned to me that Chuck Rainey uses 2 Briefcases tagged together live in concert with his 6 string BG in medium halls to great success. I just received my second Briefcase, but haven't tried running them together yet.
     
  5. macmrkt

    macmrkt Banned

    Dec 4, 2002
    Hey Wil...here's the deal on Contra tweaks IMHO. I come from the high-end audio industry, which is famous for tweaks (we used to say when we were trying all sorts of wacky stuff that we were 'filing, short for audiophiling!) I tried the Contra's adjustable leg to tilt it. I tried it on carpets versus wood floors. I made various wood platforms for it. I tried it on a chair. I tried to tilt it. But as I was told by Rick Jones himself, these won't make much of a difference. And they didn't. It's what it is. If it works for you, it's a killer amp. For me, I found limits as described in my review that were perplexing considering how brilliant the combo is in so many areas. Now to really go out on a limb...from working with high-end subwoofers, studio monitors and lots of small bass amp/cabs over the years, bass IMHO, is never fully omnidirectional to the way our ear/brain/perception works. I know conventional thought and 'data' shows it to be mostly omnidirectional at 125hz and below (I'm not sure why AI moves that number to 800hz and below, but I'm sure he has a reason). Maybe the pure fundamental follows these rules, but when you are talking an instrument and the complexities of its all important overtones, I don't find that omnis work as well as directionals. To date, I've always perferred front facing woofers. They can be loaded in unusual ways, have a matching down firing woofer coupled to them somehow, but by themselves...no. When I've liked downward facing woofs, they've always been coupled with a more than a single forward mid and tweeter. By the way, I just got my AI Focus (running it with the Acme B1, and it's a killer. So AI continues to pioneer magical equipment. I actually didn't even want to try gear from any other amp/cab company...but when I found out that AI didn't have any new cab designs coming, I went looking.
     
  6. tombowlus

    tombowlus If it sounds good, it is good Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 3, 2003
    North central Ohio
    Editor-in-Chief, Bass Gear Magazine
    Well, I certainly look forward to hearing how your two Briefcases sound together! That's an interesting idea.

    At my rock band practice tonight, I took a bunch of gear along to A/B some 2x10's, and my Walter Woods Ultra versus my iAMP 800. Just for kicks, I also brought along a Hevos Midget, which I recently picked up from a fellow TBer. ;)

    Let me tell you, I am totally, utterly amazed at how good, and how loud, that Midget sounded when powered by the Wally Ultra! My bandmates preferred it to the VL-210B and Low B-2 that I was originally meaning to compare, and it was louder than the ACME, and nearly as loud (though not with as strong of a low B) as the VL-210B. This rig could definitely get as loud as any URB gig would call for, and it's a very small setup. Just thought I'd share. :smug:

    Still, the Phil Jones Briefcase has me intrigued.
     
  7. macmrkt

    macmrkt Banned

    Dec 4, 2002
    Certainly the twin Briefcases would be interesting but they'd have to beat a WW or Focus and a B1 or bigger as you are now carrying 2 30lb. boxes (can you believe how lazy I am - or is it that I can't give up the search for a shirt pocket bass combo).

    The Hevos sounds wild. What's the tone like? What are you playing into it? Are you able to try it with any type of URB/EUB? And is there any way to get a new one other than ordering direct from them? I have a friend in Amsterdam...he could check prices at dealer's over there. Too bad the Euro is so strong. Thanks for all the help!
     
  8. Oh, well I suppose Mr Jones is a better salesman than I gave him credit for! ;)

    I haven't used my Contra or ext for a while - at the moment I'm tending to use the Clarus 2 with either the Raezer's Edge Bass 10 or the EA CXL-110 (both very clean sounding). Interesting discussion - keep us posted as to what you end up with.

    - Wil
     
  9. macmrkt

    macmrkt Banned

    Dec 4, 2002
    I was waiting for someone to bring up the CXL-110L. I had both the 10 and 12 (non-L). I guess I'm old school in the respect that I've always loved the old Ampeg B15 sound, when you could find a good one (I bought 6 of 'em used a while back and Frankenstein'd the best head with the best cab...then had an engineer tweak the electronics...what a sweet, rich and detailed sound - a "life through rose colored glasses tone, and I guess, my kind of accurate). Sorry to digress, but the point is that the EA cabs I tried were too sterile for me. And I drove them with either a Mesa Walkabout or Clarus head, both warm sounding. Too bad...the size, build and company behind the CXL-110L are all great.
     
  10. tombowlus

    tombowlus If it sounds good, it is good Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 3, 2003
    North central Ohio
    Editor-in-Chief, Bass Gear Magazine
    Have you tried any of the VL-series cabs? I find them much more full sounding than the CXL series.
     
  11. tombowlus

    tombowlus If it sounds good, it is good Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 3, 2003
    North central Ohio
    Editor-in-Chief, Bass Gear Magazine
    I have a Raezer's Edge Bass 10, and I haven't put it up directly against the Hevos, but I have A/B'd it against my VL-110, Wizzy and Epifani T-110UL. The Bass 10 is very punchy, and strong in the midrange, but it is not as full-range or well-balanced as the other cabs mentioned above. Still, it does cut through a mix nicely.
     
  12. tombowlus

    tombowlus If it sounds good, it is good Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 3, 2003
    North central Ohio
    Editor-in-Chief, Bass Gear Magazine
    I haven't tried it with my upright yet, but I hope to fairly soon. Tonally, it is similar to a VL-210B, but with a bit more clarity, and not quite the same fullness in the low end (but of course, it is a fraction of the size).
     
  13. macmrkt

    macmrkt Banned

    Dec 4, 2002
    No, never tried the VL's. I got back into playing (and gear) when the CXL's just came out, so I went with them and missed what may have been better cabs for me. I wonder how small the VL108 was and how it and the VL110 sound compared to my Acme B1?
     
  14. abaguer

    abaguer

    Nov 27, 2001
    Milford, NJ
    I've got both the EA VL110 and the Acme B1 and the B1/Clarus combination is still my favorite for low-moderate level upright playing. The VL110 is a terrific cabinet but after trying both of them out again on back to back gigs, I still prefer the Acme B1. I use the VL110 for EUB and bass guitar. ;)
     
  15. macmrkt

    macmrkt Banned

    Dec 4, 2002
    Thanks for the good word. Just curious...what do you think the tonal difference is between the Acme and the EA...lets say on EUB or bass guitar?
     
  16. tombowlus

    tombowlus If it sounds good, it is good Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 3, 2003
    North central Ohio
    Editor-in-Chief, Bass Gear Magazine
    Actually, I am participating in a thread right now over on the electric bass side comparing the EA VL-210 to the ACME Low B-2. I have not tried a B-1 (though I'd love to!), so I can't directly compare it to the VL-110, but with regard to the two 2x10's, the ACME is more full sounding, a bit more rounded, and somewhat laid back. At lower volumes, it sounds very nice (although I find myself wanting to boost the highs a bit). At higher volumes, though, you need to cut the lows, or else I find it gets a bit muddy and uncontrolled. By comparison, the VL-210B is more clear and precise, with a more present high end (though still somewhat laid back, and much more full overall, in comparison to my CxL-112), with tighter lows, but not as full, overall, as the ACME. I have always found with the VL-210 that it doesn't sound its best at lower volumes, but keeps sounding better and better at higher volumes. While this is true, as a side note, I must add that with my WW Ultra (which I used for my ACME/EA shootout), the VL-210 sounded killer at all volumes. The VL-110 and VL-208 do also like a lot of juice, and open up a bit at higher volumes, but seem more happy with lower volumes, in general, than the VL-210.

    With my limited comparison, I was left with the impression that the ACME and EA cabs were both excellent at lower volumes, with the ACME being more full-sounding, and the EA being more clear and articulate, but that at higher volumes, the EA began to pull away from the ACME.

    Also of note, the VL-210B sounded best when used with my Walter Woods, but the Low B-2 sounded best when used with my iAMP 800 (the tighter lows seemed to help).

    Hope this helps, Tom.
     
  17. tombowlus

    tombowlus If it sounds good, it is good Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 3, 2003
    North central Ohio
    Editor-in-Chief, Bass Gear Magazine
    So, have you had a chance to try the two together yet?
     
  18. abaguer

    abaguer

    Nov 27, 2001
    Milford, NJ
    With my limited comparison, I was left with the impression that the ACME and EA cabs were both excellent at lower volumes, with the ACME being more full-sounding, and the EA being more clear and articulate, but that at higher volumes, the EA began to pull away from the ACME

    Exactly my impression.
     
  19. macmrkt

    macmrkt Banned

    Dec 4, 2002
    Tombowlus,
    Good timing - I was aiming to try them tonight. Here's what I did: I ran a single Briefcase, two in series together, and an Acme B1 with AI Focus for reference. I only used my hybrid DB with a K&K Bass Max pickup. I was playing solo in a 14 x 12 room. I set the Briefcases towards a corner and next to each other.

    Here's what I heard. The double Briefcases were a bit deeper and a bit louder than using just a single Briefcase. Adding the second one gave you a fuller sound. It was not a 1+1=3 result, more like a 1+1=1.4. The Acme/Focus combo was clearer and more detailed, as well as much richer and with gain to spare. It also showed that the Briefcases were not as accurate on the low 'E' string and lower positions on the 'A' string, yielding a wooly sound.

    The Briefcases are truly practice and small group amps, whether single or doubled. For that, they are very cool products. Of course, if you had a house PA and they were your monitors only, maybe they could cover more...maybe. And with a BG, maybe they could do more.

    What was most interesting was how I was left feeling curious about the importance of "accuracy" in amps. The Acme/Focus seemed to enhance the DB, bring out the sound of the strings and my inflections, while all the while adding lushness. Kind of like what salt does to enliven the flavors of foods. The Briefcases, for the most part, seemed to only add gain, and nothing else. Does that make one more accurate than the other? I don't know. But I do know that I prefer the warm and 'enhanced' sound of the Acme/Focus. Reminds me of my old B-15 days...

    One other note. The Briefcase is very easy to carry, but it's not any lighter than an Acme B1. In fact, it feels a little heavier. I don't see how I'd be able to justify 2 Briefcases over a B1/Focus on portability or sound. Kind of apples and oranges when you get down to it.
     
  20. tombowlus

    tombowlus If it sounds good, it is good Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 3, 2003
    North central Ohio
    Editor-in-Chief, Bass Gear Magazine
    Thanks for the review, macmrkt! That was very interesting, and very helpful. I am considering picking up a Briefcase, but primarily for use in situations where I wouldn't be using one of my other small rigs (my current fave being my WWU with a Hevos Midget). For instance, every October, some friends and I get together for a weekend getaway in the woods, and most years a campfire jam breaks out, with fiddle, guitar, and me on ABG. Of course, it's pretty hard to be heard outside with an unamplified ABG (at least with my El Capitan), so the Briefcase would probably be just the ticket.

    The question is, do I do enough of this kind of jamming to justify the cost of a Briefcase? But then again, as Big String once said, "...there it is!" :D