Hands-On Review:Fender Pro-Tube series Pro Reverb, Concert Reverb and Twin amps.
by Tom Beaujour
It’s hard to imagine, but it took less than 20 years—from 1948 to 1960—for Fender founding father and namesake Leo Fender to create the Stratocaster, Telecaster, Precision Bass, Jazz Bass, Jazzmaster and an array of ball-blasting tweed and blackface amplifiers that would virtually define the sound of rock and roll. While Leo was incredibly generous toward musicians with his ingenuity, he was being terribly inconsiderate to the people who would one day follow in his footsteps. What, one wonders, could a modern-day Fender worker possibly do to live up to that dizzying legacy of innovation? Well, he or she could avoid the issue entirely, rest on the company’s well-earned laurels and knock off early every day to work on a nice, solid drinking habit. If cut from more ambitious cloth, however, said employee might realize that while Fender’s classic amps and guitars deserve every ounce of the reverence they command, these grand pieces of equipment can still be expanded upon and improved.
The new Pro-Tube series of combo amps attempts to do just that by combining a blackface-inspired clean channel—a feat that we’d expect Fender to be able to pull off at this point—with a supercharged, high-gain channel that can satisfy even the most ravenous and discerning crunch junky. The series consists of the 50-watt 1x12 Pro Reverb and 4x10 Concert Reverb and the 100-watt 2x12 Twin Amp, and while all three models share virtually identical control panels and circuitry (the Twin Amp boasts an extra duet of 6L6 power tubes), their differing speaker configurations yield a wide variety of flavors that you’ll want to investigate fully before settling on a particular model.
Bear in mind that Fender had to cram a vast amount of tubes, caps, circuit boards, resistors, etc., into these three amplifiers in order to maintain an all-tube design and provide a wide range of features. As a result, the Pro, Concert and Twin Amp have weights and girths that might frighten away the weak of spine and small of trunk. All three amps are nearly 13 inches deep (a 1965 Fender Twin, by comparison, measures in at only 10.5 inches), and even the 1x12 Pro tips the scales at a hefty 75 pounds. The Twin-Amp and Concert, meanwhile, both exceed the 80-pound mark. Remember to lift with the knees, not the back, and you’ll probably survive.
Vintage enthusiasts will no doubt be pleased by the classy, blackface-style vibe of the Pro-Tube series control layout; from across a smoky club, you’d be hard-pressed to identify any of these amplifiers as the newfangled channel-switching beasts that they are. The left side of the front panel houses the amplifier’s single input jack as well as the controls (volume, bright switch, treble, bass and middle) for the clean channel, while the five knobs in the center (gain, treble, bass, middle and volume) are used to dial in the desired amount of dirt from channel two. Finally, the right-hand side of the faceplate boasts a control for the spring reverb, speed and intensity of the tube-driven tremolo, as well as a presence control that governs both channels of the amp.
The feature-packed back panel of the Pro Series, however, is an entirely modern affair. Along with more mundane elements such as power and standby switches, this panel includes a full 1/4-power switch that drops voltage levels in the amp by 50 percent and allows for power tube saturation in smaller, volume-sensitive venues. There are also send and return level controls and input jacks for the effects loop, a preamp out jack that can feed an unbalanced line level signal to a mixing board or external power amp, a power amp in jack that bypasses the preamp section for use of the amp as an extension, or “slave,” unit and an input jack for the four-button footswitch, which can be used to change the Pro-Tube’s channel, engage the effects loop and turn the reverb and tremolo on or off.
Last, but certainly not least, the rear panel of all three amplifiers houses a handy “easy maintenance area” that will be appreciated by players and techs alike: an LED glows green when the fuse for the amplifier’s 6L6GC power tubes is intact, and switches to red when it blows, making the often tedious process of troubleshooting a snap. (The Twin Amp sports a pair of LEDs, since the amp utilizes four power tubes instead of two.) Also, there are immediately accessible bias and balance test points and a balance adjustment trim pot that make swapping out power tubes a quick and painless process for even the least technically inclined.
Unlike many past Fender amps designs, which flaunted a dirty channel but produced only a sedate and workmanlike overdrive, the Pro-Tube series amps all deliver thick, harmonically saturated distortion that leaves little to be desired. Setting the gain at three or four will satiate all but the most hardened rocker, while pegging it will have bodies hitting the floor in no time. And thanks, perhaps, to the 13-inch depth of all of the Pro-Tube cabinets, these three combos benefit from an at least partial immunity to the farty, flabby low-end sag that plagues many combo amps with high-gain circuits. All units also profit from the deep, luscious reverb that is so prized in vintage Fender amps, as well as staggeringly deep tremolo that achieves its Radiohead-ready impact and depth via a design that actually modulates the amplifier’s power section to achieve maximum throb.
As mentioned earlier, although the three amplifiers in the Pro-Tube series feature identical (or nearly identical) circuits and a similar tonality, their different speaker configurations and dimensions result in three amps with very distinct voices and character. The Pro, with its single, 12-inch Jensen, has the sweetest feel of the bunch, and the clean channel, particularly in 1/4-power mode when the power tubes are working a bit, has an elastic, almost springy feel to it that gives an added depth and warmth to slinky Stratocaster licks and the like. Distortion settings on the Pro have a smooth richness that favors legato licks over chunky riffs and will likely thrill some players, while making others feel as if they are taking a sponge bath when the amp is pushed to high volumes.
Thanks to the size and height of its cabinet and a complement of four 10-inch Fender-designed Eminence speakers, the Concert has a much wider, less directional “spread” to its sound than its siblings and features a zingy complexity in the top end as well as thumping lows. Setting this amp on quarter power and pinning this particular unit yields a satisfying classic rock sound that is reminiscent of the tones Joe Walsh coaxed from a Les Paul and a 4x10 Super Reverb on such James Gang standards as “Funk #49.” The 10-inch speakers also have their own unique way of handling heavy gain settings: open and three dimensional with just a touch of extra growl.
Because it puts out twice the wattage of the Pro and Concert and employs a pair of Fender-designed Eminence speakers that can handle even the most brutal assault without giving an inch, the Twin Amp is extremely loud and maintains its composure at sound-pressure levels that could skin a cat at 100 feet. Players who need lots of clean power, or who spend most of their time playing distorted, detuned riffs or engaging in other metallic escapades, will appreciate the head-bangin’ headroom, but others might miss the complexity of tone imparted by the Pro’s vintage-style Jensen or the Concert’s 4x10 speaker configuration.
The Bottom Line
Elegantly designed, thoroughly toneful and easily serviced, the three amps from the Pro-Tube series should soon be fixtures in the rigs of the rich and famous as well as the dingy clubs where legends are born. Kudos to the Fender crew for staring down its prodigious past and securing its future with a new line of amps that opens a whole new high gain chapter in the company’s history, while preserving the classic array of tones we’ve come to expect.