Hands-On Review:Takamine TAN15C Acoustic-Electric Guitar with Cool Tube Preamp
By Daniel Thompson
Tube-aholics rejoice! In what may be its most creative engineering move since the development of the original Palethetic pickup, Takamine has wedded tube technology with an acoustic-electric preamp to create the CTP-1 Cool Tube Preamp. Found in a number of Takamine guitar models, including the TAN15C Supernatural also reviewed here, this unique and innovative system combines the best of Takamine's pickup technology with old-fashioned tube preamplification and the results are impressive.
This project began as the folks at Takamine were considering a direction for developing the next generation of preamps. They knew they didn't want to do something that had been done before or was too complex. And they were looking for something new. So instead of delving into DSP or the ever-popular modeling technology, they started looking for something that was simple in operation and sublime in sound. This preamp, they determined, had to be something that anyone could instantly get great sound from, yet be versatile enough to sculpt tones for more demanding tastes. And it should have a rich character that matched the premium acoustics it would be fitted to.
And that's when tubes started to look really good. I know what you're thinking: "Tubes? How is this new? Tubes are old, man." Well, yes, but not in acoustic guitars, they're not. This is something that has never been done before and is dead simple, immediately meeting two of Takamine's prerequisites. In a guitar world where modeling is overtaking the market and seemingly everyone is producing preamps that can make your guitar sound like a hundred other guitars, or a mandolin, or a resonator, or anything but a guitar, the classic vacuum tube became the ticket to Takamine's preamp of the future.
Designed to fit into the Sound Choice preamp slot found in all Takamine guitars built since 1989, the CTP-1 utilizes a 12AU7 preamp tube running in a low-voltage circuit that keeps the temperature reasonable—hence the name. I mean, it's inside the guitar for Pete's sake. You do not want to see what would happen if it was running at a more tube-like 200 degrees. The unique four AA battery power source gives it just enough juice to have an aural impact on the signal without causing much heat—the tube runs slightly above room temperature.
The technology itself has been around a bit, used mainly in effects pedals, bass amps, and high-end multi-effect preamps. Instead of creating tons of gain for the tube distortion that guitarists crave, the engineers at Takamine designed the circuit to have an effect only on segments of the pickup signal—mainly the harmonics. This is what allows them to run the tube at such a low voltage—it only does a little bit of the work you normally ask a tube to do in an amplification circuit.
The first thing I noticed when I pulled the TAN15C out of its case was the tight, perfectly parallel wood grain in the beautiful cedar top. It seemed to promise good things were ahead. The next thing I noticed was its weight. I expected it to be slightly heavy because of the large preamp, but it was lighter than I anticipated and comfortable sitting down or standing. It's not a flashy guitar in the usual meaning of the word, but I like the way it looks. Most people would probably call it understated—to me, it's classy. The smooth-grained rosewood fretboard is completely unadorned while the top has a strip of multilayer binding and a thin abalone rosette. Once you play the TAN15C, you find out quickly where all the money went: superior tone woods, to-die-for playability, and careful craftsmanship that deliver ringing, warm, open sounds.
The TAN15C plays so nice it will quickly become your playmate of the year. Open chords, barring, and single-notes are all so easy to pull off I felt I could play anything; it was almost subconscious. The action was perfect with absolutely no buzzing and the neck shape and feel are unbeatable. There's something else exceptional about the TAN15C: the sound. The tone is sweet and mellow but still bright and direct. Notes and chords ring with a warm, solid fundamental sustain and the uncomplicated blend of upper and lower harmonics seems to be slightly focused in the high midrange. It's more than just another nice-sounding acoustic.
I plugged the TAN15C into a Durango model acoustic amp without touching anything and it sounded great. One curiosity: it took a minute for the signal to get going. The reason? I kid you not—the tube has to warm up. The entire system is built around the classic Takamine Palethetic pickup, which senses the vibration of the top more than the pressure of the strings, giving you a more natural and warm sound.
I set the EQ the way I like it and then started dialing in the tube. Almost immediately I heard a definite sonic difference, and as I turned the Cool Tube knob up to the midway point the warmth and impact became incredible. The bright treble attack of the piezo was no longer the dominant sound factor, it was the sound of the guitar itself, ringing out. A very natural-sounding compression comes out, too. It's too weak to actually squash the signal in any serious way but it's forceful enough to have a pleasant impact. Turning the Cool Tube knob all the way up yields a much thicker and more vibrant sound. Overall the tone and response is gutsier with a softer high end. I couldn't help thinking that this could be the perfect acoustic-electric for guys who play acoustic in rock bands, power pop outfits, or acoustic blues players. With a little more tweaking I dialed in a great clean sound that retained the sonic imprint of the tube; a smooth, natural sound that could work for just about anyone in any situation.
I found out from Takamine that the sharp attack of the piezo is cooled off because the tube circuit creates a power drag that actually slows down the piezo signal a little so that it has time to register the full vibration of the top. It might also explain the slight compression effect you can hear. A couple of other features to get your juices going: you can swap out tubes in the preamp, and there is an aux in for adding your own pickup to the mix. All in all, the CTP-1 equipped TAN15C is a tantalizing package of tone that will make many acoustic players weak in the knees.
Features & Specs:
|TAN15C Specifications||CTP-1 Specifications|