Guitar GearHeads Review

From GuitarGearHeads.com…

Who is Steve Grindrod? If you were to ask this question to most guitar players, you would probably find that they have no idea. Ask the same question to people in the musical instrument manufacturing industry (especially in the guitar amplifier field), you would more than likely get the history a man who has made an enormous impact on how guitar amplification and tone developed into today’s modern sound.

In 1973 Steve became the “Chief Engineer” and “Director of Research and Development” for “Marshall Amplification” holding this position until 2000 when he became the “Managing Director” and “Chief Designer” for “VOX” where he stayed until 2008. Under his direction, both of these companies put out some of their most dominant and coveted products to date.

In his most recent venture, Steve has teamed up with the “International Audio Group” to bring out a new line of amplifiers. This relatively recent endeavor will be introducing their new division at the 2011 Winter NAMM Show with a full product line under the name of “Albion Musical Instruments”. I have had the unique opportunity to test and review a couple of these amplifiers before their official release, and I can say unequivocally these are some of the most compelling new amplifiers that I have seen in quite some time. Read on for my review of the Albion “TCT 50H” and the “AG10”.

The “TCT 50H” with the “GLS 212” by Albion Musical Instruments

The TCT series is the hand wired all tube flagship of the Albion line. The “TCT 50H” head arrived along with an Albion “GLS 212” speaker cabinet. Once unpacked, I was looking at one of the most stylish and classy looking amplifier setups I had ever seen.

In all of the pictures that I have come across, these amplifiers had a cherry stained walnut baffle plate on the front panel. On the head I received, the cherry stain had been replaced with a black piano gloss finish giving it an extra level of visual sophistication. In addition, the “GLS 212” speaker cab boasted a matching gloss black accent plate that really melded the look of the head and cabinet into a matching aesthetic.

Every amplifier and speaker cabinet in the TCT product range features birch-ply cabinet construction and custom appointments making them complete Albion originals right down to the vinyl covering and cabinet hardware. In fact, from what I can see, there is no part of this amplifier in which “off the shelf” part are used. Albion even goes so far as to manufacture the transformers, printed circuit boards, speaker cones, loudspeakers, and wiring right in their own factory. This alone gives them an incredible level of quality control that is unmatched.

At first glance the TCT 50 looks like a standard two channel guitar head, but a closer look reveals some very interesting features that set it apart from other similar products on the market. On the left side of the black control panel is the power switch. Next you will find the “Active/Mute” switch which is what most tube amplifiers label as “standby”, and a “100% / 33%” switch that acts as an attenuator taking the output level of the “TCT 50H” from 50 Watts down to approximately 16.5 Watts. Also included is a “Phase Switch’ that will allow you to match the phase relationship in multi amp setups as well as fine tuning for the venue you are playing.

The preamp control section consists of two discreet channels with the biggest difference between them being that the first is “Pre EQ”, and the second is “Post EQ”. While the “Volume”, “Treble”, “Middle”, “Bass”, “Drive” and “Gain” functions may seem pretty standard for an amplifier this size, the preamp section goes further than most with an added switch for shifting the EQ to a different frequency range as well as a “Smooth” and “Tight” switches on each individual channel. You will also find the 1/4″ input jack in this section.

The power amp section continues to add some different aspects. In addition to the common “Master Volume”, and “Reverb”, there is a an “A/B Mix” knob (which I will get into in the sound test) as well as a “F’BK” switch and a “Deep” and “Edge” section that really allows you extra functionality for tailoring your desired sound. When all of the elements of the entire control panel are used together, you can call up sounds that range from classic British to edgier American amplifier designs.


Gear Guy Tip: The comparison on “British” vs. “American” amplifiers really came about early in amplified music. It mostly describes the difference in sound between British and American bands at the time, and much of this was defined by the amplifiers available in their country of origin. Today that term is used very loosely as the lines between the sounds of British and American amplifier manufacturer’s products have been blurred considerably.

Features at a Glance:

TCT 50
• Twin channel + MIX Head
• 50watts RMS into 8 or 16ohm
• 5x12AX7 – 2x EL34 valves
• Two discreet channels with Volume, Treble, Middle, Bass, Drive and Gain
• EQ Shift button
• Smooth and Tight buttons
• F’BK switch
• Depth and Edge controls
• Active/Mute switch
• 100% / 33%” switch
• 3 way (channel A/B/MIX & Reverb) footswitch included.

GSL 212
• 2×12 Extension cabinet
• 2 x large magnet 80watt 12” Albion made loudspeakers
• 16ohm impedance
• Maximum operating power 140 Watts.

The “AG10” by Albion Musical Instruments

The “AG10” is a 10 Watt practice amplifier with an original designed eight inch speaker. Albion opted to incorporate a hybrid design by combining a “Field Transistor Circuit” (FET) with a single 12AX7/ECC83 tube in the preamp section. Furthermore, the tube operates at a high voltage level for optimal overall tone. The solid state power amp section utilizes a modified circuit that has been fine-tuned to get the most out of the tube characteristics from the preamp.

The top mounted control panel is straight forward with “Volume”, “Treble”, “Middle”, “Bass”, and “Gain” controls as well as a “Drive” switch for those times when you need to get a little dirty. The AG10 features a standard ¼” jack for the guitar as well as a 3.5mm input so you can practice with an MP3 or CD player, drum machine, or other peripheral device. Outputs include a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a speaker output for sending the signal to a larger speaker cabinet.

Features at a Glance:
• 10watt 1×8” hybrid guitar combo
• High voltage FET/valve preamp
• Constant current solid-state power amp
• 8” Albion made loudspeaker
• Single channel with Gain boost. 3-band EQ
• Speaker output to feed an 8-16ohm external speaker.

Sound Test “TCT 50H with GSL 212”

The first thing that stood out to me with the TCT 50H was the clean channel. On most tube amps, the clean channel has a tendency to break up at the higher volume levels where you get your best tone. The TCT 50H however seemed to have much more headroom in this area giving sparkling clean tone even when pushed fairly hard. Even more amazing is how easy it is to achieve great tone even at lower volumes.

Moving on to the second channel, I found copious amounts of overdrive could be dialed in for crunchy rhythms or searing solos. With the use of the “gain and “volume” I was able to find quality sound ranging from jazzy to flat out hard rock. The overall tone is incredible and rivals some of the best known big name amplifiers on the market.

I found the reverb to be high quality with a wide dynamic range that goes from a touch of subtle ambiance to a full force deep echo. Whether your goal is to manipulate a room’s natural dynamics, or you are going for the surf guitar sounds, this reverb will get you there easily with incredible results.

The “AB/Mix Balance” knob, in essence, adds a third completely separate channel that can be accessed via the included footswitch. This function combines both the clean and lead channels signals, but the truly clever part of this design is the versatility in how you can use it. For example, if you want to use this third channel for rhythm, you turn the knob below the unity gain at center. On the other hand, if you would like to use it as a boost for leads, you can turn it above unity gain for a louder cutting presence. My personal preference was for a boost, and the combined channels produce a fantastic full sound that you really need to hear for yourself to believe.

The “Edge” and “Depth” were new features that I have not seen on any amplifier I have used to date. Having the opportunity to try them out however, I found that they were invaluable tools for tonal shaping. I was able to achieve settings with very complex mids and harmonic overtones and a loose bottom end. With just a few adjustments I was able to take that sound to a more defined frequency spectrum with a tighter edgier crunch.

Using the “Edge” and “Depth” controls in conjunction with the “Feedback Loop” and “EQ” switches significantly opens up a new level of flexibility in the tonal palette making this a perfect amplifier for players with control issues.

When you add the features of the “F’BK” option with the “Deep” and “Edge” switches into the blend, it is very much like having several amplifiers at your fingertips without modeling technology.

The “100% / 33%” switch is a nice option if you need to get that pushed tube sound at lower volumes. When engages at the 33% level there is a noticeable decline in volume output with no perceivable adverse affect to tone. I should point out that it is not a huge volume drop. When you consider that you only gain approximately 3db every time you double wattage, I would estimate that by cutting it by a third would result in a 4db-5db difference. While that may seem negligible, it makes a big difference in select situations, particularly when you want to mic the amp.

Sound Test “AG10”

Don’t let the small size of the AG10 fool you. While it may have been designed as a practice amp, it will also hold it’s own in a studio or small jam session application. It may not be a good choice for a gigging situation or a larger room, but in truth, that was not the idea around the design. There are much larger amplifiers in the “AG” line for larger applications.

Since the AG10 is a hybrid amplifier, it does take several seconds for the tubes to warm up before you are able to play. I immediately went to work tweaking the tone controls to find my desired setting. This is a very easy amplifier to use since it has very basic control features and in no time at all I was ready to put it through its paces.

I was immediately impressed with the abilities of the AG10. While it may not have the brute strength of its bigger brethren, it comes out of the box with an attitude and ready to fight. It goes from clean to driven with a surprisingly rich sound that rivals many of the larger full tube amplifiers in my studio.

Pedal effects will all need to go through the input since there is not an effects loop for the time based units (not uncommon for an amplifier this size). I put the AG10 up to the challenge of several overdrive, distortion, reverb, delay, and chorus pedals. In every case this little powerhouse handled them with stellar results. Since there is not a reverb section built in, I do recommend a good quality reverb pedal.

Not wanting to leave any stone unturned, I plugged in a set of studio quality Ultrasone headphones in the “HP” jack. This was where I found my only disappointment with the AB10. The sound was very thin and lifeless as if someone had sucked all of the tone right out of the amplifier. Adding pedal effects did not do anything to help the situation as they also sounded like a mere shadow of their proven capabilities. This is a minor setback for a player who will not use headphones much. I did bring this up to Albion, and they promised to look into the issue to see if it was a design flaw, or just an anomaly with the amplifier I received.

Closing Thoughts

It is not often that I see a new product line that can combine the attributes of pleasing aesthetics with quality features and sound. However, in the case of Albion, Steve Grindrod was able to bring together over thirty-five years of design and manufacturing experience to create a line of amplifiers that boast new and innovative features, yet maintain a familiar and comfortable feel.

My initial impression is that “Albion Musical Instruments” is here to stay. They may not yet be a name talked about in guitar player circles, but they certainly have the potential to become the next amplifier brand to grace the stages of arenas and large recording studios world wide. Albion amplifiers are already being endorsed by artists such as Rami Jaffee (Wallflowers, Macy Gray, Kris Kristofferson, Fall Out Boys, Foo Fighters, LeAnn Rimes, Coheed and Cambria, Keith Urban, Johnny Cash, Ziggy Marley), Jeff Pevar (Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, David Crosby, Rickie Lee Jones), Doug Aldridge (Whitesnake, Dio), and Ant Glynne (Asia, Mike Oldfield, Slash, Rick Wakeman, Albert Collins and Taj Mahal) just to name a few.

I really enjoyed testing and reviewing the “TCT 50H” and the “GSL 212” and have no problem bestowing to them the first “Rig Ready Award” for 2011. I am proud to say they will be staying in my personal studio for a great many years. The “AG10” is a great little practice and studio amplifier when used with the internal speaker, or run through an external speaker. Since the posting of this review, Albion has randomly tested several of the AG10 amplifiers for problems with the headphone jack. They have assured me that the tests came back with great results and I must have recieved a unit with a bad headphone jack. In light of this and with understanding that any products can have a faulty part from time to time, I will award the AG10 with it’s own “Rig Ready Award” for 2011.