Considering that this is an all-valve amp retailing at less than £400, we expected to find a ‘made in China’ sticker somewhere on the chassis. We were wrong: HGT-A20s are currently built here in the UK, but production will soon be moving to China. If you care about country of origin, then the best idea is to be swift on the trigger.
As the model designation suggests, this 2xEL84 amp produces 20W. Well, that’s when it’s in ‘Stage’ mode; a switch on the back panel drops the level between the preamp and power amp stages for 2W maximum output in ‘Studio’ mode.
While we’re looking at the back panel, the effects loop deserves a mention for its dedicated FX Drive Level control. There are also two direct outputs that apparently simulate the tone of a 4x12" speaker cab. The one labelled ‘Live’ is designed for stage use because you can send a signal to the mixer without needing a microphone while using Hayden’s onboard custom made 12" speaker for stage monitoring.
The direct output labelled ‘Dead’ stops the guitar signal reaching the speaker (but the hum, it must be said, makes it through unhindered). This output would be useful for recording at home or for jamming along with backing tracks through your computer speakers. If you want to connect a second cabinet, or run a different speaker, there are two speaker outputs rated at eight and 16 ohms apiece.
The A20 is a three-channel amp. Channel One is designated for clean sounds and has three controls: Bass, Treble and Volume. Channels 2 and 3 share the same Bass, Middle and Treble controls, as well as a Contour control. They have individual Gain and Master Volume knobs, but Channel 2’s Gain remains in circuit when Channel 3 is selected, so there is some interaction.
The clean channel proves to be a particularly encouraging start. It stays pretty clean all the way up in Studio mode, and all our test guitars came through with their distinctive voices intact. This channel sounds clear without being clinical and offers a nice balance between valvey compression and lively dynamics.
Although Studio mode is great for home use, things really come alive in Stage mode because power valve overdrive enters the equation. With single coils the overdrive starts creeping in with the Volume control halfway up.
By the time it hits maximum you’ll be enjoying a rich and creamy vintage-style overdrive that cleans up superbly when you turn down the guitar’s volume or play with a lighter touch. All three controls are fairly sensitive, so you need to listen carefully when you’re dialling in the tone controls, and lots seems to happen in the first and last quarters of their range.
Moving on to Channel 2, we started with Master 1 fully up and Gain 1 near minimum. With these settings Channel 2 picks up where Channel 1 left off. The fairly clean Blackface/Vox vibe veers towards cranked British classic territory; the tone becomes progressively thicker and chewier as Gain 1 is turned up, but all the touch sensitivity and dynamics remain. You could probably describe this as the ‘blues and hard rock’ channel, but gain levels don’t go beyond heavy overdrive.
Since they share the same tone circuit, it’s clear that Channels 2 and 3 aren’t going to sound a million miles apart. However, Channel 3 does have two extra cascaded valve gain stages, and the individual Master Volumes provide flexibility because you’re not obliged to get louder if you want more distortion. There’s a shift in tone, with Channel 3 sounding brighter, more aggressive and modern at the expense of clarity and tonal integrity.
Channel 3’s gain levels will definitely push you into metal mode if that’s what you’re after, but there are more subtle applications. For instance you could set Channels 2 and 3 so that they sound pretty much the same, with Channel 3 providing slightly more drive, volume and cut for soloing.
A sturdy metal footswitch toggles between the three channels. There are channel switches on the front panel too, but they feel so flimsy we’d be disinclined to use them. The switch on the left activates Channel 1 and the right switch pre-selects Channels 2 and 3, and although there is a short time lapse when you switch channels there are no nasty pops or clicks.
The Contour control allows you to fine-tune your tone when Channels 2 and 3 are selected. Fully anticlockwise, the bass really fills out, then it gradually decreases to the point where the tone becomes thin in the fully-clockwise position. It’s effective at compensating for the way we perceive frequencies at different volume levels.
When playing quietly in Studio mode, Contour is useful for beefing up the low end, but at regular volume levels you’ll likely keep it more or less centered. On balance we might have preferred that slot on the panel to be occupied by a midrange contour control for Channel 3.
By analogue amp standards the A20 is certainly versatile, although digital modelling amps have moved the goalposts for ‘versatility’ somewhat. The first two channels essentially give you two versions of the same basic tone at preset volume, overdrive and distortion levels. Fortunately that basic tone is very pleasing indeed, and the A20 responds just like a valve amp should. In fact Channel 1 is worth the price of admission on its own.
Channel 3 is voiced for an edgier and brighter tone that heavier rockers will appreciate, though those of a more ‘classic’ disposition may choose to stick to Channels 1 and 2, getting extra volume and sustain from overdrive or boost pedals. The only disappointments are some untidiness with the vinyl covering on one of the back panels, a functional but uninspiring reverb, and the edginess of the tone from the direct outputs. In every other respect this amp sounds superb and offers exceptional value for money.