Review Date: Wednesday 12th of September 2012 12:12:23 PM Last Updated: Thursday 1st of January 1970 01:00:00 AM Reviewed By: Richard Purvis
It may be dinky but this budget 1x10" combo is by no means a lightweight, beneath the conservative livery lurks an impressive range of tones. Richard Purvis puts it through its paces
Kustom Kulture, as any tattoo-necked American in a flame-painted hotrod will tell you, is all about kicking back against the conformity of the mainstream. This alternative lifestyle was the inspiration behind the original Kustom amps of the 1960s, with their padded ‘car seat’ coverings in a variety of spangly colours, but clearly something has changed – pretty much every model in the current range is clad in modest black vinyl. Visually at least, this is one rebel who has had his tats lasered out and traded up to a Yaris.
Never mind – it’s what’s under the bonnet that matters. The amp on test here is a 15W combo powered by two EL84s, with a single preamp valve. It’s a 1x10" small enough for a ferret to trip over. Just a bedroom toy, then? Not necessarily.
Sceptics are gently reminded that the Fender Princeton Reverb is a 1x10", and the day you hear any sound more beautiful than an original one of those in full flow is the day your head falls off. In fact the V15 is even smaller than a Princeton, but it’s certainly no lighter; this might be down to the transformers, which are encouragingly hefty. The speaker is a Celestion G10, squeezed in with barely a whisker to spare.
Tonehounds will be reassured by the lack of unnecessary knobs and switches on the V15’s top panel. Aside from Volume and Tone there’s just an intriguing Bass Response control – actually a four-way rotary switch, with ‘American’ at one end, ‘British’ at the other and two options in between.
Echoing the Blackstar ISF concept, this is clearly aimed at those 21st-century punters who demand not just a Fender-type amp and not just a Marshall-type amp but a little bit of both in the same box. Oh, and there’s also a switch for pulling back the power from 15W RMS to a handy 4W. The only feature of note on the back panel is a speaker-emulated DI out, which is XLR, with an earth lift button to avoid humming loops. There’s no standby switch.
The cabinet is well made and things are tidy on the inside too. The valve bases are soldered directly to a small PCB, with another carrying the rear connections and a bigger board holding the main components in the middle. The combination of small cabinet and ample transformers means it’s a right old squeeze in there, but there’s no obvious evidence of build issues. Almost inevitably, it’s made in China.
The little blue power switch may feel slightly toy-like but it doesn’t take long for this compact rocker to make its grown-up intentions clear. Kustom uses the word ‘snappy’ to describe the V15’s clean tones in the manual and that’s about right. Mind you, those clean tones might take a bit of finding. With Volume around 10 o’clock, Tone in the middle and the four-way control set to ‘American’ (this amp was designed in the USA, after all), even medium-powered single-coils will take you to the edge of break-up before you’ve really got those output valves out of bed.
You’re left with a narrow window around 9 o’clock where the amp is loud enough to be worth listening to but lightly strummed chords do not audibly distort. Well, you might argue that nobody buys a small combo for clean headroom anyway, but it has to be said there are 15-Watters on the market that offer a lot more than this one.
However, assuming we are more interested in the dirty stuff, the word ‘snappy’ still applies at mild crunch levels. It’s a sweet and sticky sound with lots of bottom end and only a slight suggestion of mid-range boxiness. The Tone control seems to add as much upper mids as it does true treble, but it will sharpen things up enough for the very dullest of pickups if you slam it round to full – the only snag being that you’ve now lost some of that lovely low-end thud. And the Bass Response switch?
The idea here is to tighten up the bottom for a more Marshall-like attack, and there’s no doubt that it works – at low gain, moving over to ‘British’ thins out the tone in a big way, putting much more focus on the lower mids. It’s not quite what I’d call vintage Brit bark, but the two ‘in between’ positions should enable you to dial out just as much bass boom as you need to.
The whole picture changes once you’ve turned the Volume past halfway: the V15’s natural compression is well suited to lead playing, producing some rich and meaty overdriven tones with just the faintest hint of fizz coming in at the very top of the dial, but now the American setting can start to feel too dense for chord work – especially with humbuckers – and a nudge or three across the Atlantic may be essential to keep things under control. None of this is actually changing the fundamental voice of the amp, but it’s a handy feature, particularly if you need to get balanced tones from both skinny Fender and chunky Gibson-type guitars.
Only one ECC83 means only two stages of preamp gain, so there isn’t a tremendous amount of overdrive on tap – this is not an amp for properly rocking out unless you’ve got suitable pedals to stick in front of it; if you have, then prepare to be impressed because it sounds great with a quality distortion box.
And the quarter-power option is a nice touch, bringing saturation at lower levels and softening the edge of the tone without completely muffling it. This could come in very handy for home recording. Not so handy in the case of our review amp was a hint of ringing resonance which, predictably, turned out to be one of the unbranded Chinese valves being a tad microphonic.
You don’t judge an amplifier by its colour scheme, but by what comes out through the cloth at the front. So let’s forget the Kustom’s ultra-conventional looks and concentrate on its warm, bluesy tones.
It might be a little lacking in transparency for some players but the Bass Response control does offer a useful colouring option and it’s certainly not the tonal lightweight you might be expecting from those dinky dimensions.
You wouldn’t call it a hotrod in disguise, but as far as hatchbacks go, the Defender V15 is a solid performer.
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