Price paid: $ 350
Sound — 5
I use this amp almost exclusively with my Fender Stratocaster (SSS pickup configuration). It's been kind of an interesting relationship, because I've had the amp since last April, but have only started to really like it since the other weekend. To be honest, I was too embarassed by the sound to use it for anything, in part because of the aforementioned controls. The distortion is extremely heavy even at low levels, perhaps suitable for metal but certainly too much for my usual classic rock (especially with single coils, which I find don't take heavy distortion well at all), and the clean sound -- without so much as a hint of reverb -- is listenable but rather dull. But it turns out a lot of this is just the small and decidedly underpowered speaker. Out of sheer boredom I wired the headphones plug into my computer's line input (I'd actually done this many times before, but was always dissatisfied with the results; in retrospect, it was probably from my use then of a rather unspectacular Boss overdrive/distortion pedal), and discovered -- after playing with the tone and adjusting volumes appropriately -- that it actually sounded quite good. Using the middle pickup on the clean amp setting, I got a very bright, sparkling tone that several other UG'ers mistook for an Acoustic. A middle/neck combination (also clean) and a post-processing pitch shift got a convincing enough bass, and after *very carefully* adjusting the gain level, I found a good overdriven sound suitable for, say, Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac. It's nothing to a good tube, but it's not Line 6 either. I actually laughed out loud when I posted the recording, and several people complimented me on the tone! The sound gets a five; I love it for recording (now), but there's too much fiddling around before you find a good tone, and no hope for using it Live.
Overall Impression — 6
For almost the entire time I've had this amp, the nicest thing I could say was an ironic thanks to Crate for pushing me towards playing acoustics. (Indeed, if it weren't for this Crate, I might never have discovered my favorite Seagulls.) But having since discovered its well-kept secret direct recording sound, I'm starting to appreciate this amp a little more. Now, I have to be brutally honest here. The controls on this amp are quite horrendously counter-intuitive, and there's an extremely steep learning curve before you get a really good sound. This amp is absolutely useless for Live playing, because of the inconsistency of volume levels between the two channels, and more importantly, the extremely weak internal speaker (it might be better with an external stack). Knowing this, I could never recommend this to anyone buying one new (not a problem now, as it's long since discontinued), and indeed, probably would never buy the thing myself. But I'm glad I have this amp, because for all its (many) problems, it fills the recording niche quite nicely, and the little touches -- built-in tuner, analog controls -- do make a world of difference for me. Certainly no one could mistake it for a high-end tube, but considering the price range, it's a good sound, much nicer than more recent comparatively low-end trash like Line 6. If this were lost or stolen before I could afford a nicer amp -- say, a good mid-range tube -- I would rather buy another of these, which I know how to work, than risk my money on something unfamiliar like a Vox Valvetronic or Marshall MG (or that other one which I will not here name). Overall this amp strikes me -- forgiving the tech analogy -- as quite befitting a Linux user such as myself. It's cheap; where it's good, it's good; but where it's bad, it's simply awful, and you have to be either desperate or some kind of masochist to think the learning curve justifies the rewards. All in all, I give it a six. This amp is not for everyone, and -- at least outside its budget range -- you could quite easily do better. But if you can make this amp's numerous quirks work for you, it's not bad (if not great either). I used to hate this amp because of all its problems, but now that I've discovered its secrets, I actually kind of like it.
Reliability & Durability — 9
I would not use this on a gig, because of the various flaws I've encountered (summarized below). But the reliability would not be a problem. This amp is tough -- I've dropped it several times, probably even thrown it out of sheer frustration once or twice, and taken it apart with a screwdriver, and it still works fine. The only problem I've really had is the backlight on the controls (another nice feature) flickers on mine, and these days usually stays completely out. It drives me crazy as a long-time computer tech, since it always looks like it's about to fail out, but it still plays just fine. Perhaps a silly thing, but Crate deserves kudos for using real analog knobs on the front panels. I find this infinitely preferable to digital controls a la Line 6, with all the different presets that randomly override your manual settings (and vice versa) with no readily apparent rhyme or reason. (As a vaguely related tangent, my brother actually had to replace his first Spider III because the master volume control went out; I've never had that problem with my Crate. The controls on the Crate also feel more stable, compared to the Spider, which seem quite inconsistent and erratic. "They're not so much rules as, you know, guidelines.") Reliability loses one only for those annoying flickering lights. Everything else is fine here.
Features — 7
My amp appears to have been built circa 2004. It's a combo amp with a 30w solid-state head, 10" speaker, clean and dirty channels, CD input, and about everything else you'd expect in a practice amp. It also has two additional outputs besides the speaker, one for headphones and one for an external speaker. One of it's best features is a convenient built-in tuner at the top (next to the handle); even considering the problems I've had with this amp -- to be discussed shortly -- I would keep it around just for that one feature. The amp also has 16 built-in digital effects, but these require a footswitch that I don't own to activate. Reverb is included among these 16 effects -- actually, there's four or five levels, for different size rooms -- rather than a separate control, which is somewhat of an annoyance, but not enough to make using this amp insufferable. Another unusual thing about this amp is that the two channels have entirely separate tone controls -- on every other amp I've played, including an older Crate practice amp, the clean controls have also affected the distorted sound. On the clean channel, there are controls for high, medium, and low tones, and volume. On the "solo" (dirty) channel, there are gain, volume, and "shape" (tone). These controls are extremely sensitive; with distortion, I keep tone at zero and the other two just a hair's width above, and even that's a very loud, distorted sound. The clean channel is much quieter; at full volume it's maybe about what the dirty one gets at two. I'll give it a seven because it's got a quite respectable feature set, including the more unusual things like the tuner and external speaker out, but also the aforementioned inexplicible quirks.