Price paid: $ 199
Features — 6
I bought this amp in like new condition from a local Pawn Shop (ha!). I was looking for a low wattage (<15) tube amp for recording with at least a 10 inch speaker and preferably EL34s or 84s for under $300. The excelsior was outside of my specs in most areas but inside my price range so I gave it a try and ended up buying it.
- 13 Watt
- Tube-bias tremolo
- The 15" speaker is immediately noticeable if you peek around the back or just play it (or pick it up).
- 3 Inputs: Gtr, Mic, Accordion (from what I've read these have different resistances and therefore a slightly different eq response.)
- Controls: Tremelo speed knob is also on/off switch, tone switch (bright/dark), and volume.
- There is one power switch in the back.
- I removed the tone switch, replaced it with standard 500 tone knob. Much better now.
- Because of the tone switch and one power switch, lower points here.
Sound — 8
Although it was a little weird for sure, I bought it for the sound. I think I just played some off-brand strat through it when I tried it out. Even with that crazy tone switch that went from shrill to muffled, I could hear potential with the switch set to bright and the guitar tone rolled down. I mostly do alternative psychedelic rock/pop stuff (Flaming Lips, Portugal The Man, Queens Of The Stone Age) and this amp is perfect for those crazy lo-fi cranked tones.
I'm used to 40-50w 6L6 12" combos so I don't know if it was the 15 inch speaker, or the 6V6 tubes (which have a more refined mid-range) but it sounded obviously different to me in a good way. The tone knob immediately turns this beast into something more use-able and if you have drill with 3/8 bit and soldering iron you can do it for about $20. Single best and most cost-effective upgrade for this amp. The switch does seem like a strange choice even with the rest of the "pawn shop" marketing going on.
Here are the things I love about this amp:
- It has this big bloomy, rubbery, earthy clean tone to it especially pushed harder with flat-wound strings or semi-hollow/hollow body guitars.
- I don't know if this is due to the nature of the components or circuitry (or even if it is really supposed to do this at all), but when you crank this amp (especially in a live band) it gets this great slightly fuzzy, almost modulated auto-phaser sounding crunch. When you add gain from other pedals their sound kinda takes over, so you can change that part more or less if you don't like it.
- I use an analog blues overdrive, analog bass overdrive, and digital reverb with the excelsior and they all sound great run straight into the input. I've seen some DIY effect loop kits. This may be something to look into if you're planning on recording a lot of pedals with an amp like this. The bass overdrive has a 'blend' knob so it's kinda like a sparkle drive. The overdrive is basically just boost, and the reverb is usually a basic warm, longer room. It would probably take to other pedals as well.
Here's what I don't like:
- It does seem noisy, but the wiring where I live is older.
- The tremelo circuit when switched on adds a bit of noise, but that could also be because of the first point. Some of it could be from the type of volume modulation this and other cheaper amps employ too. I don't use tremolo and it stays off so I don't worry about that. There are mods to make it foot-switchable.
- The stock speaker definitely has a noticeable character of its own, but the amp sounds fine with the tone knob added. I've been reading that an Eminence Legend 1518 is usually the best choice but Jensen reportedly sounds good too.
- I have removed the lower chassis from the amp entirely while recording to eliminate what was a very nasty tube rattle (what I'm 90% sure was tube ringing/rattle) at certain frequencies. It's gone now, but still not really that cool to deal with. No doubt from the 15" speaker. Better tubes would probably help too.
The only reason I don't give a 9 or 10 here is it almost sounds terrible with the stock tone switch and the rattling.
Reliability & Durability — 6
It doesn't seem exactly rock solid at the moment what with the bottom chassis hanging out but I've found work-arounds especially with it being a stationary studio amp. I would not feel comfortable gigging with it, but others might be ok. Too low wattage for our show anyways. I'm not so trusting of the stock tubes either. I'm sure they're Chinese and fine but at least some good Russian tubes would even be a step-up. It has held up for what I bought it for and more, however.
The cabinet actually seems pretty solid despite the buzzing.
Overall Impression — 7
Overall the excelsior is great at responding to playing dynamics. It gets a great clean sound and slight breakup at bedroom volumes and an even better sound at studio levels. Even at 13 watts it was still louder than I expected but it greatly benefits from a few cheap upgrades. I haven't even tried any other tubes yet, although I would bet that a better and more efficient speaker would really open this baby up more than tubes would. Still couldn't hurt once that was done or just to change the breakup response. Seems to like pedals ok even when pushed. Looks cool and is pretty easy to carry around considering.
I do wish it had a standby switch which I'm sure saves the hell out of the tubes compared to not having one.
This amp gets lower marks than it could have because of the marketing playing into the features of this amp so much. It doesn't need a tone switch, it needs a knob like every other normal amp. It doesn't need two other inputs, even if you we're running a mic or accordion through it. And it especially doesn't need the electrician-grade wiring in the back. It greatly needs a standby switch.