By Jack Devine
Over the last two decades or so, we as guitar players have slowly and reluctantly come to grips with one immutable fact…The guitar amps we love are too loud and most of the time outpace our volume needs. Unfortunately for us, we grew up listening to large amplifiers being pushed to their limits. That “overdrive” is what we’re after a lot of the time, and in order to get that sound at reasonable SPLs we’ve invented distortion pedals, master volume circuits, attenuators and digital modelers. As it turns out, lots of players aren’t satisfied with these solutions and have been buying up cool vintage practice amps or asking boutique amp builders for smaller, quieter amps. This year the guys at Komet Amplification, Holger Notzel and Michael Kennedy decided to enter the low wattage amp fray with their new model the Komet 19.
The problem with smaller amps is that they sound, well… small. They tend to get engulfed, buried or lost, especially on a stage. The Komet 19, the newest amp from Komet Amplification is a little amp with a big sound. Komet Amplification is home to such apex predators as the Concorde, K60, K80 and the only manufacturer licensed to produce Ken Fischer’s latter day designs. So when these guys decided to put a horse in the small amp race…it’s one to watch.
I got to know Holger (TGP’s Hogy) through TGP, and when I started doing this column I asked to review this amp as it was making quite the stir. The initial run of 25 amps was so eagerly anticipated that it sold out before they were even built. That’s saying something considering it’s not cheap. At nearly $2,300 it’s an expensive amp. Obviously the demand was there, so I figured a review would be helpful for those on the fence about spending their hard earned on a high quality, low wattage head like the K19.
Just like its big brothers, the K19 is built like a tank, and uses only the best components. Hand wired with love and an obsessive attention to detail right here in the USA. The amp is built on a laser cut, aircraft grade aluminum chassis and hosts a plethora of high end construction techniques. I mean everything in the amp, from the custom built transformers to the gold-plated tube sockets to the potentiometers is audiophile approved…top shelf all the way. This amp, just like the other bigger amps from Komet has a no compromises approach to component choice, but has few bells and whistles. The streamlined circuit and layout are deceptively short on features, but long on tone. By keeping the signal path pure, and devoid of reverb, loops, boosts and the like there’s an immediate quality to both the sound and feel of the amp. Transient response and clarity is shocking, and not just “for an amp of this size”…just plain old shocking.
Now, bear in mind we’re only working with nineteen watts here, so the clean headroom is going to run out pretty quick. Just the same, there are quite a lot of great clean sounds available. I was actually taken aback by them to be honest. So much so that I found myself writing a song, based on the clean tone within five minutes of plugging into the amp. That intangible thing, that inspiration that an inanimate object can bring to the creative process is priceless. And to me, is a clear indicator that of a piece of equipment worth having.
The EL-84 power tubes give the amp a nice chime and a fair amount of compression when pushed, which to some degree is mitigated by the use of a fast recovery solid-state rectifier. There’s plenty of gain provided by the two 12ax7 tubes in the pre-amp. The 19’s stoic faceplate has but three knobs, Volume, Saturation, and Tone. All three are somewhat interconnected. For example, by raising the Volume knob the amp becomes not only louder, but gainier too. As the Saturation knob goes up, so does the overall level of the amp along with the harmonic content and density of the distortion. The Tone knob is simple, but very effective allowing for a smoother, mellow sound when kept low, or a sharper edge to the tone when left wide open. The usefulness of the tone knob multiplies when used in conjunction with the three position bright switch. The Saturation knob, when set past noon, lets the amplifier get nice and chewy as the volume comes up. Solo tones are present and well voiced and chords ring with multiple overtones and a lovely clarity. I have only one word of caution to potential owners; the amps knobs need to be configured properly to get the most out of the amp. Just diming everything isn’t where it’s at here. So just be forewarned, the layout is simple but very interactive and can, at extreme settings produce sounds that are a little “off”. So, provided that you can use some common sense and have a set of functioning ears on your head, prepare to be rewarded by this tiny tiger of tone.
The first clip is based around the clean sound of the amp. As mentioned before, I unpacked the amp, plugged it in, and within five minutes I had written this song. The settings are pretty simple. I had them all up about eleven o’clock with the bright switch in the “up “ position. I ran the amp into my 2×12 Scumnico loaded, open back cabinet, and miked it from a foot away with an AKG 414 to emphasize it’s chime and airy tones. I played my 1986 AVRI Strat straight into the amp and used a little delay and reverb courtesy of Pro Tools. I like how I can hear the strings and the separate notes that comprise the chords of the tune. Single note lines can be made thicker, with a hint of hair by giving more picking pressure or kept clean and chimey by using a lighter touch.
Obviously one of the reasons to get a smaller amp is to be able overdrive it at reasonable volumes, so this review would be incomplete without an examination of the amps drive tones. I decided to use a few different guitars for this clip to see how the amp handles different types of pickups. I must say the amp liked them all! Out of the right speaker, playing the main rhythm guitar is my Strat on the bridge pickup. The sound, set for a bright chiming crunch cuts nicely, and defines the bulk of the harmony in the tune. The amp was set with all knobs at noon and the bright switch off. To thicken and reinforce the sound I overdubbed and panned opposite my ES-335 on the bridge pickup. I turned up the Volume to two o’clock, as well as engaging the bright switch in the “up” position for a beefier tone with some grind and girth. Lastly I got out my SG junior and did the lead track. This guitar has a great old P90 in it and can really drive the front end of an amplifier. The settings were Volume two o’clock, Saturation at eleven and the Tone knob up at five o’clock with the bright switch engaged in the up position. This allowed for a lot of cut and grind if needed. By changing picking position and picking pressure a wide range of hot, overdriven lead tones were easy to coax from the amp. I was very impressed with the ability the amp had to reproduce my picking dynamics. The subtle tonal variations caused by picking location and the little chirps and harmonics that I was playing all came through…very cool. I recorded the track with an SM 57 and a Marshall 4×12 through my Chandler Limited microphone pre-amp. No compression or EQ, just a little reverb on the tracks plus some delay on the lead for a little depth of field.
Does it have the headroom and low-end oomph of a 100 watt Marshall Super Bass? No, and frankly that would be electronically impossible. The amp does have the feel and sound of an amp with four EL-84 power tubes rather than two, but at more reasonable levels. That’s not to say it’s quiet…no, no, no. The 19, when paired with a 4×12 or some very efficient speakers would certainly be able to handle most stages with little to no help from the PA, depending of course on your clean headroom needs and how loud the band is. I liked how the sound cleaned up nicely from the guitar volume knob, just like all the Komets I’ve played. This makes it a nice grab and go amp for jams. Honestly I think the amp is best suited for a recording studio that needs a quality amp that has lots of tones on tap with just a few turns of the knobs but not a massive amount of volume. The amps tones are well trimmed of any excesses, like a beautiful steak ready for the grill. Its voice is bold and clear and yet well contained. These tracks were easily recorded and I found them to sit nice and quick in the mix. I loved how I was up and running in minutes and was on my way to making music, not fussing with loops and boosts or getting the mic placement “just so”. My compliments to the chef.
Overall, playing and recording the amp was simple, intuitive and quite a pleasure. It’s a luxury to have such nice tools in the studio or on stage. But I’ll be frank, it’s money well spent to quickly get to the heart of the matter…creating music.
Thanks for reading and thanks for listening.
Stay tuned, and stay positive.