By Scott Auld
I had the pleasure recently of getting some quality time with a new amp, the Tone Philosopher 40, made by Adam White, owner and Chief Engineer at Chrome Dome Audio in Cincinnati, Ohio.
I had been starting to wonder if anyone was ever going to try to release a well-made, high-quality, American-made guitar amplifier for under $1000. Turns out, that’s almost the mission statement at Chrome Dome. Adam set out to design and build a series of handmade combo amps using top-shelf parts that could be priced under that thousand-dollar-benchmark. The Tone Philosopher line of amps is the result. This review is of the 40 watt version.
This is a punchy, clear, responsive EL-34-based amp that is a real joy to play. It doesn’t fight you, rather it works with you and almost becomes an extension of the guitar. And when I threw a couple of my favorite pedals in front of it, well - let’s say time got away from me a few times while I was playing guitar. Which is kind of the point, right?
First glance at the amplifier immediately alerts the user to how versatile this combo is. There are 6 front-mounted toggle switches that swap part values in the circuit. You can mod this amp on the fly, without ever cracking open the chassis!
If you take a close look at these toggles, the first one you see on the left-hand side of the front panel is labeled “Hi-Gain." This switch controls how hard the 1st preamp stage drives the second. When you flip this toggle up, you get more front end power.
Next to the “Hi-Gain” switch, the "C-Cap" switch changes cathode bypass capacitor values. One way to easily relate to how these capacitor values affect your sound is to imagine this switch as a “Fender/Marshall” switch. Although this is an oversimplification to some degree, it does help remember the general point of this control. With the switch down, the preamp will have more gain and less input headroom, and the mids are accentuated. The amp gets smoother and has a little less low-end. With the switch in the middle (Off) position, no cathode bypass cap value is in place and the gain stage has more headroom. With the switch up, the cap value is higher and the amp has that sought-after bloom in the low end and mid-bass range.
The T-Cap switch switches treble capacitor values in the tone stack between 250PF or 500PF. I have found this to act as what I think of as a “grind” switch. That’s the best way I can describe it. If you want a little built-in dirt to your tone, this switch does it. The M-Cap switch is another 3-way toggle. Each one of these positions controls how much low frequency is removed from the signal path. (Regardless of where this switch is set, the bass knob still acts normally.)
You have probably often heard that an amp “works well with pedals” or “takes certain pedals well.” Adam made sure that the Tone Philosopher would always fit this bill. The last two switches on the front panel are “Slope” and “-FB”. The 3-position "Slope" switch is associated with the tone stack. It adds another degree of versatility to the tone controls of the amp. This switch set in the middle position will allow the tone stack driver to be driven harder with less saturation. My experience was that the C-Cap and Slope controls were extremely helpful in making the amp cooperate with a variety of pedals. They both allow you to set how much gain and strength in certain frequency bands you have from stage to stage, which means no matter what pedals you like - overdrive, delay, tremolo, whatever - the amp is prepared to respond well to it.
I probably don’t have to tell you that the "-FB" switch controls the negative feedback. This 3-way toggle changes the values of the capacitors associated with negative feedback, and also controls the behavior of the Presence control. With the switch up, you'll notice that the presence control acts like a mid control. With the switch in the middle the presence control is more subdued. With the switch down, the presence control really accentuates the high end. Adam told me several people have told him the "-FB" switch should be called the Sparkle Switch.
Chickenhead-style knobs across the front of the amp are arranged Gain, Volume, Treble, Bass and Presence. If you are familiar with how a classic Fender amp’s volume relates interactively with the tone controls, you will be very at home with the Tone Philosopher. The gain control provides additional command over the degree of gain that the tone stack driver sees as input.
Treble and bass are obvious. However, it’s important to remember that the "T-Cap" and "M-Cap" toggles change the degree of function and frequency centers of the two controls.
Speaker Choice, Fit and Finish
The amp provides 4, 8 and 16 ohm outputs. Adam picked the Jensen MOD 70 because of its low end capability and it's clean capability. That being said, the speaker does handle the edge and distortion the amp is capable of creating (albeit at a pretty loud volume!). The speaker sounded great when I got it, and I can only assume it will sound even better when broken in. Adam usually runs speakers on a break-in jig before shipping, but he got me this speaker before he had a chance to do that. The Tone Philosopher I received was in a nice tweed cabinet with a white silkscreened chassis. A variety of coverings are available. The amp is easy to transport and comes in a very convenient size - not too fat, not too wide, etc. This review combo was made for a giveaway 0n TGP and is, according to the company, the only combo that will be done in a tweed cabinet.
I had the Tone Philosopher at a local jam down here in Florida, and the guys politely admired it up until they heard it - then they kept trying to buy it from me! I had to keep telling them it wasn’t for sale. I don’t think I ever fully convinced my buddy, Miami Mike, to give up trying.
If you’re looking for a solid amp that is a pleasure to play and offers way more versatility than most amps, the Tone Philosopher is a great choice. The only negative experience I’ve had while it was here with me was knowing I’d eventually have to send it back to its home. This combo will be given to a lucky member of TGP in a giveaway.
Interview With Adam White of Chrome Dome Audio
by Brian Scherzer
Scherzer: Our reviewer was impressed with the Tone Philosopher 40. I realize that this is a one of a kind combo, but wanted to know if there were any features (other than the tweed) that are different from an amp that someone might purchase.
Adam White: I'm glad he liked it. Boy that's great! It’s important to note that this amp is a part of a growing family of amplifiers we have developed with the varied tastes of the player in mind. In fact, we are prototyping the first head/cabinet amps right now, which is proving to be really exciting. A sort of “Big Boy” version of what we have done so far. We don’t want to exclude the needs of anyone while planning the line, so there will be several models available for every application. This particular amp is in no way different than the production model, other than the vintage tweed cloth the amp is covered in. There are no other differences. Same circuit, transformers, and dimensions. The whole nine yards. Just aesthetics.
Scherzer: With so many new amp builders out there over the past few years, what was your philosophy as you looked at starting an amp company?
Adam White: This is a great question! Really! I'm 28 years old. I've been "Playing Radios" ever since I got into HAM radio when I was a kid. 13 or so. I separated from the U.S. Army in 2007 and have been making a living since then, repairing, upgrading and modifying tube guitar amplifiers. And building them. My 1st run of amplifiers were shown at NAMM in 2009, and were “well received" but in the end, they were too expensive, and weren't exactly the type of amp you'd take anywhere. "Eclectic" is how they were described. Solid Birdseye maple and flashy chrome, etc. Too pretty to take out of the house! Couple all of that with my day to day experience repairing, and improving other companies gear, and it hit me. Make a really well built, over-engineered amplifier with almost too much versatility, and figure out a way to design it, produce it and sell it for a fair price.
I'm fortunate to be teamed up with Tom Weber, Ed VanHalens’ tech…and Reba McEntire, Poison, NIN, Dio, and on and on. We use his shop and his experience to produce a fair amount of the components involved. I'm stupendously lucky to just to be friends with him. He has a motto: “Good enough never is”. That's us in a nutshell. Good enough never is. We have assembled a small team of truly motivated individuals who really seem to understand that the time for an amp like this, at a price point like this is long overdue. Everybody has ideas, and everybody wears several hats when it comes to getting things done. But we all have a common goal, and that makes the whole thing a lot more meaningful for those involved. We believe in what we’re doing, and that through that belief, we can change how people buy amplifiers. Simple value, great sound, and dependability. These aren’t options, it’s a matter of pride in what we do.
Scherzer: Would you comment on what went into your thinking as you designed the Tone Philosopher 40?
Adam White: A lot was going through my mind when I started this project. I had just come from the Hospital, and was recovering from a blown up appendix... I was bored as all get out and the only thing I could do was play with graph paper, a calculator and my trusty laptop. I spent hours reading up on Henry Ford, the assembly line inventor, of all people. That guy invented "out of the box thinking". Anyway, I went about designing an amplifier from off the shelf components, albeit not from "Tube Amp kit sellers" and away I went. I really wanted to create an amp that would be of true value and real use to the average guy that couldn't afford what is being sold today as "Boutique" and felt like if I did so, I could rescue them from the reality of owning a mass produced, pennies matter amplifier. I work on those. Regularly!
Scherzer: Are there any plans to sell your amps through dealers, or are you going to go with direct purchasing from the company?
Adam White: Well for right now, given the entire design process and production capability, we can produce around 100 units per month. Having dealers is an accomplishment of sorts, but it also raises the price to the end user. And you have to keep in mind that we are delivering a completely hand built, hand assembled, made in America amplifier for $900.00 tops. That's for the 40 watt units. 20 watt units are somewhat less. So for the foreseeable future, we plan to just ship direct. Presuming the demand is there. So far though, they have been well received. And the price is hard to argue with, if I may say so myself.
Scherzer: Did you develop this particular amp's voicing with any particular type of guitar?
Adam White: Another stupendous, super sized, and outstanding question! The short answer, no. The on board versatility of the amplifier serves several purposes, not the least of which is to help the musician hear what they want to hear, regardless of what guitar they play, via "Tuning" of the actual amplifier circuit. The ability to tune the EQ of an amplifier has always existed, but, for the most part, only within the set values of the amplifiers circuit design. We offer the player the ability to change more about the circuit itself through the use of on-board options. The byproduct of that is you can tune the amplifier to the guitar, rather than the other way around. When you think about it, it’s not very often that you can actively participate in what an amp is doing past the EQ section. Here you can change the actual values of some of the components that make the amplifier what it is. That lends itself to a greater variety of applications than your “one trick pony” type amplifier. In fact, we had a nice lady come into the shop with her electric viola and she plugged in, and damn if it didn't do what she wanted it to. Of course I was nervous and predicated the experiment with "We didn't design it for that, but…". It sounded great. She bought one.
Scherzer: Any final comments for our members?
Adam White: Yes, I'm a nerd in the complete sense. I'm a crappy guitar player, I play a mean soldering iron. I love music but can't make it, well. I pulled every trick out of my hat that I could to come up with a line of versatile, very reliable and flat out fun to play amplifiers. If you’re looking for a versatile amplifier. An amp that is built like a tank. One that will not let you down, and will always deliver, I truly believe these amps are the best thing going. If we sold them for twice as much, they’d still be worth it in today’s marketplace. They wouldn't be any better, you'd just have spent more.