What actually constitutes a `boutique amplifier’ in this day and age? Hand wiring, top-quality components, strong visual appeal and superior tone all spring to mind. However, boutique amplifier manufacturing is no longer the preserve of individual craftsmen or small workshops.
Marshall identified a significant chunk of the high-end amplifier market that the company was missing out on; how galling it must be when so many boutique amp makers are brazenly marketing virtual clones of vintage Marshall products. The upshot is that the Astoria range is Marshall’s assault on the boutique amp market.
All three Astoria models are available in combo and piggyback formats, and for this review we were supplied with both versions of the Astoria Classic. With a power rating of 30 watts, it’s the simplest of the Astoria models.
The range’s two-tone tolex gives the traditionally-shaped boxes a contemporary and stylish facelift, and the colour-matched `plexi’ name plates are based on the type that preceded Marshall’s more familiar white plastic logos. Perhaps the even earlier metal Marshall badge might have been a classier touch for an amp of this status, but it’s a minor detail and the silver piping with the brushed metal control panel is a sharp look.
Many boutique amp companies make a big deal of hand wiring and Marshall is doing the same for the Astorias. Hand wiring is usually associated with tag strip construction or the turret board approach employed in Marshall’s Handwired Series.
The Astorias have turrets mounted on printed circuit board and the reason given for this hybrid arrangement is that all of the signal path components are soldered to turrets, but it’s more convenient to mount those relating to footswitching functionality directly to a PCB.
Since there aren’t any footswitching features on the Classic, Marshall’s reasoning applies mostly to the Astoria series’ Custom and Dual models.
Inside, the construction is exceptionally neat, and where appropriate connections between turrets are hard-wired together, rather than joined by PCB tracings. There’s a mixture of Vishay and silver mica capacitors, while the resistors are metal film and wirewounds. The transformers are manufactured by Dagnall – Marshall’s relationship with that company dates back to 1966.
Marshall’s R&D department carried out A/B listening tests to determine the best power valves for the Astoria circuit and the KT66 won out, which makes the Astoria series unique among the company’s product range. These examples have the old-style `bottle’ shape and nice brown bases, but Marshall doesn’t disclose the name of the manufacturer.
Although more closely associated with EL84s and EL34s, Marshall has a long history with KT66s. They were the power valves used in the JTM45 combo that Eric Clapton played when he recorded the `Beano‘ album with John Mayall. Often described as the European equivalent of the 6L6, KT66s are known for deep lows and clarity, but they’re less aggressive in the midrange than EL34s.
The KT66s are cathode-biased, so EL34s can be substituted without needing to visit a tech. In Marshall’s early amplifiers, the KT66s were teamed up with a GZ34 valve rectifier, and the company has revived that classic combination for these Astoria models.
The Classic is single-channel and described as a low-gain amp. Its purpose isn’t to be a crunch monster, or even to offer a range of clean-to-overdriven tones. Instead, Marshall designed the Classic as a clean platform for pedal users or those who simply prefer clean valve tones.
Some of the circuit description is interesting and that’s reflected in the way the controls function. In place of gain, the Classic has a sensitivity control, which adjusts the amount of negative feedback in the preamp section. Negative feedback is used in the power amp section of vintage-style Marshall amps, and the presence control sets the amount.
The Classic has no negative feedback loop in the power section and an `edge’ control replaces presence to adjust the overall brightness, which it achieves by cutting the high frequencies between the phase splitter and power valves.
Many of us will be familiar with the bass, middle and treble tone controls, and master sets the overall volume. Interestingly, you can turn the sensitivity to minimum and the Classic still passes signal, so it’s nothing like a conventional gain and master volume arrangement. The master control doubles as a push/pull switch, which activates the power scaling and drops the output level down to five watts.
Cabinet configurations aside, the combo and head are identical in every way. As you might expect, the cabs are made robustly from plywood and the combo just about qualifies as a one-arm lift using its faux-leather handle.
Each version is equipped with a 12-inch Celestion Creamback speaker which, of late, has become a very popular choice for boutique amps. The chassis of both amps are identical but orientated differently, due to their physical configuration,with the valves pointed upright in the head and towards the front of the combo’s cabinet.
From a maintenance perspective, the head arrangement is preferable because you can identify dodgy valves and replace them without needing to pull out the entire chassis. But from a player’s point of view, it’s easier to access the controls on the combo.
I’ll deal with the relatively minor differences between the two Classic formats later on, but to keep things simple for now, all observations about the way the amps function apply equally to both.
Upon flicking the standby switches, the first surprise was the Classic’s quietness. Until I plugged in a guitar, I was a bit concerned that neither amp was working, but whoever laid out this circuit obviously knows a thing or two about grounding and lead orientation.
Due to the unconventional controls, some experimentation is needed to become familiar with the way the Classic operates. It certainly delivers big and fairly loud clean tones, with an undeniable Marshall flavour, but the amp only really comes to life when the master and sensitivity are turned up fairly high.
With both controls at or near maximum, the Classic does overdrive, but most – if not all – of that overdrive comes from the power amp section rather than the pre. Turning up the sensitivity control increases level, but it also appears to introduce more harmonic overtones. With passive single-coil and humbucker pickups, the sensitivity control’s useful range is halfway and above. Below that, the Classic can sound a little flat.
Anyone who’s used Marshall-style amps will feel right at home with the equalisation section – there are huge amounts of bass available and ample midrange swing. The treble can take you from dark and super-smooth tones to crystalline glassiness, and the edge control seems to add a layer of sparkle on top. To dial in the sweet spot for your guitar, all you need to do is use your ears.
The `power reduction’ feature works extremely well. Switching between power levels – 30 and 5 watts – the changes are gradual rather than instantaneous. Best of all, you don’t need to switch to standby to make the change. There’s no tonal degradation whatsoever and the uneven decay you occasionally encounter with power scaling is entirely absent.
The power drop is less noticeable when the Classic is turned right up, and it’s more or less on a par with swapping from the hi input to the lo, which is 6dB less sensitive. However, without the power reduction engaged, swapping to the lo input creates the impression of bass roll-off and slightly sweeter top end. It’s certainly not one of those `try it once and never again’ low-level inputs.
With single coils, a cranked up Classic will do that glorious Marshall trick of layering complex and chimey upper harmonics over fat and roaring low mids. It’s almost as if the lower registers are more overdriven and compressed than the highs. You can veer closer to distortion with humbuckers but, exactly as described, this is essentially about clean and moderately overdriven Marshall tones, rather than metal mayhem.
The Classic differs from the archetypal Marshall formula in its dynamic response. This could be due to the absence of negative feedback in the power section, and maybe also down to the presence of a valve rectifier in the circuit, but the Classic’s softer and more forgiving quality responds beautifully to playing dynamics.
More traditional Marshalls sometimes feel a bit stiff and the fast transient response can go beyond punchiness and into spikiness. The Classic’s looser character may not please everybody, but anybody with tweedy tendencies will certainly like it.
Plugging straight in without pedals demonstrates that the Classic is a highly playable and enjoyable amp, but it’s all about variations on a theme. It’s more than a one-trick pony, but only just. So, then, how does it perform as a pedal platform?
In a word, it’s excellent. I tried the Classic with a wide selection of overdrives, clean boosts and fuzz pedals and they made it come to life. Pedals gel seamlessly with the core amp tone, and providing the Classic with a bit more kick up the front end makes it even more dynamic and responsive. The lo input is worth trying with boosts and overdrives because you’ll hear more of the pedal’s tone, and most stompboxes of that sort can easily compensate for the 6dB drop.
The sonic differences between the two Classic models become more apparent when they’re pushed hard. With all the controls set identically, our combo had a touch more gain with beefier mids, looser lows and less treble. Vox fans will certainly approve. In contrast, the head and cab arrangement sounded clearer, tighter and brighter.
These qualities make the head and cab the best choice as a pedal platform, but the combo might be preferred for its chewier and grungier plug-in-and-play attributes. Personally, I liked both, but I feel that the head and cab version would be the most versatile option.
It’s perhaps ironic when you consider that Marshall always made `boutique’ amps back in the day, and for several years the Handwired Series has been ticking all of the boutique boxes that actually matter. So why isn’t Marshall regarded as a boutique amplifier company?
Most guitarists have fairly clear expectations of Marshall amps ± both sonically and visually. In contrast, the company’s boutique competitors, such as Dr. Z, Tone King and Carr, aren’t constrained by such a strong brand identity.
Consequently, Marshall must have walked a bit of a tightrope when developing the Astoria series. To be genuinely successful, the Astoria amps must attract customers who hitherto might not have considered a Marshal amp, but at the same time, care has to be taken not to alienate loyal customers.
Creating a vintage-inspired modern `boutique’ amp with such a strongly Marshall-esque sonic character has freed the company to combine much-loved heritage elements with modern features that purists would find intolerable in a reissue. However, it must be said that these features are far more in evidence on the Custom and Dual models than the Classic.
And that’s the main issue some may have with the Astoria Classic. Designing a clean valve amp as a platform for pedals isn’t exactly breaking new ground. Fender had that one nailed by the end of the 1960s – and so did Marshall.
One minor thing to note is that, since the Classic is intended for players who use effects, it seems odd that it’s the only model in the Astoria range without an effects loop.
The Classic produces really fine tones, especially when its front end is being pushed. However, the Custom and Dual models reach places that the Classic can only hint at when it isn’t assisted by pedals. The Classic’s relative simplicity may appeal, but if you need the flexibility offered by their additional features and the wider range of tones on offer, try out the Custom and Dual before making up your mind.
The inside story
We caught up with Mike Cahill, Marshall’s marketing and new product liaison guy, to get the full skinny on the new Astoria series…
So what’s all this talk about the Astorias being boutique amplifiers?
“There are several reasons we wanted to introduce a premium product, but we can’t possibly produce a boutique amp, as such. We’re too big a company to be boutique, but it’s most definitely aimed at the guitarist at that end of the market.”
“We didn’t want to produce a product, as we usually do, with essentially the same preamp but a different power stage. We wanted to make something more special and go into areas where we haven’t ventured before, in order to get away from some of the criticism we’ve had – for a long time – about all Marshalls `looking the same’.”
Well, Marshall has such a strong brand identity…
“Absolutely, and that’s still there with the Astoria but we’ve put a twist on it with the looks, the colour schemes and the actual cabinet designs, to make it striking.”
“Another criticism we get is about doing the reissue thing. A lot of people like that and we’re certainly not going to stop celebrating our tremendous history and heritage, but there’s no reason why, alongside that, we can’t do something a little different.”
“We wanted to keep that vintage sensibility but give the Astorias a more up-to-date and versatile twist with some of the switching features. Tick box number one was that it had to sound great, and we certainly think we’ve achieved that with all three models, for slightly different reasons. With the Classic, having negative feedback in the preamp stage rather than the power amp stage allows a little more linearity, and therefore more volume with a bit less gain. I think it’s fair to say that generally having no negative feedback in the power amp creates a more sought-after sound, with that bell-like harmonic distortion.”
Many of the points you make about versatility and switching don’t really apply to the Classic…
“That’s a fair point. It applies more to the Custom and especially the Dual. The Classic is very much pointed at guitarists who like their pedal setups and want
that pure valve sound from their amps.”
“The Custom has a gain control with body and 20dB boost switches. The Dual has all those features but with two channels, and both the Custom and Dual have valve-driven effects loops, but they can’t match the Classic for clean headroom.”
Many of the comparable, US-made boutique amps are actually cheaper than the Astorias are, here in the UK…
“We’re absolutely aware of where they’re sitting in the market, and the boutique market is pretty crowded. We’re under no illusions about the niche nature of
the Classic, in particular.”
“But there’s still plenty of brand loyalty – particularly in the US, where the Marshall brand is still as strong as it’s ever been – and a lot of people are incredibly excited about something new, and not a reissue, that’s absolutely a Marshall.”
Classic AST1H head & AST-122 cabinet
• Price £1,799 (head), £519 (cabinet)
• Description Cathode-biased, 30W/5W, one-channel head with power scaling, multiple speaker outputs. Open-back cab with specially-voiced Celestion G12H Creamback 12” speaker. Made in the UK
• Valves 3x 12AX7, 2x KT66, 1x GZ34
• Controls sensitivity, bass, middle, treble, master (with power reduction push/pull)
• Dimensions 26.5x23x60cm (head), 51×25.5x60cm (cabinet)
• Weight 15.8Kg/34.8lbs (head), 17.1Kg/37.6lbs (cabinet)
Classic AST1C combo
• Price £2,099
• Description Cathode-biased, 30W/5W, one-channel combo with power scaling, multiple speaker outputs, specially-voiced Celestion G12H Creamback 12” speaker. Made in the UK
• Valves 3x 12AX7, 2x KT66, 1x GZ34
• Controls sensitivity, bass, middle, treble, master (with power reduction push/pull)
• Dimensions 51×25.5x60cm
• Weight 27.3Kg/60.1lbs
• Contact Marshall Amplification plc 01908 375411