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This article was originally published in issue #5
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The small valve combo is undergoing a renaissance and there are two ways to approach it. If money is no object, you can shop from any number of small, boutique manufacturers who, for the price of a decent secondhand car, will sell you pint-sized perfection. But what if you don't have that sort of money, don't need a high power rig but really crave valve/tube tones at an affordable price? Cue the latest addition to the venerable Hiwatt range - the T20 18 Watt combo.
Here we have a 1x12 18 Watt all valve, channel switching, very cool looking, Hiwatt, priced at the lower end of the market. Costs have been kept down by the fact that it is made in China, so let's dispel a myth before it even gets started. This isn't one of the superb, point-to-point handwired, UK-built Hiwatts that have been so successful in the past few years. That doesn't mean it's an inferior product - very far from it - but you do need to understand what it is you are buying.
The T20 has the usual bass, mid and treble EQ controls you expect to find on any amp, but the mid pot provides a secondary function that is slightly more unusual. It's a push-pull design, giving you an extra option for where you want place the mids. Rather than try to describe the effect in words, have a look at the video! Usefully, the Hiwatt also has an effects loop which is in series, for your reverbs, delays and modulation pedals. Subtle and simple use of core effects can expand the tone of any amp, and this amp takes pedals well, both in front to push it, and in the loop to give some life and shimmer with those reverbs and delays. There is an onboard spring type reverb, too, and these are a matter of some debate. In the Red corner we have Mr Casswell, who opines that "you cannot beat a lovely digital plate reverb in the loop" and in the black corner we have Mr Cooper who says "I grew up with spring reverbs and I still think they're fun". Take your pick! Both the onboard reverb, and the channel switching can be handled via a footswitch, which with this amp, did not come supplied - we think that's a shame. The speaker, on the other hand, is a Fane and we think that's a plus point. Fane and Hiwatt have always gone hand in hand, just like Marshall and Celestion. Some things just shouldn't be messed with!
Soundwise the Hiwatt is a mixed bag. Michael Casswell says he found the sound: "rather 'flat', even though I tried it with Fender, Gibson and EMG pick ups. It's not that it's a bad sound, it's just a little lifeless. The clean channel is not particularly 'spanky' or deep sounding, and the dirty channel is a bit fuzzy at the fullest gain setting, without being gainy enough for it to be cool. At home I presumed that the lower level, as with a lot of tube amps, is not letting it breathe with character and depth, and the dirty channel seemed to be more of a fuzz tone than gain. It was better when we turned it up for filming, but it still didn't rock my world in the tone department."
That said, check out our video where you can hear the T20 for yourself and make up your own mind.
What does need to be said it that it is built like a Hiwatt - even if it is made in China! Hiwatt was always the amp a band could rely on back in the 1970s and it would have been a tragedy if, in an attempt to get the price down, the company had let its standards slip. But it hasn't. The T20 looks every inch a proper Hiwatt and seems to be well built - especially for the asking price.
And the price is the key here. For the not a lot more than Hiwatt is asking for the T20, a few years ago you would have had to sacrifice valve/tube touch sensitivity and dynamics and put up with a solid state amp.