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This article was originally published in issue #50
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The Sonzera 50 is a great amplifier from PRS at a very attractive price.
Well made, affordable all tube combo
Versatile two channel design
Independent EQ and Reverb controls
Excellent clean and drive tones
Great pedal platform
Tons of clean headroom and volume
No power switching or attenuation
Very heavy with no side handles
A PRS amp that is comparatively affordable? Yes, the Maryland maestro has decided to offer the latest PRS all-tube amp at a price that won't entail the sale of your car. Tom Quayle has been trying to find the catch.
The Sonzera 50 is a 1x12 combo built in a fairly large poplar plywood cabinet that looks just as striking as PRS’ high end amps which sell at twice the price or more. The black frame looks great contrasted against the gold lettering and piping while the light-coloured, black and cream grill cloth highlights the ‘Paul Reed Smith’ signature, lending the amp a perceived boutique quality, matching the company’s more expensive amps and guitars at a much lower price point. How has this come about? Well, by making it in China - and why not? The build quality on our sample was very good indeed with the Sonzera feeling solid and well put together in every respect. The included faux-leather handle feels very firm, which is a good thing too as this is a heavy amp considering its size.
Available as 20 and 50 Watt combos and a 50 Watt head, the Sonzera range feature two channels – Clean and Gain – each offering independent three-band EQ and Reverb controls plus their own bright switches, voiced to match each channel’s specific tonal characteristics. The clean channel has Master and Volume controls, whilst the Drive side uses Level and Drive for the same purpose. A shared Presence control resides on the far left of the control panel for controlling upper frequencies, the only other front panel control being a channel select switch with matching green and red LED’s to indicate which channel you are currently using. Around the back you’ll find your standard array of speaker outs, adjustable biasing jacks, a footswitch input (the footswitch is included and controls channel selection and reverb operation - well done for including it in the price, PRS!) a series effects loop and your standby and power switches. The Sonzera is a very easy amp to operate and understand with no need to read a manual to get up and running quickly.
The internals of the amp are powered by an ECC83S common gain stage tube for the clean and drive channels and a trio of 12AX7s for the drive channel, reverb and phase inverter. The power stage contains a pair of EL34s for 50 Watts of power, although it’s worth noting that, unlike a lot of high powered amps these days, the Sonzera 50 features no form of power level switching or attenuation, so you are driving the full 50W at all times, whether in the bedroom, studio or on stage. This means that the only way to get the full power tube drive from this amp is to crank the full 50W output stage and it is an incredibly loud amp. It would have been nice to see a half power or 1 Watt mode included, but this increases complexity and thus the price. As an alternative you could always invest in a power soak for home use.
PRS has selected a 12” Celestion V-Type speaker for this combo, known for excelling at vintage tones but with the ability to handle more modern sounds as well, described rather unintuitively by Celestion as a ‘Modern Vintage’ speaker. The Sonzera also opts for a closed back design to increase bass response and an oversized cabinet for a sound that is certainly fatter and larger than your average 1x12 combo.
Speaking of sound, the clean channel is definitely voiced in the vintage realm, harking back to classic Blackface tones in a very convincing manner. The three band EQ is very musical allowing you to go from super-cutting, spanky, single coil funk tones with a spiky top end and thin bottom end, to fat humbucker Jazz tones with ease, all the while remaining surprisingly dynamic and articulate for an amp at this price point. The amp reacts beautifully to pick attack and can be cleaned up or driven at higher volume settings with pick attack alone without ever exhibiting the technique punishing characteristics of some hand wired tube amps. The Sonzera makes for a very convincing pedal platform amp without ever getting into the second channel, but the included effects loop sounds great too if you need to run the drive channel and still use your delays and modulations.
Moving onto the drive channel you are presented with a definite classic Rock and Blues vibe. There is a huge amount of gain available but this is definitely never going to suit Metal or modern Rock players looking for a more scooped and smooth sound. What you do get is very cool though – classic, throaty Rock and Blues tones that can be subtle and dynamic or raging and aggressive. At lower drive settings, you get an alternate clean channel with a much darker tonal spectrum. Here again, the EQ controls offer a lot of versatility and the bright switch adds pick attack and clarity even at higher gain settings. The real icing on the cake here is the dedicated reverb control for each channel, allowing you to set up ambient clean tones with a decent slice of reverb, whilst having much drier drive sounds if required. A nice touch that more amp manufacturers should take note of!
The Sonzera 50 is a great amplifier from PRS at a very attractive price. Its drive channel won’t appeal to everyone, but for Blues and Rock players and those looking for an affordable, versatile pedal platform that feels and sounds like a much more expensive amp, it should serve as a superb choice. Switchable power options would have been a fantastic addition, the lack of which means that this amp is really only suitable for those that can make the most of its huge volume levels. But, if you can, you will most likely be very impressed with the results. Recommended!