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This article was originally published in issue #9
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Ampeg, those stalwarts of the bass amplification world, have come up with an intriguing combination here - a blend of new lightweight amplifier technology and vintage design stylings, to provide with a novel answer to an age-old question with bass rigs. How exactly do you make your backline powerful, yet light in weight and easy to store or manoeuvre?
The PF350 amplifier head and PF115HE Flip-Top cabinet are part of the 'Portaflex range'. Ampeg's ethos is to take the vintage stylings of the original and iconic flip-top range (B-15 anyone?) and marry-up the vintage stylings with powerful amplification to create a portable and affordable range of kit.
In the Portaflex range are two amplifier heads, The PF350 and PF500 (350W and 500W - an uprated version with more functionality) two flip top cabinets, a 1x15 reviewed here and a 2x10 and finally two 'LF' ported cabinets (no flip top) 4x10 and 1x15.
Weighing in at 3.6Kg, the PF350 head is not the lightest of D Class amplifiers on the market, but is still incredibly light for its output power. There was one thing that I really like about this head straight away and it's something maybe a few other manufacturers have missed - the fact that our bass gear needs to be able to withstand a beating on the road in pubs, clubs and wherever our bass takes us! The steel chassis, although adding to the total mass of the unit, is substantial and goes along with the hard wearing paint job. It looks like it will take some serious scrapes before even the paint gives way. It's one thing to try to make the lightest amp on the market, but there's a point where something, such as chassis integrity is compromised. Ampeg seem to recognise this with a beefy shell!
So that's the casing looked at, time to move on to the controls and configuration of the head. It really couldn't be any simpler and that's a good thing for the gigging musician. The most important features are right there where we need them. The head features a solid state pre-amplifier for tone shaping, hooked up to the D Class power amplifier. A three band EQ providing cut and boost of the Bass, Middle and Treble frequencies is flanked either side by the Gain control on the left hand side for setting the optimal input level and the Master Volume on the right, for the output level. To the right hand side of the input socket there is a -15dB pad switch that attenuates the input level from say, an active bass with a high output that could 'clip' the input preamp into distorting which can be undesirable - unless that's what you are looking for of course! It's quite possible to add a bit of drive and bite by pushing the gain control up higher, though you may find it's able to create some ugly sounds from the pre-amplifier too if you overcook it some. Finally over on the right hand side of the front panel there is a limiter defeat switch and an LED to show you (when activated) that the limiter is kicking in. The limiter stops the power amplifier from overloading and prevents potential distortion when activated. If you are playing a loud enough gig, it's possible to 'ride' the limiter so it acts a bit like a valve amplifier starting to compress. Thankfully without the back-break of lugging an SVT 2 Pro around!
Next to the limiter button is an LED marked 'Fault'. The amplifier features a safety cut-out switch so, should the power amplifier overheat due to driving it too hard, inadequate air be circulating or if you are running too low a load in terms of speaker cabinets connected the amp will switch itself off rather than start to glow.
Topping off the features is a handy 3.5mm stereo line-in for connecting an MP3 player or other device to play along with. There's also a 3.5mm stereo earphone socket too, so you can play your bass along to stereo input material. It's these little things that set this amplifier apart from others! For silent rehearsal, Ampeg say that it is safe to remove the speaker lead and operate the head without a cabinet. This would be very good for using in a studio where you might not need to mic a cabinet but want to make use of the pre-amplifier and DI facilities.
Around the back of the amplifier it's a tidy affair. The left side features the usual IEC power socket input and On/Off power switch. Another nice addition is the ability to switch the amplifier from 240V to 110V input for use across the world. This amplifier fits in a big gig bag, so it's likely it'll travel easily, far and wide! In the centre of the rear panel a round grill protecting the cooling fan. Ampeg suggests making sure there is at least a 6" gap between the back of the amplifier and any possible obstruction to allow the fan to do its job properly. Next up, are two sockets for speaker outputs. I have to say I am a little surprised to see that whereas most companies are adopting the use of combination Neutrik's SpeakOn outputs, not so on the Ampeg. Personally, I'd like all speaker outputs to be SpeakOns on bass amplification. It stops people using instrument cables for speaker outputs instead of dedicated speaker cables, which is never a good idea! Instrument cables are not designed to be used for speaker outputs! Ok, rant over!
Over on the far right hand side, there is an XLR socket for the D.I. output but there's no earth lift function in this amplifier. Finally, you have a serial effects loop for external processing. You could also use the 'send' connection as a line out to another piece of gear. The master volume does not affect the level at this output. The 'return' socket can also be a clever way of bypassing the pre-amplifier and connecting direct to the 350W power amplifier, should you want to.
Ampeg Portaflex PF115HE 1x15" Flip-Top cabinet.
'Drawing from the classic design of Ampeg's legendary Portaflex cabinets, the PF-115HE combines vintage styling with the performance of a modern 450W cabinet featuring a Ceramic Eminence 15" speaker and tweeter.' says Ampeg website - and here's where things get a little interesting! Not only is the cabinet an easy one-man-lift and comes with removable wheels (that are stored in a nice Ampeg bag inside the cabinet) but the vintage flip-top design of the original vintage B-15 flip-top has been revisited and it's brilliant!
The top of the cabinet is actually a lid and can be removed using the four clasps on the cabinet sides. A special mounting kit is provided so that either the PF350 head or its bigger brother the PF500 can be attached to the lid. The lid is then reattached to the cabinet. This in itself is a great idea, as the head certainly can't slide off, be pushed off, or worse still, sneak out of the gig tucked under somebody's arm! When the gig is done and it comes to packing up, the flip top design really shines. Undo the four catches, flip the lid over and the head, still connected to the lid stores inside the cabinet safely! Even with the larger PF500 head and cabinet in this 'combo' configuration, the total weight is still around 25Kg, which is still lighter than some bass cabinets alone.
The PF115HE is a sealed cabinet with a 450W 8 Ohm 15" speaker and tweeter. Don't expect earth shaking low end, but this cabinet will deliver a nice controlled and punchy bass sound to moderately high volumes for a single cabinet. This will be great for small club gigs, studio work and monitoring, where large foldback is available at bigger gigs. Sometimes it is not a good idea to have too much low end on stage. It can make the sound 'mushy' and a cabinet like this paired with a second would be great for avoiding that.
Round the back of the cabinet are two jack sockets wired in parallel for input from an amplifier and for daisy chaining to another cabinet, for example a second PF115HE. There is also a three way switch for setting the level of the tweeter. Either On, Off or at a -6dB padded level for a reduced treble level.
A few reviews online have suggested that there's more than just a passing similarity with the tones you can get from the PF350/PF115HE combination and the original B-15 if you want, though it has to be said that with the 350W of the PF350, it's unlikely to break up at the same low volumes as the original B-15. Not necessarily a bad thing for the modern bass player!
I like this rig a lot. Bass gear takes up a lot of room and we always need ways of being able to store or move it, especially with rising travel costs. Some musicians (especially in the UK) are downsizing to smaller vehicles to save money. For that sort of user, this set up scores highly.