Germany's Hughes & Kettner is best known for its highly-rated guitar amps. But did you think that's all the company made? If you did, Dan Veall has a surprise in store!
Hughes and Kettner currently has three combos in its Basskick range: a 100 Watt, a 300W and the model we have in for review in this issue, slap bang in the middle at a 200W RMS rated output.
On the face of it, the Basskick combos look simply laid out and those who believe a multitude of buttons, lights and knobs make an amp better may need to be told to not pass this one by on that account. Under pretty much all of the clearly laid out control panel knobs is a much bigger story waiting to be told.
Take for instance the input sockets for both active and passive basses. Well, OK, not the sockets themselves, but what they are connected to! H&K's bass pre-amplifier is based on the company's trademarked 'Tube-Touch-Circuit', designed to resist distortion with great headroom and a 'natural direct playing feeling'. So far, I'm impressed as the combo sounded nice and clean as expected when giving it a little grief in the warm-up session prior to recording.
Next on the front panel there's a standard gain control for optimising the level from your bass into the amp. Hughes and Kettner has spent a bit of extra time looking at its pre-shape control on this combo amp too. Once again, to quote from their manual, the “tone behaviour of the filter corresponds to that of a classic tube amp.” It goes on to say that it has tailored the punch control to ensure no loss of volume when it's engaged. I'm taking a massive guess on how this filter works by assuming that H&K means the filter curve is similar to that created by passive tone stacks on some of our favourite old valve amplifiers. It certainly sounds like there is some bass boost and a mild mid-scoop taking place to my ears - but it's more subtle, rather than the character-scoffing scoop going on found in some amplifiers. In fact, I'd be happy leaving it engaged all the time, giving the combo a 'big cabinet' sound that certainly worked well with my Precision bass. The punch button, by the way, is a stand-alone function, but on the larger BK300 it is foot switchable.
Let's move on across the front panel. We have a 'one knob compressor' that is particularly effective. It isn't one of those that eats all your volume and bass tone, leaving you with a muffled mush to contend with. I was particularly impressed with its transparency, even all the way up when sustain was added but the dynamics didn't seem to be totally pulverised. H&K goes on to say that threshold, ratio and make-up gain, attack and release time parameters are all handled automatically
for a pump free dynamics control. I'd suggest that H&K makes this compressor available with the punch control in a pedal too, I can see it being a hit with bass players!
The BK series combos feature a four-band equaliser with rotary knobs, handling bass, low mid, high mid and treble frequency adjustment. The equaliser is a little different from a lot of circuits as the signal is fed to each band in parallel rather than in series. Instead of the signal passing through each filter block successively, running to each in parallel is said to achieve greater clarity without 'adverse effects'. The EQ did exactly what I wanted and it took no time at all to find a sweet spot for that bass tone I was looking for. Simple, no messing. I note in the manual that when the bass control is advanced a lower frequency limiter is activated. H&K suggests that this is to give the speaker 'more air to breath', though I suspect what they actually meant is to help prevent the speaker producing that phenomenon we bass players call 'farting out'! - otherwise known as over-excursion.
Finally there are two controls on the front panel to look at. One is a button that disengages the absolutely superb sounding Leson tweeter, simply marked 'HF Horn'. I have to say that I'm going to spend a bit of extra time on the tweeter - which is an odd thing as we're are often more concerned with 'bass low end power'. I have to say that this tweeter has a real sweetness to it. No harshness or brittle tone, it was incredibly fatigue-free and musical. Well matched to the Eminence 15” bass speaker on board. I'm really impressed.
That leaves us with our master volume control and the power amplifier it precedes. H&K's Dynaclip design is a dynamic limiter that has been developed for improved bass performance. Again, I suspect that this is a way of limiting bass frequencies throughout the amplifier that the speaker and cabinet combo can't reproduce and that would just be wasted as speaker flapping.
Round the back of the combo there is a series effects loop, D.I. output for connecting to a PA or recording console, a headphone socket and power plug connection. There's also an external speaker socket too. I mentioned this in the review video too as it's another nice touch. The external socket is a series connection with the internal speaker rather than parallel. What this means is that usually, you have say an 8 ohm speaker in a combo with an amplifier that can handle a safe minimum of 4 Ohms. By connecting another 8 Ohm cabinet to the combo will pull the load down to 4 Ohms. This is fine if you use another 8 Ohm cabinet, but if you were to say plug in a 4 Ohm cabinet into the combo, it would pull the impedance down below the safe 4 Ohm minimum of the amplifier we talked about earlier. In fact, the value would be 2.66 Ohms. This could cause the amplifier to overheat if pushed hard for long periods.
H&K has found a way round this, however. When you plug in your additional cabinet, it adds the impedances instead, moving further away from that safe minimum impedance. You could plug in a 4 Ohm cabinet quite happily and use it in conjunction with the internal speaker, having pushed the impedance up to 12 Ohms. This is a very cool idea and for this alone this combo gets a big tick in the box for taking away the guesswork in combining cabinets!
Weighing in with a substantial and very hard wearing wood shell, the BK200 is 32Kg. It's not the lightest combo on the market, but on the flip-side, I can see this one taking the knocks of the road in its stride.
We were talking this one over at GI Towers and the general conclusion was that it's hard not to feel that Hughes & Kettner's bass amps have suffered a bit in the shade, overshadowed by the company's guitar products. The moral here is don't be fooled by the name. This is an extremely well thought-out and nicely made bass combo that has a lot of individual qualities. It also happens to sound very good! If this is the type of bass amp you are looking for, make a point of adding it to your audition list - you may well be pleasantly surprised.