Review of Carlsbro Kickstart 30 Combo -
The veteran British amp brand Carlsbro has recently undergone a revolution. The company changed hands and a lot of money, design and marketing expertise has been pumped in to get it back to where it once stood. The new team behind Carlsbro has looked at the best of what the old company did and claims to have come up with serious performance and build advantages over products from its competitors - even at the very entry level part of the market, which is where we find its appropriately named Kickstart range.
This is an important market area because not all of us can afford the sort of boutiquey valve/tube combos that we'd all love to own and yet beginners need good sound too - and they also need reliable products that will inspire them on to greater things.
The Kickstart is launching into very competitive waters. Just about all the major manufacturers offer solid state, single speaker combos of a pretty reasonable standard these days - but the Carlsbro is priced nearer the 'who are they?' level and offers some extra features which may well swing customers towards it - especially when they factor in the consideration that they are buying from a well-known manufacturer. Let's be honest - we're all swayed by brands, in one way or another!
The Kickstart range runs from 10 Watt through to 100. I am reviewing the 30 Watt version.
The Kickstart 30 looks very stylish and robust, you would be forgiven for thinking that it was a vintage valve amp of a much higher price range, which is very much what Carlsbro are trying to do - up the quality and looks of the product while undercutting its rivals. The control layout is simple, clear and user friendly, being a two channel amp offering clean and overdriven, plus built-in effects. Setting the EQ to flat, I plugged it in for a little play.
The clean channel is always the one to suffer on lower-end solid state amps. Whatever the power, they never seem to deliver the warm, thick tones a good valve amp does, but that's a distinction beginners won't appreciate: it takes some experience before you can hear and feel that sort of thing and for the sort of player this amp is intended for, the clean channel is fine: no harsh trebles or muddy lows, plus having a middle control helps to shape the tone even more. As we always say, watch the video and hear it for yourselves!
The crunch channel offers a separate volume control and can be switched either from the amp or foot switch. It's surprisingly versatile, too. You can finely adjust the gain control to get a convincing Blues tone, all the way up to full on filthy Rock! There is also one final button this amp offers called Mid Shift. When pressed, this decreases the level of Mid frequency by 15 dB, creating a scooped mid sound, which is ideal for shreddy leads. It's a nice touch, but as well as decreasing the Mid frequency it also appeared to decrease the master volume by a fair amount, which is a little annoying/strange. My advice would be to plan ahead and adjust your channel volume accordingly if you wish to use this feature. All the same, that scooped mid sound is still very fashionable so it's handy to have it included.
As I mentioned before, the Kickstart also has effects built in. The first is a spring reverb, which is nice to find - especially at this sort of price! You do have to push the dial quite high to get any real sense of it but is certainly not a nasty fake sounding reverb when it does eventually kick in. Push in the button and you get digital delay, too, which is also pretty good and you can control the speed of the delay using the same knob that you use for reverb. This of course means that you can't have delay and reverb on at the same time, which is a bit of a downside, but there has to be limits at this sort of price. The final effect is an analogue Chorus. Again, you have to have the effect up high to get any sense of its existence, but if you're just starting out, experimenting with effects then it will bring plenty of satisfaction. Although the built in effects aren’t out of this world, it's still a nice addition to have at this price range and it's not hard to imagine a beginner who simply cannot afford a whole string of pedals (yet) being really pleased he or she was given this Carlsbro with effects onboard, rather than another amp that didn't have them
A couple of other nice features include Mp3 in, so you can jam away to backing tracks etc., plus a headphone socket, which I'm sure parents everywhere will agree is vitally important in those “developing” stages..!
This 30 Watt model is also pretty powerful, I never felt the need to push it about four and I feel there was probably enough head room there for those first few small club/pub gigs.
The newly revived Carlsbro range runs from solid state practice amps like this Kickstart up to full valve amps like the very tasty Evo, which we are giving away as our competition prize in this issue. It's good to see an old name back in the fray again and the consensus here in the studio was that any beginner buying this amp (or, even better, receiving it as a present) will indeed be getting quite a kickstart.