German amplifier maker Hughes & Kettner is clearly relishing the success of its hugely popular ‘Meister’ series of small low-to-medium powered tube guitar amplifiers and the new GrandMeister 36 is the current flagship of the fleet. This tube-driven amplifier head follows the same essential pattern as its stable-mates, sporting a compact and easily portable design that is distinguished by the eye-catching bright blue illumination behind its clear perspex front panel when the amplifier is switched on. However, despite its diminutive size the GrandMeister 36 bristles with an impressive features set that elevates this crisp looking little amp into the premier league.
The GrandMeister is designed to offer guitarists pretty much the last word in portable high quality tube amplification. First impressions are always important and the GrandMeister 36 displays Hughes & Kettner’s impressive build quality. Oversized mains and output transformers are clearly visible behind the Perspex panel, as are the quartet of EL84 output tubes and trio of 12AX7 preamp tubes.
The GrandMeister 36 features a maximum output power rating of 36 Watts which can be attenuated to 18 Watts, 5 Watts, 1 Watt and even zero Watts (!) for silent recording courtesy of the amp’s built-in Power Soak. The Power Soak is essentially a bank of resistors that convert the amp’s electrical energy into heat by absorbing the power from the amp’s output stage. The switchable power rating is real boon, as the user can adjust the power output depending upon whether the amp is used live or for home recording or practice without losing the juicy sounding natural breakup from the tube output stage.
The built-in Red Box DI output ties in neatly with the power attenuation by enabling the user to connect the amp directly to a PA system, recording console or PC, negating having to mic up a speaker cabinet. The Red Box speaker compensated output also means that the GrandMeister can even run quite happily without having to connect speaker cabinet (usually a definite no-no with a standard tube amplifier!), which is a great space saver for small home studios whilst also solving any noise issues in one simple stroke.
Designed in Germany but manufactured in China to reduce production costs and thus help make the amp more affordable, the GrandMeister 36 features four separate channels (Clean, Crunch, Lead & Ultra), with an optional boost mode that can be assigned to each channel whenever a bit more ‘oomph’ is required.
The control panel features so-called ‘smart’ rotary controls that replace the conventional mechanical rotary potentiometer controls found on most guitar amplifiers. Only the global master volume is a standard potentiometer.
The smart controls help to save space on the amp’s compact control panel by independently recalling their settings whenever the user switches channels or adjusts effects parameters. This is a very appealing way of employing sophisticated technology because it guarantees that the GrandMeister retains the intuitive feel that guitarists naturally feel more comfortable with. There are no menus to scroll through, the player simply twists a knob and hits the ‘Store’ button when they want to save their settings, which can be assigned to any one of 128 separate user patches.
The separate FSM432 MIDI controller allows the user to select the built in effects in stomp box mode or in tandem with the amp channels as separate patches.
Hughes and Kettner amplifiers definitely have an identifiable sound. Personally I find them to have a slight bias towards high-end frequencies but the GrandMeister 36 has its own very distinctive character, offering the full gamut from warm crisp clean tones to meaty Blues and classic Rock all the way to the Ultra mode’s scorching blowtorch Metal distortion. The built-in effects sound close to studio-quality and we can’t help but applaud the sensible selection of popular effects, including a very smooth delay and some very usable modulation effects including chorus, phasing, flanging and tremolo.
Tone-hounds might also enjoy the free app that operates on the iOS platform which allows the user to adjust and save their settings on a tablet via a MIDI cable. Whilst hardly an essential addition, the free app is nevertheless a potentially useful tool for making and saving settings in the home studio via an iPad, saving precious room on the desktop when the amp is tucked neatly away underneath.
In a lot of ways, the GrandMeister 36 could be described as the ultimate guitar amplifier. It combines portability with virtually unparalleled versatility and an ease of use that has to be highly commended, especially given its highly sophisticated design. The GrandMeister 36 feels like a ‘must have’ amp and for some players it will reward the investment by meaning they'll never have to buy another amp. This is one you simply cannot afford to overlook!