I met Aguilar president Dave Boonshoft, himself a bass player with a long professional career, at this year's London Bass Guitar Show. We discussed bass gear for a bit then he ushered me over to a little stack of gear and almost without words a bass appeared plugged in and on my lap. What was Dave keen to show off? I present the Aguilar Tonehammer 500 and the super lightweight SL112 cabinet. Incidentally, the bass he placed on my lap for the impromptu demo was a Spector Coda 5 and I have to say both sound great together. Coincidentally, we're reviewing one of those too and you'll have seen pictures of both recently on my twitter feed @DoodOnBass (cheeky plug! Ed).
Let's start with the Tonehammer head first, then we'll talk about the matching 'helium filled' (ha!) cabinet later.
The visual appearance of the head is unmistakably Aguilar, with the hallmark cool logo script and graphics. As I understand it, the Tonehammer has a family pedigree and if this is true I can start to understand why it sounds as good as it does. You may well have heard of the famous Aguilar OBP-3 onboard pre-amps that have graced the basses of many top session players. Aguilar's Tonehammer pre-amp/drive pedal is based on this design, bringing that big sound to the floor. Additionally, Aguilar includes its 'Adaptive Gain Shaping' drive circuit to add bite and grit. It must have been only a matter of time before Aguilar, having created a really usable on-the-floor preamp, strapped one to a power amplifier and squeezed the combination into an all-metal casing. Dave and his team have gone further, though having created a 'light weight' package. It's pretty small too and a mere 1.8Kg is staggering for the power available!
The front panel as described in the video features a three band EQ with sweepable midrange, gain control for input level and a master volume. The input gain control also has a pad for basses with a very high output should that need taming. The drive control is next to the gain control (the two interact, determining the amount of grit available) and there is a front mounted effects loop. Aguilar says that it features a 6dB level boost to make it compatible with a wide range of outboard gear, both pedals or effects racks. Round the back, we have two Speakon outputs, power input and the all-important cooling fans, of which there are two onboard. These smaller D Class amplifiers are incredibly efficient but they still need an air flow to keep them cool. Expect a little fan noise when the amplifier gets hot, this is completely normal and I'd actually be a bit concerned if I heard no fan sound in such a high powered yet lunchbox sized package! Round the back there is a tuner output socket and it stays on when the mute switch on the front is engaged, allowing for silent tuning.
The SL112 cabinet is Aguilar's first foray into featherweight cabinets and I know it was something the company didn't undertake lightly - 'scuse the pun. We bass players need a big full bass sound that has girth and low-end breadth and there are still questions about the lightweight Class D approach. I'm not 100% sure, for example, that it can stand up against a big valve head with a huge power supply in terms of earth-shaking low end and there are one or two ultra lightweight Class D and Neodymium speaker combination packages on the market that, while they are incredibly loud and lightweight, just can't deliver that low-end we demand. The Tonehammer, on the other hand, does drive a fatter low end than many in this category. This well braced cabinet does feature a Neodymium speaker, as well as phenolic tweeter (with integral phase plug) to get the weight down to a minimum but it does a really good job and even though it weighs a silly 11kg (which is nothing at all in bass terms) I reckon would give many a good run for their money. Though, speaking of money, this is quite a price for a 1x12 enclosure and would make a two cab (which would be an idea for bigger gigs) an expensive proposition.
Connectivity is by way of a single Speakon connector and two ¼” jack sockets. Daisy chaining from cab to cab using Speakons is not possible if you are using two SL112s, but the head has a pair of Speakons anyway, so a lead to each cabinet for me is preferable.
An impressive 500W RMS in to 4 Ohms can be realised with a pair of SL112's - I only wish we'd had two of these cabinets in to play with at review, but with just the one cabinet, the head will deliver 250W RMS at 8 Ohms - a perfect match for the SL112 on its own!
The Tonehammer, even with a little added drive, has a full clear sound and I feel sure that after a little more playing-in time, the SL112 would have opened out its low end performance even more - but, with that big port on the back of the cabinet, already sounded big for such a small cabinet. I'd owned an Aguilar GS112 many years ago and remember that fat low end. The SL112 was competing against it in my memory.
OK, so how do I rate it? Well, the Tonehammer and SL rig has a fuller character to it than most in this class. In other words, it isn't a pure flat response, clean head like, say, a Markbass or a TecAmp. It can still do a very clean punchy sound though, but with the warmth from the Tonehammer pre-amplifier there's something about that added depth that works well with very pristine sounding pickups and EQ (such as my EMGs). It's clearly right up there with the very best of the latest generation of lightweight pro-class bass amps and it has a characterful sound of its own which means you have to add it to your audition list if this is the market you're looking at. Don't fail to try it!