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Hurricane Comparison Review - The Guitar Magazine

Hand-wired Hotrods - Bad Cat Cub 15R 210 and Cornford Hurricane Combos By Dave Hunter ("The Guitar Magazine" - February 2002)

Boutique valve-amp builders in Britain and the USA are producing some of the hottest smaller combos ever. Dave Hunter pits former Matchless main-man Mark Sampson's 'new' 15-watter against the club sized combo from England's Cornford.

Matchless has long hung out on the top branch of the boutique amp tree. After the branch split and tumbled some two years ago, the brand was left adrift, seemingly fated to languish as another extinct, second-hand-only classic builder. There was significant rejoicing when last January's NAMM show saw the return of a leaner, meaner version of the Californian company - but what's this? Turns out Mark Sampson, the former head honcho, had chosen to go it alone, setting up his own Bad Cat brand.......and turning out amps that look, in all but badge, remarkably similar to those returning from Matchless. With less of a history but off to an auspicious start, UK maker Cornford has built boutique-grade valvesters for two years and its new small-room smasher arrives just in time to rival the high-end yank's return, at a fraction of the price. On to round one.......

Bad Cat Cub

While this is the first Bad Cat product we have reviewed, you could say we have seen this amp before. When the late John Seabury reviewed the Matchless Lightning 15 112 in Guitar Magazine nearly five years ago, he was looking at practically the same combo: identical components, identical circuit. That was a reverb less 1x12'' , of course, but the 2x10'' with reverb was also available and this Cub 210 is the spitting image of it. A look under the bonnet even reveals an exact lightning layout in its full point-to-point glory, loaded with Matchless-labelled signal capacitors!

A rip-off? Not at all. It was Mark Sampson's design and he's building it today, right down to the bespoke caps (he clearly ordered in bulk). Only the company name on the outside has changed. And that's good news for guitarists far and wide: word has it Matchless wont be building the smaller amps of old and the lightning was a big favourite, being one of the sweetest 15w combos available anywhere. So thank the patron saint of over-engineering that somebody is now producing them. Aside from the new logo, cosmetics remain extremely similar. Sampson is using a new supplier for his leatherette covering, but this burgundy hide feels as lush as ever and looks great, as does the black-with-silver grille cloth. The logo itself is a little more stylised than the old Matchless one and the cat's eyes might look a bit tacky to some (me included) - but hey, they light up! And overall, there's certainly a classy look to this combo.

For those who aren't familiar with it, look at the Cub as a classic interactive Vox AC30 Top Boost preamp section married to an AC15 output stage, with Fender-like two-valve reverb - all built to significantly higher standards than even those classics. Here you get genuine point-to-point wiring, big high-end Mallory-style capacitors and rare 1W carbon comp resistors throughout, all yielding a totally hand wired 15W class A design with two cathode-biased EL84 power valves and no negative feedback loop at the output stage. There's valve rectification from a 5AR4/GZ34, three 12AX7's in the interactive preamp (with a parallel-wired first gain stage), and a further two 12AX7's in the reverb circuit. Bad Cat clearly hasn't yet had its own brand speaker labels printed up yet because the magnets on the 10'' units here are still bare, but they look to be the same modded Celestion G10L-35 units that the Lightning 210 carried.

Control wise it's a doddle. The front panel has high and low gain inputs, Volume, Bass, Treble, Reverb and Master, along with the robust Power and - hey, something new! - Standby switches. The standby is a welcome addition as, even if the valve rectification allowed a gentle warm up anyway, it's always handy to flick Standby for long idle periods without having to totally power down.

Round back, aside from the IEC mains socket and fuse holder, there's a jack for the reverb footswitch, a Line Out (with a signal stepped down right off the speaker outs with a couple of resistors) and 8ohm and 4ohm speaker jacks. What more could you want? Not much, probably, once you've taken one of these for a spin.

Cornford Hurricane

Following Cornford's 50W MK50H gigster and 6W Harlequin studio sweetie, The Huricane fits the bill perfectly for club gigs and recording dates alike, joining the Cub in a lower-mid-sized market that's becoming one of the most popular hunting grounds for fans of portable but crankable tone machines. Throughout their work, Paul Cornford and partner Martin Kidd have strenuously avoided following the 'copyists' road - they might take tips from Fender, Marshall and Vox, certainly, but they go back to the drawing board with each design, tweaking and testing and laboriously A/B-ing in search of the rock and blues tones of their dreams. If the Hurricane has been a long time coming, it's only thanks to Cornford's refusal to unleash a model until the dream has become a reality.

The Hurricane is a 20W 1x12'' that also uses two EL84's but in a cathode biased class A/B circuit with solid state rectification to pump a little more power into its front loaded Celestion Vintage 30 speaker. The front-facing top-mounted panel includes Hi and Lo inputs, above which are seated the series effects loop Send and Returns, followed by Gain, Reverb, Bass, Middle, Treble and Master controls, with a single On switch for mains power and red pilot light. I'm a little surprised at the lack of a standby, because without valve rectification there's nothing to soften the blow as the high voltages hit the valves before there filaments (heaters) have had a chance to warm up - an effect technically referred to as 'cathode stripping', which some say can shorten the valve life (but perhaps minimally, compared with other factors).

Round the back of the Hurricane we find that the AC-in is hard wired. There's a single 8-ohm speaker out and two 4ohm outs (paralleled for two 8ohm cabs), and a reverb footswitch jack (footswitch included). Cosmetics follow the Cornford line for the most part: textured deep burgundy tolex covers the 60x46x25.5cm finger jointed pine cab, with a bespoke black metal speaker grille, robust leather handle and nickel corner protectors. However this time the front facing, top mounted control panel and chassis are enamelled in a classy vintage ivory, with screen-printed burgundy legends to match the cab. These big metal grilles always look a little industrial to me, but others really like 'em - so what do I know? They certainly help protect your speaker, anyway. So on the whole: lookin' good.

The same goes in spades for the insides. The workmanship is immaculate and the neat parallel-board layout and flying connection leads are a pleasure to behold. Some marketers will refer to any hand-wired amp as 'point-to-point', but to be accurate that term is reserved for designs that make links between circuit points - a volume pot tag to a valve pin, for example - with the leads of the components themselves, the capacitors and resistors, with no circuit boards and flying wire connections getting in between. The virtue of this is the limited distances your signal has to travel within the circuit.

The Bad Cat is mostly point-to-point, while the Cornford is a perfectly hand-wired and soldered design with tag-board based circuit layout. The difference between the two is probably infinitesimally minimal... if there's any difference at all. Other differences? Signal and filter caps here are less juicy and a little more standard grade, as are the metal film resistors. All top quality components nonetheless, with sturdily chassis-mounted valve sockets and extremely tidy wire runs. Somewhat like the 6W Harlequin, the Hurricane's Gain control uses dual-ganged pots to control a cascading gain circuit that uses both sides of the first preamp valve simultaneously. Three 12AX7's take a preamp and reverb duties (partnered with long-pan Accutronics spring unit) with another acting as phase inverter. Rectification as mentioned, is from silicon diodes for a tighter response and more efficient AC-to-DC conversion.

Sounds

In real terms, the Hurricane is the newbie here, so lets look at one first. Injecting a Tele and taking a stab at a classic clean setting - with Master full up and Gain on 4 (out of 11, or so the dot count tells us) - this combo pays off instantly. It's barky and honky, with good bite even on medium-picked notes, with grind setting in as you hit the strings harder. This puts me somewhat in mind of a blackface Fender Deluxe Reverb on about 3.5, but with a little more high-end chime coming from those EL84's. Blend in a hint of tweed-like grit - especially in the touch-sensitivity of the dynamics - with a pinch of Brit-voiced chunky low-end from that Celestion and you're there. It's a seriously good sound, with punch and power on rhythm chords, clarity and chime to arpeggios (seriously sweet, long, natural decay here) and loads of snap and sparkle in the lead lines. Rather oddly, the volume level drops off dramatically when you roll the Master below 7, so you lose much of the sparkle and harmonic richness at the same time. Raising Gain brings some of it back, but get the preamp volume up to 7 itself and the serious grind sets in, thanks to that cascading gain stage..... But let's plug into that Cub for a minute first. The Matchless clean sound is legendary and it's perhaps no surprise that this little Bad Cat nails it. Clean tones at lower volume levels (say, Vol 4, Master 7) are crouched in just a slightly broader, more hi-fi, crystalline sort of multi-harmonic sparkle than the Cornford attains. I've always found these amps set a little bright though, so you need to work against your instincts EQ-wise and cut Treble significantly with Bass closer to midway to dial any harshness out of Fender-type single coils. These tone controls are seriously interactive and, rather than just bleeding off frequencies from the signal as passive tone stacks do, they can perform some serious boosting - and the setting of each one affects the range of the other. A note regarding the 2x10'' speaker format: don't get sucked into the misconception that this amp must be big on highs but thin on the bottom end. Along with the potentially piercing treble, lows on this baby are tight and rumbling when desired - and in fact the two 10" cones offer more air-punching surface area than in a single 12" cone would. (It's notable that playing each of these amps through the other's cabinet doesn't alter the inherent character of each amp.) Crank the Cub's Master to tops and get Volume up and around halfway and it is surprisingly loud for a 15W 2x10'', while still gorgeously clean when you lay back a little on your pick attack.

However, whack it and it really roars. Crank the preamp gain even further and you get that real vintage-valver-freaking-out overdrive that lies at the heart of so many of the great rock sounds of all time. Simply another incarnation of a genuine classic - and a deservedly legendary design. Moving back to the Hurricane, it's quickly apparent that - as scrumptious as the clean settings were - Cornford delighted all the more in voicing the overdrive sounds. Where the Cubs filth when cranked seems like a pleasant accident (as vintage valve OD always was) its clear the Hurricane was consciously designed to roar as well as purr. As any great recording amp should, the Hurricane presents a fantastic 'huge sound / small package' deal with Master down around 4.5 and Gain maxed. Stick this on tape and you'd be thinking 50W Plexi on 8. Get the Master up high and output valve saturation brings you more filth, squash and sustain - an all-singing, all-dancing rock machine. Both reverbs are tasty, though the Cub's proves a little more lush. Fair play, considering Sampson has put in rather more serious engineering on this feature - at a cost of £350.00 above the price of the reverb less model (yes, that's £350.00).

VERDICT

The winner? Well, these amps are different in some significant (if subtle and rather technical) details, though are also close in character in many ways - both of which factors make it too close to call. Ultimately, I think the Bad Cat squeezes just that degree more harmonic richness and tonal splendour from its clean sounds - once you tame those harsh highs. But hey, I could plug them in tomorrow and change my mind.... then change it back again the day after. In short, both amps are so good that whichever one you are playing through at the time has the ability to convince you there and then that it's the best 15W-20W combo in the world... until you plug into the other. The Hurricane will probably appeal more to the blueser and rocker - yet its clean sounds are damn, damn good. The Cub will probably do it for janglers or clean-with-bite country pickers. That said, almost any type of player would be delighted to find either one dropped on their doorstep. Get out and play 'em.

   
 
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