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MK50H Review - The Guitar Magazine

How do you achieve that elusive magic tone that keeps ringing in your head? Simple: mess about with the best classics, make them better, then build your amps by hand - somewhat, in fact, like new Brit-builders Cornford have done. Has it worked? Review by Dave Hunter (The Guitar Magazine).

MK50H

Available as a head or accompanied by a closed-back 2x12" cab with Vintage 30s or a 4x12" with your choice of Celestion Greenbacks or Vintage 30s, the MK50H is Cornford's first contender in the arena-worthy, gigging rock amp stakes.

Technically this is a one-channel 50W valve amp with solid state rectification (common where big rock punch is required from high-rated power amps), but a footswitchable overdrive stage and two switchable master volume controls really equate this functionally with what many manufacturers call 'two' and 'three channel' amps (there are four foot-switchable combinations here). What's more, there's a wealth of tone-shaping facilities on board - all effective, whatever drive stage is presently switched in - and a broad range of functions to ensure a truly versatile package without moving into do-it-all Swiss Army Amp territory.

Trim and cosmetics are identical to those of the Harlequin, though the MK50H's control panel is front-mounted at the bottom of the cab, Marshall style. Control-wise, left to right, we have Hi and Lo inputs, Volume, Bass, Middle, Treble, Master 1, Master 2, Presence, Resonance and Standby and Mains power switches. While Presence fine-tunes the high end attack in classic style, Cornford's nifty Resonance control does much the same for the bottom, upping the wallop factor as you dial clockwise. Also, more than just offering two different footswitchable volume levels, Master 1 and 2 carry fundamentally different tonalities for further voicing options (more of which later).

Unusually, the gap above the front and rear chassis panels is protected, Soldano-style, by the same type of black metal grille that covers the speaker and combo cab front - especially groovy in this application as it allows a clear view of the tidily mounted valves, transformers and filter caps housed inside: just switch off the lights and watch those valves glow. The preamp and driver stages are powered by four 12AX7Was, while a pair of 5881s (essentially 6l6s) take power duties. At a glance you'd peg this for a Marshall-styled output stage with EL34s or even KT66s, but designing around the more Fendery (and arguably sturdier, both in build and tonality) 5881s is all part of the plan to make this amp something a bit different.

The rear panel is home to a mains lead socket, mains and HT fuse holders, speaker impedance selector (4W, 8W or 16W), two speaker jacks, series effects loop send and return, and a socket. The footswitch comes included and is a sturdy metal affair with a pair each of buttons and LEDs for selecting Overdrive and Master 2. Also included is a 2ft speaker cable and a nice 15ft Van Damme spiral screen guitar cable, 'so that nothing interferes with the way a Cornford should sound'.

Measuring 66 x 27 x 23 cm, the head's a substantial and somewhat off-balance carrying load thanks to that mains transformer down one end, but it's still easily more portable in this piggyback configuration than a 2x12" combo would be. The cab comes in at 74 x 54 x 35 cm - fairly standard, aside from the extra depth to aid bottom end thump - with recessed handles at each side to aid in lugging.

Sounds The MK50H's appearance and home-grown roots would imply a custom-Marshall-type sound - so the crisp, sharp Fenderishness of its clean settings are an immediate surprise. In fact, this big Cornford is neither, rather hinting at a little of the best of both worlds. Keep your foot off the Overdrive switch but advance the Volume and roll Master 1 toward max and there's sparkling headroom aplenty - enough for cuttingly clean rock rhythm work or ultra-defined country picking alike. Bring the Vol up further and tweak the Presence and tone controls to keep out encroaching harshness, and a supple, biting attack creeps in, partnered by a sweet, transparent harmonic jangle. This approaches the range of a blackface Fender Twin, say, with some of the crystalline shimmer you'd imagine in a double-powered AC30. Stomping on Master 2, regardless of its level setting relative to M1, shifts the above into a warmer, mellower voice (more Marshall to the former's Fender, to stick to familiar terminology).

Booting in the Overdrive takes you neatly to rock heaven. There's also a significant and unavoidable jump in volume, so going from a desired clean rhythm setting to what would be intended as comparable level of dirty rhythm is tricky (if not impossible) without clever balancing of the dual Masters and some fleet-toed twin-switch dancing. Still, kick this in for lead settings, as most will, and you're not likely to be disappointed: from sharp and stinging (with Presence forward) to thunderingly, evisceratingly chunky (letting Resonance rule) the Overdrive stage is tailorable to a wide range of tastes under the rock umbrella, all available - if necessary - at volume levels you'd credit to a 100 watter.

While there's bags of smooth, singing sustain on tap with the drive well forward, there isn't quite the squash and softness of a vintage or valve-rectified boutique amp cranked toward top whack, and it's possible to achieve a certain harshness in Master 1 if you don't keep tabs on tone settings while moving up the Volume's travel. On the other hand, this design excels at punch and definition, and there's a sharpness even on the dirtiest settings that keeps individual notes clear in fast runs and chord work alike.

There's nothing deserving of major criticism. A Harlequin-style Voice switch could have been cool for taking us from F-ish to M-ish tonalities, leaving the dual Masters free for level jumps or cuts during performance use as Mesa/Boogie do with their Solo control (in jumping to a 'bonus' boost setting you don't necessarily want to switch amp types too, do you?). But maybe that's digging too deeply, for there really are a whole bag of juicy, toothsome, addictive tones on tap here.

Oh… and the cab. It's solidly and tonefully built, does the job required (with plenty of extra whoomph on tap when necessary, courtesy of that extra depth), and the Celestions sound the biz, as always. If you've got a 2x12" or 4x12" you're already fond of there's no reason not to opt for the head alone. But if you're in the market for a full rig, hey - it's the perfect match.

Verdict
On this evidence, Cornford is already a badge we should be proud to call our own and a maker worthy of support and serious consideration if you're in the market for a hand-built valve amp, small or large. As a serious rock machine, the MK50H is in a league of its own: original tonality, a unique combination of features, and quality oozing from every pore. It's no Mission Control-alike, do-it-all whizz machine, but that's not the intention. Neither is it a one-trick-pony. Boatloads of power, rich, luxurious voicings, musically tactile throughout its range… don't be surprised if this one becomes a familiar sight on the arena stage.

   
 
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