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Roadhouse 30 1x12 Combo - Guitarist Review

Cornford’s new Roadhouse range puts that coveted tone and reliability into a more affordable package that we’re all going to want… in a word, it’s more Cornfordable than ever.

By Nick Guppy

What we want to know:
1: Are Printed Circuit Boards OK for valve amps? Perfectly OK as long as they’re done properly, like the Roadhouse. High voltage isn’t a problem – you can put tens of thousands of volts on properly spaced PCB tracks – heat and flexing are the real enemies, and the Roadhouse is well-protected against both.
2: Isn’t this yet another Gold Award for Cornford? Yes it is – we don’t give them away lightly. The Gold Award is for amps that blow us away on every front – Cornford just have a habit of hitting the bullseye when it comes to that.
3: Who is this amp for? It’s an amp for players at any level who want a stunning range of lead and rhythm tones from an amp that’s flexible enough to use for gigging, home recording and practice.

Cornford Roadhouse 30 1x12 combo

Ever since our very own Neville Marten raved about the original MK50 head, Cornford have successfully carved out a niche for themselves at the top of the UK’s boutique amp-building tree, and as we found out when we reviewed the Gold Award-winning MkII version last year, the Whitstable-based company still delivers some of the best tone money can buy – at a price.

Now, it may come as a surprise to some readers to find out that like most players in the real world, Guitarist reviewers don’t all have an endless supply of cash to throw at new equipment, so we were intrigued when the first rumours began to circulate about a new and more affordable Cornford. Making its debut at this year’s NAMM show in LA, the Roadhouse range sees Cornford forsaking their traditional hand-wired circuits for the more affordable PCB – but money aside, can the new Roadhouse still cut the mustard when the chips are down? Let’s find out…

Build and Features:
On the outside at least, there’s little change from what we’ve come to expect from Cornford. The traditional maroon vinyl has been changed for black and the steel loudspeaker grille is now black fabric, but the Roadhouse’s cabinet is as tough as ever, and very neatly put together. It’s also very substantial, measuring a good 40mm more than most combos front to back, and this extra depth means that it’s not quite as portable as you’d expect. Cornford’s thick steel chassis is the same as ever, covered in a durable powder-coated finish with the panel lettering directly silkscreened onto it. Inside though, where you’d normally expect to see meticulous hand wiring, almost all the Roadhouse’s electronics are contained on one solidly supported and through-plated PCB, with a smaller board supporting the loudspeaker jacks.

“We did the Roadhouse primarily to make a more affordable Cornford” explains Martin Kidd, Cornford’s designer and the ‘MK’ in Cornford’s MK50. “Our least expensive hand-wired model is the Harlequin, which is a great little amp, but six watts isn’t going to give you everything you want playing live, unless you’ve got the luxury of a big PA. When we started to design the new model we decided to go down the printed circuit board route, to make it more accessible”. “But it isn’t just a PCB rehash of our handwired stuff” added Paul Cornford “The Roadhouse is a totally new design, from the ground up, and it’s our first EL34 design too”

The Roadhouse 30’s controls are typical Cornford – simple and easy to understand, yet deceptively versatile. It’s a single channel, with gain, master volume and a standard three band EQ. The versatility comes in the shape of a footswitchable boost with its own gain control, and send and return sockets for the Roadhouse’s series effects loop. Move to the rear/underneath of the chassis, and there’s even more versatility with no less than five speaker outlets, covering practically every combination you’d need if you wanted to hook this amp up to external cabinets. Even with one used up for the Roadhouse’s front-mounted Celestion V30, that’s still three more than most amps give you these days.

Sounds:
Powered up, the Roadhouse is practically noise free, something we always like to hear as it’s a good sign of a well-sorted circuit. The single channel preamp’s gain range is also very nicely balanced – using a regular Strat with medium output single coils, you start to get a mild overdrive at around the halfway mark, making it easy to dial in exactly the right amount of response for that elusive ‘nearly clean’ bite. Humbuckers start to bite a little earlier, at around 10 o’clock on the gain knob’s travel.

The tone controls are very pleasing to use – you would think that all amps with treble, middle and bass knobs have roughly the same kind of response, but that’s a long way from the truth. Sometimes, you can almost hear the peaks and troughs between different frequency bands – but not on the Roadhouse’s EQ. Here, treble, midrange and bass combine seamlessly, making it easy to predict and repeat precise settings. It’s very sweet, very musical with a good wide range, and a delight to use.

With the boost engaged, you can add as little or as much filth as you want for lead work – after all this is a Cornford, and it’s easy to get practically any lead effect you want, from mean stabbing highs that really cut if you plug in a good Tele, to fluid sustain that begs for a good humbucker and a tasty, soaring ballad solo. With plenty of range from that superlative EQ, any guitar is going to sound great – pushing the midrange up just makes everything thicker and punchier, with none of the nasal honk that many amps deliver when you do this, however we found our best balance with bass and treble on 2 o’clock, and the all-important midrange at about eleven o’clock – demonstrating that all the best tones fall in the middle of the EQ’s range – another sign of a well-sorted circuit.

Overall, the Roadhouse’s lead tone has a different vibe to Cornford’s stunning MK50 MkII head, it’s more forgiving to play, with a tighter and more focused bass response, though it’s not as multi-dimensional as the flagship. “That sweeter vibe is partly because of the EL34’s we’re using in the Roadhouse” Martin explains, “The tighter bass response you mention is down to the new EQ. It’s been tweaked and refined, and for the Roadhouse I made a capacitor change amongst other things that’s lifted the bass frequency somewhat. It’s made it tighter and easier to control and that’s definitely shaped some of the Roadhouse’s character”. “Unlike some of our hand-wired amps, it’s very forgiving to play” adds Paul C. “The MK50’s reward total commitment to every note; however they tend to highlight sloppy playing. The Roadhouse isn’t like that – you seem to get more out than you put in. We’ve had prototypes out for some time now with top players like Jan Cyrka, Davey K and Jamie Humphries – they’re all raving about it, and the response we had at NAMM was overwhelming. We’re all really excited about this amp”

Value for Money and Verdict:
So are we. It’s not often that a guitar amp gets such an enormous worldwide reaction and when it does you can bet it’s going to be something very special. Beyond any doubt, after nearly nine years, Cornford are still getting better and better at building great-sounding guitar amps. Okay, so maybe the Roadhouses aren’t cheap – good things rarely are – however they’re way more affordable than Cornford’s hand-wired models, representing excellent value for money, with a unique quality of tone and character that’s far above what you’d normally expect at this level.

As for tone, there aren’t many amps at this price that come close; however the few which do will be tough competition. The build standard is easily tough enough to handle extended use at the pro end of the market, while the price puts the legendary Cornford badge within reach of mere mortals as well as top pros. If you’re serious about your tone, you owe it to yourself and your guitar to hear this amp – so get down to your nearest Cornford dealer soon and check it out.

The Bottom Line:
WE LIKE: Fabulous tone and ease of use from one of the all-time great British amp builders, at a price that’s almost too good to be true.

WE DISLIKE: For a 30 watt 1x12, this is a weighty beast of an amp, and the extra deep cab makes it less portable than you’d expect.

GUITARIST SAYS: Cornford do it yet again with a killer amp that totally delivers on every front – miss this one at your peril.

Cornford Roadhouse 30 1x12 Combo TEST RESULTS:
Build Quality 5
Features 5
Sound 5
Value for money 5

GUITARIST RATING 5

Guitarist Gold Award

   
 
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