Hiwatt Custom 100 review
Review by Ivan Milenkovic.
Device: Tube guitar head.
Model: Custom 100 (DR103).
Price: It varies a lot, I bought it for 1300e, old ones can be found super cheap, and new ones go up to 3500$ in US.
Features. (aka "boring stuff")
This amp was made recently. Hiwatt was making these amps back in the 70ties, but the production halted and the company closed. I'm not sure exactly what happened (if someone wants Hiwatt history, there are some resources on the web), but today there is again UK based Hiwatt company that makes Hiwatt amps just like they used to make them in the old days, but with modern components. I'm not sure about the transformer quality, but I read that Partridge made the ones that go on these too, based on old specs. Not sure if they managed to do the job properly, because I don't have any old DR103 head to do some testing. I've read almost every thing there is to be found on them on the web, and no one complained about the new components tho..
I like to play variety or styles blended, non-blended, depends on the mood and the job, but I don't play metal that much. Just not my thing when it comes to playing/listening music. I do respect it, and go to metal gigs, it doesn't bother me once in a while so to speak. Anyway, for all the styles I'm into, this amp delivers, and with HQ hi gain preamp, it will deliver for a metalhead I'm sure. In fact, I can bet 50 bucks with anybody that it will blow away most metal 100W heads out there in terms of raw power (and "almost" stands for those I haven't tried yet).
This is a 2 channel amp with shared EQ for both channels. It has 4 inputs, 2 for each channel (normal and bright). Hi inputs are DOWN and LO inputs are UP. Try to imagine the layout as Marshall Superlead upside down. Patching of channels works here, and I use it like that, you can blend the the channels for additional versatility, or use A/B switcher to switch between normal and bright channel. All the knobs work as EQ/drive controls basically, they are very interactive and very responsive. This thing is a tone machine - nothing else. No FX loop, no footswitch, nothing - just tone, and two speaker outputs in the back. Only knob that isn't for tone is master volume knob, that one stands for extremely loud.
Being a bit of a purist, I don't really wish that this amp has any of the additional features. I like it they way it is. Perhaps serial FX Loop would come in handy at some point when I buy attenuator, but strictly for reverb or echo if you crank the amp (which will happen rarely!).
I use this amp on gigs, and at home when practicing for gigs, and occasional jamming at home. I mostly use software emulation at home, but sometimes I just look at it, and well.. I have to turn it on you know how it goes wink.gif I'm lucky enough that I have reasonable neighbours tho, after all these years of playing loud (and bad) they kinda used to it, poor people.
Head has adjustable 4,8 and 16 Ohm impedance, and voltage selector as well so it can be used across the world. Handy for touring. It uses 4 EL34 power tubes and 4 12AX7 preamp tubes. Not sure about rectifier, it's probably solid state.
I use this head with US Strat with 57 vintage pups and SD lil 59 in the bridge. Head goes into 1936 Lead Marshall cab loaded with G75T's. The pedal I use to make this head bark is Fulltone OCD, that I push with Boss Line Selector as a boost here and there.
This head works best with vintage speakers, I tested it on a JSX peavey cab, but it didn't sound too good. Head needs vintage speakers, and JSX cab couldn't deliver it. It's awesome for metal heads tho. Marshall cabs seem to work best, and if I ever find Hiwatt cab somewhere near me, I will definitely go and see how that sounds like. For now, Hiwatt cab with Fane speakers nowhere to be found in local shops. I use it for now with 1936 cab as I said, loaded with G75T's, although these will swap soon for some better Alnico speakers (just have to find power handling big enough).
Amp is super quiet. Crank it, and the only noise you will hear is bad wiring/bad gear noise. If you use quality gear and good electrical wiring there will be no noise with the amp. OK there will be some noise, but it is more like a tiny whisper, sort of a calm before the thunder.
Let's compare this beast to a Marshall amp. There are only few good Marshalls: old JTM's, JMP's and JCM800's (some may prefer one over another, simply thing of taste). At first I wanted to get Marshall Reissue JMP MKII head. After trying it out, I found the amp "unbalanced" and "thin". After some diggin, I was really dissapointed finding out that it has PCB board inside. Imagine reissue with PCB boards... Marshall is a marketing company these days, I don't like any of the new amps, just my taste tho. I used to swear to "Marshall tone", and still like to hear good ol' vintage superlead cranked, but it doesn't rock my socks off as it used too. This thing on the other hand delivers such a punch that it will blow the Marshall stack out of his feet, while still delivering consistent balanced tone. If we would crank both amps at full tilt, Hiwatt would bark, and Marshall would scream out of fear.
This head is super clean head. It gives out beautiful glassy clean tone, and you can certainly make it bark when cranked but this will happen rarely. Why? Because this head is LOUD. Too loud for modern use, so attenuator is a must with this thing if you want make it bark. On the other hand I personally like this amp being clean, because clean is one of the (if not THE) beautiful cleans I ever heard in any guitar amp. It delivers chorus-live, reverb-like clean, transients blend with the signal so nicely, just awesome. At first, I thought this amp has a bit "darker" tone than you might usually hear, but it is not a dark amp at all. In fact it can be searingly brittle if needed. When I tested in the store, the amp sounded awesome, and I knew instantly that it has The Tone. The truth is, you can make any kind of tone you want with it, depending on other gear in the chain. Not a lot of amps can be so "discrete" (but again, many people do not prefer "discrete" as well).
I'll do some comparisons here as well: Lots of people say Fender has "best cleans". I used to share similar opinion too. For me Fender does indeed have a cheery sound, but it is mostly brittle and harsh, with lack of mids compared to DR103. Yes, Bassman is a great amp too, I love it, it has woody quality to it, and smooth tone, but again, too "weak" for DR103. Lots of people appreciate Vox cleans too, I somehow dislike the whole Vox hype for some reason. Those amps simply do not rock enough if you ask me. Woody smooth rockabilly tone? Yes, but too woody IMO.
This amp falls into category of "unforgiving" ones. It is completely transparent, lets everything through, not one mistake will go unnoticed, and no LQ gear will be forgiven as well for that matter. If you play "well", "balanced", "tight" you will be rewarded indeed. If you put some good boutique stomp in front, it will... well - deliver the boutique stomp tone. Banging the chords on this beast is truly amazing since it provides with so much headroom it doesn't compress of clip no matter what you do. It stays clean and powerful, just like amp should do. This ensures that it will cut through anything and still sound completely transparent. With a good OD stomp/preamp in front of it, it will deliver smoooth tone for anyone's taste. Just find the right pedal and you're good to go.
You may have read word "loud" many times during this interview. This word is used for describing this amp in all other reviews as well. I think what makes this amp so loud is: 1) amount of headroom that it has and 2) pronounced midrange. It has more midrange then Marshall, and it is certainly a lot more cleaner than it too. Big, ballsy amp, that is made to Rock, simply put!
If you ever considered boutique amps, then you might know that most people who build them try to make hand wired amps that are better than factory made legendary amps. So you might have seen dozens of Marshall 18 clones, superlead clones, bassman clones etc. Indeed, they all sound better than that real thing, cause instead of mass production - one man sits and builds the amp from beginning to an end with attention to details. Well, Hiwatt DR103 head is one of the rare heads that boutique companies didn't quite managed to surpass in terms of build quality. There is one more important reason for this tho: Hiwatt was not that popular brand simply because they were too "boutique" in those days. They put out only 40 amps per month, so they didn't quite catch up on the popularity as some brands did (anyone said Marshall?). But the fact remains that Hiwatt build quality is considered finest in the industry, with handwired point-to-point HQ components. Next comes the pictures of inside of DR103 head (I made these photos).
This picture shows how much attention to detail people put in when making these. It's all made with military specs, and if something breaks down, it can be fixed very easily. I really admire these kinds of things, simplicity at it's best. Every guitar head with PCB looks a bit "strange" after seeing this.
This amp will outlast me - this is how reliable it is, and I really believe that when playing it. It came with JJ tubes inside, I suppose I will have to change them in 5 years or so, possibly even more if I don't get attenuator.
This story was perhaps a bit longer, but I hope someone will learn something from it. If not, I at least tried to describe this amp with words. Sound tells more than thousand words tho, so try it if you have the chance. Although it is factory made amp, it falls into boutique category easily, and will probably blow away any boutique amp with it's loudness as well. I have found my perfect amp, now comes the (fun) part of choosing right stomps for it. Considering Tonebone Classic, somehow I have a feeling that this device and DR103 will become best friends!!
--Sensible Jones 17:16, 4 November 2009 (CET)