Moving in Stereo: 4 Killer Rackmount Amps

Most rackmounted guitar power amps are very un-sexy things; they’re plainly adorned rectangular boxes with a couple of switches, maybe a knob or three, and some ins and outs on the back. Designed to live in a rack stacked with preamps, power conditioners, and flashy looking effects processors, these utilitarian workhorses of the eighties rack era are typically devoid of the classy touches we normally like to see on our guitar amplifiers, from Tolex and decorative piping to fancy knobs and faceplates. This lack of sexiness, plus the association with eighties butt-rock (sort of ironic, no?), is probably the main reason many of these fine amplifiers have remained so far under the radar of the average guitarist.

Rack power amps have made something of a comeback recently, though, largely as a result of the wild popularity of the Fractal Axe-FX preamp/processor among a certain subset of guitar people, but for many tube amp nuts they are still looked upon with derision (or at least extreme suspicion). This is a shame, because despite how they look, many of the classic rackmount power amps are heavy duty, all-tube tone beasts that make a great platform for not only Axe-FX owners, but any player with a penchant for effects. Most power amps are strictly for power, and thus have little, if any, tone controls on board, making them perfect blank canvases for players that use outboard preamplifiers and effects to achieve their tone. Many can be had quite inexpensively second-hand, are very ruggedly built, and have cool features like true stereo operation and lots of ins and outs. Here are a few of our favorite tube power amps from the bygone era of the rack.

Marshall 9200 Dual MonoBloc 100/100

Despite what I said about rack power amps being plain and unattractive, the Marshall 9200 is actually rather fetching, with a gold faceplate, Plexiglas tube window, fancy knurled gold knobs, and a prominent Marshall logo on the front. Many older players are probably familiar with the 9000 series, as they were ubiquitous in the eighties, usually paired up with a Marshall JMP-1 preamp. The guitarists of Iron Maiden were among the many illustrious users of these amps. The 9200 is a dual-mono amplifier, rather than a standard stereo amp, meaning that its pair of 100-watt amps could be used independently. Each side has independent Power, Standby, and Voicing switches, as well as independent controls for Gain and Presence. Powered by eight EL34 or 5881 power tubes, the 9200 is capable of tremendous volume, headroom, and smooth British gain, and even today, makes a great platform for the effects aficionado. A proper Marshall preamp makes a great match for this power amp, but because it is somewhat less colored than a JCM800 or other Marshall head, it will also work well with just about any distortion generator one might want to put in front of it. A Marshall 9200 in good used condition typically sells for between 600 and 800 dollars.

Mesa/Boogie Fifty/Fifty Stereo

This amp embodies the utilitarian, no-nonsense character of the typical rack power amp with its plain-Jane black box and minimalist feature set. The Mesa Fifty/Fifty sported 50 watts per side of Class A/B, 6L6 power, with each channel having independent Volume and Presence controls. This amp was Mesa's best selling power amp ever, and for good reason—it was possessed of a large, articulate voice with ample low-end and headroom. Back in the day, the Fifty/Fifty was typically mated with Boogie's TriAxis preamp, but its warm and somewhat Fender-esque character allows it to pair nicely with many different preamps. One of the coolest features of this rack amp is its "Lo Power" switch, which takes it from 50 watts down to 15, letting the user push this monster into saturation at totally reasonable volumes. A used Mesa/Boogie Fifty-Fifty is an excellent bargain, selling for anywhere from 325 to 500 dollars in good working order.

Peavey Classic Series 50/50 Stereo Tube

I'm not sure how Mesa/Boogie and Peavey managed to avoid suing each other over the similarity in the names of their 50-watt stereo power amps, but I do admire them for not resorting to litigation. Either way, the Peavey Classic Series 50/50 is a different animal than the Mesa, with a total of eight EL84 power tubes producing fifty watts per side in stereo, or switchable to 100 watts in mono operation. With EL84's at its heart, one might expect the 50/50 to exhibit a Vox-like character, but in truth, the tone of this rack amp is much less colored than one would expect. Its sound does tilt towards the mid-range a bit, though, and it doesn't have the tight and hefty bottom end of the Mesa. (Think classic and warm, rather than big and clean.) Among the 50/50's cool features are independent Resonance and Presence knobs on each channel, for tailoring low-end and high-end, respectively, and a wide variety of ins and outs, including low-noise XLR direct outs for plugging it straight into a console or recorder. The Peavey Classic Series 50/50 is pretty common on the used market, and can be had for around 300 bucks if you play your cards right.

Lexicon Signature 284 Stereo Amplifier

This amp is a genuine anomaly in the world of tube power amps, in that it was built by Lexicon, a company known more for top-shelf digital delays than tube amps, and it was released in 1998, well beyond the apex of the rack era. It is also strange in that it was a three-watt per side, EL84-based design that was geared towards recording rather than high volume stage rocking (though it could get rather loud when cranked). The Signature 284 was dreamed up for Lexicon by renowned tube amp guru John McIntyre, and it features a 12AX7-based preamp, three-band EQ, a presence control, and independent left and right volume controls. The back panel has speaker outs, slave outs, XLR direct outs with speaker emulation, and a stereo effects loop. The speaker and direct outs could even be used at the same time, which created a lot of options for recording. Pushing in its Gain knob resulted in a surprisingly molten high-gain tone that was available at a very reasonable volume, but it could also achieve a brilliant clean, or gently driven tone. Unlike the average rack amp, the Signature 284 was absolutely gorgeous to behold, with a gloss black faceplate, understated logos, chicken-head knobs, and an overall air of classiness and quality that is missing from most rackmount gear. The Lexicon Signature 284 is a fairly rare bird, infrequently showing up on eBay, Craigslist, and other used gear buying venues. When one does show up, however, they can sell for as little as 400 bucks, making this amp an incredible steal for those that manage to locate one.

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