Video: Hiwatt vs. Orange vs. Mesa-Boogie—What's the Difference?

Inextricably associated with rock—both classic and contemporary—Orange, Hiwatt, and Mesa-Boogie amps conjure aural visions of big stages, searing lead tones, and massive arena-certified volume levels. In truth, all of these storied makers now offer broad lineups designed to suit a wide range of playing styles and requirements, but each has also gone to great lengths to retain a degree of the individual personalities that shot them to the top of the rock world in the first place.

Orange and Hiwatt are redolent of Brit-rock legends and the swinging London of the late '60s and early '70s, while Mesa-Boogie has slightly more contemporary West Coast associations in many guitarists' minds. The fact is, however, that these three hallowed brands were all birthed within a year of each other in late 1967 and '68, albeit with the former two originating in the UK, and the latter about in California, as far west as you could go from there before ending up in the east. In any case, all were born with the full intention of rocking hard, and addressing the specific needs of professional guitarists.

Check out the video above for an overview of each of these amp companies' characteristic styles and sounds, and to hear Andy Martin demo a classic example of each. If you're currently in the market for an amp made by one of these brand names, click on the links below to see a vast array of Orange, Hiwatt, and Mesa-Boogie amps currently available on Reverb.

Hiwatt

Guitarists who haven't experienced Hiwatt amps directly might see them as another vintage Marshall wannabe, since the heads have a roughly similar look and control complement. The truth is, founder Dave Reeves started manufacturing his Hiwatts in 1968 (after building a run of amps of his own design for Sound City) with the objective of producing the best-made and most-professional guitar amplifiers available at the time, and they are very different from Marshall designs at their core.

As such, Hiwatt invariably comes up when amp fanatics point to classic examples of beautifully hand-wired tube amps, and the sounds that resulted from the circuit designs themselves proved to be just as robust as the ways in which the components were put together—often courtesy of Navy-trained electrical engineer Harry Joyce.

Big, punchy, loud, bold, dynamic—these are the adjectives that usually follow in any discussion of the classic Hiwatt 50- and 100-watt DR504 and DR103 models of the late '60s and '70s. And while these amps were primarily designed for punchy, muscular, articulate tones on big concert stages—where they powered The Who, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, and others—they could certainly roar with a thick, aggressive overdrive when pushed hard enough.

Hiwatt moved to printed-circuit-board (PCB) construction in the late '70s, which signaled the end of the "classic era" for the brand, even though quality was still high. But the company was hit hardest with the death of founder Dave Reeves in 1981 after a fall down a staircase, and the original Hiwatt dissolved not long after.

After a period of unsteady production, the Hiwatt brand name was sold to Rick Harris, then proprietor of the large Music Ground retail operation in Leeds, England. In addition to re-introducing new renditions of old Dave Reeves circuits, the new Hiwatt also designed more contemporary homages to the Hiwatt ethos, such as the popular Studio Stage head and combos—which used four EL84s to generate 40 watts for stage, switchable to two EL84s for 20 watts in the studio or smaller clubs—as well as 7- and 20-watt models which were different from anything produced in Hiwatt's heyday.

This new era of Hiwatt amps hit a bump in the road when Harrison and his son Justin admitted to charges of handling stolen goods in Leeds Crown Court in February 2012, but the brand has recently gotten up and running again with a limited range of head and combo renditions of the classic 50/100-watt and smaller 20/40-watt Studio circuits. Otherwise, plenty of players seeking that legendary Hiwatt sound have also turned to makers like Reeves and Hi-Tone, which are dedicated to replicating both vintage and reworked versions of the sound, built to similarly high standards.

Orange

When it was founded by Cliff Cooper in a storefront in London's New Compton Street in 1968, the Orange brand didn't initially even include amplifier sales, but instead encompassed music publishing, a record label, an agency, and a recording studio. "It took a long time to build the studio," Cooper told Reverb in a 2018 interview. "Then, when we finished it, we didn't have the customers."

Cooper sold his own band's gear in the front window to pay the rent and learned the high demand for such equipment, which led to more secondhand sales. With the major amp builders turning down his request to be a retailer, he decided to build his own with Matamp. Around 1971, Cooper began making amps solely under the Orange name.

The classic early Orange amps of the late '60s and early- to mid-'70s tended to be big and loud, putting out 100 to 120 watts from four EL34 tubes, with circuits that were pretty much unlike anything else on the market at the time. These amps could deliver a big, punchy rock sound, but were also capable of a slightly fuzzy, raw overdrive tone, often referred to as the "Orange Haze," which perfectly suited the sounds of many big psychedelic-rock bands of the era.

These amps were also—and remain—very much distinguished by their looks, featuring big knobs on hippie-chic, white-enameled control panels and, of course, orange vinyl covering on most examples, although several black-covered Oranges were also manufactured. Most distinctive, perhaps, are the Graphic Overdrive (or GRO) models, which carried controls labeled with graphic legends only, and no text.

Many reissue Orange models from the late '90s onward have sought to replicate these original powerhouses, such as the OR-120, while models like the AD15 and AD30 (and its dual-channel sibling the AD30HTC) took aim at a more Vox AC15- and AC30-like sound, albeit with some classic Orange twists.

In recent years, Orange has made a huge impact with its range of tiny "lunchbox" heads. Models like the Micro Terror, Rocker Terror, Dark Terror, and Brent Hinds Terror take you from classic-rock to modern high-gain in extremely portable packages, while big pro-caliber heads like the hand-wired Custom Shop 50 are still landing on arena stages.

Mesa-Boogie

Mesa-Boogie amps are renowned for the singing high-gain sounds of the Mark Series and the massive crunch-of-doom of the Rectifier models, which have fueled heavier and more incendiary rock styles in particular. As applicable as these are to contemporary music, however, the brand goes way back to 1967 and '68, when founder Randall Smith built the first Boogie by converting a friend and client's Fender Princeton combo into a fire-breathing high-gain monster as a joke. A line of converted Princetons followed, and the first proper Boogies were manufactured around 1971. (These were later called Mark I, after the Mark II came out.)

Evolving through the classic Mark IIC+ designs of '84 and early '85—famous for their use by Metallica, Dream Theater, and other heavy rockers—into the latter Mark III, Mark IV, and today's Mark V Series, these Boogies have long been characterized by searing, saturated, preamp-generated lead tones with virtually eternal sustain, all able to be reined in to reasonable volumes by very effective master volume controls. That, and a lot of knobs and switches, plus extremely flexible routing, power-level, and switchability options.

Today, this signature Boogie sound is also available in the smaller, more portable Mark V:25 and V:35 configurations, in addition to the mammoth-sounding (yet still compact) flagship 90-watt Mark V head and combo.

Acclaimed though they are, however, the Boogies are far from the only clever ponies in the Mesa stable. The discontinued Trans Atlantic 15 and 30 models won a lot of fans for their combination of Vox-like EL84 chime and Boogie-flavored overdrive, and are still popular on the used market. Meanwhile the recent Filmore 25, 50 and 100 are driven by Fender Tweed–like circuitry for more classic-American clean, crunch, and lead tones. The new California Tweed aims more firmly at cleverly modified voicings inspired by Leo's amps of the '50s, while the Triple Crown Series delivers the classic Marshall-flavored British tones of the '60s, '70s, and '80s.

comments powered by Disqus