German amp supremo Hughes & Kettner is on a major roll with its Chinese-made TubeMeister amp range, especially as the TubeMeister 18 is presently the biggest-selling amp in America. We thought the flagship TubeMeister 36 was already pretty good, however H&K's R&D team happened to have a top-secret ace up their sleeve and here it is, the modestly named GrandMeister 36 (£1,129).
Four channels. Boost. Onboard digital effects. Red Box DI. Noise gate. Five output levels down to zero for silent recording. If that's not enough to get you salivating, how about total MIDI control, not just of every switched functions, but all the pots too? That's what Hughes & Kettner has shoehorned into the same slim steel chassis, with its trademark side-lit Perspex control panel.
By making the preamp gain, volume and EQ controls double up for effects editing, Hughes & Kettner has kept the front panel relatively clean and uncluttered too. Behind each knob (apart from the global master volume) is what H&K calls a Smart Rotary Control, connected to a network of 256 resistors that remember the exact control position and let you store it in one of 128 patches.
Teamed with the new FSM432 MIDI foot controller (£169), the GrandMeister can run in either preset mode, or stompbox mode, with on/off access to all the effects, and if you use the included seven-pin MIDI lead, the foot controller is phantom-powered from the amp.
Thanks to oversized mains and output transformers, the sounds are just as good as the looks, with the new fourth Ultra channel providing a superheated lead sound that's as good as you'll hear from any top boutique amp.
The other channel voicings are just as versatile as before, going from bouncy sweet cleans through creamy blues and classic rock to all-out devastation from the lead channel, with the trick EL84 output stage reconfiguring itself with different levels of feedback to suit the four very different voicings.
Teamed with H&K's closed-back TM212 speaker cabinet (£539), it's loud yet totally controllable. The built-in studio quality effects are equally good, with a particularly nice chorus teamed with the usual phase, flange and tremolo effects, plus a generously long delay and a warm hall reverb.
"The Ultra channel provides a superheated lead sound that's as good as you'll hear from any top boutique amp."
The cherry on top is a free app that works on the iOS platform through an appropriate MIDI interface and gives you real-time control over everything. It looks almost as good as the real amp and lets you store and name all your patches.
It's brilliant, but if only Hughes & Kettner had made this work over Bluetooth or WiFi, you could have your guitar tech fine-tune your sounds from the middle of the hall while you sound-check. How cool would that be? But as it would probably add at least another hundred to the price, we'll happily stick with good old cables.
Probably the best amp you'll see this year, if not this decade, we reckon the new GrandMeister 36 is totally unbeatable at the price and heading for amp superstardom!