Time was when all the best guitar amps came from the UK or the States, but the past decade has seen the beginning of a shift in that balance with several European manufacturers joining the fray and steadily gaining worldwide acceptance.
Hughes & Kettner has done more than most to prove that good tones aren't the sole property of Britain and America. They've built up a substantial reputation for innovation and high quality, which isn't restricted to one particular type of amplification. With the awesome zenTera and Warp 7 as their flagships for digital modelling and solid-state, the tonemeisters of St Wendel need something pretty special to match in the valve department, and the Triamp – first introduced in 1995 and now in its second incarnation – is their answer.
Twenty knobs, nine switches (and that's just the front panel) and 13 valves might seem like overkill, however, the Triamp isn't just an excuse for designers to run riot. The concept is that in one chassis you actually have three different amps to play with, each with dedicated preamp channels and tone controls. And if that little lot wasn't enough to get your head around, then rest assured there are a lot more toys besides.
Even at the budget end of its ranges, H & K has always impressed us with its construction standards, and as befits a flagship model, the Triamp is immaculately put together and presented. The cabinet is perfectly covered in the same thick custom vinyl fabric as the zenTera, and the welded corner chassis is covered in chrome panels that glitter under stage lights.
The most obvious feature is the clear Perspex front which is lit by two miniature fluorescent tubes mounted at the top edge. All the control panel markings, as well as the H&K logo, are engraved into this display, and when the mains is witched on the lettering stands out in a bright blue glow. Don't think this is just a gimmick: it's easily seen, even in daylight, and looks spectacular on a dimly lit stage.
With 13 valves you'd expect a lot of electronics, and inside the solid steel chassis there's one big main PCB which holds all the valves, with six smaller ones and several ribbon cables to connect them all. Everything is extremely well put together. The main boards are double-sided and through-plated and the overall impression is that this is an amp built with great pride. H&K expects you to look after it as well; in addition to a very luxurious cover, there's a cloth and a small bottle of cleaning liquid to keep everything looking pristine.
Let's get back to that front panel. Each of the three preamps has two channels, a master volume, individual gain controls and a separate three-band EQ. Additionally there's also global master volume and presence, so tweaking volume on stage is a very simple operation.
Amp 1 is configured for vintage sounds, and here the rhythm channel isn't affected by the preamp master volume – it goes straight through to the global master. On Amp 1's lead channel and the other two preamps, the gains are also under the control of their respective master volume. Each of the six voices can be switched from an illuminated button on the front panel as well as the included stage board. There are three more button switches: one changes the response of Amp 1 to a tighter feel, the other two are for switching the Triamp's effects loop and activating the MIDI learn function.
MIDI is used for switching the channels and toggling the effects loop and you need to purchase an extra module. This plugs into a space on the rear panel where H&K have crammed in a few more goodies. There's a balanced line out which is speaker-emulated using the famous 'Red Box' circuit, a half power option, pre-out/power-in jacks, and a very well specified effects loop which can be used in series or parallel, with instruments or line level devices. There's also a comprehensive speaker outlet section.
The included stageboard is connected through a standard locking 'D' connector – it's a really solid and good looking affair with recessed LEDs to let you know where you are. This particular stageboard sample did have a couple of sharp corners that could cause a nasty cut though, so check before you buy.
With the front panel aglow, and a pair of 4 x 12s hooked up, it's time to sample the Triamp's most important ingredients: its sounds.
Amp 1, channel A, is bright and dynamic; very Twin Reverb in character with a sweet top-end. Channel B has a rich warm distortion ideal for playing blues or crunchy chords; very AC30, again very dynamic. Using this preamp's 'tight' function switches things to a more contemporary feel and it really tames the low end, which tended to be a little too boomy in 'loose mode, giving more of an open-back combo response.
Amp 2 is for all things classic rock, with channel A offering a warmer mid-range, and Channel B pushing out a gritty and very aggressive Brit-inspired lead which really sings at full tilt – our favourite for lead work.
Amp 3 is for more contemporary sounds: massive high gain and huge bottom end in both crunch and lead versions, with a Rectifier-style harmonic depth that sends those 'off-the-pick' pinched harmonics squealing from every point on the string.
The Triamp has been powered by 6L6s and EL34s in the past. We've tried both and much prefer the Mark II's 6L6 warmth, it's far more versatile and tonally more complex than the EL34 version. Putting lots of master volumes on an amp tends to compromise power output; however, the Triamp is still plenty loud, even if it doesn't quite shake the walls in the same way a Marshall can. For smaller gigs we'd recommend using the half power option that lets you wind up the volume controls and get a good tone at easier listening levels.
The Red Box emulated line-out is a very useful addition, and works well straight into a desk for live or recording purposes. We were very impressed with the realism of this circuit, which didn't need any further EQ tweaks to provide a believable cabinet tone. Like the rest of the Triamp, it's also blessed with low background noise levels, so a noise-gate shouldn't be needed.
The Triamp's effects loop is one of the most versatile and transparent we've ever heard. We tried a selection of rack processors and stompboxes and were impressed at how easy it was to get the levels sorted for the best possible results.
The Triamp us a very powerful tool, packed with great tone and useable features that any player will find invaluable. It's put together with the finesse of a BMW and the strength of a Panzer tank, and it's a very worthy flagship for H&K's valve range.
The only fly in the ointment for us is that steel spring carry handle covered in PVC; it's certainly strong enough, but somehow doesn't look quite right – we'd prefer something a little more restrained.
For some time now the Triamp has been one of the amp world's best-kept secrets. It's been used on many high-profile tours by some of the world's top players, and that's hardly surprising when you see one of these beauties close up and plug into one. Granted it's not cheap, but this is the valve amp H&K pin their reputation to, and for the money it's a seriously good buy.