It’s all downhill from here. I adored my RSA23. It was better than almost any other living thing. But with all things you adore, the true test of whether you really adore it or not, is by how many duplicates you buy of it. So I decided, this is the best thing I’ve ever heard (er, well, that came out of my hands…I’ve heard plenty of way better things come out of other people’s hands); Fred (the guy who makes the D13′s…first lesson in being cool is to refer to those in more prominent positions than yourself by their first name……like Sam………and that’s Samuel L. Jackson for those of you not as cool as I) obviously makes a killer KT88-tubed amp; hmm……I wonder what his EL84-based amp sounds like. The RSA31. And then it came in the mail. I don’t know how it happened. But there it was. It’s so weird…not sure if you guys knew this, but if you enter in your credit card number on the internet, you can actually choose things to be sent in the mail to your house! It’s a pretty sweet system.

But then…someone offered me a Matchless Spitfire in a trade. And I really needed the money rather than a trade…but I’ve never owned a Matchless, and incidentally Matchless was one of the main factors in the Tonal Epiphany of ’03, that transformed me from a ‘music is about skill, speed, and technicality and if you sound good you’re a sellout and unoriginal’ metalhead into a ‘skill in music should evidence itself in how the finished product sounds and usually that means calm down, son’ minimalist. I had just been introduced to U2 (well, their music…not like, ‘Here, meet Adam Clayton’, unfortunately), and I was having trouble reconciling how their music ‘sucked’ (i.e. no solos, most of it in simple 4/4 time), but how it moved me so much more than the Tourniquet I was listening to. And how my amazingly technical phrygian mode riffs through my Boss GT6 on the Metallica patch never quite seemed to sound as good as the other guitarist’s one tasteful note through a Fender Bandmaster. And couple that with the fact that the other guitarist (who eventually became a tone mentor of sorts to me) had told me that Matchless was the best amp you could buy. And right around that time period, Phil Wickham and his band came and guested at a church I was attending, and I was blown away by the sheer ‘sound’ that was coming from their guitar player (I think it was Steve Marcia at the time), and how that sound was just hitting me right in the heart. And I spoke with him afterwards, and lo and behold he was playing a Matchless. Vintage sea green tolex…I still remember it’s beauty sheening tone towards mine eyes and forever embedding itself within my heart and bosom. (Bosom just means stomach, right? I thought so, but for some reason it sounds slightly inappropriate. Oh well.) I think he then asked me what amp I played, and I think I got really embarrassed and stuttered something about playing a Matchless also, because I had just programmed a patch into my GT6 using the base model of ‘Fat Match.’ hehe

So, long story short (ya…right), I now have a Matchless; after years of longing. And that is just the latest chapter in the long, downward, smiling with unabashed joy all the way, spiral of a gear junkie. And then the gear room (I mean, ‘office’…sorry, Sweetheart) that was so recently cleaned out and catalogued in this post, has now once again become this:

Amp Shootout '09
(And yes, the Matchless is taken apart in this picture. You don’t truly know your gear until you take it apart. And touch where the sweet tone comes from.)

Gear Closet '09
(And ya…the closet. It’s so hard to find shipping boxes big enough and strong enough to ship amps…so I have to keep them until I decide which amps I’m shipping off. It looks cleaner in person. Nope. Nope it doesn’t.)

And for some strange reason, those photos just warm my heart. It really is a sickness. I often tell my wife that it’s a good thing we don’t have money, or I’d totally be one of those old guys with hundreds of thousands of dollars in gear just piled throughout the apartment, but with inexplicably not enough money to eat anything more costly than secondhand catfood. (If you can name that movie, I’ll seriously give you a pedal or something!)

Luckily, I don’t have money, so only one of these amps can stay. And before I did these videos, I had no idea which one I would keep. So I figured I’d film a couple, and then edit the same parts played on different amps together, so I could hear the sounds back to back. And then, as long as I have serious gear junkie/drug of choice issues, may as well make them useful to others so we can all slide down the wondrous spiral together. Splendid. On to the shootout.

The Players

–Divided by 13 RSA23 with post phase-inverter master volume mod by Jerry Blaha. KT88 tube-based. 23 watts. First channel.

–Matchless Spitfire. 2006, Phil Jamison era. EL84 tube-based. 15 watts.

–Divided by 13 RSA31. EL84-based. 31 watts. First channel. First video is on half power mode; last two videos are on full power mode.

The Base Tone

--Prairiewood Les Paul with Wolfetone Dr. Vintage pickups–>

–Loop-Master bypass box (on master bypass)–>

–Loop-Master bypass box (on master bypass except when obvious delay is engaged)–>
(–>Damage Control Timeline (the obviously engaged delay at certain times)–>

–Divided by 13 RSA23, Matchless Spitfire, or Divided by 13 RSA31–>

–65 Amps birch cab with Celestion Blue and Celestion G12H-30

Possible Unfair Advantages

–The D13 RSA23 has been re-tubed recently, whereas the Matchless and RSA31 have some JJ preamp tubes that I found around my apartment. (Yep, I just find tubes everywhere in the apartment. Scary.)

–The D13 RSA31 does not have a master volume, and so it may be too loud for me to give it an accurate chance.

–The Matchless has a smaller preamp section with fewer tubes, and may not be able to get as saturated as the other two, whereas a matchless DC30 might be more saturated.

Possible Personal Biases

–I’ve had the D13 RSA23 the longest, so I know that amp and its feel out of the 3.

–However, I’ve played EL84 amps almost 90% of the time in the last few years, so perhaps the D13 RSA31 and the Matchless Spitfire will feel better to me, and my ears might be more used to that sound.

–As stated above, I have a long, unfulfilled love affair with Matchless.

–But it’s also really unhip to like a Matchless amp that’s not ‘Sampson era-built’ (’89-’98, I believe)

–If I like the Matchless, I’ll probably need 30 watts, so that’d be more amp buying. Not sure if that’s a bias against it or for it.

–The Matchless is gorgeous. And it lights up!

–The Divided by 13′s have more ’boutique mojo’ going for them.

And the Videos

Video 1. In the gear room/office. Before the Matchless came in. Just messing around, trying to get a feel for how both amps handle certain things.

Video 2. At my church, on an empty Saturday morning. Except where there is obvious delay on, there are no effects. That’s just the natural reverb of an empty church with terrible acoustics.

Video 3. Apologies on this one. There is some camera distortion, but besides that, this is where I put on a shameless amount of delay and just ‘space-out play.’ The delay allows me to play less and not really think about what I’m doing and just listen to the tonal differences in the amps.

Results

Alright, at one point or another in the past week, I have been absolutely decided on each one of these amps…about 7 times each. I just know that this is the one that’s better than the other two. And then it changes. Downward spiral. That I love so much. It’s really quite sad.

–Divided by 13 RSA23

The most colorful cleans of the 3. The bigger KT88 tubes give a real glassy sound, much like a 6L6 amp would; but a little less American blues sounding, and a little more British. Very pristine, with lots of clarity all over the fretboard. Its natural overdrive is one of the best-sounding Marshall/Hiwatt drives I’ve heard. Very aggressive, yet with the clean glassiness always there a bit. Extremely responsive, and very beautiful. And big sounding, without being overpowering. Also the loudest of the group. The ppimv master volume mod is essential for me on this amp.

–Matchless Spitfire

A more saturated sound than the RSA23, definitely an EL84 thing. Less big and glassy, and more warm and full. The main thing that impressed me about the Matchless was its focused tone. It was able to get big, full, and warm, but still retain its focus in both the upper and lower mids. Master volume is fantastic. Its drive was just gorgeous; warm, focused, and staunch. Almost steely at times, which was killer for some of the modern EL84-type tones. Wonderfully warm, saturated cleans. EL84 goodness.

–Divided by 13 RSA31

The weird one of the group for me. I have been absolutely sure I was going to sell it, and then absolutely sure that it blew the other two away. I think this one is bordering right between genius, and going overboard. It sounds absolutely huge! But bordering on being unfocused and washy. Its cleans could be the most beautifully warm tone I have ever heard. But they might be just a touch too warm. Its drive might be the first amp to keep the mids warm perfectly in the high registers. But it might be bordering on being too uncontrolled in the bass at times. It has the incredible Divided by 13 color, and it times I think the sound in this amp is what I’ve been looking for for so long. And then at times I worry it’s straying a little too much into the ‘too much’ category. However, overall, an incredible sounding amp…and the warmest EL84 amp I’ve played…except maybe the Matchless……ahhhh!!!

Conclusions

As you probably gathered by the ‘ahhhh’ at the end of the last sentence, I have no idea. There’s something about the cleans of the RSA23. But there’s something about the drive of the Spitfire and the RSA31. But the Spitfire has more focus than the RSA31. But the RSA31 is warmer than the Spitfire…I think. But yet the drive of the RSA23 does retain so much color…but it’s just not as saturated as the EL84 drive of the other two.

And as I write this, I have absolutely no idea which one I’m keeping. Maybe I’ll just sell all my guitars. I won’t be able to play any music, but that’s a small price to pay for tone. Wait…

Splendid.
Karl.