Divided by 13 RSA31 Vs. Matchless Spitfire Vs. Divided by 13 RSA23 Amp Shootout (Or…The Downward Spiral of a Gear Junkie)

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.

39 thoughts on “Divided by 13 RSA31 Vs. Matchless Spitfire Vs. Divided by 13 RSA23 Amp Shootout (Or…The Downward Spiral of a Gear Junkie)

  1. Which one will most bring the Lord’s blessing to worshippers?

    While the heavenly cleans of the RSA23 are sure to get the angels joining in your praise sessions, everytime you display the “Mathless” at church you’ll be witnessing. (The name Matchless obviously refers to Jesus…)

    Ugh…why even try, I’d love to play any of these amps, let alone own one! No choice will be bad. Remember though, you love pedals, so you need something which provide a somewhat neutral platform. Too much drive in the preamp makes post drive effects harder to use!!!

    Good Luck

    Nate

  2. dude im a matchless fan. i have a dc30 that will never leave me. not only does it sound warm, bright, punchy and just about any other awesome adjective you can think of, its a great platform for pedals as well. it has half power and master volume so i doesn’t have to be screaming loud although it can be.

  3. Three are three main things that separate the Matchless EL84 amps from the traditional Vox-based amps.

    The coupling caps are .01uF’s rather than the typical .047uF’s (.022 in the phase inverter rather than .047)

    The triodes of the V1 (first preamp tube) are connected, which mimics jumping channels on a traditional Vox.

    And the volume knob is 1MA rather than 500k.

    That’s where that bigger sound comes from. My first amp was a Lightning clone. I ultimately Vox’d it by converting the volume to 500k and the coupling caps to Vox spec. There was no unjumping the triodes though. When I get back from vacation this week I’m building a Trainwreck Rocket clone. I had to sacrifice the transformers from the Lightning clone :o/ I hope I like it. I could always just rebuild a Lightning.

  4. which two would bring the most on resale? you like all three, right? so sell the two that are worth the most and use to proceeds to drown out any doubt you may have with sweet new delay pedals.

  5. Karl, I had an idea when I was walking just a few minutes ago. Why not build an amp? I can hold your hand as much as you need me to. Trinityamps.com offers a Lightning kit and a Hiwatt kit. I haven’t looked at the numbers, but I imagine you could be in each for about $1500. The Trinity name will help you recoup losses if you decided to sell.

  6. Karl, congrats on the 2 new amps! When you decide which one you are going to keep, let us know. Then tell us what you want for the other two… ;-)

  7. Just to add a bit to what I wrote about building . . .

    I couldn’t tell the difference when I compared my Lightning to an original. It was a confirming feeling. Circuits are circuits regardless of who holds the soldering iron.

  8. Jonathan– :) Thanks! I suppose there are worse problems to have, but right now all I can think of is deciding on an amp and recouping my costs before the credit card bill comes in. I probably shouldn’t get myself into these situations, but where would the fun be in that?

    Nate–hmmm…good point! lol ;) I never thought about the ‘Matchless’ thing. hehehe

    Thus far they all take pedals well…the RSA23 might be the worst of the 3, but it still takes pedals very well. It just really shines when cranked…which is not what mod pedals like. hehe

    Rhoy–got a Spitfire vote! Thus far, it’s winning! :)

    RyanJ–hmmm…another Matchless vote. Thanks for the info. Ya, if I decide to keep the Matchless, I’m going to have to trade it in for a HC/DC-30 at some point, because every once in a while I need the 30 watts. And I’m really liking the Spitfire’s sound. Thanks for the comment!

    James–great info!! Thanks, brother. The jumpered channel thing makes sense with the sound I’m hearing. :) Can’t wait to hear the Trainwreck clone!

    Keith–that is so the absolute correct answer. :) Unfortunately, I just can’t get my brain to go there. I have to choose the best one. It’ll naw away at me every night if I think I sold the better sounding one. I’ve got some issues. hehe And for what it’s worth, the two D13′s will fetch the higher prices as they’re higher powered amps. Other than that, I think resale value on Matchless and D13′s of comparable model are about the same.

    James–I totally appreciate the offer! I’ll have to kick it around in my head for awhile…I guess I just like the road-worthiness of knowing a professional soldered it together. lol :) but I should definitely think about that!

    Ryan–lol Unfortunately, what you just said is absolutely all too true. :)

  9. dude if you decide to do the matchless thing and are in the burbank area shoot me an email if you wanna check out the dc30.

  10. James–good point! :)

    RyanJ–I’m probably going to take the RSA31 up to Hollywood tomorrow to have a ppimv mod put in. I’ll send you an e-mail when my tech says it’ll be ready (probably a week or so), and then maybe we can test out the D13 and the DC30. I really appreciate the offer!

  11. I think I’m the only one but I like the voicing of the RSA23 the best. Less chime than the other two but it sounds more focused. I thought you were going to get a RSA31 originally when you started talking about getting a D13 amp so that’s pretty cool that you’re able to A/B them. I got to play my friend’s Psionic Audio modded AC30 the other day and it sounded pretty good.

  12. dude though shalt not covet your amp! i guess im the only one that thinks theirs a big difference here the divided is much warmer .

  13. Ok, after listening to all three clips I vote for Matchless.

    Since you like to use warmer more “brown” colored delays and might I add lots of it, the clarity and crisp focused tone of your notes coming out of the Matchless will sound less washy sounding blurry. I think at the end of the 3rd video where you were going off on the RSA 31, though it sounds cool by itself I’m thinking it may start clashing with other instruments, might be too warm for that delay. Just my two cents…

    But what do I know? I’m not even there to listen to it live. I think these youtube demos and sound clips are a God-sent for people like me (an information whore) but nothing beats being there live and hearing that tone coming straight out of the cab.

    Good luck on your decision Karl! I think you should start praying for God to strike the unworthy amp with lightning!!!

  14. Dan–a vote for the RSA23. Yes, it’s definitely more focused. But it’s not as saturated as the other two, and the drive is so Marshally. Really, really good Marshall drive…but with my delay, it sounds like a less talented Edge on less toneful Jimmy Page rig. hehe But it’s a really nice flavor to have at times. I wish I had money.

    Nice to hear that the Psionic Audio modded AC30 sounds good. Do they take CC’s and mod them to vintage specs?

    RyanJ–cool! I just got back, and he has it now. Could be a couple days, could be a couple weeks. But I too, would love to hear the two amps next to each other!

    Jonathan–haha Maybe that’s what I need! :)

    Kenrick–lol No, seriously, I’m laughing out loud. That was great.

    Jason–haha Bro, thanks so much for playing that night. I’m really looking forward to it. But with you playing, I don’t even need my electric! I’m probably just gonna bring one amp and a volume pedal for the pads, a tuner, and my acoustic. :) Ooh, that sounds light. hehe

    Craig–actually, I might be with you there. Which Divided?

    Jonathan–I like lots of delay? What? I’m not sure what you mean by that. ;) hehe No, that last video was just saturated with delay…more delay than anyone should ever use…ever. But like I said, it allows me to play less and just listen to the sonic qualities of the amps.

    So you’re liking the Matchless? I agree, it was more focused. Although some of that does might have to do with the fact that it’s the least wattage, and so is distorting the camera mic less. But even in person, it’s the most focused for EL84-tone.

    And at the end of the 3rd video, that’s the RSA23, not the 31. It definitely has a more Marshally character when it gets driven, and that’s a great thought that though it sounds good on its own, it might get muddy in a band context. I totally agree. The high mids in that amp’s drive are incredibly aggressive, and can tend to step on other instruments if you’re not careful. Good ears! :)

  15. Just for tone on its own, I like the 31. However, in a band situation the Matchless would stand out in a positive way. Any of the three would be a good choice though. I don’t think you could make a bad decision.

    If it was me, I would run the Matchless and the 31 in stereo. With the Matchless running the dirt. It would kill.

  16. Mark–I love it, brother. You don’t know how many times I’ve stared at my rig seeing if there’s anything I can sell that will allow me to run stereo amps again. lol But the bottom line is, I already take two amps to gigs so that one can run the pad, and I that’s pushing it as far as how long it takes me to set up anyway. But, man, it’d be cool to go stereo again. When Coldplay calls, I’m so there!! Matchless and D13!! :)

    Brian–hehe No!!! ;) That’s cool, though. Steve’s an incredible guitarist. And if I’m not mistaken, Mark Sampson, the original founder of Matchless, also founded Bad Cat after he left Matchless. But I’m not sure how similar some of the Matchless and Bad Cat circuits are.

    And I’m thinking I might have to do a little Divided by 13 Shootout Tour. When I pick it up from Jerry, I’ll swing by Ryan J’s, in Burbank, test it against the DC30, and then over by your place, test it against the Bad Cat. We could film ‘em and everything!

  17. Yup setup can be a bear. For quite a while I ran stereo out of a Fulltone TTE into a Princeton and a Frenzel using el34′s through a Fender tone stack. It sounded amazing. But….it took forever to setup. And….in order to get it to really start talkin’ I needed both amps sweatin’ pretty good. And….that was LOUD! And….I didn’t have the extra chunck of change for a couple of UA’s. So….for now I’ve been using a pretty minimal setup when I play at church. Me mates say it sounds great but….it would sound better in stereo. ;) Hmmmm….some day.

  18. i think all these amps will sound good in a record because you can eq, pan, etc … but as many have said, spitfire might be the one that can really cut thru the mix. as a passing thought for next time you do a demo, can you play a backing track or some pad sounds on top. might be easier to judge a gear :)

  19. i had to listen again , and i like the 31 just me i guess ive heard em all and played most . i assume you had all the same settings on all the amps ?? as far as EQ. goes . i deffinatly hear a warmer sound from the 31 . sweeeeeeeeeet sound on all

  20. Mark–haha I’m so with ya! One day, bro, one day. Stereo again. hehe :)

    Rhoy–I’ll definitely try to do some sort of tracking or looping next time. :) Thanks for the suggestion.

    Craig–I had all the amps where they were they seemed to be the happiest. But ya, all were on their own personal verge of breakup, and tones are a little mid heavy, where I usually dial things. And I might be agreeing with you on the 31. After more testings the last few days, it’s getting the master volume mod put in by my tech, and it may end up being the one I keep. This month. lol Us guitarists, man. :)

    Cam–I love the tone of the 23 as well. My only thing is that I tend to like better and play better with Voxy drive sounds, and when the 23 is overdriven, it sounds more Marshally. A great Marshall sound, but not the Voxy sound I tend to gravitate towards. But it does sound good. Yikes, I’m just not sure on any of these! It’ll probably come down to whatever amp happens to get interest when the credit card bills are due. haha

  21. Finally got a chance to listen to the clips. The 23 sounds horrible… you should sell it to me. ;-)

    Actually I think all three of ‘em sound great. Kinda prefer something about the D13′s though. Not sure what it is…

  22. haha Funny you should mention that…the 23 is up on GearPage as we speak. I love it, but I just use the EL84 drive sound more often than the HiWatt/Marshall drive sound, and as much as I’d like to keep both D13′s…ya, I have no money. hehe But I might be agreeing with you on the idea that there is something about those 13′s. We’ll see. I gotta do some more tests.

  23. they all sound pretty good to me. to complicate things further, if you like Hillsong, Nigel Hendroff has a Matchless Spitfire 15 watt amp which he runs in stereo with a Vox AC 15 amp ( maybe the pre- Yamaha takeover of VOX version).

    If you want to sound a bit like him….or Hillsong guitarists in general -

    they got a web blog:

    http://hillsong.com/blogs/creative/2009/01/14/the-droffs-gear/

    I also love those El84 chimes on the clean sound soaking in delay “Edge-style” simple, but good!! btw that last vid reminded me of U2′s vertigo tour DVD for those big delay solo moments
    “on new year’s day….”

    Nigel Hendroff’s has his amps under the stage and they mike them both up for stereo effects. etc as you’ll see on the site.

    I like his Duesenburg guitar!! I’d trade my Cort for one. maybe.

    anyways.

  24. Matchless Spitfire… hands- down winner I think , even if just judging from this utube sound.

    You are absolutley right … Extremely responsive, and very beautiful. … and the harmonic content is so, so , much richer. The others sound flat, and over compressed , apart from some attractive bottom end things happening
    . All are obvioulsy good amps .

    Very nice site , and very nice vibes .

    Cheers

    from another gear junkie ………. I feel your pain :-)

  25. Liam, I totally agree with you. After playing out a few times with the Matchless, it was really no contest. I sold the D13′s. Actually, I sold the Matchless too, but only to move up to the 30 watt model, the Matchless HC30.

    So, you’ve got good ears! Or, at least ears that agree with mine…and I like to think that those are good ears. ;) lol

  26. Another solution: Sell Nothing! Grab the guitars and amps, hit the road under an assumed name, and go busking in the pacific northwest, and at rainbow gatherings…

  27. Sorry, that’s what happens when you comment after the fact – but good choice! I’m in the process of getting a Clubman Reverb head, which I think sounds more like a louder version of the small combos (Lightning Reverb) than the C-30 amps, in spite of the power tube type discrepancy (or similarity in the C-30). Anyhow, good going!

  28. haha That’s a great idea! Honestly, I wish I could’ve kept ‘em all. :) And a friend of mine used to have the Clubman…sounded great!! Cheers, and thanks for stopping by!

  29. May I ask you a question please?
    On the first video, your tone is just awesome!! I’m wondering, what is the delay you were using?
    Thanks a lot already!

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