Perfection is a notoriously difficult state upon which to improve. Having built arguably the world’s greatest channel switching guitar amp, where do you go from there? Furthermore, how does one go about designing a premium version of something that already oozes such class, tone, quality and style?
Updating the 101B in any way was a rather unenviable task. Its handful of weaknesses arguably contribute to its character – a character embedded in our perception of this iconic amp and of the Bogner brand itself. The almost excessively chewy midrange is part of the Bogner legend and makes the amp incredibly addictive to play. Its smoother high mids are famously difficult to bring forward, and could perhaps be made available at more central EQ settings – but at what cost to its classic voice? Its clean channel is not the easiest to dial in, but it yields an incredible range of world-class tones to the experienced tweaker.
One could also argue that the 101B has had something of a halo effect on the whole Bogner line. Like the Soldano SLO, it has been played, modelled, referenced and idolised by so many that it’s become almost untouchable; even by its own designer. It represents a part of rock guitar folklore and is still available in its original form – if anything the cautious Red channel re-voicing of 2004 and subtle cosmetic update for the 2010s have only served to make it more desirable.
Frankly, though, the first port of call for any Ecstasy redesign would have to be the plexi mode. It never did have enough gain at anything other than gig volume, and the lack of a footswitchable boost always seemed ridiculous seeing as it was by definition replacing a channel that had one – leaving a redundant footswitch in that mode! Perhaps if we were being picky, too, the best tones in the clean channel could be made more accessible, and maybe overall compression could be reduced a tad.
Reinhold Bogner, though, went a step further by incorporating boutique capacitors throughout the preamp and revoicing the entire circuit to bring the best out of them. Controversially at first, direct comparisons with the 101B were neatly sidestepped by using four 6L6s as standard in the power section. Finally, a larger sixties-style headshell was fitted on the early models, along with a gold plexi-style front panel. In many ways, the cosmetics pointed towards a more classic, open Marshall voicing (the simultaneous discontinuation of the Ecstasy Classic giving further cues) yet the 6L6 power stage seemed at odds with this direction. Upon first impression, this amp seemed neither fish nor fowl!
For fans of a true clean sound, there is almost no doubt that the 20th Anniversary is an improvement. Its standard 6L6s bring out rounder lows and more verbose highs, and the channel stays significantly cleaner until well over halfway up the gain dial, making it a lot more idiot-proof than the 101B (which can get very furry very quickly).
All things being equal – and the 101B properly dialled in – the channels remain close in character; but it would be a fanatic or a pedant who claimed the 20th Anniversary represented anything other than a step forward in the world of cleans.
The unfortunate side-effect is that its range of available breakup tones is far, far narrower. Although musical breakup begins to appear at around 3pm on the gain dial, the brilliantly voiced bright switches cease to have much effect at gain settings higher than this, meaning the clean channel runs out of steam (and sparkle) anywhere north of Joe Walsh territory. Recreating the addictive SRV textures available on the original will require an outboard boost, as even the brilliantly revoiced onboard one falls short of providing these gain levels. No; this new clean channel is far better treated as a spanky true clean or mild breakup channel, and as such it is a huge success.
Fortunately the new Blue channel is clearer, more open and fractionally lower in gain than the 101B, so fans of low-medium gain textures will find a wide variety here. The bright switches are noticeably improved, effecting subtle graduations in timbre that remain intrinsically balanced at nearly all gain settings. The new Blue has a touch more Marshall bark to its upper midrange and feels a little more authoritative overall, so if you like your medium gain Marshall-flavoured there is enough tone and response in here for a lifetime, without ever sacrificing the pulpy feel and fascinating midrange that is so synonymous with Bogner.
Once again, though, there is a trade-off; the Blue channel just doesn’t get to early Van Halen gain levels as the original did. Perhaps it is a facet of the reduced compression, but there just isn’t enough grease on this channel for deep, liquid palm mutes or enough melting sustain to make those frantic hard rock licks “pop”.
Now, there is a theme developing here – so far the first two channels have proven to be a little more stylistically focused and a little less gainy than before. This leaves more work for the Red channel to do than in previous iterations, and fortunately it delivers in spades.
The new Red channel is the 20th Anniversary’s calling card, its magnum opus. It manages to make total sense of the previous channels and it uses the amp’s more percussive, forward nature to devastating effect. Once again, there is slightly less apparent gain here than we are used to, but what a gain structure – incisive, fluid and perfectly judged! It treads the hallowed ground between the 101B Red’s greasy fluidity and the bold articulation of an SLO – coming across at times like a bigger, more organic Mark IIC+ Boogie.
The 20th eschews the raging upper harmonics and fiery sustain of the 101B Red in favour of possibly the most flawlessly sculpted high gain voice I have ever had the pleasure of playing through. It manages to sound simultaneously vintage and modern, tight yet liquid, aggressive yet musical and the best part is it still cleans up; responding to the guitar’s controls as well as the onboard switches and boosts utterly seamlessly.
This new Red channel contextualises the whole amp for me. It removes the need for the extra grease and churn of the 101B’s Blue channel, leaving the 20th free to explore classic Marshall textures on channel two. This in turn (in conjunction with the vastly improved plexi mode) leaves the Green channel free to concentrate on providing the best true Fender clean voicing of any channel switcher; something it comes very close to achieving.
This is the dichotomy inherent in the 20th Anniversary Ecstasy: in setting out to refine and refocus the 101B, Reinhold has moved ever so slightly away from what made it so special. The 20th (although unmistakably a Bogner) is a different animal altogether – more stylistically focused, slightly lower in gain and more forward in voicing on all three channels. For many players this will have undoubtedly brought the 20th Anniversary closer to the clean/crunch/lead ideal. As an out-of-box experience I can only think of a handful of channel switchers so immediately satisfying and flawlessly voiced – and arguably the 101B is too specialised, too characterful to make that list.
For a smaller band of enthusiasts, though, what made the 101B so special was its liquidity, musicality and personality. Its channels are voiced and its gain stuctures calibrated in a way that leaves it somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Despite its flaws, for me it has more depth of character – it is an amp to get lost in whereas the 20th Anniversary is an amp to respect and appreciate.
For this reviewer the 20th Anniversary Ecstasy is “better” but the 101B more lovable. The 20th inherits the crown as the ultimate channel switcher, but for me the 101B remains the ultimate musical instrument – warts and all.