REVIEW: Jet City JCA20H

Michael J Soldano founded Soldano Custom Amplification in 1986 after years of notoriety as an amp modifier to the stars, and his flagship model, the SLO-100, has found its way into the quiver of players as diverse as Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, Silverchair’s Daniel Johns, Joe Satriani and even Eddie Van Halen, who used one for the majority of the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album. Soldano’s “strip everything to the essentials” design philosophy comes with a hefty price tag – the best components and flawless build quality don’t come cheap – so Soldano has teamed up with Jet City Amplification to offer a series of amps that carry through on the essence of his design manifesto at a much lower price point than the sometimes shocking price tags found on amps like the SLO-100. (By the way, Jet City has also enlisted THD legend Andy Marshall for the PicoValve, a low-wattage amp based on a single 6L6 power tube which can be switched out for almost any octal-based power tube without rebiasing).

The JCA20H is stripped-down 20 watt single-channel amp with no crazy tone switches or power damping or any other such gadgetry. The power amp features a pair of EL84 tubes, partnered with a trio of 12AX7s in the preamp (the rectifier is solid state). Controls are Gain, Bass, Middle and Treble in the preamp section, and Volume and Presence in the master section, and that’s it. Not even a reverb. This really is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get amp. A lot of thought was put into the choice of transformer too, which had to be low in cost while providing boutique tone. Jet City uses audio-grade metal film resistors and high-quality copper for all internal connections as well.
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The chassis is 16-gauge cold-rolled steel. Around the back you’ll find three speaker jacks: one 16 ohm and two 8 ohm. There’s no effects loop, which is bound to upset some players, but loops are a notorious tone-sucker, especially when you enter the world of minimal circuitry for maximum clarity at minimum cost. The inclusion of a loop would be a betrayal of the amp’s central philosophy, and if you really need reverb or delay after the JCA20H’s preamp distortion, your only real option is to add it at the mixing desk.

I tested the JCA20H with its matching JCA12S cabinet, which includes a single 12″ Jet City Custom Eminence driver. (I’ve always been a fan of Eminence speakers, and I often use their Legend V128 12″ speakers.) Among other cabinet models, Jet City offers the JCA12S+, which takes the JCA12S a step further with THD porting and an integrated Jet Direct speaker-emulated output box designed by Doug Roberts of Roberts Retrovalve.

The JCA20H’s preamp section is based on the crunch channel of the SLO-100, and it’s capable of a surprisingly wide range of gain. At its lowest gain levels, the amp has a clear, chiming clarity, especially with single coil pickups. There’s a refreshing absence of midrange mush in this configuration – midrange is very present but very musical – and the treble remains clear and smooth rather than jagged and piercing. This is a great platform for pedals too, both analog and digital, and I found it the ideal base from which to launch an uber distortion assault via a maxed out Z.Vex Fuzz Factory, as well as a more bluesy tone thanks to a DigiTech Bad Monkey Overdrive.

At the other end of the spectrum, cranking the Gain control all the way up leads to a thick, midrange-skewed, super-warm distortion with great modern rock potential and more than enough gain for most lead players (unless you’re in an extreme metal band). But the real magic happens with the Gain control set at about 1 o’clock. It’s here that the clarity of the clean tone and the warmth of the distortion meet up in a perfectly voiced overdrive that works great for blues, hard rock and even some metal applications. Hit it with the extra output of a clean boost pedal or active EMG humbuckers and you’ll find classic-era Metallica tones. Drive it with low-output humbuckers and you’re in Led Zeppelin territory. Spank it with a Strat and you’ll get a Malmsteen-esque articulation. It’s also at this magic setting that an overdrive or clean boost pedal works all sorts of magical voodoo, driving the 12AX7s to produce a smooth, harmonically rich overdrive that’s perfect for shred-style lead tones (and which can be easily backed off to a rich jangly clean sound when you turn the pedal off and roll the guitar’s volume knob down). The amp is so interactive that part of the fun is seeing just what the JCA20H will do when you pair it with a different guitar.

Let’s face it, some players are going to be really bummed out by the lack of reverb or effects loop. Those players might prefer the JCA22H, JCA50H, JCA100H, each of which feature two channels and an effects loop, but those amps lose some of the direct stripped-backedness of the JCA20H. And I have a feeling that the players who would get the most out of the JCA20H don’t really need those extra bells and whistles and channels and jacks. They need a minimally-featured amp that provides maximum tone and fidelity without the extras that might get in the way of achieving their sonic goals. When you really need to just plug in and roar – with Soldano-approved tones, no less – the JCA20H is utterly unbeatable in its price range.

LINK: Jet City

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