From the March 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY PETE MADSEN
Heavy-metal shredders have long favored Hughes & Kettner amplifiers, which pair grit and power with edgy designs, including clear acrylic chassis revealing glowing interior vacuum tubes, and ominous blue power-indicator lighting. But with a new foray into the arena of acoustic amplification, the German company shows a more subdued and elegant side. I auditioned the Era 1, a small combo amp whose mid-century modern appearance belies its great muscle and flexibility.
Housed in a beautiful wooden cabinet, the Era 1 is sleek—with its inputs and dials hidden from view, it looks like half of an audiophile’s home speaker system. It has four channels: the identical channels 1 and 2 are able to handle either XLR or 1/4-inch inputs and use phantom power, channel 3 uses a 3.5 mm mini jack for mp3 players, smartphones, etc., and channel 4 can be used as an effects loop or for another 1/4-inch line in. All inputs are on the back panel.
The tone-shaping adjustments for channels 1 and 2 dominate the top panel. The two main channels have dials for EQ, volume, and a selector for 16 different effects, as well as buttons for a 10db cut, mute, and tone shape. This last button activates an interesting feature that scoops out some of the midrange and accentuates the bass and high frequencies. The EQ bands feature separate controls for bass, middle, and treble; however, a nifty EQ mode button offers different EQ voicings optimized for steel-string (mode 1) or nylon-string (mode 2) guitars.
The Era 1 was designed and engineered in collaboration with noted engineer Michael Eisenmann, known for his previous work with AER amps. That formidable pedigree can be heard in the delightful sounds that emanated from the Era 1 during our time together.
I plugged in my Martin 00-18, which is fitted with a Fishman Matrix Ellipse Blend system. Right away, I could hear that this is one of the most natural and transparent amplifiers I have ever played through. Hughes & Kettner has somehow managed to avoid sacrificing warmth for clarity, while packing so much power into a small box. The Era 1 sounds exactly like my Martin does acoustically, though with 250 watts of power, it can get loud!
I fingerpicked my way through several prewar blues tunes in standard as well as open-G tunings. Some might argue that country blues does not require a sophisticated sound and that you could get by with a cheaper rig, but what you hear coming back to you from the Era 1 sounds so natural—and the details so present—that it can inspire you to reach new heights.
One quibble I have with many acoustic guitar amplifiers are the onboard effects. They often seem like an afterthought; they’re either not very good or there aren’t enough adjustable parameters to give the player much control over the sound. Hughes & Kettner has come up with a solution that works well. The 16 effects include five kinds of reverb, delay, chorus, and flanger, with multiple presets of combinations.
The quality of the effects on the Era 1 is generally good. I was particularly fond of Reverb Hall Warm, which provided lush overtones to the overall sound. But there is a hidden feature that you might miss unless you read your owner’s manual: you can adjust the effects to your liking. To set, say, a short delay to a song’s tempo, all you need to do is select the effect, then press the EQ mode button until it starts to flash (about three seconds). You can now adjust the repeat time (for shorter or longer repeats) using the Channel 3/Aux in dial.
Taking all of these features together with its sound, the Era 1 is one of the best acoustic amps I’ve encountered. Its diminutive size, combined with stellar sound and ease of use, makes it a great acquisition for the gigging musician. Don’t let Hughes & Kettner’s reputation for delivering hard-rocking electric amps deter you from checking out this extremely well designed and executed acoustic combo.
Hughes & Kettner Era 1
AMP 4-channel, 250-watt solid-state amp with Class D power amp; 3-band EQ with EQ mode switch; Inputs: XLR/1/4″ combo jacks (ch. 1 and ch. 2), 1/8″ jack (ch. 3), and 1/4″ (ch. 4); Outputs, XLR (DI), 1/4″ (line out), 1/4″ (headphones), 1/4″ (tuner), 1/4″ (send), optical Toslink (S/PDIF)
SPEAKERS 8″ woofer and 1″ tweeter
OTHER Shape control (ch. 1 and ch. 2); mute; notch filter; Effects (delay, chorus, flanger, plus room, hall, and church reverbs); 11.2″ x 13.8″ x 11.4″; 21.7 lbs.
EXTRAS amp cover; tilt stand; optional footswitch
MADE IN Germany
PRICE $1,529 (MSRP); $1,199 (street)
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This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.