Monday, June 9, 2008

Review: Meteor Harp Amp


[The Blues Harp Amps blog welcomes harp amp reviews from all players. This review of the excellent Meteor Harp Amp is from a friend in St. Louis. I am grateful for the contribution. -Rick]

This is my review of the Meteor harmonica amp based on approximately 3 months of ownership and playing the amp at home and at blues jams. To preface the review, I am an amateur, weekend warrior-type player. I play blues and swing and use a tongue-block embouchure probably 85% of the time (with most of my pucker playing on first-position high end licks). Although I am not currently in a band, I have played in Chicago-style blues and R&B bands in the past.

What I Was Looking for in a Harp Amp

Earlier this year, I reflected on my fleet of three awesome small harp amps (a late-70’s silverface Champ; a 1946 Gibson; and a Hurricane V8 combo amp), and realized they all did the same thing: they achieved a great sound in a small package, but without enough power to be heard in a club setting unless I was willing to mic the amp to the PA and put myself at the mercy of the sound man. I decided to sell off two of the small amps (keeping the Champ) and find a big, loud harp amp with enough feedback-resistant power to play any anticipated situation without going through the PA (I don’t expect to play any large outdoor festivals anytime soon).

Choosing the Meteor

I was a little gun-shy about buying a custom harp amp after a less-than-satisfying experience with a Holland Westside 35 several years ago (problems with customer service, sound quality, and build quality). However, not wanting to spend a lot of time tweaking a guitar amp to suit my needs, I got back into the harp-specific amp market. Coincidentally, the guy who bought the Hurricane amp that I was selling also happened to be an accomplished harp amp builder (not Scott who builds the Meteor), and he had high praise for the Meteor (and I had to agree based on the Kim Wilson Meteor sound samples). Still, I was actually planning to buy an amp made by this other amp builder when a Meteor was listed on ebay by someone in Massachusetts. I put in a bid that I thought would be too low to win, but ended up winning anyway.

First Impressions

I was thrilled when the Meteor arrived at my doorstep in perfect condition – not a scratch, dent, or scuff. I called up Scott, the builder of the Meteor and a friendly guy, and he gave me a few pointers about how to work the controls. Also, several harp-l’ers were willing to share their preferred Meteor settings, which also proved helpful. Within less than an hour of experimenting with various settings in my living room, I was able to dial in a sound that I really liked.

The Outside

The pictures pretty much tell the whole story. The Meteor is covered in a nice and thick brown tweed, with a tan grille cloth and leather handle. The cabinet appears to be pine, not sure if it is finger-jointed. The front of the amp is tilted back such that the speakers point slightly upward, and this seems to make the amp easier to hear on-stage. Instead of a jewel-style “power on” indicator light, the Meteor has a red glowing “M” that is really cool looking.

I also ordered a vinyl amp cover from Custom Amp Covers, Inc. (
http://store.amplifiercovers.com/) for a total of something like $52, including shipping. I selected the imitation leather cover, which fits perfectly and looks a lot better than I expected. I like the cover a lot, and it is also shown in the photos.

The Inside

The amp uses three Weber speakers, that is two 10-inch speakers (Weber 10A125, 10A100T) and one 12-inch speaker (Weber 12A125). As for tubes, there are three pre-amp tubes (not sure if they are AU, AX, etc. since I haven’t removed the metal shields to look), four 6V6GT power tubes (electro-harmonix), and a 5AR4 (Sovtek) rectifier. The photos show the inside pretty well.

The Sound

The Meteor is capable of producing a wide variety of tones from very dark to very bright, depending on the settings. The three different speakers each contribute unique aspects to the sound. The 12” speaker seems to give the amp a lot of bottom end, the kind you can feel vibrating the floor when you play. The 10A125 gives a nice blend of warmth and crunchy breakup, and the 10A100T comes across as exceptionally bright. The combined sound is big and crunchy, yet still well-defined. (The well-defined thing is big for me as I want to be able to articulate notes clearly and not have them get lost in a muddy sound.)

The controls on the amp are volume, “meat,” tone, mid, and presence. The amp has two channels, “Meaty” and “Meatier.” When you plug into the Meatier channel, the “Meat” control knob is active, and this control allows you to increase the volume of the bass frequencies. Either channel gives you plenty of bass, though. The tone knob controls the treble, and by “treble,” I mean “higher frequencies that are relevant to the harp,” not “crazy-high frequencies that cause feedback problems” like you might see with a guitar amp. I typically run the tone between 5 and 9, depending on the key of the harp. The lower the harp key, the higher I run the tone to cut through the mix better. The mid control is one that I do not use very much. In a normal playing situation, I keep this one below a setting of about 2, or it tends to cause screamy feedback, but it does seem to have some utility in filling out the sound if you are dialing in the amp at very low volume (less than a volume setting of 2 for example). The presence seems to sharpen the edge of the sound, and I typically run it between 6 and 8.

The tone controls are tailored to the harp, and one thing that sets the Meteor apart is how useful the tone controls are. With many amps, you pretty much have to set the treble on zero and the bass on the maximum, then crank the amp until just before feedback to get a good sound. With the Meteor, there is a wide spectrum of settings you can use to dial in a variety of tones. The tone controls also seem to somehow affect the overall volume of the amp. You can actually make the amp get loud, even with a volume setting at just 1, depending on how you set the tone controls. When playing in a club situation, I tend to run through the Meatier channel, with the volume between 4 and 5.5, meat between 5 and 6, tone between 5 and 9, mid at 1 (which is the minimum setting), and presence between 6 and 8 when playing with my ceramic element JT30. The Meteor also sounds great through my controlled magnetic green bullet.

Another nice aspect of the Meteor is how sensitive this amp is to microphone cupping technique. I find that I can make a big difference in the sound by just moving one finger a few millimeters.

I also like the huge volume I get with the Meteor without feedback problems. I like to tell the story of the first time I took this amp out and played at a local blues jam. I was called up on stage, plugged in, and blew a few notes. The guy in charge of the sound board immediately started running toward the board, as he thought the Meteor was mic’ed to the PA and set way too loud in the PA mix, but actually, the Meteor was not mic’ed at all. I played nice, however, and turned down my volume to avoid drowning out the rest of the band. Of course, you can still make the Meteor feed back if you are not mindful of your tone control settings, amp placement, and cupping technique. It’s just that all of these issues are completely manageable with the Meteor.

On the Meteor website, there is a quote from Kim Wilson where he refers to the Meteor something along the lines of an amp “in the spirit of Little Walter.” I agree with the Walter-like comparison. This amp is capable of producing that horn-like tone that Walter was known for – similar to Walter’s sound in “Roller Coaster” to my ears.

The Wrap-Up

I am really happy with the Meteor. It delivers the tone, volume, and sound quality I was looking for. The only thing I would change would be to make it lighter-weight. It’s pretty heavy, and it is a little bit of a chore to lug the Meteor long distances or up stairs… still though, this is probably more a case of me being a skinny weakling than the Meteor actually being too heavy, considering the robust, high-quality components. I think
this sound sample provides a pretty good picture of what the Meteor actually sounds like in my hands. Of course, we all sound different, so your mileage may vary.

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6 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Good on You, Rick". I'd love to try one of these out[Can't afford another presently and scared of the punt]but thanks for the comprehensive review posting on the Meteor. Scooter is a fun loving polite fellow to speak with, in my experience. Most unlike another arrogant 'Jeckle & Hyde' character I've unfortunately had recent dealings with. I tend to like the simplicity of this amps switches and that she has 50 watts powering it.
Thats way it should be. As you mentioned some 'modified'harp amps are just too fiddle-some and I think quite amateur and 'unquantifiable'in fact to be changing tubes and tweaking sweet spots [by the way without the bass/mid dials giving much juice at all]. I've made the mistake of buying two extremely positively reviewed 'top of the line'..bouquet harmonica amps recently. I had to send one back and after waiting forever for the next to clear customs and costs rising...on focused appraisal.. unbelievably found 'same volume pot issue' in the 'up sizing'to a 'slightly bigger' model. Very frustrating and quite insane stuff.Literally over the into the New year I experienced days of emails and patronizing/raging one liners. I've just got the 'new' amp back from a very experienced tube amp tech.[who said he won't touch it, too much of a hassle], he checked all schematics and studied it thoroughly for weeks.A brand new amp with very limited bass response [*said to have huge bottom end..not?]- The moral of the story is don't just be leaping in 'cos of * Pre Xmas specials [which continue I notice]and totally question why majorly only positive reviews are accepted and posted?..and ask where the amps are made? *These were out sourced and basically created off old Fender schematics [Bassmaster etc] It's been an absolute 'let down' and a quite horrific experience in my life *[especially as I'm touring and gigging two or three gigs a week]What a hassle. Anyway amigo..I've now been recording a great new album man and find an old Kalamazoo from Greg Hueman has delivered astoundingly well in the studio. It's a groundbreaker this record I think you'll dig it. I'll send you a copy when it's released. Meanwhile 'believe it or not' I'm useing an SJ11 [overhauled and delivering exactly whats needed in my rock gigs]. Damn I wish I'd just stuck with that in the first place.- B

Anonymous said...

P.S: Love your Links man..this is a 'cracker' little harmonica focused site you have happening here.

Anonymous said...

I was at the show where that sound sample was made. A member of our harmonica group referred to that amp + Mic combo as ROTG - Rig Of The Gods.

Rick Davis said...

ROTG - Funny. But I would not disagree. I've been a big fan of Meteor amps since I first played one. They just have that perfect bite and snarl when pushed, and that mellow textured tone when handled deftly. That is the four 6V6 tubes doin' their thang. ROTG indeed.

Still, I prefer my Masco ME-18 for my style and taste. But the Meteor can be made to sound bigger than the Masco; no doubt.

I have never heard from a Meteor owner who was the least bit dissatisfied with either the amp or with Scooter, the guy who builds and sells them. I can recommend Meteor harp amps without the slightest reservation.

dennis said...

deI have to add (and I have a bit of experience) that playing you did was tasty and toneful! Good job. Dennis Moriarty

Longwind Larry Bernal said...

Hello from Texas,i recently bought a Meteor,the Mini Meteor first time i plugged it in...wow! right out of the box i cannot discribe the feeling of haveing an amp to do exactly what you want.This little amp is a monstor of tone,I LOVE IT! and will be buying another soon.Scott your a class act,haveing tolked to you over the phone feel like we been freinds forever.Anybody looking for the perfect amp? look no further.GET A METEOR!.........Larry (H-Town Jukes) Houston,Texas. htownjukes.com.