July 2010 - Traynor DH15H DarkHorse

It does indeed look like it was designed by mad scientists, for mad scientists. Come to think of it, a lot of guitarists remind me of mad scientists...

What: The DarkHorse is an all-tube amp head that can drive 8 or 16 ohm cabinets. You can select between two separate output stages; a 6V6 pentode stage delivers 15 watts, while a 12AU7-based triode stage delivers 2 watts.

Why: When people listen to recorded guitar amps, they hear sound, not size. And size can be an enemy of small studios, because it may be hard to fit a full-blown Marshall stack into your space; and even if you can, the neighbors might not appreciate that you get the tone you want only with the volume cranked. By foregoing massive amounts of power, the DarkHorse packs features and tone into a compact head at a reasonable price. Installation: Connect speaker cabinet. Plug in. Turn on.

Learning curve: If you can't handle four knobs (Gain, Bass, Treble, and Master), two switches, and an on-off switch, then you probably can't handle reading this magazine... so the point is moot.

Best bits: The tone stack has a switch to allow for either British or American voicing (these put the tone controls after the second tube stage or between the first and second tube stage, respectively), or a middle "pure" position that bypasses the tone stack. Dark Horse has the tube sound's "secret sauce" -an output transformer- which gives a certain midrange warmth. It's also really easy to replace the tubes, as there's a "cage" that's held on with four screws. Or, you can just take it off to impress people who like to see tubes glow. Then there's the look, which has the vibe of a 1950s sci-fi movie; I expected to flick the 6V6/12AU7 switch and enter a parallel universe where shredders ruled the world. And you gotta love the included gig bag - it's about the size of a camcorder case on steroids.

Limitations: There's only one channel, which probably won't be an issue in the studio, but limits the usefulness for live performance. DarkHorse is basic, which may be a turnoff to some but then again, it does what it's intended to do really well.

Bottom line: The DarkHorse has serious competition from the likes of Vox, Mesa Boogie, Orange, etc. - so it comes down to the tone. Although I haven't done a head-to-head comparison with the competition, DarkHorse indeed delivers that big tube sound; what surprised me is that with a little care, you can get clean, sparkly tones as well. Being able to choose three different tone stacks with the 6V6 or 12AU7 adds versatility beyond the expected, and while the Traynor DHX12 extension cabinet is a suitable companion, any cabinet I tried with the DarkHorse worked just fine - so it will likely work with your favorite cabinet, too. And you reduce the odds of your neighbors calling the police when you're recording late at night.

-Craig Anderton, EQ Magazine