Pat Quilter is a man with an uncommon passion for solid-state amplification. He got his start building amps in the late 60's, eventually founding QSC and leading that company to dominance in the field of high-power pro audio amplification. Upon his retirement from QSC, Pat and some friends founded Quilter Laboratories in 2011 with the idea of building powerful, efficient, lightweight solid-state guitar amplifiers that could compete toe-to-toe on tone with tube amps. Quilter's latest creation is the miniature-sized Tone Block 200 head, a 200-watt, all analog, solid-state head that easily fits in a rack, on a desktop, in a backpack, or even on a pedalboard, and features some surprisingly excellent tones.
The Tone Block 200 is remarkably compact, and its features are at once simple and sophisticated. It's just a bit wider than a double-wide effects pedal, about 3 inches in height, and it weighs about 4lbs, meaning you can easily put one in a rack (or two, for a 400 watt stereo rig), or on your pedalboard, or just about anywhere else. The layout is extremely simple, with an AC Power switch, a single 1/4" input, an XLR direct out, and knobs for Gain, Contour, and Master all on the front panel. The rear panel is where the power cable plugs in, and where the dual 1/4" speaker jacks are located. The controls may seem limited at first, but upon further examination they give one quite a bit of control over the amp's character. The Gain control doesn't work quite like a standard guitar amp gain knob - the left half of the range is intended for use with line-level input signals from keyboards, preamps, mixers, etc., while the right half of the gain range is for guitar. About 3/4 of the way up (where the word "Guitar" is conveniently labeled) is about the ideal spot for a strong, clean guitar tone. Past that point the Tone Block 200 begins producing overdrive, which we'll get to later. Next in line is the Contour knob, which is the overall EQ sculptor. The left half of its range gives you a scooped, Fender-ish tone, the middle setting gives you a flat response, and as you turn the knob to the right the midrange begins to poke out for a distinctly British tonal flavor. The Master control knob sets the Tone Block's headroom and overall output in watts, ranging from 0-200. Right next to the Master is the XLR out, which is useful for going direct into a mixer or recorder, and even features a built-in EQ that simulates the response of a typical guitar speaker. Turning the unit around you will find the dual 1/4" speaker outs, one marked 8-OHMS, and one marked 4-OHMS. When using both speaker outputs the Tone Block is optimized for two 8-Ohm cabinets, but according to Quilter's manual you can connect speakers of any impedance (even mismatched impedances) and the Tone Block will adjust accordingly, though it may cause the actual output wattage to vary somewhat from what is indicated by the Master. Be careful and pay attention to avoid blowing your speakers.
Alright, so how does this thing sound? In brief summation, the Quilter Tone Block 200 sounds surprisingly rad. I've played a lot of solid-state amps over the years, from my first Peavey practice amp to my glorious old Roland JC-120, and I am delighted to say the Tone Block 200 is nothing like those amps. The thing about old solid-state amps is that they often sound pretty good clean, but start cranking the volume up or stick a distortion pedal in front of them, and you're in for a world of hurt. The Tone Block, on the other hand, sounds great loud, and when you put some dirt through it, it really comes alive. With the Gain knob set roughly to "Guitar" the clean tone is strong and detailed - it probably won't best your vintage blackface Deluxe Reverb, but it definitely sounds more robust and sparkly than a lot of tube amps I've plugged into. Start turning up the Gain knob and the Tone Block responds with a thick, hearty overdrive that becomes a menacing midrange crunch with the Contour knob turned to the right. Go left and it gets full and juicy and Fender-esque, back towards the middle and you get a nice blend. My head being filled with years of accumulated solid-state prejudices, I was initially somewhat in disbelief at the fat, dynamic, tube-like drive tones this diminutive head puts out - it really sounded superb through our 2x12 semi-open-back cab filled with Celestion G12H's. What really knocked me out, though, was how well the Tone Block takes pedals. Due in part to its huge clean headroom, it provides an excellent foundation for the pedal enthusiast. Even running a Rangemaster-style treble booster into it, which no one in their right mind would ever do to an old-school solid-state amp, sounded great. The Tone Block responded just how you would expect a good tube amp to respond. No harshness, no fizz, no blood from my pierced eardrums - just sweet sustain and tone. Not surprisingly, it also handled all manner of delay, reverb, and modulation effects with similar aplomb. If you're the kind of player that gets most of your sound from your pedalboard or rack preamp, with the amp functioning as sort of a blank tonal canvas, then the Tone Block 200 may be the amp you've always dreamed of.
With the entrance of the Quilter Tone Block 200 on the scene, I think we can safely say that solid-state guitar amps have finally arrived. If you've got a sweet vintage Plexi or something similar, don't hock it just yet, but the Tone Block 200 is certainly worthy of any guitarist's serious consideration. This tiny, toneful head will be perfect for a lot of players, from pedal enthusiasts that want to avoid the maintenance and reliability issues of tube amps, to the traveling guitarist that flies to gigs, and once there, is often at the mercy of a promoter or venue to provide them with a decent amp. Throw a Tone Block 200 in your carry-on, and booyah, problem solved! With its excellent XLR direct output and wide compatibility with different cabinets, it will plug into just about anything, making it an invaluable tool for live or studio situations. If you play multiple instruments and need one amp that will work just as well for keys or bass as it will for guitar, then Quilter has your back on that too. At $399 street, the Tone Block 200 is quite reasonably priced, making its great tones and many utilitarian attributes all that much more attractive.
What We Like: Excellent tones, compact and lightweight, copious clean power, plugs into just about anything.