Buying Your Second Bass Amp – Bass for Beginners # 12

Nov03

Just about everyone who picks up the bass as a beginner has a marginal practice amp to start with. Which is why I’m going to talk about what to look for when you buy your second amp – your first real “play it loud and proud” bass amp.

Combo vs Separate Head and Cabinet

Every speaker needs an amplifier to drive it. You can not plug your guitar cable into the back of a speaker cabinet and expect any sound to come out. So every guitar amp (or PA!) must have a pre-amp with signal processing, a power amplifier, and one or more speakers.

The truth is that there is very little difference between a combo amp and a separate head and speaker cabinet. The “head” is the electronic part that has the pre-amp, signal processing (effects and EQ), and the power amp (Watts!). A combo amp is just the two pieces bolted together in a common box. Combos tend to be a little bit cheaper than buying the items separately, and

some combo units have fewer ins and outs, but it has very little to do with the sound quality.

Speaker Cabinets

The main attribute of a bass speaker cabinet is that it needs to move a lot of air. This means that the speaker diameter needs to be very large, and it needs to move in and out a long way. One problem when you do this with a standard guitar speaker is that it builds up enough momentum that it actually wants to jump out of itself. This is one of the reasons behind why a bass cabinet must be sealed or ported. At the lowest frequencies, the speaker needs to have the air inside the box push back a little to keep it under control. The size and length of the port tube helps the speaker stay under control at even lower frequencies.

This is why you do not want to play your bass loudly through a guitar amp. Most guitar cabinets are open in the back – part of their tone comes from allowing the speaker to move freely.

Big Speakers vs Little Speakers

Since we need to move a lot of air, you would think that bigger is better. But there is a problem: even the bass guitar creates higher frequencies. All those good harmonics from a warm J-bass, or from slapping and picking, need to go through the speaker as well. And for a large speaker to create high frequencies, it needs to be flexible. It’s just not mechanically possible to move the entire 15″ speaker at 1KHz, only the central few inches can move that fast. This is OK, but it creates a dilemma for the designers. For good tight low frequencies, you want a stiff speaker, but to get higher frequencies, you need a flexible speaker cone. In addition, in order to make a big speaker rigid, it becomes heavier, which makes it harder to move quickly. They are more expensive to build too, because it takes more power to move those huge cones, requiring bigger coils, frames, and magnets.

One solution is to use several speakers. Two 10″ speakers have about the same area as one 15″ cone. By designing the speaker to be able to move in and out more (a longer throw), it is possible to use these 10″ speakers for the bass. But because the area and radius is smaller, it is easier to make it both light and rigid, and thus able to produce the higher frequencies as well.

Here is a table of areas for different types of speaker cabinets:

Speaker cabinet table

In most cases, you will find that a 2X12 or 4X10 is more than enough, and it will sound much better than a 1X15 or 1X18. Note that the different manufacturers have become very adept at getting the most from their speakers. SWR is very good at getting a very clean low sound from a single 12″ speaker.

Amplifiers

For most practice or rehearsal rigs, you can get by with 100W or less, but for your new amp, you should be thinking about 200-400W. Low frequencies suck up a lot of power, moving those big heavy speakers back and forth. In this power range, you should be able to get a good range of features including dual-channels and several patch points.

Dual channels are nice because you can set up two different EQ and effects chains – say one for ballads and the other for hard rock – and easily switch between them. Having two gain controls are helpful if the internal overdrive is desired, so you can turn up the distortion and turn down the volume with these two controls. Usually the EQ will be either a simple 3 knob version, or a more sophisticated parametric or graphic EQ may be available.

As noted above, this applies the same whether your amp in part of a combo, or it’s a separate head.

Monster Rigs

If you have determined that you need the biggest and loudest setup available, you can get a 4X10 with a 1X15 under it, or even a 8X10, but these are huge, and heavy, and expensive. And you can drive this with 600-1200W. If you go with the split 4X10 and 1X15, I recommend using a crossover and two amps (300W each), because you don’t want to send the high frequencies to the 15″. Many people drive both speakers with the same amp, but I think the mid-highs will not be as clear as you’d like. This is the type of rig you might consider if you’re playing on a large stage and you have to compete with several guitarists and a manic drummer. As noted in my Sound Engineering columns, I am not a fan of extremely loud stage levels, but if you want it, you can get it.

Brands

Oh my, there are so many different brands of bass amps, and they all look exactly the same, and yet they sound different. And the cost range is incredible. A Carvin 4X10 cabinet is $399, and the same thing from SWR is $799. Most people agree that the SWR sounds better, but TWICE as good? And there are many 1X12 and 1X15 combos made by Fender and Ashdown that sound pretty good. So it’s really a personal choice.

There are only two things I will warn you away from. First, don’t get a folded horn cabinet. The sound doesn’t properly form until about 10 feet in front of the cabinet, so you can’t hear yourself on stage. And second, be very careful with Hartke speakers. The cones are made from aluminum, and while some people like them, I have heard several reliability concerns about that brand.

Recommendation

My personal preference would be for a 4X10 with a 300W head, made by Carvin or Peavey or Ampeg. This is going to be loud enough to cut through when I need to, have a wide range of features, and still be cost effective. If size in a problem, I think that SWR gets the most sound out of a small package.

And as always, I’d buy it used!

Let me know what kind of bass amp you own, and what you like about it. I look forward to hearing from you.

List of brands:

  • Ampeg
  • Ashdown
  • Carvin
  • Bag End
  • Crate
  • Eden
  • Fender
  • Gallien-Krueger
  • Hartke
  • Marshall
  • Mesa-Boogie
  • Peavey
  • Sunn
  • SWR
  • Trace Elliot
  • Yorkville

And several other smaller brands…

About Dan Lasley

Dan Lasley learned to play in bands while in college near Chicago, where he played keyboards, bass, and "slide-pots"(sound board). Builder of his own fretless bass and designer of 400W/channel amplifiers, Dan continues to stay involved with sound engineering. He is also the mastermind behind the Riverside Jam.

Comments [6]

  1. I have recently purchased a Hartke 2×10 cab second hand to plug into my Hartke HA 3500 which has a 1×15 Carlsborough cabinet also . I am experiencing some slight distortion from the 2×10 cab and also some distortion from the 1×15 on very low frequencies which is worrying me as I can forsee a huge bill arfiseing for replacment speakers ? I am useing a Enie Beall Musicman active bass. I am wondering if it may be the amplifiier as apposed to the speaker cabs ?If you could offer any advise in solving the problem I would appreciate your comments . I am considering swapping the whole rig for somthing more portable and user friendly ? any suggestions ? thanks

  2. Hi Geoff,
    I’d need a bit more information to completely diagnose the problem, but here is my first guess.
    Here is a quick test: unplug the 1×15, does the distortion go away? With both cabinets connected, you’re below 4 ohms. I don’t think this head is rated down to 2 ohms, so that would do it.
    If that’s not it, then since the distortion is happening on both speakers, it is likely that you are overdriving your amp. The simplest test would be to turn down the Master volume without touching any other settings. Does the distortion go away? If No, then your pre-amp and/or EQ is set too high. If yes, then I think you’ve reached the max output of your head. Which would be pretty loud…
    If you want more responses from other people, try posting on the GN Bass Forum. http://www.guitarnoise.com/forums/viewforum.php?f=6

  3. Hi, I have a Mesa Boogie M2000 that I’ve had since new.
    To me, it’s the best bass amp ever made. Its powerful and more
    versite than anything else I’ve ever tried. I use it in smaller settings
    with an SWR Goliath III 4X10 and in larger settings with the 4X10
    and an SWR Big Ben 1×18. As for the bass, I use my custom
    made Fodera Monarch five string neck thru design. It was a serious
    commitment to spend all that money on those items and took quite
    a bit of research to see what worked best for me but looking back
    it was all worthwhile. I’ve never been disappointed with my sound or
    the reliability of my equipment which I still use to this day.

  4. Marshall says:

    I have a G&L L2500 Bass that I bought new and an SWR WorkingPro 12 (12 inch speaker, 200W)that I bought 1 year used. I bought my first setup three years ago (Yamaha 4 string and SWR LA12, both used) along with David Hodges book The Complete Idiots Guide to Playing BASS Guitar. I have played six string for many years. The book is great and really got me going on the bass. I am also going to work through your lessons as well, thanks for the resource. As for the SWR, I got a great deal on it used and love it. I play mostly worship music with other acoustic instruments so 200W is more than enough for the venues I play even when we are outside. It has a very nice tone and isn’t too big/cumbersome to tote around although it is significantly bigger than the LA12 which was a breeze to lug around and a pretty good practice amp on its own. The WorkingPro 12 provides some nice “pro” level sound without having to muscle around a huge rig.

  5. Mr. Prytania says:

    Nice information to have in one place. I enjoyed the break down on speakers.

    My first practice amp was the little VOX bass amp (2×4″!). Absurd I know even for a practice amp but not knowing what was useful I bought based on looks. And it looked much better than other 80 buck amps. It was also very light which is a real variable for me.

    When looking for a better practice amp I bought a 40 watt Ultrabass which had a much nicer tone since it had a 10″ speaker. Now that I knew more about amps I ventured into the used realm and bought this wonderful amp for less than half what I paid for the Vox. Great value but I had to know what I was doing since a few that I tried I didn’t care for the sound.

    Once I started playing with a drummer I needed some real watts so I again started looking for used. Not a smart move. Most of the combos in the 50-100 watt range with 10″-12″ speakers had problems. New students bought them and abused them then dumped them. Some had moisture / electronics problems others had fatigued speakers so sounded “flabby”. I even tried out a few stores that sold used with good return policies and had to exercise the return policies since there were easily overlooked problems.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that low end used seems more likely to be dust collectors and in decent shape and midrange used tends to be abused and buyer beware. I checked out a few head units and those seemed to have fared better. From looking at used I would hazard that people are going “class D” and flooding the used market right now.

    I like the tone of Agular and Ampeg and am considering one of them for a 200 watt head. I like the G.B. Focus 12″ and am considering that. Like the article said: Carvin is a lot cheaper but w/o a store to hear their setups I’m not comfortable buying one.

  6. Hi. I’m in a Indie Rock band in the UK, and play things by bands like The Strokes (and their British counterparts). We’ve started to get a few gigs and I am looking to buy a decent amp (combo or separate), but I am only looking to spend around £300 (about $465). Could you help?

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