Following on from the Retro 50, this lovingly-assembled half-ton stonker aims to be the best-sounding Orange head you can lay your mitts on. Review by Richard Purvis
Description: Handwired 50W head, switchable to 30W with 2x ECC83 and 2 x EL34 valves. Made in the UK
Contact: Orange Amps – 020 8905 2828 – www.orangeamps.com
Yes, it’s that easyJet colour scheme once again… but doggone it, if Orange keeps releasing way cool stuff, we’ll make no apology for reviewing it – and there’s an especially good reason for the presence of this amp on the pages of G&B. We’ve been happy enough with the PCB-based amps being pumped out of the company’s Far Eastern facilities in recent years, but the Custom Shop 50 is a different kind of fruit altogether. This, at last, is an Orange for the purist.
It’s completely hand-wired – no digital gimmickry, no printed circuitry, no genetically modified vegetable extracts or artificial sweeteners – and just as significantly, it’s made right here in the UK. Now, you may not give a flying fuzzbox where your kit comes from, but there are various politico-economic and environmental reasons why you perhaps should, if you can afford that luxury – and let’s be honest, if you’re considering spending over a grand and a half on an amplifier, you probably can. Plus there’s the all-important prestige factor…
Like most of its outsourced cousins this is a big old chunk, made to withstand serious gigging, minor road accidents and the occasional hurricane. The graphics-only control panel has enormous knobs for Master volume, Presence and Gain plus three normal-sized ones for the EQ section. And ‘enormous’ really does mean ‘enormous’ – you could tie a silk ribbon around one and wear it as a hat. Below the single input is a place to plug in a footswitch (which is not included); this is described on the website as a ‘sustain boost’ but on the amp itself as ‘EQ lift’. We’ve seen amps with an option of bypassing the tonestack to provide a gain boost; this seems the most likely explanation of both wordings.
The only feature worth noting on the back is a switch that toggles between Class AB operation, rated at 50W, and the less efficient Class A, rated at 30W. Such definitions are usually vague at best but, in terms of overdriven character, this should give the amp a certain amount of ‘Marshall thump or Vox chime’ flexibility.
A painted metal grille protects the valves at the back and, with that removed, unscrewing the four feet allows the amp chassis to be slid out of the chunky shell either front or back. It’s an arrangement that scores highly for simplicity; the one drawback is that it can be quite tricky to line the two parts up again when you want to put the screws back in. Once the chassis is out, sturdy metal bars at either end (similar to the ones on the front panel) allow it to be placed upside-down without any risk of knocking the tubes. There are only four of these: a pair of Ruby EL34s in the output stage and two PM-branded units at the preamp end. They’re actually marked E83CC, and it’s not a printing error – the National Valve Museum describes this model as a ‘special quality ECC83’. It is, of course, interchangeable with any standard preamp valve.
The underside of the chassis is more impressive. There’s just one small turret board in the corner and the rest of the space is taken up by very carefully arranged wires, many of them bent at precise right angles where they need to avoid running too close to other wires or components. It looks suitably modern and boutique; all in all, the Custom Shop 50 stands well apart from Orange’s standard production models.
Using an outsize 2×12″ with a closed back and a pair of Celestion Vintage 30s, we’ll start by dialling up the Master volume with everything else at 12 o’clock and the rear switch set to full output. An SG with humbuckers seems like an ideal partner for this one.
It sounds, in a word, Orange: big, loud and solid, with a strong, oaky ‘clonk’ in the midrange and plenty of clarity at the top. To find the clean stuff, as so often with this rock-leaning brand, you have to turn the preamp gain somewhere close to ‘off’; but 50W does give you enough headroom to punch out some pretty loud chords with only a hint of overdrive creeping in. By 10 or 11 o’clock on the dial you’re out of clean territory for good, and anything past noon is properly, deliciously saturated.
Inevitably it sounds best with Master volume at full, but the Presence control makes a good job of replacing some of the edge that’s lost when you’re forced – by angry neighbours, sobbing family members or most likely a live engineer – to keep things down a bit. Cleverly, the Presence somehow never sounds too sharp at the top of the dial nor too muffled at the bottom.
The EQ section does as it’s told – a little more mid-scooping would have been welcome but, if you accept that the fundamental voice of the amp is just about perfect, then this is as much tweaking as you need. Activating the boost, meanwhile, adds a surprisingly generous fistful of gain; sure enough, the EQ controls stop working.
That just leaves the 50W/30W switch at the back. The first thing to note here is that switching ‘down’ to 30W makes very little difference, if any, to the perceived volume of what’s coming out of the cab. In fact it can even seem louder at the lower wattage, thanks to the addition of a little harmonic richness and sparkle, and there’s noticeably more background noise. The overdrive in Class A is more fizzy, in a way that can make the AB side sound ever so slightly flat when you switch back. A is best for chime, AB is best for tight riffing – but what a treat to have the choice.
Orange is calling this ‘the definitive British rock amp’, and if you wanted to argue then you might be struggling for hard evidence. Is it much, much better than the less expensive models in the range? No, not really, but there is a genuine raising of Orange’s bar here, and it’s all about subtlety. The Custom Shop 50 doesn’t offer a wide palette of sounds to choose from; it has one authoritatively glorious voice, and the controls provide an array of highly refined adjustments to its accent.