This Article Was Originally Published On: February 3, 2015 #Issue 15.
Mesa/Boogie is no stranger to the pages of Bass Gear Magazine. In fact, we featured reviews of the M6 Carbine head and PH212 cab in our very first issue. BGM #5 (“the Boogie issue”) featured reviews of the M3 head and PH112 cab, a Bass Gear Icon installment featuring Randall Smith, a Q&A with Dan Van Reizen, and a virtual factory tour of “the Home of Tone” in Petaluma, CA. We covered a lot of Boogie history in those prior issues, and I encourage you to give them a read, if you haven’t already.
For this review, we will skip over some of the rich Mesa/Boogie history because: A.) it was already covered in BGM issues #1 and #5, and B.) we’ve got a lot on our plate to cover! We’d been hearing about these new all-tube bass heads since, well, issue #5! Needless to say, we’ve been a little anxious to check them out. But which one to pull in for review? The lunchbox-inspired Prodigy™, or the mighty Strategy™, with its eight KT88s? Doug West suggested that we check ’em both out, and how can a guy say no to that?!? But of course, we need some cool cabs to run ’em through, and it just so happens that Boogie VP and resident “Cab Wizard,” Jim Aschow, has a new line of bass enclosures, the Traditional Powerhouse cabs. So, count us in for two of them, as well!
The Prodigal Son
As many of the features of the Prodigy carry over to its bigger brother, the Strategy, we’ll start with the “little brother.” Its full name is the Bass Prodigy Four:88, which indicates that it is powered by four KT88 tubes. While the enclosure is clearly inspired by the Transatlantic guitar head, this is certainly a larger, more manly sized lunchbox. It has a single 1/4″ input jack, similar to the M3/6/9, but unlike the Carbine heads (which feature an active/passive switch), the Prodigy (and Strategy) have a 3-way toggle for Active, Normal, and Bright settings. The next set of controls are familiar, with knobs for Gain, Bass (active), Mid (passive), Treble (active) and a 5-position Voice control, followed by the Master volume knob. The Voice control provides “preset sounds” with the following characteristics in mind: 1 = slight mid scoop, with huge low end; 2 = subtle, wide Q bass boost (@ 20Hz to 180Hz); 3 = “flat”; 4 = mid-scoop, with both bass boost and high boost; and 5 = “radical” mid scoop/bass boost/treble boost.
Following this are two very cool mini toggle switches. The first one has settings for Mute, Play, and Sil. Rec. Before we explain the Silent Recording option, let’s take just a moment to say “thank you!” for the mute option being located on a switch (as opposed to the “pull mute” option on the Master volume, as found on the Carbine series heads). The mute function can also be controlled using the optional Prodigy footswitch. The Sil. Rec. setting is tied to an auto-mute circuit which mutes the signal at the power amp, allowing you to use the Prodigy preamp (and whatever you have coming through the effects loop) to record from the D.I. output, without fearing damage to the transformer and power tubes (which can occur if a tube-based amp is used without a speaker attached). This is a fantastic feature.
A second mini toggle allows you to select between Full power (all four KT88 power tubes being driven) or Half power (only two KT88s being driven). In addition to the volume and headroom differences, each of these two settings offer slightly different tone, as well. Set to Full, the tone has more sparkle and detail, whereas in Half power mode, the tone is a bit warmer. Another advantage to this setup is that if you like the sound of power tubes being pushed into overdrive, but things would get just too darned loud in Full power, then switch to Half power and enjoy some power tube overdrive at lower volume levels. Next up, we find the DI controls, with mini toggles for Pre or Post EQ and for Ground lift, plus a D.I. Level control. The balanced XLR D.I. output is located on the back panel, but I like having the level control conveniently located on the front.
After the D.I. controls, Mesa gives us the power of the Solo control. Yup, this footswitch-controllable volume boost is there for one purpose, and one purpose only: to make sure that you are heard when you really want to be heard. The last two switches on the front panel are full-size toggles for Power and Standby. Those of you familiar with tube amps will understand that it is desirable to let the power tubes heat up to operating temperature before passing high voltage. In their user manual, Mesa/Boogie suggests letting the KT88s warm up for three minutes or more before switching from Standby to On.
Moving on to the back panel, we have the AC mains fuse and the IEC power cord input jack. After this, we have the 1/4″ footswitch control jacks for Mute, Voice and Solo. These jacks allow for remote switching via individual tip-to-ground latching-type footswitches, or via a master MIDI-based switching system. Next up are the 1/4″ FX Loop Send and Return jacks, and the 1/4″ Tuner and Slave outputs. The (buffered) Tuner output jack is a copy of the signal at the Input jack. Conversely, the Slave output signal is derived from the speaker output, then padded down significantly. The intended use for the Slave output is to drive another power amp or bass head. If you are fortunate enough to play stadium gigs with multiple Prodigy or Strategy heads, you’d feed the Slave output into the FX Loop Return on the downstream units.
There are three 1/4″ speaker outputs; one labeled “8 ohm” and two labeled “4 ohm” (with a helpful hint to use the 4-ohm jacks with two 8-ohm cabs). There is another helpful hint above the speaker jacks which says “MUTE ON UNLESS SPKR IN.” Interestingly, although the manual tells you that the Silent Record mode allows for “silent (no live speaker)” operation, in the portion of the manual dedicated to the speaker output, it urges the reader to “Make sure you have a speaker connected to the speaker output jacks at all times! Even though the Prodigy has built-in protection, don’t rely on this alone…” The manual also tells you that the speaker output impedance doubles when set to Half power mode. So, if you are running in Half power mode, plug that 8-ohm cab into the 4-ohm jack. Speaking of those speaker jacks, I would have liked to have seen Speakon® outputs. Yes, the real estate is tight, but I think Mesa could have squeezed them in (and I believe that there are Speakon connectors available with a shunt connection). The back panel is finished off by the 8-pin DIN jack for the (optional) Prodigy footswitch (which also features a 1/4″ tuner out jack on the pedal) and the balanced XLR DI out.
The optional footswitch provides the ability to remotely engage and disengage the Mute, effects loop and Solo functions. It also has a Voice button, which lets you toggle through the five Voice settings. In addition, the pedal has a handy 1/4″ tuner out, allowing you to place a tuner pedal close to the footswitch. Very cool.
So, what more do you get with the Strategy, over the Prodigy? In addition to doubling the number of KT88s, the tone-shaping controls get a bit of a boost, as well. The biggest change is the addition of the (inductor-based) 9-band graphic EQ. While I tend to prefer to paint with more gentle, broad strokes when dialing in my baseline tone, if you need to fix a room, or adjust for a bass with a strong tonal spike (or valley), or just feel the need to fine-tune, then a nice graphic EQ can be just the ticket. Mesa/Boogie has been perfecting the use of graphic EQs in bass heads since the D-180, and this particular EQ is an expanded carry-over from the Bass 400+ (as well as seeing use in the M9 Carbine). A mini toggle on the front panel has settings for EQ IN, EQ OFF, and EQ FS, which of course, allows you to turn the graphic EQ on or off from the optional footswitch.
Another change involves the Multi-Watt™ switchable power settings. Whereas the Prodigy lets you choose between four or two KT88s, the Strategy allows you to choose between eight KT88s (Full power), four KT88s (Half power) or two KT88s (Low power).
The rear panel offer a similar set of jacks/controls, with a few additions, such as the 1/4″ jack for the EQ on/off control, two 1/4″ speaker jacks dedicated to 2-ohm loads, the D.I. ground lift switch (which is located on the front of the Prodigy), and a 1/4″ “LOOP EXT SWITCH,” which, as you might expect, is a tip-to-ground latching-type control for engaging (or disengaging) the effects loop. One additional difference between the Prodigy and the Strategy is the addition of a Slave Level control on the Strategy.
Like the Prodigy’s footswitch, the optional Bass Strategy Eight:88 footswitch provides control over the Voice, Mute, effects loop and Solo functions, and has the handy 1/4″ tuner out. However, the Strategy’s footswitch also has the ability to engage/disengage the graphic EQ.
A Closer Look at the New Tube Amps
I mentioned above that I was initially won over by Mesa/Boogie’s cabs, but I soon developed a bit of a fetish for their amps, as well. As a result, over the years, I’ve owned quite a cross-section of their amps, including several of their all-tube heads. While each head has its own personality, there are some qualities you can come to expect in a Mesa/Boogie head. They are going to be full, but clear. They are going to be harmonically rich. And above all, they are going to be musical and they are going to sound “right” for bass. Accordingly, I had some fairly high expectations for the new Boogie tube heads. I am happy to say that the Prodigy and Strategy met these expectations, and then some.
Both of these heads deliver the goods right out of the box, with tone controls at noon and the Voice control set “flat” (on 3). Rich, dynamic, articulate and clear. The Prodigy definitely sounds a little brighter and a little more clear, and the Strategy is definitely a little more warm, but otherwise they are very similar. If you are familiar with the Carbine heads, the basic tone controls and the Voice control function very similarly, though the Voice options seem to be definitely tweaked for these tube heads. While I did find myself tweaking these controls (EQ and Voice) a good bit on my M6 to dial in my baseline tone, I found that the Prodigy and Strategy were right there in my sweet spot with “all controls at noon,” letting me use the Voice and EQ controls to adjust to individual basses.
Randall Smith spent a lot of time working on these heads, and really poured a lot of himself into both the Prodigy and Strategy (with some help from Dan Van Reizen along the way). I was fortunate to be able to engage in a little Q&A with Randall regarding these heads.
TB: What brought you back to using tube output sections? Is this a change of direction or just another option to offer bass players?
RS: I never left tube amp design and I never will … it’s all I really know! Yes, there was a long vacancy after the Bass 400+ fell out of compliance with the changing European safety codes, but that absence was due to all the guitar amps that came in between, including the TransAtlantics, the Express Series, and the Mark Five. So, while I looked forward to building a big new tube bass amp, it just had to wait its turn … and I think it’s better for it because it took so much time to develop and it couldn’t be rushed.
TB: What do you feel that power tubes bring to the equation? How close can you get to this with solid-state devices?
RS: Tubes, IMHO, are always the standard for musicality. This is less so with bass than guitar, yet most players will find tube amplifiers to be more dynamic and expressive than solid-state units and more inspiring to play. We go for a big sound that seems to expand on contact with air into a three-dimensionality that transistors can’t seem to achieve. This has to do with many factors, including the tube’s far higher operating voltages and their more dynamic – some would say “saggy” – power supplies, plus the interactions through iron transformers, and so on. These factors contribute to the sense that tube watts also sound about twice as powerful as similar transistor watts. And given the huge storage capacitors we use, the dynamic power of our new amps are way more than their continuous ratings, whereas there’s often not much difference between dynamic and continuous watts with a transistor amp. I accidentally shorted across the main caps in an old 400+ and it vaporized the end of my pliers! It sounded like a gunshot and just blew a piece away! That kind of surge hitting the speakers is the dynamic punch we’re talking about. The other characteristic I consider vital is clarity of pitch. This makes the whole band sound tighter and more unified. I’ve heard bassists say it makes them feel like they’re driving the band ‘cause the fundamental is so clear and strong. So Pitch, Punch – which creates accuracy in the time domain – and Power, that’s what we’re striving for.
TB: Is the front end the same one used in the Carbine series, or did you make any changes?
RS: The Strategy and Prodigy front end evolved from that of the Carbine, which itself was influenced by the Bass 400. In the Strat and Prod, the Bass 400 heritage is more visible, but every little bit of both the Carbine and 400 elements was changed many times while being optimized for these new amplifiers. Plus, I added some hot new elements to the tube driver section that are completely new and different to wring the best from the KT88 power tubes.
TB: What led you to choose KT88s for the power tubes? Can these amps also accept 6550s?
RS: KT88s were chosen over 6550s for their higher plate rating. We’re 100 volts below max for the 88s, but 100 volts above the max for 6550s, so don’t swap ‘em! Looking at the great old Ampeg SVT, our “strategy,” if you will, was to achieve equivalent power at half the size and half the weight. Turns out that by using eight KT88s instead of six 6550s, we also achieved “half-again” the power: 465 watts vs. 300 for the SVT. That’s largely due to the higher voltages. Also, I worked out that ergonomic design to address the complaints about tube amps being too big and heavy. So, while the Strat only weighs the same as a typical guitar head, it’s actually easier to carry. And the little Prodigy fits in the “lunch box” league, but is a formidable contender almost as powerful as an SVT.
TB: Given your previous fixed-bias amps, was it a difficult decision to move to an adjustable bias in the Strategy/Prodigy? By the way, the manuals are very well written and I like how you handled the bias adjustment instructions.
RS: Testing KT88s from several manufacturers revealed huge variations in plate current vs. bias setting. Looking back at all the great old Fender 6L6 amps, the instruction was to simply set the bias at -52 volts. Well, if one used any single setting for the more-sensitive KTs, some would be red-hot and others barely turning on. Our KT88s are factory-pre-selected within a narrow “sweet range” before we further test and match them. Yet fine-tuning them, plus accommodating others that might be used in the future, necessitated adjustable bias. I wanted to make it user-adjustable, with no meter required, and our LED system calibrates the actual idle current through the output tubes, not just some bias voltage value. This is the true way to bias an amp, but it is much more difficult to measure than mere bias voltage, because measuring current requires interrupting the circuit … like cutting the wire and inserting a mili-amp meter, which the LED replicates. These amps only need their bias reset when replacing the power tubes, which should last for many years, given that they’re running a cool dissipation factor that’s barely above half the rated maximum.
We can all thank Doug West (aka Manual Man) for writing our manuals. His other identity is of course Tone Boy (we hope he never entirely grows up!) and he’s always present throughout our product development, keeping it fun and focused on TONE. Meanwhile Tien Lawrence was our main in-house player and critical Bass Meister.
TB: Did you have a target goal of reproducing great Boogie amps of yore, like the Bass 400 and 400+, or were you shooting for something new and different?
RS: Both. We wanted to stand on the shoulders of the Bass 400+, because it has many devoted fans – including that bass player from a very famous old British band. When auditioning a Strategy prototype, his first request was to compare it to the 400+ he’s been using for over 25 years. “That’s actually better sounding, mate. And it’s a nice looking piece of kit, to boot” were his first comments. Two world tours later, he’s still macking on those protos. We also wanted something for the SVT guys who love the sound but hate the weight and that’s available via the Voicing control.
Along the way, we got the idea for a smaller, less powerful – but still formidable – companion, and thus the Prodigy was conceived and born. Given its lunch-box size and weight, it has a shocking ability to do the job, according to most practitioners.
TB: It’s obvious that the initial Gain stage is set up to allow for some serious preamp tube overdrive. What led you to choose a single input approach, as opposed to the two-input approach used in the Bass 400/400+ and the D-180?
RS: Those earlier amps had two slightly different Input stages, mainly because I had an extra tube section available. This wasn’t the case with the Strat and Prod, so the accommodation was made via the Vintage–Normal–Active input selector switch.
I very much enjoyed designing and developing these two amplifiers, even though it took most of two solid years and was much more difficult than initially thought. But that’s the way it goes for us: start with the excitement and inspiration, follow a wish list and concept, and then just keep following developments where they lead us. One of our jokes is that a “real” engineering company – like, say Yamaha – probably has its sales team outline exactly what its market survey team indicates. Then a third team of engineers designs the product … and it’s done; on time, and on budget. We, on the other hand, often find ourselves stumbling blindly in search of greatness – not completely certain where we’re going, since the goal keeps moving further ahead – and quite uncertain how to achieve it “academically.” After all: where in all the engineering literature is the text on creating an Inspiring Musical Instrument? We don’t know, but we don’t give up until we think we’ve achieved it. Only then is it ready for prime time. Our hope is that the Strategy and Prodigy will inspire bass players for a very long time, indeed.
The New Tradition
As much as Mesa/Boogie has been known for making some of the most amazing bass amps on the planet, their cabs have always been at least equally impressive. In fact, I was a die-hard Mesa/Boogie cab fan and user for years before I bought my first Boogie head. For this review, Mesa/Boogie sent us two enclosures from their new TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE line. To clarify, this is a brand-new line of bass enclosures, which is distinct from the “regular” Powerhouse line of enclosures (which are still offered). Up until recently, Mesa/Boogie also offered the VINTAGE POWERHOUSE line, which was basically a different cosmetic presentation of the POWERHOUSE line. This line has now been discontinued (to save some confusion on the part of dealers and customers), so going forward, players will have the choice of the (standard) POWERHOUSE line we’ve come to respect and love and the new, TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE line of enclosures.
The two cabs provided for review are the 4×10 and 8×10 TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE cabs. The 4×10 is a front-ported enclosure, capable of handling 600 watts, RMS, and is available in either 8-ohm configuration (such as our test cab) or 4-ohm configuration. It is equipped with a high frequency horn (tweeter), and has two of the very nice Speakon and 1/4″ combination connectors. The 8×10 is a sealed, chambered design, rated at 1,200 watts RMS, and available in 4-ohm (standard) or 8-ohm configurations. Both feature black “bronco” vinyl covering and a grey-and-black weave jute grill, with silver piping. They each have recessed metal handles, Lexan corners, and ship with a lightly padded slip cover.
To get to the bottom of things as efficiently as possible, I asked Mesa/Boogie a series of questions regarding these new enclosures. Doug West provides the responses.
TB: What are the overall goals for the TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE line of cabs?
DW: To provide a smoother, less enhanced midrange voice that satisfies players who came up playing non-ported, sealed back cabinets. They’re also voiced to treat overdriven sounds in a more musical, “less forward” way that enhances the pushed, overdriven or high-gain bass sounds that are becoming more and more popular in heavier styles.
TB: These cabs do seem much more smooth and forgiving, compared to other Mesa/Boogie bass cabs. Is this one of your design goals?
DW: Yes, stylistically they are polar opposite … “the other sound.” Less present in the top, smoother in the mids and since the tube amps are voiced with less sub-lows, these cabs can use “less stiff” drivers with a little more sag and “forgiveness” in the bottom end, as you’ve pointed out. It’s a completely different sound than our POWERHOUSE line and aimed stylistically at more old-school bass sounds. Basically, they are great cabs for anyone looking for a smoother, warmer, less forward sound with a bit more forgiveness.
TB: What design features differentiate the TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE from the POWERHOUSE lines? What kinds of players would you recommend for each line versions?
DW: The POWERHOUSE cabs use our Tri-Port™ porting system with differing lengths and placement of the porting to achieve a tuned response. They also feature our aircraft-style bracing and are not chambered. They feature our Player Control Network offering three selectable crossover points at 3kHz, 4kHz & 5kHz and an L-pad attenuator. The bigger TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE cabs (the 6×10 and 8×10) are sealed and chambered, and only the 1×15, 2×10 and 4×10 are fitted with a tweeter, but without the selectable crossover. Again, the TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE cabs are aimed at old-school and vintage sounds, like blues, classic rock and country or any style (including overdriven, heavy styles) that call for a smooth, round response without an abundance of midrange focus and sub-low energy. POWERHOUSE cabs would be the choice for bassists who need articulate, forward mids, sub-low punch and accurate detail in the top end for fusion, funk or modern rock. They are also great for use with 5 and 6-string instruments, where sub lows and the upper highs need to be evenly supported.
TB: What factors influenced your decision to make the PH610 and PH810 sealed enclosures?
DW: Again, we were going for that classic, old-school ‘70s sound with a less forward midrange emphasis and more “forgiveness,” as you put it. We tried the sealed design for the smaller cabs in many configurations and would have used the sealed design there, as well, but it just didn’t sound as good. Players using smaller boxes do so because they have to … and usually need their cabs to cover the gig. So, we had to meet those requirements with the smaller cabs … especially the 1×15 and 4×10. They had to be capable on their own, and the many sealed designs we tried didn’t get us there, so we opted for ported on the smaller cabs.
TB: Any thoughts on a sealed 4×10, 2×15 or other configurations?
DW: We tried the 4×10 and as stated above, it didn’t work well. The 2×15 hasn’t been as popular for us since the mid ‘80s, so we concentrated on the most popular formats with the TRADITIONAL cabs. I would imagine that if the logic from the previous testing and R&D held true, the bigger box would respond better to the sealed design. It’s something we can try when time permits.
TB: My old Diesel 4×10 sounds fantastic, but weighs approximately as much as a bull elephant. How did you shave so much weight off the TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE 4×10? It still uses Baltic birch plywood and ceramic drivers, right?
DW: Yes, it uses the same ply, but 5/8” (15mm) instead of ¾” (18mm). It’s still the void-free, marine grade birch. The drivers are different and quite a bit lighter than the Diesel cab’s (possibly EV) drivers.
TB: Why no Player Control Network on the TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE line? Was this a cost decision, or something else?
DW: Definitely NOT a cost decision. We don’t work like most other companies, as we have no bean counters or investors to answer to. But we do have TONE to answer to. Randy still owns the company, and from the very beginnings 45 years ago, he decided to make the very best amplifiers and cabs he could by hand and swore to never compromise on the quality or the sound to save a nickel. That philosophy has served us extremely well all these years, and we still adhere to it pretty fanatically. If some part of any amp sounds right or feels better to us and the other players we pole, we go with it, no matter the cost. That’s who we are. It wouldn’t work for most other companies, but for us … it’s the only way. It just means we have to operate really efficiently to afford that level of quality at our small size and still keep our prices in line with attainability. The decision to forgo the Player Control Network was purely a stylistic and tonal one. The sounds we were after didn’t need that much top end, (that’s why there are no tweeters in the 6×10 and 8×10), and the Network also didn’t seem to fit the “vibe” or personality of the TRADITIONAL boxes. Again, old school all the way. We wanted the smaller cabs to be able to “cross over” and cover more styles, since they are so portable, so we opted for the tweeter on those in the name of versatility.
TB: Tell us about the 10” drivers used in the TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE line. Are they the same in the 410 and 810, or did you design different drivers for the ported/sealed enclosures?
DW: They are custom-designed for this response and application and are built here in the USA by Eminence and are proprietary. They use ceramic magnets and paper cones, handle 150 watts and after much scrutiny, we’re really happy with them.
TB: Tell us about the tweeter used in the TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE 410. Is this the same tweeter used in the POWERHOUSE line?
DW: It’s a diaphragm-style and uses a capton dome. Again, a proprietary design and we’re really happy with them. They’re sweet and musical and aren’t as prone to “gacking” as many we’ve auditioned. And yes, this is the same tweeter used in the POWERHOUSE cabs.
Inevitable Comparisons – Amp Edition
My measuring stick for Mesa/Boogie tube heads – and indeed, for tube heads of any brand – is the Bass 400 (mine is a “non plus” version). Comparing the Bass 400 to the Strategy, the 400 is more clear, and the Strategy is more full. I found that I could dial in a fairly “Strategy like” tone on the Bass 400 by backing off on the Middle control, setting the Bass to 4 and Treble to 1. The Strategy is more solid and full from bottom to top, though (but the 400’s graphic EQ can get it a bit closer). I don’t feel that the Strategy has an exact answer to Input 2’s overdrive on the Bass 400. Yes, you can drive the Gain on the Strat into heavy overdrive, but it doesn’t quite cop the same vibe as that of the 400.
The Prodigy is more similar, tonally, to the Bass 400; very strong family resemblance, here. Set “flat” (and using the Normal input), the Prodigy is a tad more warm/rich and the 400 is a tad more clear. The Bright setting on the Prodigy dials in some clarity, but loses some of the “meat.” The Prodigy on Bright is not quite as rich as the Bass 400. The 400 kind of sits between the Normal and Bright settings on the Prodigy.
The other yardstick by which any tube head is measured would have to be the venerable Ampeg SVT. Breaking out my ’73/’74 SVT, the Strategy’s “all controls at noon” setting is actually pretty close to how I like to dial in my SVT (driving both the Normal and Bright inputs on Channel 1, with treble at 1 o’clock, Ultra Hi off, mid at 11 o’clock, 220Hz, Ultra Lo at 0, with the bass knob at 3 o’clock). Using these settings, the SVT has more glossy highs and slightly bigger lows, and the Strategy is more smooth and controlled. While both of these amps hit very hard when driving an 8×10, the Strategy feels like it has more dynamic headroom, and gives the impression of having more power on tap. And boy do I appreciate the much quieter fan on the Strategy…
Inevitable Comparisons – Cab Edition
When it came time to see how the new TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE cabs measured up, I had plenty of comparison tools on hand (many of them bearing the “Mesa Engineering” name plate). Given my long history with my beloved Diesel 4×10 (deep) and the many gigs I’ve done with that cab, it was first up on deck. As to be expected from Doug’s explanation, the Diesel has a lot more middle to upper midrange cut, and the TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE 4×10 has a smoother, more relaxed high end (though the treble range is more similar than the mids). The TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE 4×10 is more warm, round and smooth, whereas the Diesel is more clear. They each seem to go about as deep as the other, but once again, the Trad PH is more warm and vintage-sounding, and the Diesel is more tight and articulate. The Trad PH, being thicker through the lows, handled a low B with more authority.
Another good comparison tool is the POWERHOUSE 2×12 we reviewed back in BGM issue #1. The Trad PH410 is more warm/round/fat/vintage down low, and the PH212 is more tight and articulate in the lower frequencies. The PH212 is more clear, articulate and present through the middle to upper mids, whereas the Trad PH410 is more warm/relaxed/vintage and hits harder, with more “thump.” Even with the tweeter on the Trad PH410 all the way up, it is still more mellow up top; the PH212 is more lively in the high end. The closest comparison within the Mesa line turned out to be the PH210 (which happens to be my favorite all-around 2×10 bass cab). The Trad PH410 is a bit more smooth and rich, and the PH210 is a bit more aggressive, with more upper mids (and actually a little bigger sounding and more full on the low B). Put up against the POWERHOUSE 6×10, the Trad PH410 is more smooth and controlled, and the PH610 is more aggressive, more wooly in the mids, and has more air up high.
Compared to some of my other “top shelf” 4×10 enclosures, the TRADITIONAL PH410 consistently proves itself to be on the warm and smooth side. It is very forgiving, with pleasing fullness, and while it’s not as present, clear and revealing in the upper mids to high end, it is far from indistinct. This is a tone which, as Doug explained earlier, just works really well in a blues to classic rock setting. It has a great, enveloping and supporting tone.
Moving on to the big boy, the clear comparison is (once again) from Ampeg – this time a Vietnam-made SVT-810e. The two cabs cover roughly similar ground, though the Trad PH810 is more full, warm and forceful, overall, while the SVT-810e is a little edgier and more cutting through the mids. The two cabs were fairly similar at the highest portion of their frequency range, though the Boogie was a touch more smooth. The Markbass 108CL turned out to be an even closer comparison, with the Markbass coming across as equally smooth, and even more controlled and precise, and the PH810 proving to be “bigger” and more round, and more rich in the upper mids to treble region. Interestingly, while the CL108 did have more air up top with the tweeter engaged, the Mesa isn’t missing much high end, even without a tweeter.
When we compare the TRADITIONAL PH810 to the standard PH610, the same theme which applied to the TRADITIONAL PH410 carries over. The (sealed) Trad PH810 is more smooth and forgiving than the (ported) PH610, which sounds bigger and deeper, and also has a lot more high end range and clarity. While the PH610 is the more versatile of the two, the Trad PH810 hits very consistently from the middle of the lows up through the upper mids.
Real World Experiences
I was able to use both heads and both cabs on gigs and at numerous band practices, and let me tell you, they put smiles on faces, across the board. In a large rehearsal room which I know well, both heads had great tone with the tone controls set very close to flat. The three Input switch options (Normal, Bright, and Active) are highly useful tools. On many of my amps with an active/passive option, I typically prefer the passive option with just about every bass, so the active setting is really only useful for super hot output basses. With the Strategy and Prodigy, though, I had some basses which sounded best with the Normal setting and some which sounded best with the Bright setting. And yes, I even had a couple of basses with strong preamps which sounded best on the Active setting. Three usable options – who knew? It should go without saying that dialing in the “right” setting for the Input is crucial to getting the best results out of your particular bass.
The tone control options are also quite effective. I tweaked the Voice control for different basses, and found it to be an effective “quick and dirty, one-knob tweak.” The basic tone stack on both heads is very intuitive and musical, and I felt that I had all the tone controls I needed with the Prodigy.
However, on one gig, I found the graphic EQ on the Strategy to be very effective at taming a room which bloomed like crazy around 80Hz. That one little slider was the difference between having to deal with a “compromise tone” and rockin’ out with “my tone.” In fact, a local bass player friend of mine commented on how good the bass tone sounded in the mix at this very show. Considering that I did not have the bass in the PA, and considering how problematic I know that particular room to be, that was high praise for the Strategy, indeed.
If you have done much gigging with an all-tube bass head, you are probably accustomed to the special challenges presented by lugging around 85+ lb, glass-filled behemoths. While these are not diminutive lightweights, compared to other tube heads, the Strategy, and especially the Prodigy, are an absolute joy to transport, set up, and tear down. The side handles on the Strategy make for an easy carry and probably assist in cooling, as well. The single handle on top of the Prodigy emphasizes the portability of that guy, and it even slides down into the head case when not needed. Both heads come with nice, padded slip covers, a feature which often comes at added cost from other manufacturers. I have mixed feelings about the blue lighting scheme. My initial thoughts were that tube heads have an inherent glow which requires no augmentation. However, I must admit that the blue glow did grow on me a bit, and it does look cool on stage.
The TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE cabs bring a new (yet vintage) and very usable tonal voice to the Mesa/Boogie line of bass enclosures. I found them difficult to describe, because when I use words like “forgiving” and “relaxed,” this is often in the context of a tone that is not very clear and articulate. However, these cabs are quite articulate; they just go about their business in a less aggressive manner. They are put together quite nicely, and I really dig the cosmetic treatment. The PH410 proved to be more than enough cab for me at the majority of my gigs, but I did enjoy the PH810 in a larger hall with a big stage. If you need the physical presence of a big cab like an 8×10, this is one of the best in the biz. Both cabs really fill a space, and sound great both on and off-axis.
The Bottom Line
As a long-time Mesa/Boogie fan and user, I eagerly anticipated the release of the new tube heads. They were, admittedly, a long time coming, but boy, were they worth the wait! These heads sound every bit as good as I had hoped, and they offer intelligent feature sets, crammed into stylish, ergonomic, and lightweight (for tube heads) packages. The unexpected bonus is the new line of bass enclosures. These new TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE cabs provide another attractive tone option from the Home of Tone, and they are very full, smooth, and inviting. Those guys from Petaluma really care about quality, tone, performance, and the overall experience. They’ve been doing it for over forty years, and if you ask me, they keep getting better. If you have not experienced Mesa/Boogie gear recently, you really owe it to yourself to take a Boogie rig for a test drive.
AMP Mesa/Boogie Strategy In-hand
|Ease of Use:||4|
In-hand Score 4.25average
Picking up on the tonal versatility of the Prodigy, the Strategy ups the ante in terms of power and dynamics, and adds the ability to fine-tune your tone. It does everything you’ve ever wanted a tube head to do, and so much more.
AMP Mesa/Boogie Prodigy In-hand
|Ease of Use:||4|
In-hand Score 4.08average
The Prodigy covers a lot of ground, tonally, and packs more power than you’d expect. Reminiscent of the glorious Bass 400/400+, but a bit more full and solid.
Cab 410 In-hand
|Ease of Use:||4|
In-hand Score 3.75average
The TRADITIONAL POWERHOUSE cabs are more smooth, warm and relaxed than Mesa’s other bass enclosures. This PH410 sounds bigger than it looks, and has a forgiving tone that works well in a wide variety of musical settings.
Cab 810 In-hand
|Ease of Use:||3|
In-hand Score 3.58average
The TRADITIONAL PH810 sets the standard for a big, full, warm, tweeter-less sealed enclosure. It is forceful, but yet smooth and forgiving, and fills a big stage evenly.
Click here to read the AMP Lab Technical Review for Mesa Boogie Strategy
Click here to read the AMP Lab Technical Review for Mesa Boogie Prodigy
Click here to read the CAB Lab Technical Review for Mesa Boogie Traditional Powerhouse 810
Click here to read the CAB Lab Technical Review for Mesa Boogie Traditional Powerhouse 410
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