Long Term Test Drive LogoRegular readers already know that I am a long-time MESA/Boogie® user and fan. We featured a review of the M6 Carbine™ head and PowerHouse® 2×12 cab in our very first issue of Bass Gear Magazine. Later, back in BGM issue #5 (the “Boogie issue”), we talked about celebrating MESA/Boogie’s 40th anniversary and interviewed both Randall Smith and Dan Van Reizen. It is hard to believe that in 2019, they celebrated their 50th anniversary in the “Home of Tone.” During those 50 years, we have seen a lot of celebrated and iconic bass amps/cabs come out of Petaluma. The very first MESA/Boogie product was a bass amp, after all! Nevertheless, even with all that quality water under the bridge, I feel confident in saying that MESA/Boogie is now producing the most impressive bass amps and cabs in company history.

You likely will – and should! – treat this bold claim with a healthy dose of suspicion. We are talking about the brand that brought us the D-180, Bass 400/400+™, WalkAbout®, Titan™ V-12, M6 Carbine heads, as well as the venerable RoadReady™, Diesel, and PowerHouse series of cabs, to name a few of the greatest hits. To defend this statement, allow me to introduce Exhibits A and B: the Subway® WD-800™ bass head and Subway® Ultra-Lite 2×15 Vertical bass cab.

Truth be told, we’ve had this rig in for quite a while – hence the “Long Term Test Drive” badge – and it’s been gigged in a wide variety of situations. Obviously, if it failed to perform well on the first couple of gigs, it wouldn’t have made many repeat performances. I am glad to say that it is still doing a fantastic job, and my back is still feeling great!

2x15 Vertical Bass Cab

Field Work

As a brand, I have always felt that MESA/Boogie has “a great ear.” Even though different Boogie products definitely have their own “signature sound” (some more “colored” than others), their gear always sounds musical to my ears. I attribute this to the minds and ears of the long-time designers, Randall Smith, Dan Van Reizen, and Jim Aschow, as well as the input from Doug “Tone Boy” West, and a host of other passionate team members at MESA/Boogie. So, what has changed, and what inspires me to believe that the company is currently at the peak of its bass gear game? Andy Field, that’s what. If you have spent any time at all on TalkBass.com, you likely already know and greatly appreciate Andy, but if you’re not familiar with the name, he was previously the main designer for Genz-Benz. In addition, he brings a ton of experience running front of house at the highest levels. I was truly excited when I heard that Andy would be joining the design team at MESA/Boogie. As expected, his detail-oriented, bullet-proof design mentality is a perfect match for the tone and vision which MESA/Boogie is known for. Of particular note is Andy’s extensive experience with regard to making very lightweight designs (for both amps and cabs) that hit as hard (or harder!) as the classic heavyweights.

Prior to undertaking this review, I had an opportunity to chat with Andy about his new role at MESA/Boogie, his background/history, his design goals, as well as the WD-800 and Subway Ultra-Lite cabs, in particular. You can listen to our conversation here.

Exhibit A

It is no secret that the inspiration behind the WD-800 is the now-classic WalkAbout head. The least powerful member of the M-Pulse line of heads (at @ 300w into 4 ohms), the WalkAbout had a unique tone and feel that was otherwise unmatched in the MESA/Boogie lineup (or elsewhere) – though I will say that the closest I came, prior to the WD-800, was with the Titan V-12, after some knob-tweaking. Players have been asking for a “more powerful WalkAbout” for years – in fact, I specifically asked Dan for this back in my interview from issue #5! This has proven to be a more difficult task than one might expect, as much of the “magic” to the WalkAbout tone/feel has been attributed to the interaction between the front end and the MOSFET output section. To be clear, the WD-800 is not intended to be a “more powerful WalkAbout,” so much as it may be a lightweight, powerful head which is “inspired by” – and dare I say, an homage to – the WalkAbout.

Looking at the front panel of the WD-800, it is easy to see the WalkAbout DNA. The overall dimensions are quite similar, and the general tone stack is laid out the same. The tone stack shares the active Bass and Treble controls, passive Mid control, and three bands of semi-parametric EQ from the WalkAbout. New for the WD-800, the parametric EQ section can be bypassed by use of the footswitch (not included). The most conspicuous changes are the addition of the variable Highpass Filter (yes!) and the Power Amp Damping control. This last control has three settings – Low, Mid, and High – and the Cliff’s Notes version of the story is that it is intended to allow a higher-powered head like the WD-800 to cop some of the “give” and feel of lower-powered heads like the WalkAbout. Another welcome addition is the Mute switch. The Active/Passive switch (and single ¼” input jack) were also featured on the latest iteration of the WalkAbout (though my first “redface” WalkAbout has separate inputs for the Active and Passive inputs). While the WA did feature a cool “jewel” light to let you know that it was turned on, the WD-800 conveys a lot more information via multiple LEDs on the front panel. All told, the WD provides visual confirmation for: Mute, preamp overdrive, Active mode, Power, 2-ohm operation, Protect mode (which means something is wrong – like a shorted speaker cable – and the amp is protecting your investment), and Limit (meaning you are pushing near max power and entering the “soft clip” mode, which fine if it’s just happening occasionally – 25% of the time or less).

The back panel of the WD-800 is much more robust and feature-packed. From left to right, we have the Power switch (the WalkAbout had a front-mounted “baseball bat” switch), IEC power input, fan cover, two Speakon® speaker output jacks (the WalkAbout featured dual ¼” jacks). After this, it gets even more interesting. The Impedance switch allows for either 2-ohm or 4/8-ohm operation, for maximum flexibility in terms of picking your ideal stack of enclosures to pair up with the WD-800. In what might be a first – and perhaps a nod to the older heads which had an auxiliary 110v power outlet – the WD-800 has a USB device power jack (500mA max). This is not for data I/O, but it is very convenient if you have a phone or other device that needs some juice during your show (or practice). Below this, we find the kind of “no-nonsense,” “all the options you need” features which I have come to expect from Andy Field. A bank of ¼” jacks allow for: FX Loop Send/Return (a feature shared with the WA); Aux Input and Head Phones output (a great tool for learning new tunes, without waking up the rest of the house!); Footswitch (for Mute and parametric EQ bypass functions, via a standard latching two-button footswitch); and Tuner output. The Direct Output section has all the key features: XLR balanced output (phantom power protected), Pre/Post EQ switch, Line/Mic level switch, and ground lift option.

WD-800 In Use

Taken on its own merits, the WD-800 offers a highly compelling set of features and capabilities. I just love the tone stack, but before we get to that, let’s consider the supporting cast. The single ¼” jack feeds a J-FET input and accommodates active or passive basses. The Mute switch absolutely cuts the signal (I’ve had some amps in the past which just seemed to “mostly attenuate” the signal). The Input and Master gain controls, used in conjunction, can start you off with a more harmonically rich, slightly warmer tone (with Input set higher and Master set lower), or set you up with a more tight, quick, clean tone (with Input set lower and Master set higher). The Highpass Filter is an extremely important and useful control. I definitely appreciate the fact that it is variable, allowing the player to dial in the point at which the lowest frequencies are filtered out – though I am not sure if I would ever need/want to set it to its maximum setting of 125Hz. The Power Amp Damping control is new for the WD-800, with the goal – at least in part – to help the WD-800 to deliver some of the feel and character that people loved about the WalkAbout. The excellent manual does a great job of describing what damping is, and what this control does. In short, set to Low Damping, the amp will “feel a little looser … a little bloomy, and a little more organic.” Set to High Damping, the amp will feel a little “tighter and more controlled” and “more immediate.” I did spend a lot of time trying to suss out the tonal/feel differences between the three damping settings, and I learned that the differences between the settings varied based upon what bass I used, what cab(s) I used, how loud I was playing, and what specific material/styles I was playing. This is to be expected, as the interactions between amplifier and speaker are relatively complex, and vary with frequency; the tuning of the enclosure is also quite impactful. That all being said, I ultimately found myself preferring the Low setting for most situations. The notes seem to have a bit more “juice,” a bit more heft, and sound slightly more full and musical. This is subtle, but present across the whole fingerboard. I had thought that I would prefer the High setting for slap/pop (which, admittedly, I do infrequently), but even slap/pop seemed to have more life with the Damping set to Low.

WD-800 Bass Head

Getting back to that beautiful tone stack, it really fits the way I like to dial in my desired tones. Starting out with the active, shelving Bass (+/- 14dB @ 40Hz) and Treble (+11dB/-14dB @ 4kHz) controls allow for quick, global tone adjustments. The “Passive Mid” control is a cut-only control (up to -15dB at 250Hz), but it does incorporate make-up gain to help it function as a “tone control,” and not a “volume control.” This may cause it to sound like there is a bit of boost if you crank the control clockwise past 2 o’clock. I use 10 to 11 o’clock as my starting point for a more open, less “boxy,” midrange, but this control is my first stop when making adjustments based upon the voice of a particular instrument, and sometimes for “room control.” Much like the WalkAbout, these three tone controls typically give me all the tweaking I need to get my bass and rig sounding the way I want them to. However, if I do need to more fine-tuning, or if I need to make adjustments based upon the acoustics of the room/stage (or upon the volume/tone of other instruments on stage), I love to have multiple bands of parametric EQ on hand. The WD-800 offers three such tone controls, offering +12dB/-14dB over a range of frequencies (80Hz to 1kHz, 150Hz to 2.5kHz, and 300Hz to 5kHz). I have gigged out with amps offering more bands of parametric EQ, but I’ve never needed more than three. Another potential use for the Parametric Equalizer section is to use it as a second tone/voice preset, via use of the footswitch function (which lets you bypass the PEQ).

Exhibit B

Over twenty years ago, I finally had enough cash on hand to seek out my first “real” bass cab. I had a few of the popular contenders in mind, but the two cabs which really stood out from the rest of the pack were both from MESA/Boogie: the Diesel 2x15EV, and the Diesel 410 (deep). Both of these cabs were far more articulate and “full-range” than anything else I could find. The 2×15 won me over, tone-wise, but did not fit into the vehicle I had at the time, so the (also excellent) Diesel 410 went home with me. But that amazing 2×15 haunted me for years, until I finally found someone selling one used (and within a reasonable drive). Prior to hearing that cab, I had always (incorrectly) presumed that cabs with big drivers like 15’s would really only put out the lows, and maybe some mids. The Diesel 2x15EV proved to me in no uncertain terms that a well-designed 2×15 could have depth, fullness, and clarity – and without the need for a tweeter!

Fast-forward over twenty years, and MESA/Boogie has already introduced the Subway Ultra-Lite line of cabs. I had early experience with the Subway 1×12 prototypes, and then acquired a SW210 and SW115 – which makes for an amazing stack. This new line of cabs was proving to be quite impressive, with a great blend of warmth/clarity, and nicely balanced response from top to bottom. Oh, and did I mention that they are lightweight? When I heard that MESA/Boogie would be coming out with a 2×15 Subway enclosure, I couldn’t wait to get my hands – and ears! – on one.

Per the name, the (4-ohm) Subway Ultra-Lite 2×15 Vertical (the “SW215”) does arrange its two 15” drivers vertically, as opposed to the diagonal driver configuration of the SW210. The tweeter is mounted in the middle of the cab, between the two drivers, and off to the right side of the MESA Engineering logo. The front-ported enclosure is just over 34” tall and nearly identical in width (19.25”) and depth (19.5”), and weighs in at a svelte 60 lbs. In addition to trimming off the weight, MESA also equips the SW215 with some great hardware to make it even more manageable. There are two sturdy dish-style handles on the side, which allow for a fairly easy “lift and carry.” If you’d rather roll, the cab has a third handle mounted in the middle of the top/rear edge of the cab, two wheels on the back/rear edge, and two glide rails mounted on the rear panel. The rear panel has all the “functional bits” you might want, including two dual Speakon-1/4” input/output jacks and an attenuator for the tweeter.

2x15 Vertical Bass Cab

Amp Comparisons

“Okay, enough fancy talk. How does the WD-800 sound compared to a ‘real’ WalkAbout?” This was my burning question when I first learned that the WD-800 would be going into production. To answer this question, I put the WD-800 (“WD”) up against the last iteration of the WalkAbout (“WA”), both utilizing their stock tubes. I set the Power Amp Damping control on the WD to Low, set the Gain (WA) and Input (WD) to similar positions, and adjusted the Master volumes to audibly similar output levels. I set the tone controls on the WA to my usual starting position – Bass and Treble to “noon,” the Mid control to 11 o’clock, and all parametric controls to 0 – and mimicked these settings on the WD. I also set the Highpass Filter on the WD to its lowest setting (25Hz). With these settings, the WA is decidedly more full/warm/round/fat/smooth. Conversely, the WD has more clarity, overall, and more pristine/pure highs. Boosting @ 150Hz a bit on the WD does bring it closer to the tone of the WA, but the WA is still a bit more warm, full, and harmonic. I will note that these differences between the two increase a bit if you turn the Damping control to Mid or High.

One of the fun features of the WalkAbout was the ability to change the tone/character/response of the amp by varying the Gain and Master controls. The WD-800 shares this ability, though I did notice that cranking the Gain on the WA to max gets you a lot more tube overdrive than when you crank the Input to max on the WD. In addition, the tube drive on the WA is a bit more “squishy” and smooth, so it depends what you are after, tonally. Some folks love that “squish,” and others do not. I can tell you from personal experience on numerous gigs that the magical tone of the WalkAbout being pushed hard – but still keeping up, volume-wise – can quickly transition to the frustrating tone of the WalkAbout being pushed too hard – and not keeping up, volume-wise. These types of experiences are what lead many of us to beg for a “more powerful WalkAbout.” As I have mentioned, the WD-800 is not exactly meant to be a more powerful WalkAbout, but I can definitely tell you that there are no concerns with regard to the WD-800 ever running out of steam or getting uncontrollably squishy on any (remotely sane-volume) gig.

Considering that the WD-800 also shares some DNA with the other Subway series amps, I also spent some time putting it up against another favorite of mine, the D-800+™. For this comparison, I set both Highpass Filters to their lowest setting, set the Damping to High, left the WD-800’s EQ in my “preferred” setting (Passive Mid to 11 o’clock, 150Hz boosted slightly, the rest of the controls at noon), and set the D-800+ “flat” (Deep and Bright off, Voicing set to “Flat,” other controls at noon), which is my preferred setting on the D-800+. Set up thusly, the WD-800 is more lively and harmonically exciting, a bit more clear/wide. By contrast, the D-800+ is more warm and focused. Turning on the Deep and Bright switches really changes the character of the D-800+, bringing it closer in overall tone/feel to the WD-800. It’s like a different amp, really, and I would put the overall tone/character of the WD-800 between the D-800+ with Deep & Bright off and the D-800+ with Deep & Bright on. The Voicing control can really fine-tune the tone of the D-800+, but I normally leave mine set to “Flat” and did not mess with it much during this comparison. You can also get some tube drive out of the D-800+ by cranking the Input, but not quite as much as you get with the WD-800.

WD-800 Bass Head

MESA/Boogie has recently introduced the latest Subway series head, the TT-800, which presents a two-channel approach – one of which is inspired by the venerable Bass 400/400+. I can’t wait to compare the TT-800 to the WD-800, but that will have to wait for another day…

Cab Comparisons

As previously mentioned, I was eager to compare the new Subway Ultra-Lite 2×15 to my old Diesel 2×15 EV. Stacked next to each other, the Diesel is taller and wider, whereas the SW215 is deeper. For the comparison, I removed the heavy duty slide-out casters from the Diesel – a common feature on older, heavier MESA/Boogie cabs. Played back to back, the SW215 is more round/warm/smooth, and the Diesel exhibits more upper-midrange aggression, with some unique “burp” and “bounce” to the lower notes. The SW215 has more extended highs (with the tweeter attenuator set to “Normal”), courtesy of said tweeter. I did notice that the SW215 exhibits some of that fun low-end “burp” when you really dig in. Both cabs are very articulate, though the Subway is the more balanced and “pristine” of the two. I tried to use a relatively “neutral” EQ setting to compare these two cabs, but I will note that they each respond to EQ in very different ways. I also noticed that the more I cranked them up, the more obvious their differences became. At higher volumes, that midrange presence from the Diesel really takes center stage.

With so many great cabs and cab combinations in the Subway line, I wanted to see how the SW215 compared to some of my other Subway faves. First up, I compared the SW215 to the SW115/SW210 stack (with the SW210 on top). As expected, there are some familiar similarities, but the SW115/SW210 stack is a bit more clean and sounds a bit bigger and wider. Conversely, the SW215 is a bit warmer and a bit more focused. The overall frequency range covered by each stack seemed relatively similar, though the voicings are somewhat different. I also threw a double SW112 stack into the comparison. Somewhat to my surprise, the 2xSW112 stack sounded even more focused than the SW215, and was overall more similar to the SW215 than to the SW115/SW210 stack. The other two stacks did seem to occupy a wider range of useable frequencies than the 2xSW112 stack. In order of “most focused” to “most open-sounding,” I would rank them 2xSW112, SW215, then SW115/SW210.

Gig Experience

I had already had very positive gig experiences with other products from the MESA/Boogie Subway lineup, but I had not tried a single-cab solution and wanted to see how well the WD-800/SW215 rig would perform. While it definitely seemed pretty easy to set up the SW210/SW115 stack at my prior gigs, I have to say, the ease of rolling up the SW215, plopping the amp on top, and calling it “done” was pretty darned nice. One of the advantages of the Long Term Test Drive style review is that I have been able to try this rig in a variety of venues, including both inside and outside gigs. For the outside gigs, it was pretty much just plug in, and let ‘er rip! For the inside gigs, I did resort to the parametric EQ on the WD-800, which made it especially easy to find (and then cut) the frequencies which tended to reinforce/bloom a bit too much. Of course, it also helps that the SW215 was pretty balanced right out of the gate, and didn’t misbehave of its own accord.

2x15 Vertical Bass Cab

I also have a good bit of gig experience with the SW115/SW210 stack mentioned above. I am a big fan of this combo, and when I am playing/practicing solo, it is probably my favorite MESA/Boogie rig. However, sometimes a rig that occupies a bit more space in the middle slots into the mix a bit better, and this is where the SW215 is just so gosh-darned gig-friendly. It is not quite as “pretty” as the SW115/SW210 stack, but it fills the mix without overpowering – and without needing much EQ. I might roll with the SW115/SW210 – or maybe a pair of SW210’s – if I were playing a predominantly slap/pop gig, but for fingerstyle and pick playing, the SW215 kills. I threw rock, pop, blues, and reggae at the WD-800/SW215 rig, and it did a great job with all of it. Even my Kay upright sounded great through this rig!

 

The Bottom Line

MESA/Boogie has long been one of the premier brands for bass rigs. With the addition of Andy Field to the team and the new focus on lightweight heads and cabs, MESA is putting out killer modern bass rigs, but not at the expense of all that great bass tone they’ve been developing over five decades. This blend of historic tone and musicality, the best modern technology available, and a clear willingness to listen to the bass players who use their gear, has led MESA/Boogie to where they are now: putting out some of the best bass gear ever offered up for sale. Too strong? Too much the fanboy? Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. Give them a try and decide for yourself.

MESA/Boogie Subway WD-800 Bass Head

MESA/Boogie Subway WD-800 Bass Head

GENERAL

Company:MESA/Boogie
1317 Ross St.
Petaluma, CA 94954
www.mesaboogie.com
County of origin:USA
Year of Origin:2019
Warranty:5-year, non-transferrable
List Price:$999
Street Price:$999
Test Unit Options:None
Accessories:Gig bag (included), footswitch (optional), rack ears (optional)
Price as Tested:$999
Available colors:Black
Available Options:None
Acquired from:MESA/Boogie
Dates:March 2019 to July 2020
Locals:Ohio
Test gear:Alpher Mako Elite P/J 4, Skjold Zia 5, Tom Clement Fretless 4, F Bass 40th Anniversary P/J4, 1950’s Kay upright (Full Circle), Gretsch 5123B Electromatic

TEST RESULTS

1-5 (unacceptable to impeccable)

In-hand

Features:4.5
Tonal Flexibility:4.5
Ease of Use:4
Aesthetics:4
Tone:4.5
Value:4

In-hand Score 4.25average

SONIC PROFILE:

Low: fairly tight; some added “bounce” with damping set to Low
Mids: clear and lively, but with enough tone controls to nail any tone
Highs: harmonically rich and exciting


TONE-O-METER

Inspired by the WalkAbout, blessed with the DNA of the D-800+, the WD-800 is super versatile, and offers up the harmonic richness and life of tubes, with a sledgehammer of an output section.

Fender® American Ultra Jazz Bass® V

MESA/Boogie Subway Ultra-Lite 2×15 Vertical Bass Cab

MESA/Boogie Subway Ultra-Lite 2x15 Vertical Bass Cab

GENERAL

Company:MESA/Boogie
1317 Ross St.
Petaluma, CA 94954
www.mesaboogie.com
County of origin:USA
Year of Origin:2019
Warranty:5-year, non-transferrable
List Price:$1,599
Street Price:$1,599
Test Unit Options:Black Taurus covering
Accessories:Slip cover (included)
Price as Tested:$1,599
Available colors:Black Bronco (vinyl) or Black Taurus (vinyl)
Available Options:N/A
Acquired from:MESA/Boogie
Dates:March 2019 to July 2020
Locals:Ohio
Test gear:Alpher Mako Elite P/J 4, Skjold Zia 5, Tom Clement Fretless 4, F Bass 40th Anniversary P/J4, 1950’s Kay upright (Full Circle), Gretsch 5123B Electromatic

TEST RESULTS

1-5 (unacceptable to impeccable)

In-hand

Features:4
Tonal Flexibility:4
Ease of Use:4
Aesthetics:4.5
Tone:4
Value:3.5

In-hand Score 4.00average

SONIC PROFILE:

Low: deep and powerful, but very controlled
Mids: warm and full, but very articulate
Highs: plenty of sparkle, if you want it, but not too in-your-face


TONE-O-METER

The SW215 presents an excellent blend of clarity and fullness, offering full-range performance with a warmth and presence that can do “vintage,” but can also do so much more.

Fender® American Ultra Jazz Bass® V
2x15 Vertical Bass Cab