Tokai TA 35
Tokai's new combo amp is a happy example of reality being far superior to appearances. To be more precise, this excellent unit looks pretty unappealing at first glance, with its yellow and brown diagonally striped cloth covering giving it a definite toy-like feel and its relative lightness banishing all hopes of a robust valve design.
Immediately on plugging in all such illusions are dispelled as the Tokai delivers 30 Watts of warmly distorted sheer power with more than a touch of built-in reverb. This unit is very loud for its size (just a foot tall) and offers many more options than are at first obvious; the construction is in fact quite rugged and the transistor design gives an excellent imitation of valve effects.
Passing over the garish covering, construction is of ½" thick wood (rather than chipboard) with joints largely glued but heavy crosshead screws holding the metalwork in place. There are no corner brackets, but heavy rubber feet screwed to the underneath and a leather handle affixed to the top with metal brackets. The speaker cover is in reddish-brown cloth to match the Tokai nameplate.
The top control panel, in a recess behind the handle, has Low and High instrument inputs on a silver plate together with Input Volume and Master Volume pots, and a Mains neon. The knobs are of the good old-fashioned wedge pointer type, with the Master Volume also acting in a push-pull mode to select Boost, as described below. All the controls are labelled, but the labels face backwards as does the second control panel — obviously this will be either a blessing or a curse depending on whether you're facing the amp yourself or pointing it at an audience.
The rear control panel, in a shallower recess on the back of the amp head, has four smaller knobs controlling Treble, Middle, Bass and Reverb, together with Headphone Out and Line Out metal jacks and a chrome toggle Power On/Off switch. Again, these controls can be easily accessible or rather fiddly depending on where you're standing in relation to the amp. It's certainly not easy to distinguish the four knobs by touch while reaching over the front of the amp, but short of making everything slightly vulnerable by mounting it protruding from the top of the amp head there's no solution to this kind of problem.
Servicing is fairly easy, as the removal of six screws allows the whole amp head to slide out with the exception of its two connections to the 7 inch 8 ohm Japanese speaker and two connections to the reverb Spring line screwed to the base of the unit. The reverb also comes away once unscrewed; it's mounted on a chipboard enclosure and consists of a single 6 inch spring in a standard metal casing. Interestingly enough the speaker connection tags are protected by a thick card enclosure; it's a pity the wires to speaker and reverb aren't terminated by sliding tags to make complete removal of the amp easier.
The amp itself is completely enclosed in a metal box, the top of which can be removed after taking out six small screws. This reveals the power transformer, rated at 30V 1.2A and carefully earthed, and the pre-amp and power amp boards. The pre-amp uses miniature pots in a conventional transistor circuit, while the power amp is based on Sanyo's STK 436 Stereo Amplifier module used in a bridge configuration for mono output. Circuit boards are neat and clearly marked, heatsinking is generous (the back of the amplifier is open in any case) and locking plastic spacers are used throughout.
Returning to the sound of the unit, this can be very impressive as previously mentioned. The guitar used was the Vigier Arpege six-string, using the direct pickup output rather than the active output to equalise tonal properties. The tone controls on the amp can then be seen to be very effective, giving such a degree of boost and cut that if all three were turned down hardly any sound was produced at all; the Middle control is particularly useful and like the others works smoothly and evenly.
Pulling the Master Volume knob gives a Boost which can produce warm, overdriven valve effects with the correct guitar and input volume settings. Reverb is quite versatile, from sharp buzzy effects to spacious cathedral sounds depending on the other settings; it's most effective on the high input and without the Boost switched on.
Even at high volumes there's no unwanted distortion and no extraneous noises from the cabinet. The overall package is neat and not too heavy, the mains lead fitting inside the body cavity for transportation. This little amp should do as well as the same manufacturer's guitars have done over the last year or so.
The Tokai TA35 is available at £161.20 including VAT from Blue Suede Music, (Contact Details).