Dickinson amps are relative newcomers to the British amplifier world, although designer/builder Jon Dickinson has been busily developing his ideas for three years from his base in Antenna Studios in south-east London. Refreshingly, instead of being virtual copies of typically sought-after amps of the ’50s or ’60s, Dickinson amps amount to a thorough rethink of how to build amps for the road – and that has meant plenty of rethinking both on the inside and the outside. The unique bright aluminium cabinet is the feature that will cause the most gobsmacked double-takes from players and audience members alike. Nothing more striking has been used to house an amplifier since the very rare perspex Voxes and Selmers of the ’60s.
The Dickinson’s super-shiny 5mm-thick cabinet has no sharp edges, and with its expertly-welded seams it makes an unusual-looking and unexpectedly rigid structure. Only the feet are added, everything else being formed from the metal panels themselves, including the laser-cut logo and punched-out carrying recesses on either side. The amp chassis is of a different metal, using steel for local strength, which allows precision laser cutting for the translucent control legends and quadrants and enables them to be backlit for even more striking effect. A cutout ‘port’ in each special pattern control knob – like a tiny bite taken from the circumference of each – reveals where it’s set. The effect is visually impressive, besides being practical for low-light operation – much more so than conventional screen-printed panels. Internally, the handwired build is neatly and uncompromisingly executed. A parallel pair of tagstrips runs the length of the chassis to support all the components, with a heavy gauge copper busbar carrying all the earth returns.
Many other handwireds are built on turret-tag pax boards, with some tracking underneath, a technique which could be considered to approach printed circuit types, but in the Dickinson there’s no board of any kind. The components are the the highest grade, including Sprague Orange Drop coupling capacitors, Majestic transformers (unsung heroes of the small-run amp business) and JJ/Tesla preamp valves. The Master Volume is a parallel-track pad for the balanced driver output and the other controls also use wired-over twin track pots, a technique for reliability we’ve seen in one or two other boutique high-enders. The custom-graded 6CA7 output pair is an interesting choice for a British design, and operated in ‘quasi- class A’ – low voltage, moderately high bias current, but with fixed bias as a more thermally comfortable alternative to the power-hungry cathode bias found in other types of class A amp. The option exists, in the form of a bias selector, to use other types of valve, whether the more conventional EL34/6L6 alternative, or a pair of 6V6’s for lower power. Pre-gig refitting to suit the occasion won’t be too awkward if you aren’t in a big hurry.
Power-up is undisturbed and use of the Standby creates no undue pops or thumps in either direction. Background noise is even, only thresholding to audible levels with volume set towards 8 or 9/10 and the Master at full tilt. Channel 1 has a full-band contour while Channel 2 has a moderately high-pass, brightened contour, a difference useful for working with single-coil and humbucker guitars; but there isn’t the night-and-day voicing of some other normal and bright channels. You could use either channel for both at a push. A Strat into Channel 1 with Volume at 3/10, tones at 5, and Master maxed gives a healthy small gig level of full, clear sound with no obvious contouring and good sustain – in fact it’s this quality that grabs the ear.
The tones work smoothly, with the accent chiefly on the lows and mids. You’ll need to push the Treble setting for Fender-type brightness, although in the context of the amp’s clear overall sound you may not feel the need for it. The extra sparkle of Channel 2 is also worth trying for this purpose. Of course, we couldn’t wait to find out what effect the metal cabinet might have on the sound, and where we might have expected resonance and rattling, neither of these is evident. If you subscribe to the idea that the density of the cabinet material affects the sound – as shown by the amp maker’s typical preference for birch plywood over MDF or chipboard – then the 5mm metal of the Dickinson must go a step further along that line. The midrange sound is big, detailed and coherent with no hint of peaking, and the bottom-end shares these qualities, with the G12H’s normal unfussed and powerful response when pushed hard. It’s also likely that there’s more rear output field reflected by the metal enclosure than there would normally be with a wooden one. So besides its visual and structural properties, the metal case seems to have a lot to offer as a tone material, with the enhanced rear output conceivably reducing ‘beaming’ from the front of the amp that can help or hinder sustain depending on where you’re standing.
Pushing the level into the saturation area at around 8/10 volume creates a ‘bring-it-on’ response – the harder you push, the more you dig into this amp’s endless unflappability. Even with a Gibson SG at this level, where many amps hit a plateau and begin to sound fizzy and undertoned, not to mention rattling in some combos, the Dickinson focuses beautifully on its musical job and delivers a nice balance of overtone, edge and chord identity. The clear quality of the clean sound mutates into a full and coherent overdriven tone that makes you forget how loud you’re really playing. With a clean limit of around 118dB that’s pretty loud, so you’ll probably end up backing off the Master. This works well for crunchy chord work and comping, but for the front-end gain needed for super- saturated low volume leads you may have to get out the old booster, to which the natural tone of the Dickinson will do ample justice.
If you’re a fan of traditional amp values – a loud, clear and full sound, with great overdrive composure – then very few other amps have them in such measure. We can only ascribe this to the unique cabinet construction its excellent sustain and wide soundfield, which means that you may not find anything else that does the job quite as well. Cheap it isn’t… but nor is that sound.
Build Quality …………………….. 18/20
Playability ………………………. 15/20
Sound …………………………… 18/20
Value for money …………………… 20/20
Vibe …………………………….. 15/20
TOTAL ……………………………. 86%
Good for… blues, blues-rock, jazz, indie-pop
Look elsewhere… trad. country, heavy metal