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Bad Cat Hot Cat 1x12 Combo Review

Jan 31, 2024

Bat Cat is arguably a little bit less ‘boutique’ than it used to be, but can this EL34-driven two-channel combo still blast it out with the best of them?

Cats don't really have nine lives – if they did, pet insurance would probably be a lot cheaper – but Bad Cat has certainly had two or three. The amp we’re looking at today marks the first steps of the company's latest iteration… as a very different beast to the Bad Cat of the early 2000s.

Don't panic, tonehounds: this is still a proper all-valve amp, made in California and powered by a pair of EL34s, and still promises both sparkly cleans and searing high-gain action. But much like the old cut-price Player Series, it's more about modern practicality than vintage authenticity.

Before we go into the details, let's very briefly outline how we got here. Bad Cat was founded by James Heidrich at the turn of this century, with Matchless Amplifiers co-founder Mark Sampson employed as chief designer following that company's (temporary) demise. The early models were, more or less, Matchless amps in a different jacket.

But Sampson was gone by 2004, Heidrich sold up in 2011, and it's all been a little bit turbulent since then. Cue the recent appointment of Peter Arends, formerly of Boutique Amps Distribution, as CEO and head of engineering – with a mission to stuff the rulebook into a shredder and start again.

What does that mean in terms of the amps themselves? Well, the main thing that risks upsetting the purists is that there are no handwired Bad Cats now – it's PCBs across the range. Just to get those purists even angrier, all the amps have solid-state rectification… and to make them turn purple and collapse in an anguished heap, the reverb is digital.

But there's another thing that, in tonal terms, might be more significant than any of the above. While the original Hot Cat has been called the world's first Class A high-gain amplifier, this one is Class A/B, with fixed-bias, which is why the stated power output is 45W rather than 30W. One more step on the road from Vox jangle to Marshall roar?

Other features to note include a buffered (but not valve-buffered) effects loop, a line output for PAs and recording interfaces, and a dual footswitch that lets you hop between two channels and add a gain boost to both.

Those two channels share a single guitar input, and also use the same three-way tone circuit. But each channel has its own input gain and volume knobs, for complete control over their independent crunchiness and output levels, with master volume, presence and reverb level completing the front panel.

It certainly looks like a Bad Cat, despite the absence of those (admittedly slightly silly) panther eyes that used to stare menacingly from either side of the glowing logo; and it feels like a genuine heavyweight amp, thanks in no small part to the hefty custom transformers. The speaker is a trusty ol’ Celestion Vintage 30, tweaked to Bad Cat's specs.

When we talk about the road from Vox to Marshall, what exactly do we mean? Well, the first Matchless amps – and therefore most of the first Bad Cats – were very much based on the Vox AC30 with its loose low end, biting midrange and shimmery treble. But the Hot Cat was always supposed to be an angrier take on that formula – and any amp that's pumping out 45W of Class A/B power with EL34s and fixed bias is surely going to be more about thumping 70s rock than squishy 60s pop.

We’ll find out for sure once we crank up the gain, but first come the clean tones of channel 1… and they’re good enough to be worth more than a passing mention.

We’re thankful for that extra 15W here, because this is an amplifier with shedloads of clean power. It sounds gloriously large, despite minimal operating noise, and your main tool for setting a perfect tonal balance with bright single-coils or chunky humbuckers is the presence control: it's highly responsive, adding as much shimmery attack as anyone could need when cranked but not getting hopelessly muffled at the more restrained end of the dial.

The three separate volume controls interact nicely, and you can set the master at neighbour-friendly levels without any undue loss of liveliness. That three-way tonestack is a mixed bag, though: the mids control is genuinely transformative, taking us all the way from black-panel scoop to Orange clonk, but the treble has a more subtle effect and adjusting the bass feels like belching in a hurricane.

There's a taste of crunch when we max out the gain, but for the really rocky stuff we need to engage the boost – adding a nice bit of rasp that might have you reaching for that presence knob again – or switch to the second channel. And this is where we discover the true, hard-rocking heart of the new Hot Cat.

With gain just below halfway on channel 2, we get a good dollop of British overdrive, with an edginess in the treble that's more Marshall JCM than Vox Top Boost. Powerchords on the bridge pickup are clear and strident, and the only slight pity is that we can't set the EQ a little darker on this side while keeping the clean channel's top end wide open.

Turning up the gain brings more of the same – lots more. At full blast we’ve tumbled over a cliff in 80s metal territory, with the gain boost now pushing us over another cliff at the bottom of that cliff. For chugging chords and cutting lead work you might want to jack up the presence, but a corresponding pull back on the treble will stop things getting too spiky. And of course, you can always kill the mids completely for doomy scoopy fun times.

The reverb is nothing spectacular but sits in there naturally enough, and can be pushed up to maximum without turning into a splashy wash. Also worth mentioning are the effects loop, which works great without adding noise; and the line output, which sounds impressively realistic running straight into a DAW with an impulse response. You still need the speaker plugged in, so silent recording is out, but it's a lot less hassle than mic’ing up.

In the market for a handwired thoroughbred that keeps Mark Sampson's legacy alive? This isn't it. But that doesn't stop the new Hot Cat being a superb amp in its own right, and a solid launching pad for Bad Cat's latest life.

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