Being a touring musician in 2017 is an expensive proposition. With the price of gas, smaller guarantees than ever, and slow album sales, your margins are thin.
So you need to be able to get the most bang for your buck when touring at a low level playing small cap venues and living the van life. Bringing a ton of crap with you just isn’t feasible, and one place it’s easy to get real heavy and take up a bunch of room is your guitar rig. An amp head is heavy, and if you’re smart and have a roadcase for it, it gets even heavier. Or maybe you play in a local cover band, and there’s just not that much room onstage, and you don’t need THAT much power. In either scenario, maybe you can’t go only direct to front of house, because the venues you’re playing just don’t have powerful enough PAs, and/or you don’t have a dedicated sound engineer.
Enter Taurus Amps. They are a Polish manufacturer of Stomp-Heads, a series of complete guitar amplifiers in a pedal form factor. The one I reviewed is their flagship model, the SH-5, a 3-channel solid-state amplifier that fits on your pedalboard (well, takes up probably most of your pedalboard). Its three channels are clean, crunch, and high gain, and each one has independent EQ and volume controls, a 3-way bright switch (channel 2&3 – channel 1 has a bright switch for just the treble knob), and a Range button on the mid control that shifts the focus of the mid knob. Global controls include a boost switch with level control, a gate with a single knob functionality, a 40 or 90 watt switch, a Normal/Mix Mode switch and a mute switch.
The SH-5 is incredibly light for a fully-featured amp head – just under 6 pounds. The 90 watts of power is plenty to drive any speaker cab you like, and it’s astonishingly loud if you need it to be. There’s an effects loop, a speaker out (4, 8, or 16 ohms), and a line out for direct feed to something like a Two-Notes Torpedo, or, it can function as a cab sim out for direct recording/direct to front of house.
It’s a device that is absolutely designed for convenience and streamlined about as far as you can take it for having all of these features. Should be a touring guitarist’s dream, right?
You come to me and read/watch these reviews because you want to know what I think. I ask only that you be sure to first watch the video and listen to the amp to decide for yourself if you like the tone before reading what I have to say about it – I want you to go in with a real perspective on it before you hear mine.
The tone you hear in the full mix demo at the beginning of the video is boosted with an overdrive pedal (the VFE Ice Scream). I had to do this to get enough gain out of Channel 3 for a metal sound, because in spite of being called the high gain channel, it didn’t really have much more gain than Channel 2. This to me is a serious oversight, and I think they should, before any other improvements are made, crank up the available gain on Channel 3. As it stands now, I can’t recommend the amp for metal without something adding gain before it, which sort of defeats some of the convenience factor as you’ll have to add another pedal to your board right off the bat.
I personally didn’t like the tone of channels 2 and 3. I spent a lot of time dialing the amp in for the tone on the demo, and the mix engineer agreed – the tone we got out of it for the recording was far from desirable. I tracked it going into a very high quality PRS Stealth 412 cab with a single SM57, and I found it to be pretty thin, harsh, and lacking in feel when playing through it in the room. I feel like this is a common problem among solid state amplifiers in general, and the SH-5 is far from alone in this department. I was just hoping they’d found some way around it. It’s a trade-off – tube power amps are big, heavy, bulky, and considerably less reliable than solid state, but the reason people put up with those shortcomings is because they sound damn good. The best compromise I’ve seen so far has been digital – using the power amp simulation in your modeler into a bland sounding solid state power amp is leaps and bounds better. But Taurus Amps is proudly all-analog, so you can’t fault them there I suppose.
Channel 1 is a nice clean sound. It’s very clean, that’s for sure. Once again, not a ton of character, which makes it a good platform for pedals and such, but once again, that’s not really the point of having 3 channels at your disposal. The Cab Sim out for channels 2 and 3, on the other hand, is straight hot garbage. If you had a cringe moment during the full mix demo, it was likely during the Cab Sim portion. Taurus informs me that this was sort of a last minute addition, and to be fair pretty much any cab sim I’ve used on an analog pedal has had about the same result, but it’s worth noting.
Things that I think that could improve the SH-5:
- The loop is always on. I would LOVE an option to have it on only when the Boost is engaged, this way solos would be louder and effected with one button functionality, making it far more useful for live performance.
- Some tweaking of the noise gate, or a second knob to customize it a bit, it was kind of weird on the decay – not fast enough, but extremely steep cutoff.
- Much more gain on Channel 3.
- Some kind of tube power amp sim – analog or otherwise. I think if the power amp sound could be improved, this thing would be unstoppable.
- Better direct-in sound. I would use something like a Two Notes Torpedo to alleviate this, but it would be nice to not have a separate unit.
So in conclusion, the SH-5 is an absolute win in terms of form factor and features, and about a C+ for tone. I really, really think that Taurus are on to something here, and I’m looking one or two generations into the future of the Stomp-Head at maybe the future of the touring guitar amplifier. But it’s gonna take some tweaking to get there, and they’ve got heavy competition from digital modelers – in order to be competitive in that market, I think they have to continue to work the all-in-one compact head angle, and work on the tone coming out of it. On a somewhat separate note, I would for sure pay a pretty penny for just a power amp version of this that were about half the size (and even more powerful if they can do it) to use with a modeler – that could be a pretty big seller and have a lot of use for many players to use with something like a Line 6 Helix or an Amplifire pedal. Just one man’s opinion – try it for yourself and see if you agree!