Gear Review: Phil Jones Bass Amps

For laying down the low end, these amps deliver clean power in a compact bass amp/cab.

Electric bass is always arguing with the laws of physics…and that doesn’t make life any easier for bass amps. The lowest 4-string bass note is around 41 Hz, which reaches the limits of not only speaker technology but human hearing—the ear’s low-frequency response drops off dramatically at lower volume levels. Designing a bass amp that can pump out the lows is difficult enough, but Phil Jones Bass (PJB) has managed to do so with the Session 77—a compact model (17″ x 11″ x 12.5″) that weighs around 28 pounds (Fig. 1). The other bass amp we’ll be reviewing, the Suitcase Combo Amp, ups the weight (40 pounds), wattage power, expandability, and price, but still retains portability.

1_Session 77
The Session 77 amp is compact, yet kicks out a lot of bass. Note the curved speaker grille so that the high frequencies can aim outward, while the amp can still sit on the floor to boost the low frequencies.

If you’re skeptical that amps and cabinets this small can actually do the job for bass, join the club—so was I. But plugging in ended any skepticism. I could see these amps working especially well in smaller venues and House of Worship applications, because the small size is unobtrusive and the clean sound fills out the low end in a consistent, articulated way. However, the Session 77 is also a stellar choice for studio work. Given its affordability, portability, and suitability for a wide variety of applications, let’s look at it first.

The Session 77 Control Complement

The controls for the single channel are what you need—no more, no less. The ¼” unbalanced input goes through a mute/low/high gain toggle switch (with clip indicator), input level control, bass/mid/treble tone stack (±18 dB for each of the three controls), and master volume. There’s also a 1/8″ Aux input with associated level control (ideal for playing along with other sound sources or backing tracks), and a headphone output for practicing or monitoring (Fig. 2).

2_Session 77 Controls
Figure 2: The Session 77 is a single-channel amp, with an Aux input and headphone output.

 

The enclosure itself is rugged, with a curved metal grille on the front, and a handle on the top. Two small bars to the left and right of the controls protect the knobs and switches in case the amp is dropped, or rolled over. The amp is a 100 Watt, Class D amp. Digital amplifier technology contributes to the clean sound but also improves reliability because this type of amp runs cooler, and more efficiently than an analog amp running at comparable power levels. And speaking of clean, apparently, the amp is designed with a considerable amount of headroom. With a Fender Mustang bass, I couldn’t illuminate the clip indicator no matter how hard I slapped or pulled the strings (and I can hit strings pretty hard).

Tone Talk

PJB amps are about a clean, well-articulated, modern sound. You can turn the bass tone control up full to push the amp; it growls surprisingly well, and the growl goes away smoothly as the string decays. However, this negates one of the main values of the Session 77, which is the defined, clear sound quality. If you want “growl & grit,” a smarter option is an overdrive or saturation pedal prior to the amp input.

The Session 77 has two 7″ low-frequency drivers and a 3″ high-frequency driver, which reproduces highs with ease and contributes a lot to the clean sound. However, this is also a big advantage in the studio, because you can move your mic around to pick up more or less of the high-frequency driver. Better yet, you can dedicate one mic (e.g., a condenser mic like the Audio-Technica AT-2020) to the 3″ driver, and a second mic to pick up one of the 7″ speakers—either close-miked to “weight” the sound toward one of the speaker cones’ edge (warmer sound) or center (brighter sound), further back for more of a composite sound, or somewhere between the two speakers to experiment with a balance. For close-miking, you can take advantage of the proximity effect with a common dynamic mic like the SM57. For extra bass without needing the proximity effect, or for recording at more of a distance, the Electro-Voice RE-320 dynamic mic has a kick drum mode that takes the quoted response down to 30 Hz.

Another advantage for studio use is the low noise level, which is another reason the amp is so well-suited to close-miking techniques. Sure, it’s easy to stick a mic in front of a speaker and play around with EQ to get the tone you want. But changing tone through proper mic placement offers a wider variety of sonic seasonings, due to the subtle phase and frequency response changes. Note that while there’s no DI output per se, there is a line output from the preamp. This provides a feed for another amp, FX pedals, feeding into a mixer, and the like, or blending with the miked sound.

Live and Let Live

In addition to its usefulness in the studio, the Session 77 is equally relevant to live performance. An amp this small isn’t going to trigger earthquakes, but for a venue like a restaurant, smaller club, or House of Worship—especially with more acoustic-oriented acts—this amp delivers enough power to fill a room. I could easily see a guitar player/singer with something like a Bose S1 being accompanied by a percussionist; the bassist wouldn’t need anything other than the Session 77. However, I also tested the Session 77 with electric keyboards. It gives a good account of itself because of the 3″ high-frequency driver, and the extended bass that keyboards don’t have with guitar amps. (If Phil Jones Bass wanted to extend their product line, I think keyboard amps would be the place to go.)

Due to the small size, the amp can fit just about anywhere—which means you can stick it on the floor, in a corner. In this situation, the gently curved front panel is great, because it points the highs (which are more directional than bass) outward, instead of at the floor. But this kind of placement also boosts the bass acoustically, which makes the sound much bigger than what you’d hear from raising the amp up and placing it away from a wall. On the other hand, in the studio, I prefer placing the Session 77 on a chair or table so that the mics pick up only the bass sound, as opposed to a mix of direct and reflected sounds.

Overall, the Session 77 is an impressive little sucker. And I do mean little—it delivers a lot of lows, given the compact size. It’s one of those “hearing is believing” kind of products.

The Suitcase Compact Combo

When you need to push out more power, the 300-Watt Suitcase Compact Combo amp does the job with four 5″ speakers, yet still retains a compact size (14.2″ x 12.4″ x 13.4″) in a ported cabinet (Fig. 3).

3_Compact Combo
Figure 3: The Suitcase Compact Combo augments the Session 77 with more controls, more power, and expandability.

The set of controls is similar to the Session 77, but there are two input channels, both with the same control set as the Session 77 (input jack, gain switch, clip indicator, input level, and tone stack). The master volume control affects both channels, and there’s still the headphone out and 1/8″ aux-in jack with level control. However, a major difference is a limiter on the master output, with an associated control to set the amount of limiting, and limiter bypass switch. The limiter is very effective because it’s designed for bass—you don’t get the same kind of pumping you’ll hear with other limiters that aren’t specifically designed to handle low frequencies. Overall, the noise level is a little higher than the Session 77, but it’s certainly not problematic for live use and makes no practical difference in the studio if you back off the mics a little bit.

Another main difference is the amp’s rear panel, which has an XLR-connector DI out. You’ll also find ¼” jacks for tuner output, FX loop (send and receive), and preamp out, along with a ground lift. However, arguably the most important addition is a locking Speakon speaker connector for when you want to stack an additional cab (Fig. 4).

4_Compact Back Panel
Figure 4: The Suitcase Compact Combo is considerably more expandable than the Session 77.

The Phil Jones Bass Compact 4 is the ideal complement, because it has the same size and look (it’s also ported), so you end up with a true bass amp stack. Connecting this also lowers the combined speaker impedance to 4 ohms, which allows pulling up to 500 Watts from the Compact Combo’s Class D amp. While the C4 is designed to complement the Suitcase Compact Combo, it’s worth noting that this is an excellent extension cab in its own right—no law says you have to use it with Phil Jones Bass amps (Fig. 5).

5_C4
Figure 5: The C4 is very much like the Compact Combo amp, but without the amplifier and dual-channel set of controls.

In use, the Suitcase Compact Combo is indeed louder, and pushes out more bass. It seems well-suited to medium-size venues and could hold its own while entertaining a crowded sports bar. Again, though, as with the Session 77, the sound is clean and distinct. When you push the amp, it gets louder—not muddier.

The Bottom Line

Please forgive the pun, but this is indeed a line intended for the bottom end of the frequency spectrum. The clean sound doesn’t come as much of a surprise, because smaller speakers can more easily reproduce the transients and subtleties that get lost in speakers that need to move more air. What is surprising is how they can pump up the volume in the bass range, but still sound clean and articulated. That’s a tough act to pull off, but then again, that’s the turf Phil Jones Bass has staked out.

For an all-around, affordable bass amp that’s equally at home in the studio or on stage, the Session 77 is the amp of choice. However, if your main application is live performance, although the Suitcase Compact Combo will push your budget further, it will also push your bass further into the venue. The ability to expand to a matching cabinet is also a big plus. For some gigs, you won’t need to bring the additional cabinet but for others, the extra projection and level is worth it.

Some might consider the Phil Jones Bass amps more “boutique,” specialized products, but they’re workhorses whose main claim to fame is definition, clarity, and power that belies the small size. Yes, I was skeptical at first, but now I understand why there are so many glowing online reviews from users. Hmmm…I guess this counts as another one.

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