Hiwatt Reissue Custom Shop 4×12 Cabinet & Weber Thames Speakers: Learning About the Hiwatt Fane Sound

A Brief Early History

As Marshall quickly grew in reputation as the new king of high-powered guitar amplification during the early 1960’s, Dave Reeves, who had been an employee of Mullard as well as a contractor for Sound City in London, began working on his own amplifiers that aimed to take the amplification construction quality and tonal designs to new heights. Reeve’s new Hiwatt amplifiers were born via his company, Hylight Electronics.

It was after Reeves teamed with former military electrician Harry Joyce that the classic Hylight Electronics lineup then advanced forward to an even greater level of quality. Joyce and his small team of technicians wired Reeve’s Hiwatt designs with meticulous precision and detail that had never been seen in guitar amplifiers. The combination of Reeves and Joyce helped the company build its reputation of offering the most durable, highest-quality amplification equipment available. The quality of the components used, from the potentiometers and resistors, all the way through the large output and power transformers supplied by the Partridge Company, were among the best that could be sourced for Hiwatt amplifiers.

For speaker selection, both Marshall and the JMI Vox companies chose Celestion as the primary supplier for their amplifiers. For Hiwatt, things would be different. Reeves was already familiar with the Fane company and its offerings, as they supplied speakers to Sound City, in addition to other British brands including Carlsbro, and so he choose to stay with them as the supplier of choice for Hiwatt amps.

When researching the “Fane sound,” it became obvious that a challenge laid ahead as Fane offered a wide range of speakers with changes to specifications being made regularly. Knowing then which speaker is the one that can clearly define the quintessential “Fane tone” is subject to debate. Part of the problem, according to Paul Tribe, owner of Two Tribes Music (www.twotribesmusic.co.uk), is the sheer number of options and models Fane produced. “They are confusing going from 20 watts up to 50 on the early cast-frame chassis, using different sized magnets…sometimes with the same size magnet, one speaker will be rated at 40 watts and the other 25,” Tribe explained.

Still, Tribe’s favorite, and arguably the most-desired of the early Fanes are the 50-watt rated models. “They really pump and thud out a tight sound. To me, the 100 watt amps – any make – torture the smaller speakers, as they often do with Celestions, and need the bigger speakers or you hear them protesting.”

As a specialist in sales of vintage guitar and amplifier equipment, Tribe has had many opportunities to listen to quite a range of speakers and cab. “When I try the cabs and amps I have in an area to be able to turn them up, you can really hear what copes with what!”

hiwatt1Matched with a Hiwatt cabinet, with its solid 13-ply Baltic birch construction and bracing, the benefits of the 50-watt Fane were increased. The cabinets themselves also marked a technology first as far as guitar cabinets were concerned as they featured a rear port on the bottom backside, which allowed the speaker cones to have more excursion and deliver more low-end response through the back of the port. All cabinets were straight front designs as well – which also allowed for more airspace volume overall which further helped increase low frequency response.

The Fane tone and response of this speaker in the early ’70s was clearly different from the most popular Celestion speakers being offered for guitarists, namely the G12M-25 or G12H-30 series. The cast-frame ‘purple back’ Fane (called this because of its purple sticker label affixed to the magnet) built for Hiwatt was tuned and balanced like no other speaker created at that time. Loud, with a darker top-end and mild-compression characteristics, the 50-watt Fane purple back in a 4 x 12 had the power handling ability to support the tremendous output of the Hiwatt Custom 100 DR103 amplifier. Indeed, with the Custom 100’s clean, powerful headroom and large output transformer, certainly provided a bigger clean volume output when compared with a typical 100-watt Marshall produced during the same era (the Marshall of course put out more distortion/gain in exchange!). The 50-watt Fane speaker ultimately provided a tone and feel that retained the Hiwatt’s characteristically punchy qualities.

During the middle of the 1970’s, Fane began to label its OEM speakers for Hiwatt as “Heavy Duty” and the resulting power-handling capability of the speaker increased further. The cast-frame transitioned to the steel-frame design, and while options for lower-powered speakers remained, many heavy-duty labeled Hiwatt Fane speakers saw a power-handling increase to 80 watts. The change in construction of Fane’s OEM-produced Hiwatt speakers to a steel-frame design made them more easily and consistently manufactured, in addition to being cost efficient.

Weber Thames Loaded in Reissue Hiwatt 4 x 12 Custom Shop Cabinet

The Weber (www.tedweber.com) Thames ($100 each) is an 80-watt speaker with a 2-inch voice coil and 60-ounce magnet that is designed to invoke what is arguably the best of the British Fane tones. Though Weber produces a couple of variations of the Thames with both an alnico and ceramic magnet option, for our tests, we went with ceramic and also included Weber’s break-in treatment. Unlike the original cast-frame Fanes, the Weber Thames is based on the stamped-steel design frame, which is also how virtually every speaker is manufactured today.

hiwatt2As to tone and preferences, older may not always be better. In fact, according to Ted Weber, he modeled the speaker attributes of the Weber Thames after the mid-to-late ’70s steel-frame Fane, rather than using the specifications of the earlier cast-frame design largely because of the higher power-handling characteristics. “I had an overwhelming number of customers tell me I needed to do the (higher power) gray frame, purple label Fane,” Weber said.

To those more familiar with the vintage Celestion tones, when making comparisons between the most famous 25-watt G12M and 30-watt G12H Celestion models respectively, the Weber Thames strikes a nice middle ground in feel between the very compressed, looser G12M-25 and the tighter characteristics of the G12H-30.

This may be somewhat surprising, considering that the Weber Thames is rated at 80 watts, quite a bit more than the still stiffer-feel of the G12H-30!

However, this can be explained by the design of the cone and its relationship to the voicecoil and magnet used with the Weber Thames. Ted Weber describes the Thames as having, “…more energy in the gap than a typical Celestion, a 2-inch voice and larger magnet.” The result is more low-end than most Celestions can provide, which ultimately makes the Weber Thames sound and feel bigger than the often brighter-toned G12H-30 Celestion.

Our Hiwatt reissue cabinet used for testing was provided by vintage and new equipment specialists Music Ground in the U.K. (www.musicground.com,e-mail: [email protected]), who also manufacture a full-range of Hiwatt gear, from new contemporary models as well as those built to the early specifications of the Reeves-owned Hylight Electronics. Today’s Hiwatt amplifiers (www.hiwatt.co.uk) are even constructed with much of the same level of detail as the originals, with turret board construction and cleanly-laid out wiring.

The cabinets get the same level of attention. From the construction using marine-grade ply, to the frame bracing and finger-joints (Note: according to Paul Tribe, some of the earliest Hiwatt cabinets did not use finger-joints, but instead a type of half lap-joint), the reissue Hiwatt cabinet is certainly solid and extremely well-built. Cosmetically, all the details are present and accurate, from the salt and pepper basketweave cloth and rugged vinyl to the white piping dressed along each side of the top and bottom of the cab, it’s Hiwatt as we remembered.

hiwatt3I should note that Hiwatt doesn’t normally supply empty cabinets, but generously did so per our special request. Today’s Hiwatt cabinets can be equipped with either Celestion or new Fane speakers. With the modern Hiwatt cabinets using new Fanes, according to Justin Harrison, Director of Music Ground, the speakers first needed to be revised in design. “Hiwatt specifically redesigned the existing Fane 12-inch speaker to replicate and recreate the tone of the original 72-74 Hiwatt/Fane,” he said, noting that the modern Fane speaker that was otherwise available was much higher in wattage rating and resulted in an excessively hard-sounding speaker.

Plugging a ’74 Hiwatt DR103 Custom 100 watt head into the combined Weber/Hiwatt custom shop cabinet resulted in a number of very balanced and lively tones that pleased the ear. Where a Hiwatt can often be a bit bright when matched with a Marshall/Celestion-loaded cabinet, the Hiwatt cabinet offered great balance to compensate for the bright voicing of the Custom 100. Treble tones were still present, but didn’t produce any excessive ear-piercing brightening effect, even when playing the amp at loud volume. Low notes that were reproduced using both a Strat and Les Paul remained punchy, and the Thames were able to produce all the bass the Custom 100 amp could offer – which is quite a lot; but still the speakers offered just a hint of compression without being overloaded into non-musical distortion (a.k.a. the “about-to-blow-your-speaker” distortion tone).

As a longtime Marshall player, and being very familiar with their vintage amps and speakers, I undoubtedly needed to try a non-master volume Marshall through the cabinet as well as a master volume amp. I went with the JTM-45 for the classic non-master configurations as well as a JCM 800 2203 master volume for the harder rock/metal tones and in both cases was impressed. With the power-tube saturation of the JTM-45 turned up, the Hiwatt cabinet reminded me of the 25-watt G12M with a nice full range but with the highs rolled off a bit. Except in this case, unlike the 25-watt Celestions, which when running the amp at or near full power, can become a little bit too loose on lower-register chords and notes, the Weber Thames held up extremely well. I certainly was enjoying this combination and playing time with this cabinet.

I’ll admit that my inspiration for this piece actually came after speaking with George Lynch (Dokken, Lynch Mob, Souls of We) about his gear and favorite tones and being particularly curious about his choice of speakers. He went through countless Marshall heads and other amplifiers and cabinets through the years before finally realizing that his #1 would be his 1968 Marshall plexi Super Lead. And the cabinet? For a good deal of time, it had been an old Fane-equipped Hiwatt cabinet.

George now has recently worked with Randall to design a signature series amp and cabinet. The cabinet takes on the dimensions of the Hiwatt with a straight front and basketweave look with rear port. The speakers inside are Eminence Super Vs, a Lynch collaborative design, which again was inspired by his preference for Fanes, but now with even more power-handling capability, and use of a 38 ounce Ferrite magnet.

Perhaps someday we’ll get to test George’s setup and report on it. For now though, it’s certainly been a fun and worthwhile journey exploring and learning about these lesser-known Fane speakers and provide info on what is available today.

Testing the Weber Thames was an ear-opening pleasure and experience. If you’ve looked for a speaker that can reproduce your guitar tones evenly and smoothly, without overemphasis on one frequency range over another…and without “flubbing” on the bottom end notes at high volume…and all the while not being so tight or stiff in response that it loses its musical character (and this is a LOT to ask for in a speaker), then the Weber Thames should definitely be on your list to check out.