Jeff Berlin’s music conservatoire lends its name to a new Markbass combo. Kev Sanders feels the width
Back in the day, companies like Peavey, Laney and Carlsbro all had hefty 1×15” combos as mainstays of their bass amp ranges. For some while now though, they seem to have fallen from fashion. Sure, there are still plenty you can buy, but they’re nothing like as common as they once were. There are several reasons for this, but mainly, of course, it’s because developments in the quality of electronics and speaker materials mean that a current, good quality bass combo with a powerful amp and 12” driver can easily outperform one of the old behemoths in virtually every way – and mean fewer trips to the osteopath. BGM columnist Jeff Berlin has enjoyed a long and close association with Markbass, to the extent that the company has recently developed a combo specifically for use at his own music school, the Players School of Music – and now, you can buy one too.
Build Quality And Features
This new amp represents something of a departure for Markbass. Firstly, the CMD JB is assembled in Indonesia and this, along with the use of a less expensive speaker unit, enables the company to pitch this amp at a lower price point. Let’s be clear, we’re not talking bargain basement here, but it should mean that more of us will be able to get onto the Markbass property ladder. The first thing to strike you is just how small and light this amp is. Markbass has consistently been at the forefront in the design and development of compact and lightweight bass gear but even so, it’s still a pleasant surprise when you take it out of its box for the first time. The CMD JB is constructed from 20mm poplar laminate. Poplar is a great choice as not only does it have superior tonal qualities to the more commonly used birch ply, it’s also much lighter. The cabinet is built completely void free: glued, screwed and sealed internally – a time-consuming, expensive and unusual practice on an amp at this price.
It’s covered in a smart black ‘carpet’ and has a tough steel grill protecting the pressed chassis 15” speaker, which is baffle-mounted. This isn’t the same unit as used on the Jeff Berlin Signature amp, but it seems well matched to the smaller amp’s output. The cabinet is finished almost as well inside as it is out, and is lined with acoustic wadding, another quality touch. Markbass kit has always been manufactured to a very high standard, using quality materials, and this amp seems to be no exception despite the lower price. A proper-sized handle on top makes moving the amp easy and secure, while black corner protectors complete the exterior furniture. Set into the top of the cabinet you have what is basically a LittleMark 250 amp head. Most amp brands have their own corporate layout, and if you’ve used any Markbass kit before you’ll immediately feel at home here. On the left there are two inputs, one normal jack and a balanced line XLR, useful if you’re using the amp for double bass and want to use a mic rather than a pick-up. Next is the gain with a small LED clip light, then on to the main EQ section.
This consists of Bass, Treble and two Mids (hi and lo), all with a hefty plus or minus 16dB of cut or boost. This alone would make for a versatile amp, but the next two controls are, I think, what sets this preamp apart. First up is the VLE control. This stands for Vintage Loudspeaker Emulator and it does pretty much what you’d expect, slowly rolling off the highs and lows to give you a much more valve-like, organic tone. Next to this is the VPF (Variable Pre-shape Filter); again it’s very simple, offering a variable amount of mid scoop useful for dialling in an instant slap tone.
From the moment you plug in a bass and switch on, you just know this is going to be good. I mean, it doesn’t necessarily make you sound like Jeff Berlin, but the quality of the sound is very obvious right from the word go. It’s hard to pinpoint a tonal signature for this combo and given the price, unusual speaker configuration and lack of HF unit, it sounds impressively neutral at low and mid volumes. This means the sound of your bass is accurately replicated and, even with the EQ set fl at, you immediately have a good working bass sound. Another sure sign of quality is the almost total lack of background hum. Even with the gain and master volumes cranked way up, it’s virtually silent: this would make a brilliant little studio amp.
Plugging in an active five-string Jazz, the tone is gorgeous: thick, punchy and rounded, but with plenty of bandwidth and definition. Adjusting the EQ didn’t take long at all and I found a perfect bass tone with everything virtually fl at, just a little low mid backed off and a tiny bit of high added. Moving on to the filters, I first added some of the VLE. With this set about a third on you have a gorgeous retro Motown sound – like an antique Ampeg B15 fliptop, but without the hum. The VPF control also proved to be really useful and with the rest of the EQ set fl at you can find a wide range of usable tones with this one control.
The obvious question I want answered is, will a combo with just a 15” driver and no HF unit in a small cabinet sound bass-heavy and unfocused? Well as I said, at practice and rehearsal volumes the amp sounds great, although there are limitations that become apparent when you need more volume. Playing with a drummer, pianist and horn player on a jazz gig, my own Minimark 121P combo usually has no problems at all, but the CMD JB combo seemed to struggle to keep up, both in terms of volume and dynamic response. So while you could use this amp on small and medium sized gigs, this doesn’t seem to be where it’s best suited.
It’s hard to know how to assess this amp: as a practice combo, it’s fantastic, but do you need a 15” speaker in a practice amp?
As a gigging amp it cuts it up to a point, but at higher volumes the limitations of a lower-spec single 15” driver in a small box with ‘only’ 150 watts means that you may find yourself constantly pushing up the volume and EQ top end. You could add an extension cab: a 12” with a horn would be perfect, upping the output of the amp to 250 watts and increasing the bandwidth, but that misses the point of using a combo in the first place. However, this amp was designed for Jeff Berlin’s Players School, where presumably it will be used for practice and smallish performances – and for that purpose, I can’t think of a better amp, especially given the price.
PRICE | £509
INPUTS | 1/4” jack plus Bal. line XLR
CONTROLS | Gain, Low, Mid low, Mid high, High (all +/- 16dB), VLE (Vintage Loudspeaker Emulator)/VPF (Variable Preshape Filter) Line out, Master Vol, Effect send/return, Tuner out, Ground lift switch, XLR out
PREAMP | Solid state
SPEAKER | 1×15”
TWEETER | None
BASS REFLEX PORT | Rear facing
IMPEDANCE | 8 ohms
SPEAKER POWER HANDLING | 250w rms (as standard)
AMP OUTPUT POWER | 250w @ 4 ohm / 150w @ 8 ohm
FREQUENCY RESPONSE | 45 hz to 5 khz
SENSITIVITY | 99 dB SPL
WEIGHT | 40.8 lb / 18.5 kg
DIMENSIONS | (mm) (HxWxD) 467 x 467 x 480
What we think
PLUS | All the benefits of a 15” driver in a compact package – smaller and lighter than some 12” combos. Fantastic, deep, classy sound at lower volumes. Can easily be used as the basis for a larger stack if you need more power
MINUS | No HF unit, some players may miss the (very) top-end sparkle a horn or tweeter can add
OVERALL | At lower volumes the amp works great, sounding clear and focused, however if you need massive on-stage volume or you’re looking for a harsh slap sound, then the high end would be a little softer than ideal – you might be better off looking for more power
Build quality 8/10
Sound quality 7/10