Bass amplification has changed so much over the past decade or so, with smaller and more powerful setups becoming the norm. But that has been at the expense of tubes in many cases – especially in practise rigs. The SWR Baby Blue II is an oldie but a goodie in that it is small enough to be easy to cart around yet still with a tube in the preamp to warm it up a little. It’s been my go to practise set up for a few years now, and if you ever spot one you should definitely check it out!
Item: SWR Baby Blue II Bass Amp
Inspiration: Bass amplification is a funny thing. You obviously need a big rig for rock gigs. Then you need something small for practicing at home. Problem is that those practice rigs generally aren’t powerful enough to cut it in an acoustic/coffee shop gig kind of environment. I was set with my big rig and but wanted something smaller – but not so small that it would be too limiting. At the time when I bought this a few years ago I was looking at a bunch of options but this one came up on eBay and I jumped at it – and I’ve been happy ever since!
Image: I love the look of this combo. It’s a little over 60cm high and weighs just under 20kg. No, not super light or super small compared with some stuff out there today, but it feels just right. It’s also from the era when SWR was still an independent company and was making some of its most interesting gear.
Investment: I hate to say it but I can’t remember how much I paid! Pretty sure it was around the $500 mark though. It was in production from 1993 to 2003 and according to the SWR site sold for $1399 when it was discontinued. I haven’t seen one second-hand for a long time.
Intrinsic Qualities: Okay, let’s cut to the chase – what does it sound like? To me the best way to describe it is warmly neutral. One of the standard knocks against SWR is that they are a bit sterile and “high fidelity”, and while the BBII is very clean, the single 12AX7 tube in the preamp does seem to warm it up just a touch (but know that you’ll never get even remotely close to any kind of tube overdrive sound). It’s a very “true” sound that I really like. This amp is also certainly loud enough as a small rig with 160w delivered through a pair of 8” Celestion drivers and a 5” tweeter. It also features SWR’s unique “Aural enhancer” control. In theory it “brings out the fundamental low notes and reduces certain frequencies that mask the fundamentals”. Uh huh… In practice, at higher settings it will scoop mids (nice for slappers) and at lower settings it boosts low mids for more of a 60s feel. I’ve had a couple of SWRs over the years with this feature and will I don’t understand it, I do like it! All in all, this will never be an amp to rock hard – but it is very versatile across a wide variety of musical genres. I’ve also read that it’s an amp the upright bass crew appreciates.
Intangibles: I wanted to give some props here to Tom Bowlus, now the editor-in-chief of Bass Gear Magazine. He used to have a blog where he reviewed an amazing amount of gear with really great insight, let alone being one of those people on the various bass forums that you’d actually seek out for an opinion. I used to really like his equipment shootouts, and from a combo shootout he once did came this: “[The Baby Blue II] has become my ‘reference combo’ and it probably gets more playing time than any other rig I own, since it is also my primary personal practice amp. It is full, smooth and articulate, with very good definition even on the low B. It is not super sparkley up high, but you can certainly dial in some more brightness. It is fairly well balanced from top to bottom, but has more upper midrange presence than most. I had the Enhance set at about 9 o’clock. Volume-wise, it is certainly louder than you expect from its size, and it does not break up, even when pushed close to its limits.” If it’s good enough for Tom, it’s good enough for me!
If not this then…: Funnily enough I do actually have an alternative for this already, but it’s a bit weird. I picked up an Acoustic Image Contra EX extension cabinet for $100 from a second hand shop and have paired it with the Acoustic Image Focus SA power amp that I use with my big rig. I’ll then use either a Phil Jones Bass Buddy or a Sans Amp BDDI to drive it – as you can see here.
All in all, a really great combo amp that has a special place in my collection. I should also add that like lots of second hand things, getting them checked out/serviced when you get them is a very good idea. I took this one to a tube amp specialist soon after getting it for a generally service. The difference between what it sounded like when I first got it and how it sounded after he tweaked a few things was significant!
The new format for doing a brief reviews of the various bits of gear that I use is called the “I” Test: 7 categories that are a bit different from the standard review that reads like it’s lifted from a guitar magazine. My “I Test” takes into account not just the performance characteristics (as normal reviews do) but also addresses the real reason we buy stuff: the 7 “I”s – what’s the Item, Inspiration (why did I get it), Image (what’s it look like), Investment (bargain or just lust), Intrinsic qualities (what does it do), Intangibles (sometimes the reason you got it doesn’t fall into any other category!), and If not this then… (did I look at alternatives).