Metallica’s rise to success can be attributed to the work of James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett. Both of these legends are masters of their craft. Even so, none of that would be possible without proper equipment. In Hetfield’s case, we are talking about his guitar and amp choices. If there is one name that keeps popping up in the world of early metal, it is Marshall. Today we are going to spend some time talking about their JCM800 series 2203X head, which is almost identical to what Hetfield has been using back in the day. If you are a fan of old school Marshall circuitry, stick around.
Marshall JCM800 2203X Review
Marshall’s Plexi heads are easily one of the most recognizable amplifiers in history. Ever since they first appeared, they pretty much dominated the market. Modern Plexi offerings are more or less designed to revamp that old glory and bring the all familiar performance back to the masses. JCM800 2203X is the reissue of the popular 2203. Whether or not these two amps are different will depend on how much of a Marshall purist you are. Some will say that vintage ones sound warmer and richer, while others wont really spot any differences. From a purely practical point of view, these two amps are 99.9% the same in terms of sound. One big difference is the fact that you are getting brand new components, brand new circuits and of course warranty if you go for the reissue.
In terms of design, there isn’t really much to discuss. Marshall’s Plexi series are about as old school as it gets. With JCM800 2203X we see those same features that have made the originals iconic. The simple black case followed by the gold front plate and a large Marshall logo across the grill, are all guaranteeing a very classic experience. Speaking of which, you have to understand that there are brands out there who have to use more provocative designs in order to make their products more appealing. We see it every day. However, Marshall is definitely not one of those. They have established their image a long time ago. In all honesty, if they changed the aesthetics of their Plexi series, chances are that it would backfire.
Looking past the exterior, there is plenty of features to note on the JCM800 2203X. For starters, this is a 100 Watt head, just like most of the ‘true’ Plexis are. The power stage consists of four EL34 tubes supported by three ECC83s in the preamp stage. Combined, these work together to deliver that authentic Marshall tone. If you look closer, you will notice that there is no channel select button or switch available. That is because JCM800 2203X belongs to the models offered by Marshall before they went in with dual channel design. Those of us who are familiar with the history of Marshall will know that dual channel amps weren’t all that hot back in the day. Fortunately, the negative perception of that new concept didn’t last long. The point is that single channel Plexis are considered to be the ‘pure’ ones.
In terms of controls, you have a rather basic layout at your disposal. There is the presence knob followed by a three band EQ, master volume and preamp volume. In the back, you have the standard I/O which is centered around the true bypass FX loop. Other than that, this Marshall is pretty much vanilla.
Build quality and choice of tubes are what many die hard Marshall fans are hung up on with this re issue. Right off the bat you can rest easy knowing that 2203X is built like a tank. There is literally nothing on it, both inside and out, that would indicate that you are dealing with potential trouble down the road. The issue most have is that it’s not a vintage Plexi. You can draw a parallel with Gibson fans who will give 100 Les Pauls built today for a single ’59 model.
All things considered, JCM800 2203X had only one real test to pass. It had to sound as good as the amp it was based on. In our opinion, it has achieved that goal. We are talking about that classic Marshall rumbling, awesome cleans and juicy overdrive all over the place. Naturally, with these amps it comes down to every single component. Not only are the tubes important, but so are the cabs, speakers in those cabs and so forth. Additionally, you really need to know how to dial in a good tone. In that aspect, 2203X is slightly unforgiving.
The comparison between a 2203X and a vintage 2203 is hard to make. Both amps sound the same until the point where you put that sound under a proverbial microscope. This is where vintage heads take a slight lead thanks to their broken in state, older tubes and a few similarly esoteric reasons. If you are a diehard Marshall fan who has the sound of a vintage Plexi literally stored in their mind, chances are that you will notice. Otherwise, the JCM800 2203X reissue sounds perfect in all aspects. When it comes to emulating Hetfield’s tone, you definitely can’t go wrong with this bad boy. There is plenty of power in there to run a show in a large venue or outdoor stage.
Marshall’s decision to revamp several of their classic amps has been welcomed by the community for a very obvious reason. In the sea of modern high gain designs, it feels refreshing to be able to go back to the roots. Marshall JCM800 2203X is a truly awesome head that does exactly what you need it to. On top of that, it leaves enough rooms for upgrades and mods which can bring that scope of performance even closer to your intended goals. Overall, this is the type of amp which you buy once.