So…we meet again.

It wasn’t all that many months ago that I was searching Long Island NY retailers for solid, reasonably priced, mid-range basses, with some mixed results.

Ever optimistic for the next great musical find, I accepted a new mission from The Chief: searching for quality, affordable, mid-range bass amps at retailers in Pennsylvania.

To make the mission even more intriguing, these retailers aren’t based in just any part of Pennsylvania. Each is a stone’s throw from Nazareth: the home of the C.F. Martin & Co. factory (which, incidentally, offers one-hour guided factory tours…a fact that might necessitate a return trip in the future). That fact alone had my hopes high as to the quality of bass amps I would find in the area. And, the more I thought about it, the more “amped up” I became.

With my visits established, I got my cover story ready: I’m looking for a gift for my “college-aged daughter,” who needs a proper bass amp to play along with her band. My Meghan Trainor cued up (“All About That Bass”), I headed out to Guitar Villa in Bethlehem; Dave Phillips Music and Sound in Allentown; Hawk Music Center in Bethlehem; and Guitar Center in Whitehall.

As I drove, it also occurred to me that these visits reflected an interesting mix of big-box and mom-and-pop shops, as well as a small retailer and a storefront based in a mall.

So, I was extra curious to see how much of a difference, if any at all, there would be among the four.

How would the selection compare? How about the service? The prices? The availability?

These all were curiosities to me. Eager to uncover the answers, I set out on the road to my first destination: Bethlehem PA.

Guitar Villa
228 Nazareth Pike (Rt. 191)
Bethlehem PA 18020​

I arrived at the main location for Guitar Villa, a small, house-like building located at a busy intersection in Bethlehem (with a second location in Quakertown).
It had a neatly arranged floor plan with glass cases for pedals and pickups to the right, an area for custom guitar work (with one of the models reserved for Sting’s next tour), plenty of basses hanging on the adjacent wall and, most importantly, a stack of new bass amps displayed prominently in the middle of the floor.

The Manager quickly engaged with me and I told him what I was looking for: a solid, mid-range bass amp for my “college-aged daughter,” who has a Fender Standard Jazz Bass and who just joined a band.

He led me to the amp display and we began searching for durable, affordable bass amps with solid punch.

The first combos we looked at were a 500-watt Stagg head for $249 (down from $399) and a Stagg cabinet for $279 (also substantially marked down), as well as an Acoustic B410 for $450 and a used cabinet for $299, which he recommended for local band usage.

Now we were talking!

I plugged into the Acoustic B410, and I wasn’t disappointed. Its 400 watts of power and 10-inch speakers were more than enough to provide a clear, crisp, powerful sound. Realistically, it was everything I’d need for “my daughter,” and the Manager agreed.

However, being the thorough type, I wanted to try more.

Next was the Kustom KXB100 100-watt bass combo amplifier for $249, another solid option that features a 15-inch Kustom speaker and bass; lo-mid, hi-mid and treble controls; and gain and volume controls on the preamp. This was a very enjoyable amp to play, as it had great tone and, at 100 watts, was probably closer to the amount of power “my daughter” would need from a bass amp.

There were other Kustom amp options, as well. They included the Kustom KXB200 15-inch, 200-watt bass combo amp, as well as a less-expensive model in the $150 range.
As we continued to look, I next tried the Seismic SA-115 15-inch bass guitar speaker cabinet, which was available for $139.

For the working musician, this cabinet had a nice, meaty tone on the low end and ample punch in the mid-range. Plus, the cabinet itself was not too heavy, which would make it a great candidate for club work.

The next brands that I looked at were the Ashdown ABM 1-10 mini bass cabinet for $385, as well as the Peavey TNT 130 bass combo amp for $99 and the Bag End D10-BXD bass cabinet for $784, which, unfortunately, was outside of my budget.

Fortunately, Guitar Villa also had a wide selection of used bass amps, which were well worth checking out!

For instance, I was shown a Peavey 2×15-inch bass enclosure for $179, as well as a Peavey Series 400 bass head for $199. Plus, there was a Peavey Microbass for $79, which, at 20 watts, would be a very reasonable practice amp, both of us agreed.

Notable is that the store is also an Eden franchise that can order any Eden product. That includes the available-in-store Eden EC10 50-watt, 10-inch solid state bass combo amp.

Guitar Villa had many other products available, including strings, straps and a small drum room with drum pads on display, as well as cables and mics, picks and other small items. The service was great, informative and low-pressure…very impressive!

It was a great beginning to my newest mission.

Next stop: Dave Phillips Music and Sound.

Dave Phillips Music and Sound
622 Union Blvd.
Allentown PA 18109

A short 15-minute drive from Guitar Villa brought me to Dave Phillips Music and Sound. The store was spacious and well laid out, featuring a wide array of musical instruments, sheet music and accessories.

For instance, the store featured an acoustic guitar room on the second floor, multiple full drum kits on display and a large wall of strings, plus racks full of music books.

The salesperson who greeted me took me to the bass amp display and, instantly, once again, I found a winner.

The new Fender Rumble 100-watt, 12-inch bass combo amp, available for $299, was it.

Durable and loaded with punch, it featured an auxiliary input, XLR line out, FX loop and three-band EQ, and an Eminence Special Design 12-inch speaker. It measured 18.5″x16.5″x14″ and weighed a mere 22 pounds. There were also 15-watt, 25-watt and 200-watt options available.

I played it for a while and it was very responsive, with a great tone and easy controls: perfect for band practices and gigs. And, the price point was very reasonable.

I was sold! Oh wait…can’t do that (mainly because the wife would kill me). However, I can recommend it highly as an option. (Love you, honey!)

What was also nice about it, as the salesperson pointed out, was that it was self-contained: no separate head and cabinet.

Another option I looked at was a Behringer Ultrabass BXL450 45-watt, 10-inch bass combo for less than $200. It had enough punch for a small band, although anything louder than that might require a little more.

With that, I tried a Hartke HD75 bass combo amplifier, which featured 75 watts, a 12-inch driver and a one-inch tweeter. When I plugged in, I was impressed by its tone and its power. Plus, it was very user friendly, including a volume, bass, mid and treble control on its top-mounted amplifier panel. And, it had a full effects loop, which I had some fun with, as well as a seven-band graphic EQ and built-in limiter. It measured 19.9″x18.6″x13.9″, and a handle at the top made it easier to carry. (That helps with a very solid feeling amp, weighing in at 48.2 pounds.)

It was interesting that the store had many built-ins as compared to combos, which, from a budget standpoint, certainly would be attractive even to a new player.

It was those types of details, along with a patient and helpful salesperson, as well as a large inventory and a sleek layout, that made Dave Phillips Music and Sound well worth the trip.

One mom-and-pop shop, plus a small retailer, and I was more than happy to be two for two on this trip.

The Meghan Trainor went back on and off I went to my next visit: Hawk Music Center in Bethlehem.

Hawk Music Center
2321 Schoenersville Rd.
Westgate Mall
Bethlehem PA 18017

Simply put, my visit to Hawk Music Center was a learning experience.

Not so much for me, though. Instead, it was for music retailers, in terms of how best to promote your store and, more importantly, your products.

Located inside the Westgate Mall in Bethlehem, the small store was difficult to find because there is no visible sign of the store from the road or the parking lot. My radar started to go up.

Once I entered the mall, the small storefront (small enough that it was completely obscured by a Santa waiting to take pictures with children in his North Pole setting) was barely large enough for a counter and a back room. There were some accessories and two small guitar practice amps on display…and that was pretty much it.

The salesperson, who was strumming a guitar behind the front counter when I entered, seemed surprised when I spoke.

“Do you carry any mid-range bass amps?” I asked hopefully.

He looked even more perplexed. I was not encouraged.

After his initial confusion waned, he proceeded to explain that the last bass amp they carried had just been sold the day before.

To me, it was bad enough there was not one bass amp to plug into (bring one from your house if you have to!), but it was made worse by the fact that I had called just days earlier to confirm the store’s bass amp inventory—and I was assured bass amps were in stock.

Granted, the store did service amplifiers and repair instruments, including bass and guitar. But, then again, why not have at least one floor model to boost sales for basses and the amp itself, and to promote your repair services?

It seemed like a wasted opportunity. And the more I thought about it, the difference in stock, pricing, service and availability between a mall-based retailer and the previous two stores became apparent to me.

The store did also have instrument rentals and lessons available. But, unfortunately, for mid-range bass amp purposes, it wasn’t even close to a worthwhile selection.

I’m sure the salesperson sensed my disappointment when he took the opportunity to suggest I visit Dave Phillips Music and Sound or Guitar Center. Clearly, both of those stores were already on my itinerary!

Guitar Center
720 Lehigh Valley Mall Space
Whitehall PA 18052

Although Guitar Center in Whitehall was also technically located in a mall, it was actually on the grounds of the Lehigh Valley Mall, with its own storefront. So, there was no need to search for the store or to walk through a busy mall to enter. In fact, although smaller than other Guitar Centers I’ve visited, it was set up almost identically (it is a chain, after all), with a wide selection of electric guitars and basses lining the walls, an acoustic guitar room in the back, and rooms for drums and DJ equipment, as well as guitar accessories such as capos, picks, slides and strings to the right.

The bass amps were displayed toward the back of the store, just outside the acoustic room. Not surprisingly, it was about 10 minutes after I walked in and paced near the bass amp display when a salesperson stopped to help me. That was a big difference from my first two experiences that day.

When I asked him for assistance in pricing bass amps, he simply walked me around the display, pointed out a couple of amps and promptly left. However, I should note that he did point out the new Fender 100-watt Rumble, which was consistent with my Dave Phillips Music and Sound experience earlier in the day.

In a (literal) sign of self-awareness, a sign was posted near the display explaining how to choose a bass amp. It included features to consider, such as channel switching, wattage, master volume and effects loops. Not exactly the personal touch…but it was something.

Fortunately, the selection of bass amps made up for the lack of service.

For instance, I tried a Peavey Max 115 II 300-watt, 15-inch bass combo for $299, which included low, mid shift and high semi-automatic EQ controls, speaker protection and headphone jack.

Then, I plugged into an Ampeg BA115 combo bass amp, which had a clean tone and plenty of low end.

There was also a decent selection of used bass amps. These included an Ampeg PF800 Portaflex 800-watt bass amp head for around $400, which came with a 30-day warranty. Likewise, I tried out a used Ampeg SVT610HLF 1,200-watt 6×10 bass cabinet, which was in the neighborhood of $500. Certainly, it was a bit pricier and more powerful than other choices I’d seen today, but, based on the punch this amp had alone, it was definitely worth it!

Other in-stock equipment included a Markbass Little Mark Tube 800 bass amp head for $699, as well as a Markbass Traveler 102P rear-ported compact 2×10-inch bass speaker cabinet for $529.

After I played a little more—and with no sign of another salesperson—I left impressed by the selection, yet disappointed in the service and, to a slightly lesser degree, the prices.

The Sale
In the end, as I had hoped, this area of Pennsylvania had some very impressive mid-range bass amps. And, although a musician really could not go wrong in this regard (at least with the smaller retailers and Guitar Center), I did also come away with some interesting thoughts about how music retailers should best display their products.

Aside from my experience at Hawk Music Center, each of the stores I visited had prominent placement of its bass amp inventory and really had an interesting selection of new and used options. I found this particularly interesting as Guitar Villa, Dave Phillips Music and Sound and Guitar Center all dedicated space to bass amps, despite having significantly different quantities of floor space to utilize.

I did think more about Hawk Music Center and, for a moment, I wondered if maybe that was the issue: simply not having enough space to display bass amps. However, how does that explain that Dave Phillips Music and Sound, as well as Guitar Center, carried the new Fender Rumble 100-watt, 12-inch bass combo amp, among other affordable options?

I can only chalk it up to a conscious decision…that bass amps might not be a priority. But that’s a shame when opportunity was knocking on the front door—literally!

That being said, the remaining three stores all had different, yet comparable, stock; the smaller retailers perhaps even had a slightly better selection because of custom options at Guitar Villa and the solid inventory at Dave Phillips Music and Sound, which included the previously mentioned Fender Rumble model.

Therefore, I have to look at layout and service, both of which Guitar Center lacked as compared to the other two. I know this is mainly because there is such a high volume of people shopping at any given point. However, it makes the shopping experience more difficult. It also impacts service. I certainly experienced this deficiency, waiting more than 10 minutes before I was helped by a salesperson.

So, if you know exactly what you are looking for and you don’t need guidance, then Guitar Center in Whitehall is certainly worthwhile simply for the inventory alone. However, if you know what you want but desire a more personal experience (and slightly more affordable prices) for similar in-stock options, I was able to find two great alternatives.

At Dave Phillips Music and Sound, as well as at Guitar Villa, I was treated professionally and informed well by both salespeople as to pricing, performance and style. In fact, it was at these smaller retailers that I had a revelation: service is not only more personal at these stores, but also generally more informed about the products.
Between Guitar Villa and Dave Phillips Music and Sound, you can be sure to find a great amp if you’re in the Bethlehem PA area…especially if you, like me, are all about that bass….

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