Early in my explorations with tubes I bought several Bottlehead kits because they were the most popular tube amps, and they were advertised as “easy to build”. I guess that’s what led me to believe they were “easy to build”.
I suppose they are easy if you have the patience of Job, the manual dexterity of a neurosurgeon, and the electronic debugging skills of a post-doctoral electrical engineer. Barring that, they are one long, continuous exercise in frustration.
Bottlehead designers appear to be engaged in a contest to see who can cram the most components into the smallest possible space, and hide solder joints behind other components so it’s impossible to get a soldering iron on them. In addition, of the three kits I purchased, not one included all the parts (and given that a “kit” is just a box of parts, that’s a bit of an oversight). None of them worked the first time I plugged them in, and I got to experience the joys of debugging electrical circuits that were so crammed together they required a magnifying glass and tweezers to manipulate the parts.
Following an extended bout of debugging intermingled with highly colorful cursing, I realized that Bottlehead was the IBM of tube amp kits.
For those of you too young to remember the heyday of mainframe computers, IBM dominated the market with products that were universally acknowledged to be inferior to their competitors. They were able to do so because their marketing and customer support were second to none.
That’s basically what Bottlehead has done: they have a slick website, they support forums for their users on major audio websites (and you’ll need them, believe me), and they provide quick, friendly technical support to help you figure out where you screwed up your kit. And that’s how they got to be the most popular tube kits on the market.
Now, all my whining aside, when(if) you get your kit to work, their products sound pretty good. Not as good as the Transcendent products, but not bad at all. Plus, if you’re the sort of person who likes to tweak or modify your kits, they provide lots of support and suggestions for how to do it.
And it is definitely possible to get good results. Go to www.wardsweb.org and you’ll see a man who has elevated audio components to works of art. His modified Bottlehead kits are a joy to behold.