A Big Helping of Olde England... in a Small Package



Yep, here we are with another amplifier review and this time we are looking at the Marshall Origin 20 Combo Amp. Weíll get to a description in a second. But first...

For heavenís sake, how on earth did I arrive hereÖ again?

Okay, Iíll admit that I have been on the hunt for years for a small amp that can give me both a nice clean tone and a pure tube distortion tone with no diode buzz or razz. Iíve have had some pretty good "close but no cigar" moments, but the diode distortion issue has always reared its scruffy head. Still, as the guitar playing demographic, and I, have begun to, *ahem*, mature, and players have begun to grow tired of arm-stretching exercises every time an amp must be moved, tube amp design has been trending toward smaller, lighter, more authentic amps with the ability to get excellent sounds at quieter volumes without losing tone quality. Tube amp manufacturers are now being challenged by the lighter, highly flexible products of the modeler revolution and have begun to step up their game in terms of lighter-weight amps. Seeing some recent developments, Iíve kept an eye on the press and the forums. Of course, given my propensity to allow someone else to ride the bleeding edge of technology and suffer the infant mortalities, I'm slightly behind the curve once again. But some recent noise on the forums led me to look at some smaller amps at this juncture.

My first personal encounter with the Marshall Origin 20 occurred entirely accidentally in a guitar store. I was sort of idly checking out another small amp I'd heard of, an Egnater Rebel 20 head, that was touted as having a classic pure tube sound and some interesting features. The truth is that when I went to plug in the Egnater, a used Origin 20 head was sitting on top of and plugged into the speaker cab I needed. The Marshall was simply in the way. Before this thing got in my way Iíd heard the buzz about the Origin in the guitar community and on forums and frankly, it was not all good. The complaints seemed to center around a perception that it didnít offer high enough gain. But just for giggles I decided to play these two amps side-by-side through the same speakers in a showdown. You've got to keep an open mind, eh? So I cranked the two and tried backing off their volume with their power scaling systems. I listened intently to the sound of the two amps at various gain levels, looking for that smother distortion sound associated with a pure-tube signal path. I discovered that the Egnater displayed quite modern tones and modern behavior. It had higher gain but at the cost of diode razz. By contrast, the Marshall yielded classic Ď60s and '70s British tones at admittedly lower gain but had an attractive brightness and chime. Good grief this thing sounded great. I quickly became fascinated by the sound of the Origin 20 amp and began drilling down into its features and grokking it. Oh, no, not another tone quest.

So, we had to visit it again now, didnít we? After mucking aboot with the amp in head form I decided that I really wanted the Origin 20. The question was whether to get the head or the combo version. Unfortunately, the speakers available to patch into at the store I visited werenít Celestions, the native voice of Marshalls. I didnít have a spare Celestion-loaded cab at home, either. I was concerned that I wouldnít get the whole experience without the classic Celestion sound, so after much debate and YouTubing I decided that I would purchase the combo version with its ten-inch Celestion speaker. Unfortunately the store where I demoed the head didnít have any of the combos and didnít know when they would get them in stock. I eventually fetched up to Sweetwater and began discussions with my sales engineer as to price, etc. He gave me a nice deal and off we went. The amp arrived in three days.

Unpacking the Origin 20 under the watchful eye of Oscar the studio cat. Click pic to embiggen.

And here is what I found:

The Origin 20 is a 20 watt, single channel, master volume combo amp with a ten-inch, 50 watt Celestion VT-Junior speaker. It weighs thirty-one pounds and is a small, lightweight package. The power section features two EL34 power tubes driven to only 20 watts in a cathode-bias scheme, rather than the typical EL84 or 6V6 low-power amp scheme. The audible result is less fizz and more jangle. The preamp section utilized three ECC83/12AX7 tubes, one of which functions as a phase splitter. Marshallís "Powerstem" technology lets you select one-half watt, three watts, or twenty watts output with minimal tonal or gain change through power supply rail reduction. The "Tilt" control acts like jumping the two channels on a Plexi amp and blending, but with one knob instead of two. The cathode bias power amp scheme offers both natural compression and a smooth entry into distortion. It also allows replacement of power tubes without re-biasing.

In hand, the amplifier feels absolutely as solid as a rock, like a Marshall should. The whole affair is very solidly built. I hear no cabinet rattles or buzzes when the volume is up high. The speaker never seems to approach being maxíd out. The carrying handle is wide and comfortable. The two versions of the Origin 20, head and combo, are really quite visually appealing and nicely packaged. They look a bit like a JTM45 1962 combo and 2235 head that were left in the dryer a little too long and shrank. They are actually quite, um, cute, and I am smitten by cute things. Ask my wife. The visual aesthetic of the combo includes black levant tolex leatherette, classic dove grey or "salt & pepper" grille cloth, and gold metal letter-box Plexi-style control panel, lattice vent grilles, and piping Ė like the colors from a good barber shop of old. Somehow, despite the cuteness, there is a certain air of masculinity about it all, if that is allowed in this day and age.

The effect of the package is somewhat like that of the initial New MINI Cooper back in 2001: BMW wanted to create an upscale, sporty coupe that screamed "quality" at every turn and touch, and they really pulled it off with the New MINI. This amp feels top-drawer, legitimate. From what I can tell, this is the first time that Marshall has put out an affordable amp that looks, sounds, and plays like their early classic amps, but in the medium price range. There is only one channel. The amp is fairly straightforward but it is also full-featured.

Despite the fact that I was looking for a lower wattage amp from the start, Iíll confess that once I began research in earnest, I was tugged in a nagging sort of way towards the slight upsell to the Origin 50. These days, fifty watts through a twelve-inch speaker will definitely handle playing with a band in practically any situation. But then I read of the forty-one pound weight of the Origin 50 and I realized I already have amps that heavy, and that fact reminded me that part of what I specifically wanted in this case was a lighter amp like the ten pounds lighter Origin 20. Back on track!

For an inside gut shot click HERE. Thanks to Michael Roe.

The Sound
The sound of this amplifier is classic early Marshall JTM and JMP Plexi. Chime, chime, chime. Grind. Not buzz. It sounds like there are no diodes in the signal chain and thus no diode razz. The basic clean sound with all the tone controls at twelve oíclock is bright with a little midrange dip. It delivers up classic low-to-mid gain Marshall sounds with all the aplomb and fiasco of the originals. The driven, muscular Marshall rhythm tone we are used to from the early Ď70s just falls right out of this box. Guitar. Cord. Amp. That is it. For the classic Marshall rhythm grind, this amp sounds darned good. Holy cow, Iíve wanted this sound for years with just guitar, cord, and amp. I find myself thinking, "This is just too easy. It shouldnít be this easy."

The gain structure defies the Fender amp volume control model Ė on the Origin 20, the gain and volume controls come up smoothly throughout their ranges. This can be contrasted to modern Fender models where the volume jumps ups and you start getting blown away at nine oíclock on the knob. Iíve heard that Fender uses linear taper volume pots so that the volume pops up like that. The thought is that in a guitar store, an inexperienced player will say, "If it is this loud at nine oíclock, can you imagine what it will be like at three?"

Not this amp. The Origin 20 really wants you to wind in some gain before it even wakes up. Here's how the Gain and Volume control interact: With both of the dials at nine oíclock the amp is quite tame. With both at twelve oíclock the amp is pretty and clean. Push up one of the two to two oíclock and things start getting interesting Ė brighter and more chimey. Push up the volume (power amp) to five oíclock and bring up the gain past one oíclock and you get lovely, muscular power amp distortion, instant swagger. I really like this sound Ė it is classic 1970s Marshall crunch sound. Think Paul Kossov and Free and the song, "Alright Now." You may want to pull back the Tilt control a little for Paulís sound. It will get loud, so donít be surprised if you reach for the Powerstem. And something rather nice here: You can freely switch Powerstem modes with no pops or cracks, even with the amp on and working.

Reverse the gain/volume ratio by pulling down the Volume and pushing up the Gain and you get the sound of ECC83/12AX7 distortion. It has a bit more razz but is still smoother than if the amp used diodes to distort. The Origin 20 enters preamp distortion really, really, smoothly and the distortion continues to build up through a long band on the Gain knob. With humbuckers it is possible for the distortion to get quite saturated.

The "Pull Boost" on the Gain knob or pedal boost button adds preamp gain and lower-mids. For Les Paul leads it might end up a little too woofy or muddy but this is the perfect thing to fatten up a brighter, thinner-sounding guitar like a Tele. Just use taste. The boost is highly interactive with the amount of gain and master volume. If you start with a metallic crunchy rhythm sound that isnít oversaturated and kick it in, the effect can be quite nice for lead on either guitar. If your crunch sound is a tad bit saturated, letís just say it wonít get any less saturated.

With a Les Paul, a good alternative to the Gain Boost for lead might be to use a Nobels ODR-1 (Mini) pedal. You donít need much gain from the pedal, so you donít really enter its diode-based clipping. You just add more volume and use the spectrum control to handle the lower-mid bloom. When handled properly, the sound doesnít get so tubby. However, my favorite lead sounds with this amp involve a Barber Tone Press parallel compressor. It doesnít require that you gain up the amp to the muddy range or push the Volume up too loud to get singing sustain. You can get the singing sustain of a wound-up amp with the cleaner tone of a backed off amp. There are two factors: cooking the tubes with an additional gain stage allows more gentle gain, and gentle use of the compressor allows you to tame the "rip your head off" transients and get singing sustain. You can actually play louder if you donít have to worry about the face-ripping transients.

The ampís "Tilt" control is a really useful feature Ė it isnít just a high-end roll-off. It is accomplished by blending between two different coupling capacitor values, with the same effect as blending the bright and normal channels on a four-hole Marshall. It is quite musical, which is probably why musician's figured out that technique in the first place. It is also useful to handle the differences between single-coil and humbucker guitars and different speaker systems. The EQ section consists of Bass, Middle, and Treble. The Bass and Treble are effective throughout the gain range. You can tame any brightness with the Treble and take out any flub with the Bass control. The Bass also comes in handy to beef up a single-coil brige pickup. The Middle control is fairly useful when the amp is clean but progressively loses definition as you gain up. Of course the Presence control, which lives in the power amp stage, does exactly what it is supposed to, controlling the high-end feedback to make the high-end either more or less under control and present.

Your guitarís volume control really can be wound back while in a distorted sound in order to clean things up, like you can on a classic Plexi Marshall. Many master volume or channel-switching amps and pedals claim this characteristic and donít deliver nearly as well but it is really true here in spades. Perhaps it is due to the cathode bias power scheme. Back in the Ď50s, the cathode bias scheme was considered "No way to run a railroad" and only for cheap amps, but the beloved Fender 5E3 Tweed Deluxe uses this scheme with 6V6 tubes and it also serves well in this context. Just like this amp, the 5E3 is known for being able to clean up with the turn of the guitar volume control without the sound going dark.

Power Levels, Sound Pressure Levels, and Tone changes From Powerstem
With the Powerstem set at the lowest one-half watt setting and playing a driven rhythm sound, the amp is still loud. We are talking "My wife retreats into her craft room with the door closed" loud. Prossibly more than bedroom loud. At three watts the amp could drive you out of a large living room (mine is thirty feet by nineteen by sixteen). At twenty watts it will do fine in front of a band unless you want absolutely clean tones and have a loud drummer. But this IS a Marshall after all, and loves even a tad bit of distortion.

The amp is full-voiced and has a resonalble amount of bottom-end at twenty watts. At three watts you lose a good chunk of the bottom end, some lower-midrange, and dynamics. At one-half watt there is virtually no bottom end, much less lower-mid, and less dynamics. There is no surprise here Ė you are moving far less air than you would with the power amp maxed out, so the bottom end falls off. However, the gain character of the amp doesnít change as you drop the power output. Other than the low-end roll-off and loudness, the character stays the same.

Looking upwards at the rear panel

In the Loop
The rear panel loop jacks can be switched in and out with the footswitch. There is little to no noise in my example when switching and no sound dropout. I ran the Catalinbread Belle Epoch Deluxe in the loop and it sounded great. I did notice a drop in level with the pedal engaged that, of course, caused the power amp distortion to drop. Iíll have to tweak the pedalís record level and see if I can better match the ampís levels. However, I put a Neunaber Stereo Wet Reverb in the loop and there was no level change at all with it engaged.

Speaker Experiments
Everyone has been saying that this amp sounds fuller and bassier when you plug it into a Celestion twelve-inch speaker rather than the internal ten-incher, so I thought I would give it a try. While I don't have a Celestion-loaded cab, I do have a 1996 Marshall JTM60 open-back combo that sports a Marshall-branded Celestion Vintage G12 Heritage speaker, so I hooked it up to the Origin and gave it a try. Surprisingly, I found that when the amplifier was driven, the G12 was brighter and more brash when compared to the ten-inch V Junior in the Origin 20. There was actually less bass available from the G12 than from the Origin's V Junior. That was a surprise. I played and played and just found that the Vintage 12 made everything more raspy. When I went back to the internal V Junior I found the sound to be far more pleasing to my ear Ė the top end and upper mids were pulled in a little to give a smoother sound and there was a bit of compression that I liked as well.

Next, I plugged into the Jensen 12" "Special Design" speaker in my Fender Deluxe Reverb Reissue. I found that speaker to be far more pleasant to my ear than the Celestion Vintage 12 in my JTM60, for both clean and driven playing. It was just smoother and prettier, if you will. When I returned to the internal ten-inch Celestion in the Origin 20, it sounded a little more rounded and midrange-focused and was more compressed than the Jensen.

And then, because I couldnít leave well enough alone, I decided to try the amp with my ancient Hammond Tone Cabinet cutdown. This is a 2x12 that my father and I cut down from a 1930s Hammond 4x12 tone cabinet. You can read more about that cab, HERE, and get the specifics. This cab is loaded with a pair of twelve-inch re-coned Fender pulls from the Ď60s. It is deeper front-to-back than most guitar cabs and is an infinite baffle design with a port to the rear. WOW! This is where the Marshall shined. On clean sounds this cab had the smoothest, fullest, and deepest sound of them all. When run clean, the ampís initial transients were tamed nicely. When you punched up the distortion it stayed smooth and pretty and any nasty insect-attracting overtones were rounded off. The little Marshall turned out to be the best-sounding amp Iíve ever played through the cab in the nearly fifty years Iíve had it.

Ah, fun experiments. In the end I came away quite satisfied with the little ten-inch Celestion V-Junior. But here is a fun fact: When I have built Marshall presets on the Line 6 Helix and have had access to many-IR based cabs, I have ended up choosing the "1x12 US Deluxe" cab model, captured from a Fender Deluxe with an Oxford speaker. I've done so for exactly the same reasons that I discovered with these experiments: I find American open-back cabs to be smoother, prettier, and not as "bratty" as the twelve-inch Celestions cabs Iíve encountered. This is my preference, and is part of the "special sauce" that Iíve applied to my Line 6 Helix Marshall models for a while. Iíd forgotten all about this when I started these speaker experiments with the Origin.

There is no standby switch on this amplifier. Truth be told, Iíve learned that standby switches are unnecessary in guitar amps and can possibly cause more damage than they prevent. Still and all, the absence of a standby switch requires a little getting used to. In exchange, Marshall fitted the amp with regular, stout metal toggle switches that I find far more satisfying than the lighted rocker switches on modern Marshalls. I'm not sure why.

There are no status LEDs on the amp for pull boost or the loop, but the included footswitch does have them, and they are nice and bright. Without the pedal plugged in, the loop doesnít engage. With the pedal plugged in, the pull boost function on the control panel is cancelled and you must use the pedal's boost switch. You can work without the pedal by inserting an empty 1/4" plug, which will turn both on. If you wire tip to sleeve on the plug it turns off the boost. If you wire ring to sleeve it turns off the loop. Of course, you could also make up a little box that has switches for each. Um, thatís what the footswitch does, isnít it?

The access space in the back is rather cramped, between the rear panels and the rather nice screen meant to keep your fingers from being burned on hot components. When plugging a cord into one of the jacks on the back, it probably makes sense to turn the plug sideways, put your hand into the slot between the panels, turn the plug back vertically, and plug in. That way, the section of cord with the strain relief doesn't catch on the lower panel and make aiming hard.

The included ownerís "quick start" flier is a fold-out, one-sheet, four-language, minimalist affair. If you try to read the PDF at Marshall's site youíll see that the English text appears upside down in Adobe Reader due to the folding requirements. Okay, trying not to be too anglophone-centric: you can rotate the sheet in Adobe. But I remember when Marshall seemed prouder of their products and put out a proper glossy manual with a welcome message from Jim Marshall himself. Wait a tick: with a bit of poking around I was able to find another, nicer manual, apparently an earlier edition, on another site. It is English-only but the info is the same as the other and it is easier on the eyes. Iíve hosted it here on the site, so you can now find it HERE and print it out for yourself. Just set your printer to print two pages per sheet and you can cut it down to an eight-page, half-sheet sized manual.

And because modern audiences are accustomed to an audible example, here is an excellent YouTube demo video by Brett Kingman:

Video notes: This is a really good demonstration with recognizable guitars. Brett does make a couple of factual mistakes, saying that the PowerStem halves and quarters the wattage (nope: 20, 3, 1/2 watt) and that the speaker is a "10 watt, 30 watt Celestion V speaker" when it is actually a 50 watt, 10 inch Celestion V Junior Speaker. No problem. He was keeping the videoís tempo up, which makes it easy to listen to, and misspoke. He has a sense of humor that makes me laugh. Note that his early example (2019) exhibits a sound dropout while switching the loop in and out. My current one does not. In his separate unboxing video of the amp he expresses his appreciation by saying that he doesnít think the amp wonít be leaving his home, despite it being an evaluation example sent over by Marshall Australia. Interesting. In the comments for that video he says, "Unboxing vids: The most trivial of all video types ... although unsurprisingly popular in this world obsessed with vacuity." Once again, he made me laugh.

If you want to make stuff dance around on all the tables in the room or make the windows visibly bow in and out from sheer sound pressure levels, this probably isnít the amplifier for you. What you want is a 100 watt JMP 1959 with a 4x12 cab. And hearing protection. And forgiving neighbors. And a large auditorium, if you really want to open it up. For that matter, if you want to do modern metal, this is probably not the amp for you. The gain is probably too low for you.

But I am highly impressed with this amplifier; far more than I have been with any amp for a while. Marshall set out to deliver their classic sound in a smaller, lighter, high-quality, upscale-feeling package with lower wattage and lower sound pressure levels. I think they pulled it off admirably. It looks great, it feels great, and it sounds great. Pardon me if I have been unusually enthusiastic in this review but I guess it shows how truly impressed I really am with the Marshall Origin 20 amplifier.

Type: Single channel master control amp
Power: 20 watts
Preamp Tubes: 3xECC83/12AX7
Power amp Tubes: 2x EL34
Bias Scheme: Cathode Biased
Power Scaling: Powerstem technology offers 20, 3, and 1/2 watt, selectable on the front panel
Speaker: 10" 50 watt Celestion V Junior
Controls: Gain, Tilt, Bass, Middle, Treble, Volume, Brilliance, Power Choice, Mains Power
Inputs: 1x1/4" guitar
Outputs: 2x8ohm external speaker out, 1x16ohm internal speaker out, Emulated DI out
Loop: Series, accessed by two 1/4" jacks on rear panel
Footswitch: Included, Boost and Effects Loop in and out with LED indicators, connects to 1/4" tip/ring/sleeve jack on back panel
Power cable: Standard IEC with integrated fuse box
Weight: 30.6 pounds
Dimensions" 16.5" H x 20.4" W x 9.4" D
Country of Manufacture: Vietnam

Here is where I typically place a link to the manufacturer's page for the product. Marshall has recently had a website update and in the process have managed to hide much of the useful info on their page. It is there, so I'll post it anyway.


You might find a bit more useful, organized presentation (at least for humans) here: