Marshall DSL40C Combo Amp Review
The Marshall DSL40C
If you’ve been anywhere near an electric guitar during the past fifty years you know Marshall. It’s one of the most iconic guitar brands on the planet, and the roar of Marshall tube amps has fueled rock music since the sixties.
Jimi Hendrix played through a Marshall. Eddie Van Halen played through one in the early days. Jeff Beck. Yngwie Malmsteen. AC/DC. Slayer. Slash. Early Metallica.
The names go on to outline a who’s who of rock and metal over the past several decades. It becomes clear that more legendary guitar players rely on Marshall amps than don’t, and it isn’t long before you begin to wonder if you should be playing one too.
So you do a little hopeful investigation, and you discover that the Marshall rig your big-name guitar hero plays through costs thousands of dollars. It’s surely worth it if you have the funds, but many up-and-coming guitar players simply don’t.
You can go with an affordable MG-series Marshall. These are solid-state amps and, frankly, pretty darned good for the price. But that Marshall tone is about valves, what we on the western side of the pond call tubes. If you are after that legendary sound, you need an amp that glows in the dark.
You’re in luck. The DSL40C is an all-valve 1x12 combo amp based on the Dual Super Lead design. It’s affordable, versatile, powerful enough for a band situation and subtle enough for home use. Most importantly, it nails that Marshall roar.
After some research and soul searching I decided the DSL40C was the right amp for me, and eventually I brought one home. In this article I’ll outline how and why I came to that decision, and what I’ve discovered since.
Note: Marshall now has an updated version of this amp, called the . It features a few upgrades, most notably (to me) a Master Volume function. When I played it I thought it was comparable to the older DSL, but I did like the master volume quite a bit. DSL40CR
The rest of this article will focus on the DSL40C, which you can still find. You'll want to compare it to the newer model before you make your decision.
DSL40C vs Competitors
While Marshall tone has become a staple in rock music, for me it hasn’t always been so clear cut. Like most guitarists, I’ve always loved the British guts and grit that is the hallmark of their sound. But I also fell in love with the American high-gain sound many decades ago. And who can resist the sweet overdrive of a Fender tube amp? Sometimes not me, anyway.
So when I was looking for a tube combo amp under $1000 the DSL40C wasn’t exactly a no-brainer. I had a few competitors to consider:
Peavey 6505+ 112
I love this amp, and it was a tough choice between it and the Marshall. I played through 5150s (the predecessor of the Peavey 6505 Series) back when I was in bands, and the Peavey high-gain sound is, in my opinion, extreme metal heaven. Every time I’ve ever played through the 6505 combo I walked away thinking, “I need this amp!”
While I may yet add one to my collection, this time out I was looking for something more versatile. I always argue the 6505 is a versatile amp, but in some ways, it falls short. For example, you’re not going to get glossy clean sounds out of a 6505.
It was a tough call, but I went with the British valve sound over the American tube sound. This time, anyway.
Update: I eventually had to get the Peavey as well. I wrote about it in my Peavey 6505+ Combo Review.
Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III
This is another amp I really love, and another version of the American tube sound. I’ve owned one before, and it was a terrific combo amp for blues and rock. When it came to comparing the DSL40C vs the Hot Rod Deluxe, I seriously considered the Fender.
Fenders are known for their gorgeous clean tone and rich, creamy overdrive. You’ll certainly get that here, but the Hot Rod series also gives you a little extra punch. It’s not nearly a high-gain amp but certainly gets you into respectable hard-rock territory. To go further, you’re gonna need a distortion pedal.
And that’s really why I ruled out the Fender. I expected to use pedals with my Marshall (more on that later) but not to completely change the character of the amp. For a lot of heavier rock I play, that’s what I would have had to do.
On the other hand, if I were playing only blues or rock that required that slight-push-into-overdrive sound, the Fender could well have been my choice.
Blackstar HT Club 40
The HT Club 40 was kind of a dark horse. The amp sounds amazing. Warm cleans and crunchy British overdrives, and simple but effective controls. It’s powerful enough for bands and gigging, controllable enough for the home practice space and very affordable. In fact, it’s the least expensive of any of the amps I considered.
I can only say I compared the DSL40C and the HT Club 40 side by side and I liked the Marshall a bit better. However, you may come to a different conclusion. The Blackstar is a very good amp, and I do suggest checking one out.
Features and Specs
I chose the DSL40C over the other amps because I felt like it best fit my needs. I was looking for a tube combo that I could use at home but also had enough power to jam with a drummer or perform with a band. I wanted strong clean tones, excellent overdrive and the potential for high-gain sounds. I wanted to be able to plop it on top of a 2x12 or 4x12 cabinet if I ever had the urge, and I wanted an amp that handles pedals well.
Obviously that’s what I think I’ve got here, and here are some of the specs and features that explain why.
The DSL40C is a 40-watt combo powered by a pair of EL34 valves along with a single ECC83. The preamp features a trio of ECC83s. The speaker is a single 12-inch Celestion Seventy-80.
From left to right, front panel controls are:
- Input: Plug your guitar in here. You know this.
- Gain, Clean/Crunch switch and Volume controls for the Classic Gain channel: The DSL40C is a two-channel amp, but it’s really kind of a four-channel amp. The first channel is Classic Gain, which is more reminiscent of early Marshall valve amps. For most players, this is the channel where you set up your clean tone. The Gain control warms up your sound, and kicking in the Crunch switch will get into a nice, sweet overdrive.
- Channel Select: Switches you between Classic and Ultra channels, but the amp also comes with a sturdy footswitch that makes changing channels a whole lot easier.
- Gain, Lead 1/Lead 2 switch and Volume controls for the Ultra Gain channel: This channel is where all that searing Marshall distortion tone takes shape. Like the Classic channel, it offers two distinct options for shaping your sound. With Lead 1 engaged you can dial in some powerful heavy-rock distortion. Switch over to Lead 2 for extreme high-gain sounds.
- Equalisation: Or equalization, for those of us on the side of the ocean where we call a valve a tube. The EQ section is shared between both channels, but it is pretty flexible. You’ve got your basic three-band treble, middle, bass setup, along with a Tone Shift switch that scoops out the mids, and Presence and Resonance controls. For me, the Presence and Resonance controls are a big positive. Presence manages the top-end sizzle in your sound, where Resonance controls the guttural thump. I like an amp with that extra bit of flexibility.
- Reverb for Classic and Ultra Gain channels: Both channels feature a dedicated digital reverb control. You can also switch reverb on and off via the footswitch.
- Standby and Power switches: Mains power on/off plus a Standby switch for keeping those valves hot when you need to change the battery in your chorus pedal.
From left to right, rear panel controls are:
- Mains Input: Plug in the power cord here.
- Pentode/Triode Switch: The DSL40C features the ability to switch between the full 40-watts of power, to half-power at 20 watts. After fiddling with this a bit, I’ve found I prefer to leave the amp at full power. It sounds beefier, and the volume is really not so overwhelming that I feel like I need to cut power in half.
- FX Loop: Send and return jacks, plus a switch for turning the loop on and off.
- Footswitch Jack: Plug in the footswitch here. It's a rugged little box, and it seems like it could certainly stand up to some abuse.
- Speaker Outputs: Obviously, as a 1x12 combo this amp comes with its very own speaker. However, if the mood hits you, you have the option to plug it into an extension cabinet, or use another speaker altogether.
DSL40C Sound and Settings
Let me get to a few common questions right off the bat:
- Does it really sound like a Marshall should? You betcha.
- Is the DSL40 good for metal? Yup. More on how I dial in high-gain sounds in a bit.
- Does it have a good clean sound? Sure does.
- Is it loud enough to play in a band? Oh yeah, especially with the option of adding a cabinet.
- If it a good amp for home use? For hobby players like me, yes. But it’s not a practice amp. This is a big-boy amp. If you want a similar amp with less firepower you might consider the DSL15C.
You can listen to sound clips, and you should definitely check out the official Marshall demo, but here’s an explanation of how I’m setting up the amp so far. Bear in mind this could change in the future. I’ve been using the amp mainly with my ’16 Gibson Les Paul Studio Faded and ’03 Fender Hwy One Strat with Texas Specials.
The Classic channel is my clean channel. Crunch switch disengaged, gain at about half. Easy enough. It’s warm and thick with both guitars. On this channel, with low gain, the amp seems to bring out the nuances in the tone of each instrument. This is what you want in a clean sound.
Marshall High Gain
Where my setup on the Classic channel was easy-peasy from note one, the Ultra Gain channel required a little thought. It would be great to be able to switch from Lead 1 to Lead 2 with the footswitch, but no such luck. So, since I play a lot of metal and hard rock, I went straight to Lead 2.
As for the EQ, that took a little experimentation, and shifting my thinking out of that scooped metal tone box I’ve apparently been in for twenty years. Currently, I have it dialed in with the treble and bass around 7-8, presence at 7 and resonance at 8. I’ve found the mid, which I typically would back off to half or less, is the key to getting a gutsy sound out of this amp. Marshall may want to rename it “Growl” instead of Middle. I’ve been experimenting with it at anywhere from 6 to 10.
There is a lot of distortion here, so much so that when you turn the Gain control past about two o’clock things start to get a little fuzzy. Whether this is bad or good is up to your personal taste. With the mids scooped I was getting sounds that reminded me of ‘90s-era death metal.
However, I was also really loving the tone with the gain backed off a bit, which gets me that Van Halen / AC/DC / Guns n’ Roses / borderline early-Metallica heavy rock Marshall sound. I had to choose.
What to do?
For a solution I turned to an old friend: my Ibanez Tube Screamer. For those who don’t know, the Tube Screamer was the weapon of choice for metalheads back in the ‘80s, and many players still rely on it today.
It’s a pedal that, by itself, produces some outstanding, rich overdrive. It’s great for blues and lighter rock. However, many players found that sticking it in front of a tube amp pushed the amp harder, and tightened up the sound.
You definitely don’t need a pedal to get metal sounds out of the DSL40C. It has plenty of gain to spare. But using it has enabled me to grab those heavy rock sounds I wanted, plus high-gain tones. As an added bonus I can kick it in on with the clean channel for a little bluesy overdrive.
Marshall's DSL40C Demo
I’m pretty happy with this amp, and expect it, along with my 6505, to be my go-to rigs for years to come. It's perfect for my home practice studio, and if I ever find myself in a band again I know it will do the job.
Still, there are a couple of things I’d change about it:
- It would be nice if the footswitch had the ability to switch the Clean/Crunch on the Classic channel, and the Lead 1/Lead 2 on the Ultra channel. This would give you four working sounds: two on each channel. You can set up four distinct sounds easy enough. You just can’t switch between them all.
- The reverb is somewhat weak. I don’t use a lot of reverb, so it’s not a huge issue for me, but it would still be nice to have a little more depth here.
- Is the shared EQ a problem? Honestly, I haven’t had an issue with it so far. You’re dialing in a Marshall tone no matter what you do with each channel, so I’m finding the same basic EQ settings work globally. Some players may think differently.
In a perfect world, I’d have the Marshall DSL40C, Peavey 6505+ 112 and Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III lined up in a row in my practice area. Right now I have two of them, and you can check out my Marshall DSL40 vs Peavey 6505 Combo comparison. Maybe someday I'll complete the trio, but when I bought my Marshall I had to make a choice, and I think I made the right one. It can handle any kind of music I throw at it, which I can’t quite say about the other amps.
I suggest checking one out. Especially if you are a fan of that legendary Marshall tone, the DSL40C is hard to beat.