Hand-wired, Point-to-point, PCB....and the winner is?

The terms “hand-wired”, “point-to-point”, “turret board”, “surface mount”, and “PCB” are thrown around so often in the guitar amp community. They are frequently misused and misunderstood. Here we have an explanation to clear the air a bit.

Let’s start by defining these terms:

  • Hand-wired - It is what it sounds like. The components are hand wired together. In theory, any type of build could be hand wired but in practice, the point-to-point and turret board techniques are typically what is being referred to here.
  • Point-to-point wiring - This means each component is directly hand-wired to the next. This is less common than one might think given how often it is used when describing the build of an amplifier. True point-ti-point creates a product that can be difficult to recreate over and over with any sort of accuracy. Also, there is less to protect the circuit in situations where the amp might be dropped or bumped. Furthermore, these can be a rat’s nest to work. There are several brands that do employ point-to-point wiring, but they are definitely the minority in the land of amplifying guitars.
  • Turret Board wiring - The turret board was developed and started being used in the late 30’s to early 40’s as best i can tell. While more expensive than point-to-point wiring, it was also more rugged, easier to service, and easier to reproduce the desired circuit. The method uses turrets that allow each component to be wired together and then mounted to these turrets for increased strength. When you think point-to-point, this is likely what you are actually thinking of. Many boutique amp companies build their products like this. Note that these are still hand-wired!
  • PCB (Printed Circuit Board) - This term refers to a circuit that is laid out on a printed circuit board and then has components loaded onto the board. The components are joined by etched lines on the circuit board and not directly connected to one another. The benefit here is that the circuit can be exactly reproduced over and over with no fear of being a little off. There are plenty of high quality (and very expensive) amps that are built using this method. In itself, there are no drawbacks to this if it is done to a high standard and using good components.
  • Surface Mount - Ok….here is where PCB can go really bad. When components such as pots, switches, or even tube sockets (which can get really hot) are directly mounted to the PCB, all kinds of issues can arise. From a bump cracking a trace on the board to heat causing a trace to lift, there is really nothing good about this method other than it is inexpensive and a huge time saver. You will rarely see this method on higher end amps, but it is everywhere on the lower priced options out there. Longevity is the issue here and they are a pain to work on compared to a turret board.

So…which one sounds the best????

I have to say there is no clear winner here. Despite what many tone hounds may say, there are fantastic examples of each method. I will admit that i am personally a big fan of hand-wired turret board builds, but I can’t say it’s for any tonal reasons. It just happens that some of my favorite amps were built that way. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t be reproduced using a PCB. The only thing I am against in an amp is surface mounted components. Other than that, a great amp is a great amp, regardless of the builder’s preferred method.

November 05, 2020 — Ben Calhoun