To the bass-gear cognoscenti, Massachusetts amp and speaker-cabinet designer Jim Bergantino needs little introduction. After a long and varied career in electrical engineering and professional audio, Bergantino founded bass-focused Bergantino Audio Systems in 2001. Since then, his products have consistently enjoyed a sterling reputation among players (and bass magazine editors) because of their top-shelf materials, durable construction, exceptional engineering, and most important, superb tone. Of the many thought-leaders I’ve been fortunate to befriend and talk shop with over the years, Jim Bergantino has always been among the most passionate and single-minded in his pursuit of sonic excellence.
While Bergantino made its name with a broad range of high-end speaker cabinets, the company took a huge leap forward a few years ago with the B|AMP, a high-tech (by bass amp standards) analog/digital hybrid head that I reviewed in the March ’17 issue of Bass Player. The B|AMP was a notable departure from nearly every other bass head primarily because of its extensive use of digital signal processing (DSP). The DSP allowed Bergantino to implement precise frequency-compensation curves that enabled flat frequency response when the head was paired with Bergantino’s cabinets. Beyond the B|AMP’s “Speaker Profile” function, the digital preamp meant the head could integrate a variety of other features that would be more difficult, costly, or impossible with an analog circuit. The B|AMP was an important milestone in the technological history of bass amps, because it was the first serious and successful implementation of a digital preamp in a pro-quality bass head. Analog-purist opinions aside, the advantages of DSP are legion — as the popularity of state-of-the-art digital hardware from Kemper, Axe-FX, and Line 6 affirm, not to mention the near ubiquity of analog-emulating plug-ins from Universal Audio in almost every serious recording studio.
For some players, the B|AMP may have had one drawback: The user experience is more tech-y than with most other bass heads. Instead of pots, it has rotary encoders. An LCD dominates the front panel. Knobs serve multiple functions and interact with the screen, while programming and patch-saving necessitate a small learning curve. When I was writing the review, I recall thinking that it’d be so cool if Bergantino made a head that offered some of the B|AMP’s superb tone and flexibility, but in a more traditional package. And then along comes the Forté HP. It’s basically the muscle-car variant of the B|AMP — fewer bells and whistles, with a way bigger motor.
Beneath the somewhat conventional exterior of the Forté HP lies the same basic architecture as the B|AMP, i.e., a digital preamp is coupled with a powerful Class D/SMPS module (in this case, an ICEPower 1200AS2). Peeking at the Forté’s clean and well-engineered layout reveals three primary circuit boards, populated mostly with surface-mount components. The preamp board is mounted to the front panel with beefy standoffs and houses all of the digital circuitry. Unlike in most bass amps, a few digital chips can be found inside the Forté, including a Burr Brown A/D/A converter.
The Bergantino’s front panel is exceptionally well designed. Almost every function is clear and well labeled, although the secondary status of the right-hand side’s three indicator LEDs could be more legible. Unlike with the B|AMP, the Forté hides its digital brain behind an analog-style interface: All of the amp’s functions are accessible in real-time via an associated control. I dig the giant master volume knob, and it’s accompanied by LEDs that help achieve appropriate gain staging. In addition to the simple 4-band EQ, the Forté includes variable lowpass and highpass filters — a useful addition for broad-stroke contours on the frequency spectrum’s extreme ends. The frequency center of the bright filter is switchable between 2kHz and 7kHz, while the punch filter offers a 4.5dB boost at 100Hz. The Forté also offers a one-knob variable-ratio compressor (vrc) as well as a drive control that adds more distortion as it’s turned up.
The versatile Forté has even more tricks up its sleeve when it comes to real-world usability. In addition to a ¼" input, a mini aux input is available for play-along practice duties or, in my case, doubling with a synth on a key bass gig. The Forté’s digital brain enables all kinds of cool stuff, particularly the use of an optional rechargeable Bluetooth footswitch that can switch the onboard filters and mute the amp from up to 30 feet away. Also cool is the ability to update and upgrade the firmware via the front-panel USB port — let’s see your vintage tube amp do that! There’s a ton of I/O options, too: In addition to the post-power-amp Speakon outputs, the rear panel has three other ¼" outputs: tuner, an effect send, and a headphone out.
Since the player experience is essentially identical to that of an analog amp, the Forté is easy to get up and running. I simply found the gain setting that worked with my test basses (which included a ’66 Fender Jazz, F Bass BN5, Moollon P-Classic, and a Callowhill MDM 5-string), and then I used the master knob to bring the loud. And loud it was. Paired with my Bergantino HT-322 cabinet, the Forté immediately demonstrated its ungodly power and seemingly limitless headroom. While Class D/SMPS amps of yore sometimes didn’t live up to their on-paper specs, the Forté felt every bit the 1,200-watt amp it claims to be. I cannot imagine a setting that would require swifter and more compliant power delivery on tap. With the tone controls set as flat as possible, I found the Forté to have a dry sonic texture, with exceptional evenness and clarity throughout the frequency spectrum, and laser-sharp transient response. The bass range of my instruments was especially well supported by the Forté’s abundant power reserve, allowing even repetitive B-string slap lines to ring true, clear, and loud. As I also observed with the B|AMP, the Forté’s EQ is thoughtfully voiced and musical, without any nasty phasing artifacts or overly harsh impact at judicious settings. The drive control adds a pleasing grit; at lower settings it can help add a touch of warmth to the amp’s personality, as can the variable lowpass filter, which is almost like a passive bass’s onboard tone control, except on the amp. With its class-leading fidelity and enormous power, the Forté did seem to faithfully convey my basses’ essential tone, even at ludicrously high volumes.
After spending quality time with the Forté, I’ve concluded that it would be a challenge to find a more capable amp for the money, and the opportunity to continuously upgrade as Bergantino designs new firmware ensures it will retain its value over time. While I might not recommend it to players who prefer the grind and syrupy response of tube amps like the Ampeg SVT, it’s an ideal amp for anyone who wants high-fidelity tone bolstered with massive power.
Bergantino Forté HP
Pros Seriously loud and seriously hi-fi; excellent front-panel layout; digital integration
Bottom Line The Forté is like a louder and much simpler iteration of the celebrated B|AMP. It’s well designed, louder than you can ever need, and is as musical an amp as there is.
Power rating 1,200 watts @ 4Ω or 2Ω; 600 watts @ 8Ω
Power amp topology Class D
Power supply Switchmode
Input impedance 1MΩ; aux input, 20kΩ
Outputs Two parallel Speakon speaker, ¼" effect send and return, XLR balanced line out, ¼" headphone
Inputs ¼" instrument, 1/8" aux
Tone controls bass ±10dB @ 65Hz; lo-mid ±10dB @ 250Hz; hi-mid ±10dB @ 1kHz; treble ±10dB @ 3.5kHz; bright +6dB @ 2kHz or +8dB @ 7kHz; punch +4.5dB @ 100Hz
Weight 6.5 lbs
Made in USA