Hands-On Review:Epiphone Boutique Valve Amps


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All-tube, all-tone, all the time

By Jimmy Nichols

 

Epiphone Boutique Valve Amps

Real tone knows no hype—either an amp has it or it doesn’t. I evaluate guitar amplifiers with one very simple question in mind: Do I like the way this sounds? That’s the very first—and often only—question I ask myself about any amp. I plug in, juice the gain a bit, flatten the EQ, then hit a big fat power chord and let it ring. That’s my personal gut check for guitar amps. You probably have your own.

 

I gave the Epiphone Valve Junior Head, Blues Custom 30 combo, and So Cal 50 stack the same treatment when they arrived on my doorstep. Not only did all three of these all-tube beauties pass my tests with flying colors, but each also possessed a completely individual sonic character that delivered lots of valve-flavored fun. The cherry on top is they look really cool, too.

 

My favorite toy

 

Remember when you were a kid and had lots of toys but there was always one that was just more fun? It effortlessly occupied your attention for hours on end. That’s the Valve Junior Head. Its cornucopia of Class A tones had me grinning like a seven-year-old again. I plugged it into an array of cabinets and each time it gave up the goods. So what are the goods? For starters, how about thick, rich tube tone to rival any guitar amp you’ve ever heard? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. First things first—and introductions are in order.

 

The 5W Valve Junior Head is based on the popular Valve Junior combo, introduced by Epiphone back in 2005. As the story goes the birth of the Valve Junior Head occurred during a business trip to the Epiphone amp factory by the Musician’s Friend amp buyer. Talking with the Gibson execs about possible new products, he suggested they take the circuitry from the Valve Junior and put it in a head form. The next day a prototype was assembled and sculpted into a screaming real-tube gem.

 

Covered in black Tolex with a red Tolex front set off by white piping, the small and light Valve Junior is a model of vintage-styled simplicity. Its cream front panel has one input, one chicken-head knob for volume control, and a power switch. Around back you’ll find the AC power cord jack and three speaker jacks for 4-ohm, 8-ohm, and 16-ohm output. A black grille gives you a peek into the inner chamber, but it’s not very exciting. All you’ll see is a set of tubes—a 12AX7 and an EL84—and the power transformer.

 

Play time

 

Operating the Valve Junior is simple. More volume—gain from the 12AX7—results in less headroom for the power section—the EL84—so you get more distortion. With the 16-ohm So Cal 412 cab, the Valve Junior delivered full-bodied clean tones at low volumes and outrageous distortion with a thick midrange as I cranked it up. Plugged into a 4-ohm, ported 2x12" cabinet using custom-designed drivers, the clean tones had a gorgeous, vibrant sparkle that contributed to sinewy, full-range sonics when I turned up the volume for some distortion.

 

Besides potent tone, there are three things about the Valve Junior Head that I really loved. First of all, it rules for practicing and playing guitar around the house. I’ve got two amps I love that I rarely get to play at home because they’re both too loud. They’re not big amps—a 45W tube head and a 15W, 12" tube combo—but you have to turn them up to get any real tone. Not with the Valve Junior. At even minimal volumes it sounds great. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by how loud it could get. The secret is giving it enough speakers, and with a 4x12" cab I’d happily play any bar gig. The third aspect I was thrilled with was its sensitivity. This head defines the term touch sensitivity for a guitar amp. Even with the volume turned way up, I could back off the volume on my guitar and pick lightly to get nice-’n’-loud clean sounds. Turn up, dig in, and you’ll get all the distortion you could ever want.

 

 

Share and share alike

I’d be remiss in my duties as a fellow guitarist and gear reviewer if I didn’t mention the other two Epi amps I spent time with. While the Valve Junior is tonally flexible, the Blues Custom 30 and So Cal 50 deliver true sonic versatility. As its name implies, the Blues Custom 30 is all about tone custom-crafted for blues, rock, and roots music. The tube rectifier combines with the tube bias, two custom-designed 12" Eminence Lady Luck speakers, and a semi-open back cabinet to deliver vintage sag and smooth tones. Channel one emits punchy, brilliant clean sounds and channel two pumps up the gain for rich distortion and screaming overdrive, perfect for powerful leads. It generates 30 Class AB watts in standard mode, but a half-power switch on the back puts it in 15W Class A mode for less headroom at lower volumes. Like the Valve Junior, the Blues Custom sports some very classy vintage threads for an unmistakable air of cool.

 

The So Cal 50 is the most modern-looking one in the bunch. It’s got a satin metal face plate, round knobs instead of chicken-heads, and a black grille showing off the row of five 12AX7s and two EL34s that give life to this 50W beast. Atop the matching 412 cab, it’s an imposing sonic powerhouse full of vibrant clean sounds and raging distortion tones ready to rock any club or garage. With its impressive lineup of features—switchable 50W/25W circuits, clean and lead channels, presence, contour and gain on lead channel, tube-powered reverb, and switchable independent/interactive 3-band EQ—it’s got more than enough flexiblity to satisfy any rock player. No matter if you’re into thick and chunky power chords, searing lead sounds, or cutting clean sounds, the So Cal 50 has got them and with punchy tube tone. If you’re ready for a tube amp that delivers on the promise of great guitar tone, you’re ready for an Epiphone Valve Series amp.

 

Valve Junior Head:

  • All-tube circuitry
  • 5W, single-ended Class A operation
  • 1 - 12AX7, 1 EL34
  • Single input and volume knob

So Cal 50 Head:

  • All-tube circuitry
  • 50W/25W Class AB switchable
  • 5 - 12AX7 preamp tubes
  • 2 EL34 power tubes
  • Clean/Lead channels
  • Contour knob and gain control for channel 2
  • Presence knob
  • Independent/interactive EQ switch
  • Tube-powered reverb
  • Solid-state rectifier

So Cal 412SL Cabinet:

  • 4 - 12" Lady Luck Eminence speakers
  • 280W handling
  • 11-ply birch cab
  • Vinyl covering
  • Recessed bar handles
  • Reinforced corners

Blues Custom 30 Combo:

  • All-tube circuitry
  • 30W Class AB/15W Class A switchable
  • 5 - 12AX7 preamp tubes
  • 2 - 5881 power tubes
  • 5AR4 tube rectifier
  • Clean/Lead channels
  • Contour knob and gain control for channel 2
  • Independent/interactive EQ switch
  • Tube-powered reverb
  • 2 - 12" Eminence Lady Luck speakers