Hands-On Review:Jet City PicoValve

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A lunchbox tube amp to satisfy a tone glutton's appetite

By Jon Chappell
Senior Editor, Harmony Central


Jet City's PicoValve is what's known as a "lunchbox" amp. The nickname refers to the head's compact  size—it resembles the kind of pail those of a certain age once used to haul our  baloney sandwiches to school. The whole concept of the lunchbox amp is  appealing. Its small size and light weight are great attributes for those of us  who've spent decades hauling around heavy tube combos (and worse, heads and  cabs). But this little guy can get cranked without getting you yanked by your  landlord. It's not really loud enough for gigs unless you mic it though the  P.A., but it's fine for rehearsal and perfect for the recording studio.


Jet City Amplification is a new company, but the people behind it are no  rookies. Their amps are designed by long-time friends Michael Soldano and Andy  Marshall (no relation to the British amp company). Soldano is a co-founder of  JCA and was one of the pioneers of the boutique amp movement who went from  modding stars' hardware to having his own line of high-end amplifiers.  Marshall's bona fides come from his work with THD, one of the most innovative  purveyors of tube tone.


The PicoValve produces either 2 or 5 watts of tube goodness and can feed a variety of  cabinets. I tested it with a Jet City JCA12XS cabinet equipped with one 12"  Eminence speaker and a Marshall 1960 4x12 cab loaded with Celestion Greenbacks.  The great thing about the Jet City cab, by the way, is that it's convertible  from an open back to a closed back. The amp's innards are exposed, so you can  see its two 12AX7 and single 6L6 through a sturdy metal cage, which gives easy  access to the tubes (we'll get to why in a minute). A built-in metal handle on  the side makes the amp easy to carry.

Quite a turn-on

The PicoValve is also the essence of operational simplicity: The single-channel amp's front  panel sports controls for Gain, Treble, Middle, Bass, and Master Volume; a  switch that toggles power output between 2 and 5 watts; and the Power and  Standby switches. The controls are nicely spaced, well labeled, and feel like  quality components. The rear panel has a standard grounded power plug connection  and three 1/4" speaker outs: 4, 8, and 16 ohms. This allows the amp to feed just  about any cabinet you're likely to find.


Low-watt amps are great because they reach that much loved power-tube  saturation at reasonable volume, but there's a reason pros don't just use them  miked through a PA. The novelty wears off when you realize that having one great  saturated sound may not be enough to get you though a gig. That's where the  PicoValve separates itself from the usual lunchtime crowd. Its three-band EQ  complements the Gain and Master controls to let you dial in many tonal flavors,  including some pretty tasty clean sounds—especially with the bright switch  engaged in 2-watt mode. Of course, you can get that Wicked-Witch-in-mid-meltdown  scream; but even then, the scream can be dark, bright, grinding, or singing,  depending on how you set the controls on the amp and, just as important, what  guitar you're using to feed it.


With the amp set to 5 watts, I plugged a Telecaster equipped with a neck  humbucker and a vintage stack bridge pickup into a reverb pedal, fed the pedal  into the PicoValve's input, dialed in a borderline crunch sound, and started  jamming. As expected, dialing back the guitar's volume control cleaned up the  sound, and switching pickups and attacks made the tone brighter, warmer, etc.  But then I noticed that when I was full out on the bridge pickup, the reverb  seemed wetter. The effect was different when the neck 'bucker was cranked. The  amp was responding to the hotter, brighter bridge p'up and compressing a little  more in the upper mids. The harder I played, the bigger the sound got; it really  was like having a new set of controls embedded in my fingers.


It's also worth mentioning that the Tele test took place during a full band  rehearsal with drums, bass, a one-man horn section, and harmonica (and boy, was  the harp player jealous). While not loud, the PicoValve held its own and was able to produce "pushed" clean sounds at enough volume to  get through a set of blues and jazz that involved both soloing and comping for  horns, vocals, and harp—and with nary a booster or overdrive pedal in sight.


If you think such subtlety is for sissies, set the amp to 2 watts. The sound  is even more compressed and the crunch comes on faster. Throw a hot humbucker at  the PicoValve and pin both Gain and Master Volume, and you'll sound like you're tearing the  roof off—without actually disturbing so much as a spider's web.


Anyone who's used a tube amp knows that those glowing valves (as the Brits  call them) must be changed every so often. Usually, the replacement tubes must  be of the same type—especially power tubes. However, using circuitry developed  by THD, the PicoValve lets you swap the 6L6 for any other octal power tube that fits the same socket  (such as an EL34) without re-biasing the amp. Swapping is easy. Unplug the  power, pop off the top, change the tubes, and replace the cage. Takes no time.  Power up and rock out.

Blast off

The little Jet City PicoValve has all the mod-retro vibe you'd expect from a 21st-century tube amp, but it's  not just a looker. Its ability to respond to the core tone of every guitar I fed  it helped me wring more nuance out of my instruments and—therefore—performances.  It's quiet enough for studio use, and the working player will love the fact that  it can feed speaker cabs of different impedances. I liked being able to perch  the head on my studio desk and feed a cabinet down the hall for better recording  isolation. This Jet City lunchbox delivers great tone at an incredible price,  and that's a welcome addition to any menu.


Want great all-tube tone in a compact, inexpensive package that's perfect  for low-wattage situations like rehearsals and recording? Then check out Jet  City's PicoValve dual-power lunchbox amp. Your total satisfaction and lowest possible price are  guaranteed with Musician's Friend's Dual Guarantees.