So I’ve owned this amp three years now and it seems to me there are very few in-depth reviews on the internet. There are lots of reviews that will tell you how well made it is, what features it has, and how good it is at replicating Eddie Van Halen’s sounds; but very little available to tell you what it’s actually like to own and gig with.
Most of us don’t want to buy a 5150 III in order to sound exactly like Eddie (at least not all the time…!). We’re interested in buying one because it’s just a damn good rock amp with a proper clean channel – or maybe because it’s the newest incarnation of one of the industry-standard metal amps. For the gigging rock musician it appears to have many of the features of the “ultimate channel switcher”. It also seems to offer build quality and a specialised approach that puts it in contention with £2000 – £3000 amplifiers from Bogner, Soldano (both of which are predominantly PCB-based, like the EVH), Cornford, CAA, Mesa, Diezel – the list goes on… and yet the EVH 100w head can now be bought for under £1000 on the second-hand market, and not much more than that for a new one.
So how does it stack up? Is the build quality only skin-deep? Is it a niche product or is it the flexible muti-genre monster we’ve all been looking for? Is it a metal amp with a clean channel added as an afterthought, or is it one of the best-value channel switchers on the market? That’s what we really want to know about this amp.
I won’t go into detail here as the information is available all over the internet. You can find out everything you need to know about what this amp does just by looking at it. There are three channels, each with identical controls (gain, bass, middle, treble, presence, volume), there is a great FX loop, and there is no master volume. This is the biggest flaw with the amp’s functionality in my opinion; a quick volume adjustment at a gig will mean adjusting three volume controls and making sure they all match. On the other hand, many amps have a master volume control that only sounds it’s best at the top end of its range (Soldano Decatone and Marshall JVM to name just two) – so for the best tone you would end up using the channel volumes anyway on these amps. I would rather have no master volume than one that sucks tone or is picky about settings – but still, plenty of manufacturers have managed to execute the design perfectly and it would make the amp so much more practical.
The initial impression from this amp is that it’s built as well as the best. The feel of all the controls is smooth and weighty, fit and finish is exemplary, and none of the pots or jacks have become loose or scratchy even after three years of regular use – so that’s a good sign. It seems to have the same attention to detail that Soldano put into their amps, and it has a very similar feel to all the controls. You have to look very closely to realise that the front grille is slightly flexible (the stripes help it to hold its shape) and it has a gap of around 3mm along its top edge. Also the small block of wood into which the centre screw locates is slightly off centre. My only other gripe is that you have to be careful when removing the chassis for servicing – the control panel is painted gloss white and although the finish is deep and rich, it can flake from the very edges quite easily if it isn’t treated with the greatest care.
Still – the fact I have to look this closely to find clues that it isn’t a £2000 – £3000 amp probably suggests it’s built rather well – and it certainly is. All the jacks – including the ones which don’t get used very often – are a high quality metal type and feel very positive in use. The corner protectors are tough and neatly attached, and the matt black finish on these and the handles is resilient. The whole thing is held together with ordinary, tough, well seated Philips head screws so you can take it to bits, replace worn out parts and put it back together and it will feel as tight as when it left the factory – good for long-term use.
The footswitch is made of a very thick gauge of steel (almost twice as thick as that used on Marshall’s footswitches) so damaging it during ordinary use is unlikely. The chassis is built to a similar standard and the custom transformers are extremely large and heavy. The whole amp is about the heaviest I have ever lifted – which is a drawback when it comes to gigging but if it’s built this well that’s a price I’m more than willing to pay. The tubes are mounted in metal sockets directly onto the top of the chassis so they can be removed and installed without worries about flexing the circuit board. The whole amp feels built to withstand a lifetime of use in the real world of gigs, maintenance and tweaking.
Channel 1 (green):
This is the clean channel and it’s made by Fender so as you’d expect it performs very well. This amp does not have the right power amp or speaker configuration to provide the very best in Fender Super or Twin clean tones and there are a handful of channel switchers that have achieved a better compromise. Ultimately though, it sounds big, bold, very clean, and just sparkly and compressed enough for most purposes. The best clean sounds are achieved with the channel volume maxed, the gain control used as a volume control, and fairly conservative EQ settings – but this channel has a lot of scope and with (or without) your favourite chorus or compressor it can deliver convincing clean sounds that would be at home in almost any style of music.
The dirty side of this channel is a bit of an oddity. I’ve heard rumours that this channel was based on Eddie’s favourite Bassman and when it breaks up, that’s certainly how it sounds. For me I’d prefer a touch more clarity and squash to the breakup; and the channel doesn’t really become fluid, compressed or sparkly enough for a really good overdriven blues or country tone until the amp is seriously loud. I find myself underwhelmed by these tones at all but the loudest gigs – where the amp comes alive.
Finally, the clean channel has an awful lot of distortion available with the gain knob maxed. Many reviewers have described this as “AC/DC” territory, but I would not. To me it sounds more like a Bassman on the edge of meltdown. It responds beautifully to Strats and Teles but can get a little fuzzy with humbuckers. Once again, when the amp is seriously loud this setting opens up and responds incredibly well to picking dynamics and volume knob manipulation.
Channel 2 (blue):
This is Eddie Van Halen’s core tone live, and that describes it perfectly. It’s not quite the sound of his Marshall on the first six albums but it’s not far off. It has all the right characteristics, along with a slightly tighter, more modern feel and very low noise. This channel doesn’t really start to feel good to play until around halfway on the gain dial which is what most people would describe as “modded JCM800” territory gain-wise. The sound from this point onwards is simply up there with the very best modded Marshalls in the world. Sustain is effortless, the bottom end is rich and visceral, the mids burn and sing, and the top end is cutting and defined without ever being harsh. String to-string definition is reminiscent of a Soldano – as reviewers are so fond of saying, it’s “like having a separate amp for each string”.
Once again, this channel thrives on volume and it doesn’t really begin to take on the feel and warmth of a real old Marshall until it’s at full-on gig volume. Before this point it can feel a little choked or flat under the fingers. Although it cleans up well from all settings, it doesn’t become really sensitive to dynamics until it’s seriously loud. The trade off is that unlike many amps, it keeps getting more dynamic the louder it gets – without becoming noisy, uncontrollable or blooming into feedback too easily. It’s easy to forget that 100 watt tube guitar amps were designed for big stages, so one way or another they will all sound better loud.
This channel has been criticised by some players for not having enough gain; and while it is true that the most distorted modded Marshall sounds are beyond its grasp, it responds incredibly well to a clean booster at the input if you do feel the need to tip it over the edge. Stock, the gain maxed equates to a Van Halen II or Fair Warning type of gain structure, so if you’re looking for a little bit more you’ll either need to add a booster or flip over to channel three. This makes the blue channel arguably too low in gain if you were planning to use it for metal rhythms – depending on the output of your guitar you may need to use the red channel and find another way to boost your solos.
My main criticism of this channel is that it doesn’t sound so good at lower gain settings – it can feel a little restricted. In practice it’s much better to run the gain above halfway and clean it up from the guitar. This leaves something of a gulf between channels one and two unless you are adept at manipulating the guitar volume pot and/or a booster pedal to find your “in-between” sounds.
Channel 3 (red):
This is a modern take on the high gain sound found in the Peavey 5150 and 5150ii (and 6505 and 6505+). It’s Eddie’s take on the Soldano sound but with the guts and grind of a good Marshall. I would describe this particular iteration as owing a smidgen more to the smooth, eloquent Soldano overdrive than the older 5150 circuits do. But the difference is not so great that you’d notice unless you had all three generations side-by-side. In practice, most died-in-the-wool 5150 enthusiasts will probably find this channel a bit lower in noise and a shade smoother for lead playing than the older models – which, if anything, are the only things they were lacking anyway.
This is simply one of the all-time great high-gain sounds. The bottom end on this channel is so huge and immediate it’s almost as though an octaver is following your every move on the low strings. There is a jump in low-end resonance compared to the blue channel – not enough to sound out of place, but enough to add serious depth of soundstage to your high gain sounds. The distortion itself is rich, touch sensitive, and blooms into harmonic feedback so easily (even at relatively low volumes) that the less experienced player might find this channel uncontrollable. Yet the noise floor is remarkably low and the amp feels tight behind all that liquid gain. The experienced high gain player will find this amp punchy and aggressive at all gain settings without ever being flubby, mushy or harsh. This channel manages to balance fluidity with incisiveness; razor sharpness with smoothness; extreme gain with low noise in a way that puts it up with the very best high gain circuits in the world.
But not everybody wants to use this channel for metal – or even for shred solos. Some will want a great high gain rhythm sound for 80s rock, or a fluid lead sound for fusion perhaps. With the gain around 4 or 5 and careful balancing of the treble and presence controls, all of this can be dialed in. For fusion leads it’s still maybe a shade too sizzly for some, but these are certainly within the amp’s scope. Rock rhythm playing-wise, what this channel excels at are things like Van Halen I, and the heavily modded Marshall, Bogner and Soldano type sounds of the late 80s/early 90s. As you would expect, a meaty-sounding guitar gives the perfect tone for later Van Halen too. Keeping the mids higher (6 and above) allows this channel to breathe and sing in a way that belies its traditional metal application. Even at very high gain, the string definition and guttural punch remains.
So what is it like to actually gig with this amp? Apart from the master volume issue, there’s very little to fault. Channel switching is fast and seamless, noise is low and the effects loop is one of the best I’ve come across. The simplified – as Eddie puts it – “step on the channel you want” philosophy is a lot easier to navigate in the heat of battle than amps which have a two button channel/boost footswitch for three sounds. The three-button footswitch is not a new idea but it works, and the switches are positive in feel and well-laid out. The inclusion of a “effects off/on” button on the footswitch opens up all kinds of possibilities and should be available on all amps with a loop in my opinion.
Controls are easy to read and the black-on-white print makes reading the front panel easy on stage. Initially you may find that the channels are not visually separate enough on the front panel but your eye soon gets used to it – and remember, it’s wide enough already! Some reviewers and users have griped about the rear-mounted power and standby switches but they are so solid and positive to use, I can find nothing to fault with them. After two or three uses I found I was able to locate them first time without looking.
What I noticed most about this amp in my first few soundchecks with it was the “what you see is what you get” philosophy. There are no mini-switches, no double pots, no alternate voicings – not even a level or mix control for the effects loop – so it really is idiot proof. No more getting halfway through a gig and realising your leads sound strange because you’ve accidentally switched to the wrong mode or voicing. The 5150 III strikes an excellent balance between simplicity and flexibility. Incidentally the effects loop works very well with both pedals and rack equipment – just adjust the input on your rack unit to get the right level.
The controls themselves also allow very little margin for error. Although the equalisation available is incredibly powerful, it is difficult to dial in a sound that is “too thin”, “too mushy”, “too harsh” or any of the other evils that guitarists tend to struggle with in different venues. Once again, the amp strikes a good balance; it’s expertly voiced without completely dictating how you sound or disguising the qualities of the guitar plugged into it – a quality that puts it in some exalted company. Whether the tone of the 5150 III is for you is a matter of taste, but it’s very difficult to make it sound bad.
I have to bring up the lack of a master volume once more, simply because it’s so glaring an omission on a three-channel amp. Personally, I would have been perfectly happy for one to live on the back like the Bogner Ecstasy’s does – that’s a good enough arrangement for making small adjustments on the fly. Other than that the functionality of this amp is incredibly well-thought-out.
Quite simply – and to answer my original question – this is one of the best channel switchers on the market at any price. It is not perfect, but then none of them are – that’s the price we pay for their strengths – these are not jacks of all trades and masters of none. The fact that the 5150 III punches so far above its weight in so many departments makes it one of the best value amps on the market right now, new or used.
If its slightly tighter feel is for you, and you can get around the lack of truly great breaking up tones, give this amp a serious audition. And whatever you do, TURN IT UP!