Peavey gets down and dirty with updates on the ValveKing series that include a brand-new super-compact 20W amp and an updated 50W combo. Review by Richard Purvis
20MH Micro Head
Description: Two-channel 20W head with 3 x ECC83 and 2 x EL84 valves. Made in China
ValveKing 50 Combo
Description: 50W 1×12″ combo with 3 x ECC83 and 2 x 6L6 valves (switchable to EL34s), Peavey ValveKing speaker. Made in China
Contact: Peavey Europe – 01536 461234 – www.peavey.com
Peavey is a big company. Maybe not as big as Coca-Cola, but definitely bigger than Kennedy’s fish and chip shop in Streatham. In terms of amplifiers alone, the current catalogue takes in such a wide range of styles and budgets – from bedroom modelling amps to high-gain shredding stacks, and even the odd pedal steel combo – that you never quite know what’s coming along next.
That’s especially true because Peavey has never been afraid to lob one or two quirky ideas into the mix… and as we’ll soon see, there are a couple of those in store with today’s duo of amps from the revamped ValveKing line: a 20W ‘lunchbox’ model and a 50W 1×12″ combo, each with two channels and an abundance of knobs to twiddle.
Eight years after the launch of the industry-changing Orange Tiny Terror, it’s probably about time Peavey joined the lunchbox revolution. The ‘MH’ stands for ‘micro head’ and this entirely new amp is one your sickly niece would not struggle to throw up the stairs. But while the dimensions are small, the feature count isn’t.
As well as switchable clean and dirty channels it has a three-band EQ and digital reverb, plus a selectable gain boost and an intriguing little something called Vari-Class. On the back panel there’s more: power scaling, a headphone output and an FX loop, plus mic-emulating DI and USB outputs. Like many of its type it’s powered by a pair of EL84s, and this brings us to the 20MH’s final trick: two green LEDs just above the jewel light. They’re status indicators for the output valves, and if one turns red you know you have an unhappy tube to deal with.
Clearly the engineering challenge here has been to get all of that technology into a head that’s small enough to qualify as ‘micro’. The inside of the amp is bewilderingly cramped, with pretty much everything mounted on one large PCB (including the valve bases); some of the components are so tiny they’d give the average amp tech an instant mental breakdown. Still, overall it looks and feels solid enough, although the white knobs – which can only be described as squished chickenheads – are mighty close together and turn with virtually no resistance, making it very easy to nudge one around a notch or two while trying to adjust its neighbour.
So where does this new ValveKing model fit into the Peavey narrative? Well, it’s not as aggressively styled as some of the properly satanic offerings that have followed on from the company’s collaboration with Eddie Van Halen on the 5150, so we should perhaps be anticipating some decent tones on the clean channel here.
We get them, to an extent. Up to about 4 on the Volume control with single-coils it’s a big, well-balanced sound with plenty of thump in the bottom end. The treble is not exactly sparkly, and with humbuckers in particular there’s a clanky character that no amount of EQ tweaking (or cab changing) will level out completely, but it’s useable. Will this channel serve up some crunch if we crank it? Hmm, not really. You can bring on a bit of grit in the top half of the dial and lead lines will thicken accordingly, but chords now tend to get mushy and flappy through even the toughest of speakers.
Not a bad start, all in all, but we’d better get straight to the heavy stuff. This doesn’t take long: even with Gain set down in the low numbers the second channel is most definitely designated ‘rock only’. It’s angry and raspy – though tasteful lead players will be able to coax smoother tones out of it if they really want to – and winding up the gain just winds up the righteousness. Power chords from a bridge humbucker growl with real authority, and it’s worth getting hold of a double footswitch so you can also engage the gain boost for solos without turning your back on the slavering mob.
The power scaling works well enough, taking the output level down to 5W or 1W without totally destroying the tone, but far more interesting is this Vari-Class business. The dial says AB at one end and A at the other, so what does it actually do? According to Peavey, turning the knob towards Class A gradually takes one of the power valves out of the circuit, while increasing the gain at the phase inverter stage to compensate; all the way round, you’ve effectively got a single-ended amp.
The difference is subtle but it’s one that connoisseur tonehounds will really appreciate because it does basically turn the 20MH into a blending of two similar but quite distinct amplifiers: the Class AB version is full-on, strident and fundamentally Marshall-like; the Class A version has a softer, sweeter top end and a more Vox-like grain to the overdrive. We’ve really no right to expect this level of close-up control from a lunchbox amp.
This one’s not so much a new model as an evolution of the old ValveKing 112, though it’s soon clear that the changes have gone far deeper than the colour of the control knobs. Most obviously, glowing like the green eyes of an alien cockroach, we’ve got those two LEDs for checking on the status of the output valves; there’s also a Vari-Class control (which was present, but labelled Texture, on the back panel of the 112) and a Damping knob, which appears to be a development of the simple on/off Resonance switch also hidden on the back of the old version. This can only be a control for the negative feedback loop – something that’s started to show up on some very expensive boutique amplifiers recently. Another feature for the tonehounds?
The speaker is Peavey-branded and this time the power’s coming from a pair of 6L6s. These can be switched out for EL34s if you want a more British vibe, though this will require a rebias. It’s worth noting that the output tubes are protected by a sturdy black cage, held in place by four fiddly screws (also black), so you’ll be praying the warning LEDs never ask you to make that valve change on a darkened stage. The 50-watter’s internal layout is much more spacious than that of the 20MH, though again we find a lot of titchy components and virtually everything is mounted to one giant PCB.
The bigger amp’s front control panel offers separate three-band EQ sections and individual volume controls for each channel, and some more push-buttons – most notably, on the dirty channel, a gain boost and a separate level boost. Cleverly, if you have a double footswitch, with one switch used to hop between channels, the other will engage whichever one of these two buttons you’ve opted to push in beforehand – a brilliant piece of extra versatility.
The back panel is, for the most part, similar to that of the 50’s little brother, with FX loop sockets, mic-emulated DI and USB outputs, and power scaling from 50W down to 12W or 2W. We’re too grown-up for headphone outputs now.
As with the 20MH, the clean tones here are not trouser-floodingly exciting but they have plenty of depth, and the addition of a Bright switch means humbuckers don’t have to get lost in the flubby stuff. Of course this is a much louder amp and the 6L6s do offer a hint of blackface Fender chime, but again, crank the clean volume and you’ll quickly find some unpalatable gurgliness creeping into the lower register. It’s safe to say fans of bluesy crunch can give both these amps a miss.
Tattoo-necked grandparent-worriers, however, should stay around for a bit, because the ValveKing 50 rocks even harder than the 20MH. Well, it rocks louder anyway – sound-wise it’s pretty similar, but now it’s coming at you in barrels instead of pint glasses. Having separate gain and volume controls on this channel makes it easy to match output levels with your clean sound, and you can dial in as much or as little filth as you require.
The boost buttons are nicely judged to provide just the right amount of extra fizz or punch on top of that, and all you need to do now is tailor that cathedral-shaking voice with the Vari-Class and Damping controls. Understandably, these are more effective with the gain at moderate levels. It’s likely that most players will leave the latter at maximum looseness for most of the time, but a twist towards the tight end of the dial can be handy for reining in both bloomy bottom and squealy top; some guitars will get on better with this feature than others.
By the way, the mic-emulated DI sounds on both amps are pretty good, while the digital reverb is not fantastic but will do the job if you don’t mind it swirling around for quite a long time even at low levels.
Both these ValveKings are capable of punching out excellent rock tones, but the coolest things are the added features. We can’t say too much about the valve-monitoring lights because, as our amps were both working fine, they were never put to the test; but while some might be nonplussed by the subtle effects of the Vari-Class and Damping controls, those with better-educated ears may be left wondering why all amps don’t have them.