Pros: Immaculate Class A tube sound at low volume and low price. Not one thing wasted.
Cons: Not for jazz or metal.
You know all those modeling amps that have been piling up in catalogs over the last ten years? Well, this is what they're modeling.
I'm oversimplifying, but that's what this amp makes me want to do. In a world of feature-laden boxes with a thousand user-programmable parameters and interfaces you install on a computer, here is an amp with exactly two controls: On-off and volume. That is precisely the right number.
Adding features to an amp starts out innocently enough, but eventually the tone knob mutates into an 11-band EQ, and the spring reverb hypertrophies into a MIDI-programmable digital signal processor with 8 simultaneous effects. In the meantime, we've forgotten what interested us about an amp in the first place: the amp. Along with the guitar and the guitarist, the amp is one of only three things that make a guitar sound. And when I say "amp," I mean the preamp and power stages of the amplifier, hooked up to a speaker. Not EQ and not effects-- the amp.
And this head is about the amp and nothing but the amp. There is nothing here but a warm tube preamp going into a warm tube power stage, a single triode tube power stage wired Class A, as it should be. Some prefer the spankier, more "trebly" sound of pentode tubes like the EL-34 or 6L6, but I prefer the EL-84. It makes a mellow sound that breathes and responds to touch, and when you push it, the sound breaks up in a round and graceful way that I find most musical. Nothing else sounds like this, and the Valve Junior has nothing else.
In a world of 100-watt heads, where a 30-watt combo is called a "practice amp," can a 5-watt head be anything other than a cheap pretender, a wannabe? Yes. In fact, it is the 5-watt Class-A tube amp that is the real thing and the other amps that play wannabe in the overwhelming majority of cases. That's because the sound we call "guitar distortion" is first and foremost the sound of the amp's power stage being driven too hard. This doesn't really sound good with transistors, and on high-powered tube amps, it happens at a volume that most human beings find painful, unless you are playing in a stadium. So most of the time, guitarists use devices that simulate what the Valve Junior does by its very nature: distort gracefully at a volume that is bearable.
So the Valve Junior does its job as an amp and leaves everything else-- everything else!-- up to you. If you want a tone knob and old school spring reverb, you can use stomp boxes. If you want 32-band EQ and several banks of digital processing, you can put a rack full of effects between guitar and amp. It's up to you, and you don't waste money on someone else's idea of useful features.
Most importantly, the choice of loudspeaker is up to you. Most if not all mass-produced, low-powered tube combos feature inadequate speakers. They tend to head in the right direction with the power section, as described above, but then they mate it with a cheesy 8" speaker, when a nice 12" would sound glorious. I understand the market logic, but from a sound standpoint, it's stupid. It makes more sense to put a good speaker on a good amp, and the Valve Junior head lets you decide what that means.
As far as I know, it's the only thing going at anywhere near this price range. When it first hit the stores, I felt that at least 15 years of my prayers had been answered. In all that time, the only new and reasonably-priced amp that did the same thing was an obscure and discontinued box by Hughes and Kettner, who since went on to epitomize the bloated, ersatz "modeling amp" market. If you wanted a 5 watts of dead simple, Class A tone, you had to pay something like $1000 for a hand-wired "boutique amp." Crazy, but true. The simplest, most basic thing was also the most expensive.
If you're not sure whether or not this amp would suit you, here are some hints. If you find yourself saying that you like "vintage" tone, then this is the amp. It's especially well-suited to blues, country, "roots" Americana, Motown, surf, spy, spaghetti-Western, and early British Invasion. It's no good for metal, where you need a lot of crunch with huge bottom end, or jazz, where you need a clean signal at higher volumes. It's excellent for recording, particularly home recording, because it does what most people want an amp to do, and at low volumes. This also makes it an excellent choice for practice rooms and clubs.
I run mine with a Holy Grail reverb and an old MXR analog delay, and it sounds as rich and vibrant as the thickest chorus, but without that pasteurized processed flavor. Jack the signal up with clean overdrive, and the amp will grunt or sing.
If you prefer the convenience of a built-in speaker, there is a combo version, and I would highly recommend it despite its mediocre speaker. But for a few bucks more, this head mated with the matching speaker cabinet make the ideal vintage guitar rig.