Pros: This is an amazing professionally designed very powerful tube amplifier suitable for concert use.
Cons: This amplifier is definite overkill for home or small settings.
My son and I had the opportunity to try, test and play with the newest amplifier designed by none other than Eddie Van Halen. The EVH amp line is designed by Eddie Van Halen and produced by Fender. The line is separate from Fender however. Make no mistake about it, the EVH 5150 III is one serious amplifier. EVH has its own special Cabs, the EVH 5150 III Cab. This review will focus on the incredible Tube Amp Head.
What is the 5150 III?
This amplifier is designed for serious concert amplification. It's not a home practice amp, it's not a gig amp, heck its not even a small hall amp. This powerhouse, although rated at 100 watts, when paired with the EVH 5150 cabs is designed for use and could be used for outdoor shows or large concert halls. Setting up a 5150 III stack in your garage would be akin to firing up the Ferrari F50 for a trip to the grocery store. Yes it can be done, you'd look darn cool, but the reality is, is that Ferraris function best and show the most when used on a race track. Hitting power chords on this amp reminded me of the scene from the first Back to the Future movie where Marty McFly tests out his home built guitar amp and is blown backwards.
The amp head weighs in at 55 pounds and consists of three entirely different tube sections. It is open in the back and the front is a grid so the amp has an open look to it. You can get it in black or ivory white. Two handles allow you to move the amp. Buy a pair of the 5150 III speaker cabs and the stack is taller than I am! (Okay I am only 5' 6", but still!)
Before I get into more specifics on the 5150, a little history is in order. Most everyone knows that Eddie Van Halen is the founder of the rock group Van Halen and one talented guitar player. Fewer know that not only is Eddie Van Halen an influential guitarist, he has also had a great deal of influence on the gear that rock artists use. For example, his hand made guitar influenced guitar design in a major way. Can you say Jackson guitars? Eddie never played a Jackson of course, but he modded a Charvel guitar so completely for his own use, that the Charvel people noticed. Many of Van Halens ideas are incorporated into the Jackson guitars such as wider fret boards. Eddie wasn't content just tweaking his guitars however, he also did a lot of work on amplifiers. This review after all is of the 5150 III. What happened to the 5150 and the 5150 II? A partnership with Peavey led to many design breakthroughs for a very high perfromance high gain amp on the first two designs, but as many musicians noted, the orginal Peavy / EVH 5150's were " a hard beast to tame". When Eddie designed the 5150 III, he had parted with Peavey and gone with Fender. Fenders unlimited resources and money no object attitude allowed Eddie to create the ultimate amplifier that is the EVH 5150 III. Eddies concerns for a high performance amp that perfectly created the sounds that he wanted was achieved with the help of Fender. Now lets take a look at what this partnership achieved.
Front of the 5150 III
This amp has three sections for three sounds. Clean, Medium Gain and High Gain. Each section has a gain switch, low, medium and high tone controls. The final knob in each section is volume. After each row of knobs there is a select button. When a section is selected a light glows bright green in the clean section, blue for the medium gain section and red for the high gain section. At the end of the three sections are the presence knobs. Finally, there is one big red light to indicate that power is on. You may also select your setting via the included foot pedal.
Unlike many amps, switching from channel to channel is clean and pure, no click, no buzz, no delay. Play crunchy power chords and hit the first switch on the foot pedal and you're playing clean without so much as a pause. Try that with any other amplifier!
Back of the Amp
Power and Standby power switches are on the back. The back has a spot to plug in to a standard 120 volt power supply. This concert quality amp seemed like it would need 220! There are outputs for two cab units, and an output for the included foot pedal switch. There is also a line out for preamp, and lines in and out for effects. The Cab out jacks are standard quarter inch jacks. The manual recommends at least 16 gauge line. Of course there is also a fuse.
The Foot Pedal
You won't see Eddie Van Halen going over to his amp to change the settings mid solo, and of course you don't have to with this amp either. The foot switch plugs into the back of the amp, and it has four buttons that you can press with your foot. Button One turns it to clean, button two turns on medium gain and button three turns on the high gain setting. Finally, button four turns on whatever effects you have set up going into the amp through the special line in and out on the back of the amp (not to be confused with effects between the amp and the guitar). The buttons are very clean, you press it with your foot and it switches the channel. The gain, tone and presence settings must be made on the amplifier head. Unlike many amps, there is no noticable pop, buzz or even hesitation when you switch channels.
This is a tube amp. It uses 4 6L6 output tubes and 12 AX7 Preamp tubes. It is 100 watts and can be used with 4 ohm, 8 ohm, and 16 ohm settings. For use with one EVH 5150 III cab, it would be 16 Ohms, for using two for a very impressive stack, it would be 8 ohms. Because the specially designed matching cabs for this amp are very sensitive 102 db!, this amp cab combo rocks. The cabs each have 4 12" Celestion drivers tweaked by Eddie.
Sound is what its all about. Our first experience with the amp was just playing around on the three settings during normal store hours at Crossroads Music in Hanover. The sound is very full and ample on all settings. The clean setting gives a very sweet pure tone, especially with the gain turned to zero. A quick stomp on the foot pedal goes to a medium gain setting which gives a classic metal sort of distortion like Marshall back in the day. Think Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and of course early Van Halen! Again, the sound has a full sound, and you can tinker with the gain and presence knobs to get just the right amount of fuzz you want. Finally, the third setting is a very high gain for a new metal sound. What volume did we have the amp set on for our first tryouts that gave such rich full sounds? A quarter. No, not one quarter of the amps volume, I mean point .25. 25% of 1. The amp goes to 10. The amp is literally LOUD at a setting of 1. Yet, even at higher volumes the high gain third setting retains the sound of guitar. You may be familiar (especially if you listen to any death metal, heavy metal etc. or use high gain amps with high gain pickups) with that Wall of Sound that is almost a sound of its own, but might not be identified as guitar sounds. The beauty of this amp is even at this high setting when it is laying out that incredible crunchy sound, it still retains the detail of the guitar! Do you get a hum from this amp at high gain settings? Yes, of course, but it is a much quieter hum than I heard from any other amp, and if you are playing, the sound of your playing is much louder than the hum even when you play softly. The hum wouldn't even be audible over normal conversation levels in a club and certainly wouldn't be heard in an arena (where this belongs!)
However, what is really impressive is the sheer dynamic range of this amplifier. At any setting, you gently tap the harmonics and you get that beautiful harmonic tone. Strum an arpeggio, and each string can be heard. Slam out a power chord and back up, as the sheer volume resonates in your chest. A slight adjustment of the volume pot on your guitar will create a very dynamic difference on this amp.
We had to go to Crossroads Music after normal store hours to play with and hear this amazing amp at higher volumes. During the day, even a setting at 3 would rattle every guitar hanging up on the walls. The clean setting is of course the "softest". My son tried Joe Satriani's Midnight, a beautiful two finger tapping solo that should be played clean. At a volume of one it sounds great, at a volume of three, the notes can be felt slightly vibrating in your chest, yet the strings retain a beautiful pure sound that only tubes can bring. AT four it was unbelievable! I played some Pink Floyd, an early song called Childhood's End. It begings with some slightly distorted guitar chords, Em A Em A etc. On a volume of three in the medium gain setting, standing three feet in front of the amp, the sound literally shakes in your chest and feet. The beauty of the range is that the song starts with gentle strumming. As I strummed the opening chords harder and then into the chorus G, D, Am Em, you could literally feel the air pressure difference! The chords started soft from this beast, but just from my harder strumming the volume was instantly different. The 5150 III is incredibly responsive. I hit the foot switch to clean to go into the Dave Gilmour solo full of bends and sustains, the change was transparent, and the single notes just resonate. For the High Gain setting we set it to 3.5. Nick had the volume on his guitar set low and started to play Metallica songs. I slowly turned his pot to ten as his eyes lit up. The opening solo of ONE sounded like an actual concert. I would have to turn my home stereo system up to near its peak to get this sound, but it still doesn't match that live sort of sound the amp created. Even with high gain however, the notes are clear and distinct, but they have the growl of a jet engine. When he got into the slamming out of the chords, every guitar in the shop rattled. You could hear things from the other side of the store shaking. I played around some more on Medium gain with The Kinks with some fun power chords from 'Til the End of the Day, and All Day and all of the Night. Wow, I don't think I ever heard the sheer aggressiveness of the power chords even playing the Kinks Live on full volume. The chords sounded just so incredibly full and fat and in my chest, I had goosebumps. We've never got sounds like this out of our little Line 6 Amp, and this was only a 4th of this amps potential. We didn't even get the amplifier up to its half way setting, because at slightly more than three it is just so powerfully loud. If I did decide to purchase this amp (come on POWERBALL!), I could set it up on my porch and play for people that live across the lake that is down the street from my house.
Quality and Power cost money. The EVH 5150 III sells for $2,200, and the cabs are another $900 each. The first amp that came to the music store was immediately marked Sold To Joe Perry. Yeah, that Joe Perry. Did my son and I decide to buy the new EVH 5150 III head and cab? Well no, for a few various reasons. One, I don't have over 3 grand to spend on an amp stack, despite it to be the sweetest thing I've heard since a vintage Marshall tube amp. Two, I have neighbors that live within 500 yards of my home. I do live in a private area, even when we have our 75 watt Line 6 cranked up, it doesn't bother anyone, same for my home surround sound system. However, the EVH isn't even in the same category. My Line 6 seems but a toy compared to this massive concert stack. (The cabs each hold 4 12" drivers). 100 watts of guitar amplification is far more powerful than 100 watts of home stereo equipment.
If I was rich, yeah, I'd get two of these amps with four cabs. It would give my living room that nice Worcester Centrum feel. The reality is that this is waay too much for my use and needs, and perhaps that of many amateur musicians. However, it was really nice to hear what professional grade amplification sounds like. These sound absolutely beautiful, dymanic responsive and just incredibly loud. It is clear that a lot of work went into these.
If you have too much money and love music, buy two stacks of these, your neighbors will just LOVE you! Otherwise, seriously the one guy who did buy the 5150 III amp and two cabs plays for Aerosmith. Enough said.