April 16, 2014

tonechaser Gear Review: Marshall Class 5 Head - Review & Demo

PictureEver since the small amp phase really got into motion, major amp companies have been pumping out small, low-wattage versions of classic amplifiers. Marshall's answer to this craze was the Class 5, which they advertise as a mini plexi in both sound and feel. However, just because it looks like a mini plexi doesn't mean it lives up to that reputation. Wanna know more? Read on.

Features & Build
Built in a small yet solid headshell, the Class 5 looks just as good and feels just as durable as any Marshall head out there. I was surprised at how light it felt, even compared to some other mini amp heads. The smaller "Marshall" logo does well to complete that plexi look, and the simple layout harkens back to a time when there was very little in the path between our guitars and speakers. A TMB tone stack and a non-master volume is all that is needed to control this all-tube monster, fueled by 1 EL84 and 2 ECC83 tubes. The version I purchased is the one with the headphone output on the back, which is, to be blunt useless. You won't be able to get cranked tube tones without blowing your headphone speakers or ear drums (whichever comes first).

Although it's only 5 watts, this is no doubt the loudest "little" amp I've ever heard. To get any tube distortion with humbuckers, even with my hard pick attack, requires the volume to be at least "3" - more than enough to irritate the neighbors. This initial breakup sounds great, much like an AC/DC or Bad Company kinda growl that just makes you smile. Until you reach the point of breakup, the amp often sounds overly dark and muddy with any kind of pickup. Plugging in a strat, you easily get a very old-school Hendrix kind of sound. At about "6" on the volume is where the amp begins to shine with single coils. It's a perfect mixture of gritty sweetness that would sound awesomely vintage with a fuzz pedal in front. Honestly, I couldn't find a tone I didn't like with single coils.

However, humbuckers leads to all sorts of problems. Once the volume gets past noon, you are entering dangerous territory. The gain takes on a harsh, fuzzy characteristic rather than the sweetness you would expect from a plexi style amp. The bass gets very boomy, and the treble becomes piercingly sharp. Although leads sound alright, rhythm playing can be an unpleasant experience. Don't get me wrong, it is fun to mess around with, but you just won't sound very good.

The Verdict
Over the course of it's relatively short lifespan, the Class 5 seems to have received a very mixed reception, and understandably so. While it sounds great with a strat, it falls short with humbucker equipped guitars. While it has loads of touch-sensitivity, it lacks the signature sweetness that makes a Plexi/Les Paul combo so satisfying. To make things worse, the EQ section is essentially useless and the bass can seem overpowering at times. This is an amp I really wanted to like, but no amount of playing can get me to gel with it. It is a fun little amp that could fix a Hendrix or AC/DC craving on the cheap, but it can't do much more than that.

tonechaser score - 6/10

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