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This article was originally published in issue #49
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It's easy to hear and see why this amp is so sought after. It ticks just about every box you could want ticked, in terms of quality of sound, quality of build, tonal versatility, power - and did I mention its stunning looks?
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Mesa Boogie has been a watchword for tone and quality for decades now. Handmade in California, Boogies were the original boutique amps - but do they still cut it against some of the latest generation handmade competitors? Sam Bell finds out.
Mesa Boogie is one of the most important names in amp history. The company began life, as many boutique makers still do, from a base as a repair shop. There, in 1971, Randall Smith set to work turning small Fender amps into fire-breathing monsters. It wasn't long before big name users came flocking (among them Carlos Santana and Keith Richards) and suddenly Mesa Boogie was the name of many pro players' lips - or, to be more accurate, at their fingertips. Since those days the company has grown considerably, but though it is really too large to be called a 'boutique' manufacturer, it has never abandoned its roots. It doesn't badge engineer in China, it doesn't make in huge quantities and it has never lost its reputation as one of the purveyors of ultimate tone.
That said, times have changed and in the past decade or two the world has seen the rise of many other small makers also dedicated to absolute tone and, as that inevitably means expensive, that makes the top end of the marketplace a lot more crowded than it once was, so we were keen to see how the latest incarnation of one of the mainstays of Mesa Engineering, the Lonestar Special 1x12 combo, stood up. As so often when we're in search of hard to come by products, our friends at DV247 had one they were willing to lend us for one review. Thanks, guys!
Though only rated at 30 Watts, the A Class Lonestar Special is capable of impressively high sound pressure levels but mercifully also gives you the option to dial back the wattage for its two channels to 5, 15 or the full 30 Watts. This enables players to really coax out their desired tones having the power amp section of the amp being pushed whilst not blowing out people's ear drums and upsetting singers in smaller venues! Talking of the power amp section, we are treated to four EL84 valves with five 12AX7 pre amp valves and one 5Y3 valve. That's a lot of valves for a combo, but the justification is in the huge palette of versatile tones at your disposal over the two channels. These channels are voiced so channel one has a boutiquey open clean sound and the second channel can either duplicate that or be dialled in for a drive sound, which can be controlled via the separate ‘drive’ knob with an additional three way switch to flick between thick, normal and thicker voicing options for your drive sound. Each channel features all the regular controls with gain, treble, middle, bass and presence and the addition of a solo boost volume control for both channels plus an overall output volume control.
The Lonestar also has a wonderful spring reverb which can be controlled for each channel separately via two knobs on the back of the amp with further options for a bright or warm reverb response over the two channels. No Mesa Boogie or pro amp of any kind would be complete without an all tube FX loop, with send level control that works over all channels when activated. The amp also features a footswitch with a simple two button layout for channel switching and solo boost.
From the 'they've thought of everything' department, the Lonestar Special also has a fan built into the back of it to keep the amp at a regular temperature level, and whilst this might not be helpful in a recording environment due to the noise it makes, for live performance use it would be perfect for keeping your amp at a consistent temperature throughout your performance. I think I've covered the essentials here but you can find out more on the Mesa Boogie website, be sure to check out our video review to hear it in action!
So what's it like? The sounds are very versatile as I mentioned, however this particular amp is voiced particularly well for anything from Jazz, Blues all the way to hard Rock with its palette of drive sounds and clean tones. It's doesn't deliver ultra-high gain and it’s not meant to - it isn't a Heavy Metal amp. Instead it responds with a nice spongy and sustaining feel when cranked but also responds exceptionally well to staccato based playing. The EQ section of the channels is equally very responsive, leaving it only up to your own taste and ear to be the judge of what sound works best for you.
It's easy to hear and see why this amp is so sought after. It ticks just about every box you could want ticked, in terms of quality of sound, quality of build, tonal versatility, power - and did I mention its stunning looks? My only issue with this amp is that is very heavy and despite being compact for a 1x12 combo it still feels bulky depth wise. Quite a few session players who I have spoken to who own this amp (and for many it is the definitive session combo) have made similar comments. If you're on your own, it can be hard work lugging in in and out of vehicles and into venues and studios.
Regrettably, it is also (at least here in the UK) very expensive but you can't really complain as it is a working tool for professional musicians and you are going to have to pay this sort of money for this level of quality. And yes, Mesa Boogies can still cut it against the boutique boys, judging from the stunning sounds this combo can produce. It’s a monster amp and the tone and features make it worth the asking price. Go check out one if you are serious about your tone platform!