Be sure and check out the August 2005 issue of
Player Magazine! Darrin Fox reviews the new Epiphone
Special amplifier on page 142. Here's a sneak peek at the review.
Epiphone Valve Special
By Darrin Fox | August 2005
When it comes to a company invoking its storied past,
few have as much history to draw upon as Epiphone. Largely known for its
beautiful acoustic archtops, Epiphone didn’t enter the amp biz until
it offered the Electar 1x8 combo in 1935. Housed in a suitcase (that’s
right), and sporting the ability to run on both AC and DC current (many parts
of New York City still ran on DC back then), the Electar was eventually joined
by classic models such as the Century, Zephyr, Kent, and Dreadnought. Although
Epiphone’s new line of all-tube amplifiers isn’t necessarily based
on any of these tone machines from the past, it does offer price points that
turn the clock back to the Eisenhower administration. The Valve Special also
has two siblings: the five-watt, 1x8 Valve Junior ($120 street), and the
15-watt, 1x12 Valve Standard ($400 street).
The first thing about the Chinese-made, single-ended,
class-A Valve Special that hit me over the head was its straight-up, cool
retro look. The offset basket-weave grille is an eye-catcher with its
slick-looking white piping. The construction of the MDF (medium density
fiberboard) cabinet and the cleanly applied vinyl covering are also a cut
above most amplifiers in this price range.
The control panel offers Treble, Mid, Bass, Master
Volume, and Gain knobs. To tap into the Valve Special’s effects, you
simply click the DSP control to whatever you want from a menu of four Chorus,
four Flanger, and eight Delay presets. There is also a dedicated Reverb knob.
There’s no mix control, and no user tweakability—save for a level
adjustment on the digital reverb, and a DSP Mute button on the front panel
that bypasses the effects entirely. The mute feature is footswitchable, though
the footswitch ($20 street) isn’t included.
To delve into the Valve Special’s tones, I plugged
in a variety of guitars, including Fender Strats and Teles, and a Gibson
SG. With my Tele, the Valve Special put forth honky tones with a glut of
corpulent midrange froth. Very nice. These tones inspired me to dig into
bluesy single-note lines with zeal, as they sustained for days, and had a
pretty formidable mean streak.
For clean textures, however, the Valve Special
wasn’t as inspiring. With the Master Volume wide open, the tones stayed
reasonably focused and clear, but I couldn’t dial in any shimmer or
sheen—even when I cranked the Treble and dumped the Bass. (The lack
of high-end sparkle is a trait of single-ended circuits.) Keeping the Gain
control halfway up was key, too, as higher settings elicited frazzled, ragged
treble frequencies. Still, for fans of low-wattage raunch, these unrefined
tones could be extremely useful—especially in the studio, where their
nastier character would bring some attitude to a track.
But as much as I dug the Valve Special’s pointed,
small-amp sound, I couldn’t help but wonder if its speaker might be
holding back some tone. To find out, I plugged a cabinet loaded with a single
Celestion Blue 12 into the Extension Cab jack. Not surprisingly, this definitely
made the Valve Special sound bigger, more complex, and more dimensional.
More telling, however, was when I disconnected the Valve Special’s internal
speaker, and connected the amp to an open-back cab loaded with a 10" Jensen
Neo 10-100 speaker. What I heard was a significant improvement in treble
response, volume, and overall fidelity. Suffice it to say that with some
of the money you save on the Valve Special, you might want to consider a
Of all the Valve Special’s effects, I found the
reverb to be the most useful, as it bolstered the amplifier’s small
tones with a warm, organic spaciousness. However, if you want to switch it
off via a footswitch, you’re out of luck, as this is not an option.
The chorus and flanger presets provide enough chewy wash to satisfy players
looking for a quick and easy modulation fix, and the eight delay
presets—which go from a vibey slapback to longer delay trails—are
a welcome addition. However, all the effects—particularly the chorus
and flanger—brought with them a healthy amount of background hiss. (For
the record, Epiphone says it has dealt with this issue, and that future
production models will not have this problem.)
The Valve Special’s ridiculously low street price
makes it easy to add some small-amp flavor to your tone arsenal. Plus—and
this does matter—the Valve Special looks cools. There aren’t many
amps in its price range that flaunt such hip cosmetics. Sure, the Valve Special
has a few limitations, but its rock-bottom price makes them a lot easier