Mesa/Boogie Express 5:50 1x12 Combo
Originally published in Guitar World, February 2009
Amp shopping can be a lot like buying a new car. If you’re on a limited budget, you usually have to settle for an underpowered American- or Asian-made model that’s low on frills and thrills. If you want a high-performance model packed with luxurious features, expect to spend a small fortune.
Mesa/Boogie Express Series amplifiers and combos are the music industry equivalent of a Mini Cooper. Though extremely compact, they deliver plenty of hair-raising power as well as a full selection of useful high-performance features not typically found on products in their price class. Priced just beyond the “budget” or “entry-level” range, Mesa/Boogie Express Series amps offer an affordable alternative for gigging pros or anyone else who needs a versatile amp that can hold its own with the big boys.
Mesa/Boogie offers two Express models: the 25-watt 5:25, which is powered by EL-84 tubes to provide “British” voicing, and the 50-watt 5:50, which uses 6L6 tubes to produce more distinctly “American” tones. The 5:25 is available as 1x10 or 1x12 combos while the 5:50 combos offer a selection of single or dual 12-inch speaker options. Both models are also available in head-only configurations. I took a ride on the 5:50 Express 1x12 combo.
Forty years ago, in 1969, Randall Smith invented the first Mesa/Boogie amp when he squeezed a tweed Bassman circuit and a 12-inch speaker into a Fender Princeton combo cabinet. The Express 5:50 1x12 combo remains true to the spirit of the original Boogie amp by providing the tone and versatility of a big amp in a surprisingly small package. Even better, the Express includes several of the most popular innovations that Smith and company have developed over the years, such as a high-gain cascading preamp, fully independent channel switching and Duo-Class power. The Express 5:50 features two fully independent and individually voiced channels, each featuring its own set of gain, treble, mid, bass, contour, reverb level and master volume controls. Both channels have a mode switch that allows you to tailor the distortion and response characteristics to your preference, with Channel 1 providing a selection of Clean/Crunch tones and Channel 2 offering Blues/Burn choices.
Two 6L6 tubes provide 50 watts of power in Class A/B mode, but the patented Duo-Class feature, accessible via a rear panel switch, also offers the option of powering the amp with just one tube to produce five watts of Class A single-ended power (which emphasizes the sweet second harmonic, an octave above the note played). Five 12AX7 tubes are used for producing Mesa/Boogie’s signature cascaded high-gain tones and for the reverb and effect loop circuits.
The Express 5:50 combo ships with a heavy-duty footswitch for controlling channel select, contour on/off and reverb on/off functions. If you prefer to control these features with MIDI program change commands, four 1/4-inch jacks are provided for switching channels, reverb on/off, contour 1 on/off and contour 2 on/off individually. Should you forget to bring your footswitch controller to the gig, you
can still control contour on/off and channel select functions via switches on the front panel. The effect loop has mono send and return jacks and a nonvariable level designed for use with everything from stomp boxes to studio-quality rack processors.
Just about every great Mesa/Boogie tone (and then some) lurks inside this compact powerhouse. Channel 1’s Clean mode combined with the luscious Accutronics spring reverb produces one of the best clean tones I’ve heard from a Mesa, with a fat roundness and three-dimensional clarity that rivals a vintage Twin Reverb. Switch over to Crunch mode for tight, gnarly overdrive with plenty of punchy low end, throaty midrange and razor-sharp presence. Channel 2’s Blues mode is loose, raw and raunchy, but cranking up the mids can produce singing, violin-like overdrive comparable to the classic Boogie Mark I. Burn mode is where modern metal tones lurk, and you can dial in brutal scooped mid rhythm tones with the Contour control and disengage it to boost midrange definition for in-your-face solos with all the volume you need.
The tone controls interact significantly, and while that makes it tricky to dial in exactly the tone you have in mind, it ultimately provides a wider and more versatile range of tones. Although the 5:50 lacks a presence control, it’s really not necessary thanks to the expanded EQ range that the Contour control delivers. The ability to switch between the sweet, harmonically rich distortion of the five-watt Class A mode and the focused grit and growl of 50-watt Class A/B mode gives the 5:50 two very distinct tonal personalities.
The Celestion C90 12-inch speaker and the combo’s open-back cabinet design deliver excellent performance for almost any variety of tones, but some metal players may find that the bass response isn’t always tight enough. Fortunately, the 5:50 features individual eight- and four-ohm speaker outputs for using a variety of external speaker options. When connected to a Mesa 4x12 Rectifier cabinet, the bass response of the 5:50’s Crunch and Burn tones became as tight as PVC underpants.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you play a variety of studio and performance gigs and need a compact amp that covers everything from pristine clean to the dirtiest metal tones, the Express 5:50 is the way to go. Its price is as small as its size, but its sound and versatility are about as big as it gets.
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