MESA/BOOGIE'S STILETTO Deuce and Trident amplifiers were designed to capture new tones from EL34 power tubes and supercharge the classic British midrange response, for which the tubes are famous. While I was duly impressed with the blistering performance and versatility of those amps, I had a feeling that their offerings were just a sample of the tones to come from future EL34-based Mesa/ Boogie amplifiers.
It turns out I was right. Since introducing the original Stiletto amps, Mesa's Randall Smith and Doug West have discovered new ways to create superior clean and crunch tones. Their developments were numerous enough to warrant production of the Stiletto Stage II. When they mated this highly tweaked preamp with a vibrant 50-watt power section, and the new Stiletto Ace was born. For this review, Mesa shipped the 1x12 combo version of the Ace.
The Ace combo is available in black Taurus vinyl with black piping and a black grille, and in emerald Bronco covering with tan leather accents, tan piping and a tan jute grille. I received the latter version. This color combination is not only surprisingly dapper but also intentionally replicates Britain's traditional racing colors and hints at the amp's serious Brit-style performance. The Mesa's gold-toned aluminum chassis is another sly nod, honoring Jim Marshall's amps and his contribution to the sound we call "crunch." Inside the specially designed sealedback cab resides one of Mesa's famous Vintage 30 speakers.
The Ace's brilliant and cutting tones are derived from a pair of EL34s that create 50 watts of power. A single 5U4 rectifier tube can be switched in for a softer feel, and five 12AX7s drive the Ace's effect loop and twochannel/ six-mode preamp. In an effort to make its amps even easier to use, without sacrificing looks or functionality, Mesa has included some of its more popular features on the Ace's front panel. For instance, players choose between Bold and Spongy power with the amp's three-way power switch and select Tube or Silicon-Diode Rectifiers with mini switches that are aligned with the channels' controls.
Players are treated to three modes in each channel, selected via mini toggles. Channel 1 offers Fat Clean, Tite Clean and Crunch modes, while channel 2's options include Crunch, Tite Gain and Fluid Drive. Each channel has its own dedicated controls for gain, treble, mid, bass, presence and master. Additional features on the Stiletto include a global output control and a solo boost that's activated by the footswitch.
If you choose to hard-bypass the effect loop with the rear panel switch, the global master is removed from the amp's circuit and each channel's master knob will control the amp's output. Although it's really not advertised, activating the loop does give the amp a slight boost in gain, while bypassing it shortens the overall circuit path and helps maintain a more raw and spacious tone.
My test equipment included a Burstbucker- equipped LP Custom, a Fender Relic Strat and a custom cord from Cardas. I began my testing with channel 1's Tite Clean mode, using bold power for maximum headroom and the tube rectifier for an elastic feel. Upon playing a few notes, the first thing that struck me was the immediacy of the amp's response. Where some past Mesa amps produced a very soft attack, the Stiletto delivered each note with stabbing intensity. The Fat Clean mode tracked just as well but made the sound rounder and fuller, with more perceived bass and a smoother feel. Regardless of which guitar I played, all the clean tones I experienced with this amp were absolutely sick and totally unexpected from EL34 power tubes.
Channel 1's Crunch mode was the real standout in terms of ultimate vintage-style performance. Although the gain and volume settings dictated the possible distortion level, I was able to control the actual amount of crunch with my string attack. The tones were incredibly three-dimensional and woody, with a level of depth and character that definitely competes with today's most expensive hand-wired British amps. The Ace's ability to transition from clean to crunch, via the gain and master controls, was seamless, and plenty of gain and sustain were on tap in each of channel 1's modes-certainly enough to satisfy most classic rockers.
Part of this sonic success is due to the amp's circuitry; the rest is thanks to the speaker enclosure's unique shape. The tuned cabinet has a sloped ceiling whose curvature improves air circulation and lets the speaker breathe between excursions. The result is quicker transients, a natural reverb effect and increased dimensionality. In fact, this cab sounded more like a small-box 4x12 than any 1x12 cab I've heard.
Channel 2 is aimed at high-gain EL34 applications, but I quickly noticed that all the modes had a more traditional EL34 tonality than the original Stiletto. Although channel 2's Crunch mode is ostensibly the same as channel 1's, it sounded both slightly sharper and more modern. With low-to-medium gain settings and high volume levels, Tite Gain mode was also very touch sensitive and produced chimey highs that rang like a bell.
For soloing, I really enjoyed the Fluid Drive mode. Unlike the creamier version of this mode, which debuted with the first-generation Stilettos, this new high-gain option keeps the lows very tight and still produces bountiful sustain. Using the presence and gain controls, I dialed it in so that the midrange cut with the authority of a butcher's cleaver and the highs sizzled from the speaker with a hint of the rectifier's swirling harmonic stew.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The new Stiletto Ace combo is the amp that's been missing from Mesa/Boogie's lineup. While the Rectifiers satisfy the most hardcore metal junkies and the Lonestar produces an encyclopedic range of American guitar tones, the new Brit-voiced Stiletto Ace is now available for fans of authentic EL34-based crunch and chime.