Review: EVH 5150 IIIS EL34 Amp Head and 4x12 Cabinet

(Image credit: EVH Gear)


The 5150 amp designed by Eddie Van Halen is an indisputable modern classic.

From the first 5150 amp introduced in 1992, through the 5150 III head that was the very first EVH brand product 10 years ago, to the EVH 5150 IIIS that was Ed’s main amp in the studio and on stage these last few years, the 5150 has become one of the most popular amps of all time for both pros and aspiring players alike.

A big part of the 5150’s appeal is that these amps have defined Van Halen’s modern tone for the last 25 years. But as great sounding and versatile as the 5150 may be (everyone from modern metal to classic country acts are using them these days), a large number of guitarists still consider the sounds of Ed’s 1968 plexi amp, as heard on the first six Van Halen albums, as the ultimate tone.

While the 6L6 tubes in the 5150 deliver an incredible variety of great tones, there’s just something unique about an EL34 amp that 6L6s can’t duplicate. Realizing this, Ed has worked fervently for the last few years to develop an EL34 version of the 5150 IIIS head.

While the new EVH 5150 IIIS EL34 head shares the same features and functionality of the 5150 IIIS, it offers its own distinctive tonal character that’s just the ticket for guitarists who want Ed’s classic plexi tones but also need the versatility of a modern multi-channel amp.

With the exception of its classy gold and black color scheme, the EVH 5150 IIIS EL34 looks identical to the 5150 IIIS. The controls are exactly the same, with the front panel providing individual gain, volume, low, mid, high, and presence knobs and channel select switches for each of the three channels (while the back panel offers individual resonance controls for each channel, a pair of 1/4–inch parallel speaker outputs, a 4/8/16-ohm impedance switch, bias adjustment terminal with probe test points, 7-pin DIN footswitch jack (for the included four-switch controller), 1/4–inch preamp out, and 1/4–inch effect loop send and return jacks.

The difference is that an entirely new circuit has been developed around four EL34 power tubes that provide 100 watts of output. Eight ECC83 preamp tubes provide more than ample gain, and massive transformers deliver rock-solid reliability no matter how hard the amp is being pushed. EVH also introduced the 5150 IIIS EL34 4x12 cabinet to go with the EL34 head. Featuring four signature Celestion G12EVH 12-inch speakers, this 16-ohm cabinet has the same angled baffle, solid birch cabinet, reinforced corners, recessed steel bar handles and casters as previous EVH 4x12 cabinets, with the only exception being the gold EVH logo and 5150 IIIS EL34 badge.

The biggest question for most guitarists considering this amp is, “Does it sound like Ed’s classic plexi/Variac rig?” I’ll just cut to the chase and answer yes. But there is so much more going on in this amp than that, with everything from dazzling clean tones to absolutely monstrous high-gain wallop. The EVH 5150 IIIS is an impressively dynamic and expressive amp that is wonderfully aggressive yet sensitive enough to deliver the most detailed nuances of a player’s technique and a guitar’s distinctive tonal character.

Compared to the 6L6-driven 5150 IIIS, the EL34 version produces midrange that is throatier, with enhanced upper midrange sparkle and beefier lower midrange punch. The green (clean/crunch) channel sounds more inherently “British” than “American,” with a glassy treble shimmer, bell-like midrange chime, and condensed, focused bass. The blue (distortion) channel is where the classic Van Halen guitar tone lurks, but the gain can be pushed well beyond that to deliver enhanced sustain with surprisingly satisfying dynamic responsiveness.

The red (high-gain) channel pushes the limit even further into modern territory, yet it is voiced to perfect complement and transition from the blue channel. The high-gain channel’s bass is massive but it never overwhelms the midrange, allowing players to sculpt violin-like lead tones with endless sustain or to dial in huge rhythm tones with the violent power and precision of a Travis Fulton KO punch.

The 5150 IIIS EL34 is every bit as versatile as the 6L6-based 5150 IIIS, but it brings a different overall tonal character to the table. If your tastes lean towards the British side of the spectrum, this is the 5150 for you.

LIST PRICES: $3,294.43 (head); $1,333.32 (cabinet)
MANUFACTURER: EVH,• Features the same 100-watt, three-channel design as the EVH 5150 IIIS head but with a new circuit based on four EL34 power amp tubes.

• Includes a four-switch foot controller with individual switches for each channel and for engaging the effect loop.

• Individual Resonance controls for each channel allow users to sculpt the bass response from tight and refined to more resonant and massive.• A bias adjustment terminal with probe test points make it easy to adjust bias without removing panels or the chassis.

The EVH 5150 IIIS EL34 is essential for devotees of Van Halen’s classic plexi tones, but with stunning clean and high-gain tones it is much more versatile and ideal for anyone seeking an aggressive, expressive amp.

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Chris Gill

Chris is the co-author of Eruption - Conversations with Eddie Van Halen. He is a 40-year music industry veteran who started at Boardwalk Entertainment (Joan Jett, Night Ranger) and Roland US before becoming a guitar journalist in 1991. He has interviewed more than 600 artists, written more than 1,400 product reviews and contributed to Jeff Beck’s Beck 01: Hot Rods and Rock & Roll and Eric Clapton’s Six String Stories.