Mesa Express 5:25+ Review
I play guitar in a cover band playing music spanning the 1960s through today. I also play at church. So I need tonal versatility in my gear. I have always preferred to get my main clean and overdriven tones from my amp, not pedals, so I need an amp with both great clean tones and great overdriven tones. For me, that means a tube amp. I also prefer combo amps. The smaller the better. I don’t have roadies, so I like the portability of a small combo amp. I like lower wattage amps also. It’s easy to mic an amp and run it through a PA, so lower wattage amps are usually not a problem. I find 15 watts is the sweet spot for me. Loud enough to hear over a drummer in practice but not too loud to use at home.
I also need a channel switching amp. I often need to switch from a clean tone to an overdriven tone mid-song. I could use pedals for this but I prefer the real thing: tube amp overdrive. Finally, I am a working musician and guitar teacher (a.k.a. nothing close to wealthy, or even in the surrounding neighborhoods.) so budget is a major consideration also.
So with this crazy wish list of mine the amp choices are limited. But after doing some research I found an amp that checked off most of my wish list. The Express 5:25+ from Mesa Engineering.
Four Channels Of Tonal Goodness
What initially drew me to the Express 5:25+ was its four channels (Clean, Crunch, Blues, Burn.) Each channel has a little more gain than the previous one and sounds a little darker. Each channel is also little more compressed than the previous one due to the added gain. It is sort of like two American and two British sounding channels in one amp. The four channels are grouped in pairs. Clean and Crunch are one pair, and Blues and Burn are the other pair, with a row of controls for each pair. It is a slight trade off having two channels share controls but it does simplify the amp and it hasn’t been a major issue for me. The only issue with shared controls I have found is if I switch from Blues to Burn. Then I have to back down the volume to get the same volume I had using the Burn channel. But I rarely use the Burn channel. So it is not a big deal for me.
It should be noted that Express 5:25+ model uses EL84 power tubes. The higher wattage Express 5:50+ model uses 6L6 power tubes and a different speaker. So there will be tonal differences along with the increased volume in the 5:50+. This review is not meant to describe the 5:50+ amp’s tonality.
The Clean Channel
I discovered that Mesa re-voiced the clean channel when they upgraded the amp to the plus (+) designation in 2012. What ever they did, it worked. The clean channel is both bright and warm. Not an easy feat. Clean, bright amps can be sterile sounding. The 5:25+ is not. Although it is very bright. With a Tele I need to set the treble quite low, but I prefer that to not having enough brightness. Every guitar player I’ve talked to that has heard me play the amp has commented on how good the clean channel sounds.
The Crunch Channel
The crunch channel can give you just a hint of overdrive or a very tasty crunch. Perfect for just about any low gain drive situation. Country, roots, rock, blues. It’s all there.
The Blues Channel
The Blues channel is a certainly suitable for blues. But it also rocks. And it can even do a darker clean tone if you turn the gain down. It is more compressed than the Crunch channel which helps smooth out the drive. And it is also darker. But in addition to the standard tone controls, the amp also has a 5 band EQ, so you can easily brighten up the channel if you desire.
The Burn Channel
This is the “high gain” channel. It does higher gain, but it is not really a metal machine. It is quite compressed and tube hiss is noticeable when not playing. It is good for an occasional high gain song, or for solos, but if you are looking for a true “metal” amp look elsewhere.
The Clean and the Crunch channels are my favorites. And this presented me with a bit of a dilemma. Although the amp has four unique channels that you can select with mini toggle switches, you can only footswitch between two of them at a time. You have to pick between Clean or Crunch for one setting on the footswitch, and Blues or Burn for the other footswitch setting. You can’t footswitch between Clean and Crunch or Blues and Burn. Since I often have the amp nearby when playing, is no big deal to use the mini toggle switch to switch channels, but that sort of defeats the purpose of a footswitch. However, since I typically just need clean and crunch tones, I found that I could use the 5 band EQ to brighten up the Blues channel and make it sound very close to the Crunch channel, although slightly more compressed. It works for me. In a live band situation subtle tonal differences often get lost in the mix anyway. But I would still love to be able to switch between all four channels without needing to flip mini toggles.
The included footswitch has four switches. A channel switch for switching between two channels (which I just discussed.) A switch for turning the EQ on or off. A switch for turning the reverb on or off. The EQ and reverb switch settings are remembered when switching between channels. And a Solo switch. This is my favorite feature. The solo switch is a volume boost. It doesn’t add more gain, just more volume. So it works as a clean boost as well as letting your solos be heard. You can set the amount of volume boost with a knob on the amp. Awesome. Great for clean single note riffs or fills as well as raging overdriven solos. There is a pouch attached to the inside on the amp cabinet that will hold the foot switch when transporting the amp, but the fit is extremely tight. It only goes in one way and requires the patience of a surgeon. Not ideal for fast tear downs after gigs. So I sprang for a clamshell amp gig bag from Studio Slips. It has an exterior pocket that holds the power cable, footswitch cable, and the footswitch. Mesa does include a light weight padded slip cover but it doesn’t cover the bottom or have any pockets. I like the better protection and added pocket of the Studio Slip clamshell. You wouldn’t carry your guitars to gigs without a case, why do it with your amp?
5 Band EQ
The 5 band equalizer offers lots of tonal shaping options. You can use the sliders to shape your tone even further than the standard tone controls. Or you can use a preset of the classic “V” scooped mids that is popular with high gain players. Or you can bypass the EQ altogether. There is a mini toggle that lets you choose between the three. I don’t use the 5 band EQ on the Clean channel because I like it the way it is. But I do use the 5 band EQ on the Blues channel to brighten it up.
The reverb is lush and smooth. And each pair of channels has its own reverb control.
Here is a demo I made jamming and showing some of the sounds you can get using the Express 5:25+.
Three Power Settings
Another great feature of the 5:25+ is the ability to switch between three power settings: 5 watts, 15, watts, and 25 watts. In the 5 watts setting the amp uses one tube in Class A Triode mode wired in a Single-Ended configuration. In the 15 watts setting it runs in Class A Pentode mode. And in the 25 watts setting it runs in AB mode in a Push-Pull configuration. If you know what all that means great, but in practical terms, for me the 5 watt mode is perfect for playing at home. The 15 watt mode is great for practice. Plenty loud enough to hear over a drummer. The 25 watt mode I have only used at a really noisy outdoor gig to hear myself better. All three settings sound great to me.
Mesa uses a fixed bias on its amps. This is designed to allow user to simply swap tubes without any bias adjusting. But to get the best performance you need to buy tubes that match the bias on the amp. Some like this design others don’t. Personally I do. It’s one less hassle. You can buy Mesa branded tubes directly from Mesa or Sweetwater (nobody manufactures tubes in the United States so I am not sure who actually manufactures their tubes.) But if you prefer a different brand or want to shop with one of the online tube guys, you simply have to tell them what Mesa amp you have and they should be able to sell you tubes that will work with its bias setting.
It’s a Mesa so it’s built like a tank. I was tired of boring black vinyl amps so I got the sweet looking creme vinyl with the black and creme grill. I know it’s only cosmetic, but it just looks so good it makes me want to use it. Ha, ha. It is slightly heavy at about 45 pounds. This was my absolute weight limit, but its versatility won out over weight concerns. But don’t plan on carrying it long distances without stopping to switch arms.
I have been gigging (and practicing) with my Express 5:25+ for well over a year now in two cover bands and at church. It has worked great it each situation. Since it has such good amp tones I typically only use “clean” effect with it. Unless I don’t feel like using the mini toggle to switch from the Blues to the Burn channel, and then I use a drive pedal to put me in high gain mode while still using the Blues channel. I continually get compliments from other guitar players on its tone.
The Express 5:25+ is not inexpensive, starting at $1350 for the combo ($1200 for the head). But it is hand made in the USA, and it would be hard to find a more versatile tube amp that sounds this good in this price range. You could easily spend more on a single channel boutique amp. It delivers four very good sounding channels. There is slight trade off in versatility due to the channels being paired and foot-switching limited to two channels. You can’t foot switch between the Clean and Crunch Channels (you have to use a mini toggle), but the Blues channel also works well as a “crunch” channel, so it’s not a deal breaker. The solo switch is great for both boosting solos and as a clean boost. The reverb is smooth. It features solid construction, and the three power settings make it practical for just about any setting.
All of which, for me, makes it a great gigging/practice/teaching/whatever amp. If you’re in the market for a versatile tube amp, the Express 5:25+ should be on your “check it out” list.