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Like many guitarists, my first amplifier was a solid-state Peavey—an Audition Plus I saved up for in 1988. It was a reliable little amp. But when I caught the tube amp bug, I became more interested in the used and vintage tube amps I was scoring at garage sales. And while Peavey was building tube-powered combo amps like the Classic 30 at the time, I was too fixated on that old stuff to pay any mind. The Mississippi company’s new ValveKing II 20, however, is a brilliant amp that conjures a lot of the vibe and sounds that drew me to old tube amps in the first place, and it has enough mojo to attract tube purists who haven’t played a Peavey in a while.
The Chinese-built ValveKing series was launched in 2005 to deliver a mix of old-school tones and modern flexibility at an affordable price. This generation, the ValveKing II series, adds features that make the amp even more effective as an all-in-one stage, studio, and demoing tool.
The twin EL84-powered ValveKing II Combo 20 is, at its essence, a straightforward 20-watt 2-channel amp. The clean channel features volume, bass, mid, and treble controls, and a bright switch. The lead channel has the same controls plus a gain button and gain-level knob, along with a button for boost. A master reverb control, plus damping and “Vari-Class” controls can be used with both channels. The latter two controls are helpful for extending the amp’s sonic palette—the damping control affects presence and resonance, while the Vari-Class lets you switch between digital simulations of class A- and class AB-style dynamics. Peavey has also included a LED-equipped tube-monitoring indicator to keep you clued into the health of your tubes.
On the back panel, you’ll find several studio-centric features. The MSDI (Microphone Simulated Direct Interface) consists of an XLR output paired with a speaker-defeat switch that allows the amp’s signal to be fed directly into a mixing console. Similarly, a USB out—complete with mic simulations—lets you connect the amp to a computer for recording. The back panel is also home to a buffered effects loop, a pair of speaker outputs, and 1/4" jacks for switching channels. Especially cool is a switch for attenuating the power to either five watts or one watt.
At 37.6 pounds and measuring 20 1/2" by 22" by 10 1/4", the 1x12 combo feels substantial and well built. Like many of the boutique amps that inspired it, the Peavey splits the difference between a modern and vintage look: Its matte black hardware contrasts nicely with a silver grille cover and chicken-head control knobs.
Inspired Clean, Dynamic Dirt
I plugged a Gibson ES-335 into the ValveKing, and before playing a note noticed that the amp is whisper-quiet. At higher but moderate volume levels, the basic sound on the clean channel is rich and warm, and the amp feels dynamic and responsive. Like any good clean tube amp, the Combo 20 lets you get a lot of different sounds via pickup selection and guitar tone controls, and that great blank-slate performance helped the 335 work for everything from chord-melody jazz to pedal-steel-inspired country lines. When the amp’s bright switch is engaged, you can coax more than enough extra twang for surf and piercing Nashville lead lines.
Edging up the volume on the clean channel generates a touch of warm grit and imparts a full, singing quality to single-note runs that’s made for blues-rock soloing. And you can clean up the output quite readily by rolling back the volume on your guitar.
The dirty channel provides a surprisingly wide range of higher-gain sounds—from slight crunchiness to the sort of thick, saturated distortion that a classic metal fiend could work with. A boost control extends the versatility of the second channel by generating a heap of extra presence and sustain for solos.
Like an old tube combo, Peavey kept the Combo 20’s effects simple, and the reverb adds a nice shimmer to both clean and distorted sounds. But at higher levels it starts to sound a little artificial, and hardcore ’verb fans may opt for a good stompbox reverb instead. And while the Vari-Class control isn’t an effect in the traditional sense, it can profoundly alter the amp’s sound and feel. At the A end of the spectrum, the amp sounds a bit sweeter and has a more touch-responsive feel, while the AB voice is a bit punchier with greater headroom.
The built-in attenuator is effective for bring the amp’s output down to bedroom levels without significantly diminishing dynamics or tone. The USB output is very easy to use and doesn’t require software or additional drivers to interface with GarageBand on a MacBook. And while the simulated speaker tones probably won’t fool nitpicking listeners, the mic simulations work well for layering basic guitar tracks.
Peavey’s new ValveKing 20 is a smart, effective modern tube combo that will reward the budget-minded gigging or recording guitarist—and especially players that are looking to do both with a single amp. At around $550, it’s a bargain that will give any other amps in its price range a serious run for its money. But with it’s quiet performance, lovely clean tones, and dynamic response, it often has a way of sounding and feeling much more expensive than it is.
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