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Mesa/Boogie Mark V Amp Review

Mesa/Boogie''s latest takes feature-packed to a new level

Download Example 1
Channel 2, MKI setting - Les Paul Std. Treble Pickup
Download Example 2
Channel 1, 45W Fat Setting - Tele, Neck Pickup
Download Example 3
Channel 2, Edge Setting - Tele, Neck Pickup
Download Example 4
Channel 1 Clean 10W - Les Paul Custom, Rhythm Pickup
Download Example 5
Mark IIC+ - Les Paul Custom, Neck Pickup
Download Example 6
Mark IIC+ - Les Paul Custom, Bridge Pickup
Download Example 7
Mark IV Extreme Setting - Caparison
All clips recorded through Boogie 1x12 closed-back WideBody cab, Sennheiser 421 through Groove Tube Vipre Preamp into Pro Tools. Clips 1-4, Rich Tozzoli. Clips 5-7, Brandon Ellis.
Full disclosure: I’ve owned a Mesa/Boogie Mark IV head since I bought it new in ’92. Does that make me biased towards Boogies? Yes and no. Yes, because I love the sound of it. No, because it’s not the only game in town—and I own a lot of amps that sound killer. Having said that, the new Mark V carves out its own space in Boogie-land. Built from the bedrock foundation and lineage of several models, it’s very much like the Mark IV, yet very different. Here’s what I found in my month-long test run with it.

Redefining “Feature Rich”
Upon removing the Mark V from the well-padded shipping box, I immediately noticed the knobs are recessed further than on the Mark IV. It’s a good thing, because they stick out too far on the Mark IV—I’ve sheared several of them off mine. I was a bit surprised to find the sturdy, eight-button aluminum footswitch separate from the head. The Mark IV footswitch connects directly to the rear (though not easily) and protects the tubes. Although the Mark V’s controller comes with a pouch, it would be nice to have a spare pocket for the cable, because you can’t really fit both inside. And if you lose the cable at a gig, well, you’re in trouble. Aside from that, my overall first impression is certainly one of a well-built, tank-like piece of gear—typical Mesa/Boogie.

Sitting it atop a Marshall 4x12 loaded with Celestions, I looked over all the controls (23 knobs, 17 switches, and a five-band EQ). Because I’m so used to the Mark IV, it was probably not as daunting a view as others might find it to be. While there’s no denying the sound of that head, there’s also talk out there that it’s confusing to use, and I could see how others might feel that way about it. But I was relieved once I figured out how the Mark V is laid out. It has three distinct channel sections, followed by the EQ and Master outputs. Whereas the Mark IV combines several knobs (such as R1/R2 Bass and Mid), each Mark V channel features independent Gain, Master, Presence, Treble, Mid, and Bass controls. Each channel also has a number of toggle switches to select various modes and power/operating-class options. So right off the bat, it makes more sense than the Mark IV.

The Whole Mark Series in One Amp
The five-band graphic EQ, which is found on all the Mark series amps, features the same frequency choices (80, 240, 750, 2200 and 6600Hz). But, unlike on the Mark IV, it can be assigned to each channel independently. A small, three-position toggle switch on each channel allows you to bypass the graphic EQ completely (center), leave it on all the time (top), or turn it on and off with the footswitch (down). A small LED above the Power/Standby switches lights up when it’s on, so you can see if it’s bypassed or engaged. Taking this a step further, on either side of the EQ are a set of three rotary Preset controls and a set of associated Slider/Preset switches. With the switches, each channel can be assigned to Sliders (up) or Preset (down), where the amount of the EQ in the signal can be dialed in using the three Preset knobs. Like many others, I’ve always found that the classic “V” shape works best, and this new setup is a different way to blend in the amount of EQ you want for each channel.

Also common to each channel section, but unique to the Mark V, is a toggle switch that lets you independently select three power modes. Toggling up gives you the most power and headroom with 90 watts. In this mode, all four output tubes are in-line, but in two different classes of operation. The outside pair run in class AB and run cooler, while the inside pair run in “extended” class A and have a reduced bias. The fact that they all work together simultaneously is where the term Simul-Class originates. The middle toggle position is 45 watts (extended class A, push-pull). Here, only the middle tubes are running in extended class A with a reduced bias. What’s cool in this position is that, with Channels 1 and 2, you can then choose the type of high-voltage rectifier that best fits your style. Two small toggle switches on the rear offer Diodes or Tube settings. The former provides maximum punch and impact, and the latter reduces headroom and gives a more classic feel. And, finally, toggling down causes the channel to operate at 10 watts (class A, single-ended). Single-ended design emphasizes the second harmonic, and on the Mark V the two tubes next to the 5U4 power supply are wired in parallel. The 10-watt mode delivers the most old-school, spongy feel of them all.

Other features that differentiate the Mark V from the Mark IV—and any other Boogie, for that matter—are the three Reverb knobs on the rear panel. Each channel features its own reverb, and by turning the knob (mix control) to the off position, the ’verb is bypassed. It is a very nice-sounding reverb. Also on the back is a useful 1/4" Tuner Output, which can be used silently by tapping Mute on the foot controller. You can also pull on the front Solo control to activate silent tuning. There’s a Bias Select switch on the back, as well, and it allows you to replace the stock 6L6s with EL34s. You can also choose to run 6V6 tubes—but only on the Variac Power setting.

The Mark V also has two incredibly useful master output controls. The Output controls the overall output of the Mark V, but only when the effects loop is engaged. For the purest tone, you can choose the Hard Bypass toggle switch on the rear panel, which removes all effects loop circuitry from the chain, leaving your channel Master in control. The Solo control is wired in series with the Output and can be set higher and activated with the footswitch to give you a volume boost—it’s not active when the footswitch is not attached. That’s one feature that was certainly designed by a real-world player.

Plugging In
Despite all the similarities and differences, it’s really all about the tone. To begin with, this amp has a totally killer clean sound. Playing through both the Marshall 4x12 and a Boogie 1x12 WideBody closed-back cab, it delivered on all three wattage settings. My main guitars are a Les Paul Custom and a Telecaster, and both were quite happy to be playing through this monster. It’s got a sense of clarity, crispness, and punch that even my Mark IV doesn’t have. Damn! The night after I got the amp, I brought it out to a jam and had the house guitarist, Joel Newton, check it out. Coincidentally, he brought his 30-plus-year-old Mark I that night, so we listened to each amp side by side. As Joel played his Gibson ES-335 through the Mark V, I stood back and listened to exactly what I’d heard at my studio: clean, clear, wide, fat tone. “I liked it and thought it was punchy, with a vintage, tubey sound,” he told me. “It seemed like a mix of vintage tube sound… big mids but with a more shimmery, clear high end than my Mark I—almost like a boutique amp.”

On a funky, groovy number, I plugged my Tele in and opened up Channel 2 in Mark I mode and Normal setting. With medium gain and running at 45 watts with a tube rectifier, it was sweet. I easily punched through the jam, and I felt like I had full control over my individual notes and chords, and with volume to spare. I was able to dig into the Tele and break the amp up more as I picked harder, which was exactly what I was looking for. It definitely takes some tweaking to find what you want on this amp (sometimes it was too thick for me, sometimes too crunchy) but you can’t love every sound when it has so many to offer.

Back home at my studio a week later, I had 17-year-old wunderkind Brandon Ellis come check it out. Ellis, who last year ventured to Sweden to study guitar, played my Les Paul and his Caparison Horus with EMG 85s. I had him sit down at the amp without explaining anything. It took him a bit to look it over and dial it in, as was to be expected from someone seeing this thing for the first time. He set the Gain on Channel 3 at 3 o’clock, with a 90-watt, Mark IIC+ mode and Pentode setting. Listening to the online audio examples, you can hear a crisp Les Paul playing a lick in E-flat tuning, as well as a heavier lick from his Caparison tuned to C#. He also dialed in an Extreme mode setting with Diode rectifier, which is a high-gain setting pulled from the Mark IV. “It was more dynamic than I expected,” he reported. “It was confusing to work with at first, but once I sat with it, it was okay. It’s a more organic, woody-sounding amp than I’m used to playing, versus the processed and compressed sound that I typically use. It’s great for single-note lead work.”

The Final Mojo
The Mark V is not for everyone—especially those who want a simple amp. It’s a somewhat complex, seething monster of sound that is a living history of what Mesa/Boogie has offered—with new capabilities thrown in. But with a little time and effort, you can go from very clean to very mean and pretty much everywhere in between. The flexible design also allows it to be as comfortable onstage as it is in the studio. It’s not cheap, hitting the streets at around $2K, but this is clearly a case where you can be fully confident you’re getting what you pay for. With the Mark V, Mesa/Boogie has released another winner, and I suspect it will be around for many years to come.
Buy if...
you want the ultimate in flexibility and everything the Mark series has offered at your fingertips.
Skip if...
any more than two knobs is too many, or if you just want a single-channel amp.

Street $1990 (head) $469 (WideBody closed-back 1x12) - Mesa/Boogie -