The Mesa Stiletto Deuce
 

by Gun Arvidssen
Photography by Ciri Arvidssen

The people at Mesa Boogie are justifiably excited about their new creation. Available in Deuce (100W) or Trident (150W) variants, the Stiletto was designed from the ground up to showcase the beauty of the EL34 valves at its heart. The amplifier delivers razor-sharp, silvery tones that can be as lethal as its namesake. Yet the careful reworking of the EQ controls, as well as a range of modes per channel give the classic Best of British sound a whole new range of very contemporary possibilities.

Despite their much sought-after assets, EL34 tubes nevertheless have some shortcomings which the folk at Mesa Boogie addressed in the development of the Stiletto. In the words of Randall Smith, the founder of Mesa Boogie, "Those tubes are notoriously fragile." However, with some entrepreneurial voltage switching, their tendency to overheat when subjected to an extremely high signal load was subverted.

The amp is solidly constructed – the chassis is folded steel, seam-welded at the corners and chromed. The cabinet is made from 17.7mm seven-ply baltic birch, with tongue-and-groove joinery. There is plenty of ventilation around the tubes, and appearance wise, the unit is very attractive. Mirror-bright chrome panels and grilles are juxtaposed against the black faux crocodile face; the red jewel power indicator contrasts with the searing indigo of the clean channel light. And lo, the glorious glow of those EL34s simmers in the background as if underlining the uppercut force of the beast.

Firey Glow of EL34 Tubes

The Molten Glow of Stiletto's EL34 Quad

The exquisite brightness and focus of the Stiletto" tubes can be appreciated through two fully independent channels. Their features are similar, but not identical: for example, there is a slower taper on channel two" presence pot to optimise its range when used with the "tite gain" and "fl uid drive" settings. In simpler English, this means the "crunch" mode common to both channels will sound distinctly different even when all the controls appear to be set to identical values.

Speaking of which, the control panel on this amplifier is readily intelligible and well set out. The signal path effectively moves from right to left, starting with the input and footswitch jacks, and onto the mode selection switches... but more about those later. Then onwards through gain, treble, middle, bass, presence and master controls. The pots are in series, so the gain and treble are really where the money" at – which says a lot about the way the circuitry has been prioritised.

Another hint as to the way in which the machine is geared, lies in the voicings for the mid and bass tone controls. Compared to Rectifier heads, the bass control" frequency range peaks about an octave higher, while the mid control has been lowered by a similar amount. Although this strategy brings their ranges very close together, it also lets you sculpt exactly the right frequencies to squeeze the best from those EL34s.

The Stiletto was designed from the ground up to showcase the beauty of the EL34 valves at its heart, and delivers razorsharp, silvery tones which can be as lethal as its namesake

Next we come to the power switching options, which allow you to engage either two or all four of the EL34s for 50W or 100W in the case of the Deuce. Or six tubes and 150W on the Trident. After the self-explanatory channel selector, output and solo boost, is a toggle marked bold/spongy. In the "bold" setting, this supplies full voltage to the power stage, with obvious effects. "Spongy", however, is how Mesa Boogie describes a variac-like cut in the AC power supply, which has a mild brown-out type effect on the incoming voltage – especially noticeable when the tubes are really pumping.

The output and solo controls on the front are actually wired as part of the FX loop on the rear panel – a paradigm which has been a design feature in Mesa Boogie amps for years. This means that when you switch off the FX loop, you also lock out these two controls; personally I would have preferred an FX loop that doesn"t affect these other elements. However, in all objectivity, the FX loop is so transparent that this wiring really does not work to the amp" detriment. As distinct from the FX loop, there is also a slave send jack. This lines out the full sound of the amplifier, including the power stages. It is useful at larger venues or in conjunction with outboard rack systems which feed a separate series of power amps.

Also round the back there is the option to switch between tube and diode rectifier tracking. If methods for AC/DC conversion are a mystery to you, or perhaps evoke images of a religious fundamentalist harassing Angus Young, let" just say these switches give you yet another option in fine-tuning how the Stiletto feels to play through. The switches allow you to choose between a hard, unwavering power supply to the rest of the system (silicon), or a more elastic feel with a bit of compressed, Cadillac-like suspension.

SOUNDS:

Once you"ve become familiar with the subtleties of different bold/spongy or tube/diode combinations, you are greeted with a breathtaking range of possibilities. With a bit of tweaking and playing it" a breeze to get exactly what you"re after. If you"re into space-cadet type layers of phaser, reverb and digital delay over the exquisite texture of this amplifier, then so be it. The FX loop dives right into the heart of the signal chain, lining out after the channel selector switch and before the power stages. Each channel has three modes to choose from: fat clean, tite clean and crunch on channel one, and crunch (the return!), tite gain and fluid drive on channel two.

The fat clean really is as big as a whale. A killer whale. There" nothing sluggish about it: in fact the bottom end is as bouncy and economic as the one on Cameron Diaz, and just as fun to spank. One presumes. Tite clean is drastically different: narrow and urgent, it is a clarion call of higher mids while the lower frequencies take a step back into the shadows. Still, there is nothing blaring or lurid in the mature and dignified shape of this mode.

The "crunch" mode is less saturated than the two high-gain options on the lead channel, but it" well capable of a throaty growl, for example in response to a bit of high-octane humbucker action. It" the crossover point between the channels, but instead of simply duplicating the parameters, the channel two version has a slightly higher-gain entry point, providing a smooth step up into the Stiletto" more fiery territory.

Rear of Stiletto Deuce

Stiletto Deuce Rear Panel
Click Picture to Enlarge

The sheer resolution of this amp is just goddamn incredible. There isn"t the slightest hint of muddiness to be found anywhere, and especially on the "tite" settings, you will never fight to be heard over the other guitarist again. In fact, central to the Stiletto" design philosophy was the mission to create an amp that would complement a Dual or Triple Rectifier on the same stage rather than compete with it. And vice versa.

Having said that, we didn"t actually set up a duel between the Stiletto (atop a Mesa Boogie cab, naturally) and any other stack, but it wasn"t hard to extrapolate what it would sound like. In the "work smarter not harder" philosophy, the Stiletto" frequency package would step adroitly to the front of the mix – but without the excessive volume boost needed to actually blot out everything else.

Rear Closeup of Stiletto Deuce

Rear Closeup of Stiletto Deuce

If that simply isn"t enough to explain your credit card statement to your significant other, you"ve got a beastly little secret weapon: the Solo control. Used in conjunction with the supplied footswitch, you can boost the output volume of the power stage by a predetermined amount. At close range, this can drown out any argument. Onstage, which is where a responsible musician is more likely to use it, the switch provides you with just a slight leg-up over the rest of the band. Don"t worry, the sound guy will get used to it.

With circuitry built to accommodate the idiosyncracies of the EL34s, you can afford to let them shine by running them pretty hot. The manual goes to great pains to remind us the controls should be used judiciously, and the best quality is achieved around the middle of the road. Having said that, reverse psychology aside, I had to just max it out for a second, you know, judiciously like. The stack roared like Satan" personal practice amp, and I was extremely impressed by how sensitive it still was to pick attack despite the jump in compression.

The "fluid drive" mode is remarkably responsive, even when you crank the controls to howling, ludicrous levels. Which I only did for a period of judicious brevity, I swear. Generally speaking, we found that individual notes retain plenty of shape and have more body than BB King. A bit of careful fi ddling with the treble and gain controls will give your solos that magic envelope finish with just a bit of fur around the edges but also a dangerous snarl when you want it.

VERDICT:

A stellar amplifier head, very rewarding to play through. The hand-built structure is uncompromising in terms of strength, looks and quality. It" easy to see why Mesa Boogie was so determined to build an amp more or less exclusively to highlight the EL34 tubes: every note sings with a spectrum of gently encouraged harmonics, while the various modes cover just about all the bases. And [ahem] trebles.

Compared to the Rectifier amps, the slightly raised bass control and lowered mid control are optimised to shape everything left after the gain and treble pots have had their way – a strategy that speaks volumes about how this machine carries its weight. It is a fast, sinewy amp with a generous character yet uncompromising response – and of course, an indomitable edge.

MESA BOOGIE STILETTO TEST RESULTS

WE LIKED: Vision and purpose make for an intense and dynamic amplifier. Hot styling and awesome sound shaping possibilities; very distinct personality

WE DISLIKED: It's very difficult to dislike anything about this amp head

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Front Panel Closeup of Stiletto
Front Panel Closeup of Stiletto

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2005, Mesa Engineering


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