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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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