Price paid: $ 1400
Purchased from: Bob's Guitars, Iowa
Sound — 9
You might be thinking that this review, based on the above rant, is going to be a pan. Weirdly enough though, it isn't. The Mark V sounds amazing! The clean channel alone is worth the price of admission. The second channel will do a very good imitation of a Marshall, and channel three is massive sounding. I'm a metal player at heart, but I dabble in most styles of music. That said, my setup is specific. I use an all maple US Masters Vector guitar. It is a clear, powerfully voiced instrument, and it pushes the Mark without the need for high output pickups. I also use the head into an avatar 1x12 with a Celestion G12K-100. V30's also sound good with the Mark V. I despised the C-90 in the combo amp, although that could have been due to the open back. My channel setup is for a metal motif. Channel one is set to be very clean (no grit at all) with a lot of reverb. Channel two is set for as close to an 80's Marshall tone as I can get. Channel three is set to extreme for metal madness. In all channels, I've cranked the midrange. The mid on the parametric EQ adds some gain and saturation. Without this trick, I would have sold the amp. This effect is not as pronounced with the C-90 equipped combo. I have tried the IIC+ setting on channel three, but found that the fluidity it gave to leads sacrificed metal rhythm accuracy. However, it does sound very, very good. Both channel two and three suffer from a slight lack of sustain, that sometimes makes it more difficult to get a legato feel when playing solos. I think I may try a boost pedal to fix this. I can't overstate how clear and precise the high gain channels are. Once dialed, this head is addictive and spoils you. I can't go back to the amps I used before... They sound like garbage in comparison. This head stacks up against any high gain head out there.
Overall Impression — 8
I compared this amp to a Marshall JVM, Mesa Rectifier, Orange Rocker 100, Peavey 5150, Carvin x100b, Zinky Superfly, Marshall 900, and several others. Each of those was a great amp in their own right, but none of them sounds like a Mark. And none of them have the clarity I'm hearing in my rig. Overall, the Mark is frustrating beast of an amp, but, if you hang in there, it is undeniably one of the best high gain amps being made.
Reliability & Durability — 8
The construction of the amp, frankly, worried me. I opened the head up and found that the preamp tubes were mounted to PCB and that the power tubes were mounted to a daughter board. I also saw that there are daughter boards for the controls. These daughter boards are connected to the main board via ribbon cables. It looked like a PC when I opened the Mark V! I've since looked at countless gut shots on amp forums and discovered to my surprise that nearly all of the boutique amps I've revered from afar are constructed in exactly the same way! VHT, Bogner, Diezel, etc, all are guilty of shoddy production techniques! ...Or are they? Mesas have a strong reputation as very reliable amps. Additionally, a three channel amp with all the options of the Mark V would be impossible to construct in any other way. What's more, after drooling over a number of photos of some very well-constructed, hand-made amps, I discovered that PTP wired amps are altogether too temperamental machines! Apparently, changing the orientation of one component wire in such a circuit can totally change the tone of the amp! So you pay a mint to buy an amp that may or may not sound better than a production PCB amp and end up with something that has a variability of tone that could render your massive investment in it fruitless. So, after mulling this over, I've decided it would be unfair to penalize Mesa for design features that, though they are regarded as inferior by purists, apparently have little bearing on tone or reliability. I will say however, that I don't have enough information to make an accurate judgment of the Mark V's durability. This is, after all, an amp that's only been around for little over a year. I've been using mine for about six months and have gigged with it only a few times. I've had no major problems aside from a noisy preamp tube. The jury is out. There are two design features I'd like to mention here. 1. The preamp tubes are entirely too difficult to change in the head. 2. The tubes are very good in this amp. The preamp tubes are JJ's. I've tried several others (including some NOS) and keep coming back to the JJ's. They are a near perfect blend of tone and stability. The power tubes are Sovteks and also sound very good. I compared these to Groove Tube GE reissues, and the Sovteks are better. Unfortunately, the Mesa warranty requires the use of Mesa tubes, so I'm not too keen on experimenting a lot with power tubes as I would like to. 3. The ability to run both el34's and 6l6's together is discouraged by Mesa on the Mark V. From what I understand, this is due to the 10 Watt setting not being able to send the correct voltages to the tubes if they're mixed. This is a bummer, as many consider the ability to mix the two types a great feature of the Mark amps. I guess so long as you avoid the 10 Watt setting, you'd be okay, but who wants to take chances with melting a $2000 amp?
Features — 8
Admittedly, I've been avoiding this review for a while. I've wanted to spend as much time as possible exploring the Mark V before expounding on its abilities and features. The problem with the Mark is that it's so sensitive to all of your gear choices and its own settings that it becomes very difficult to know when you've actually heard what it has to offer. Bad reviews of Mark amps are usually met with incredulous fans claiming that the reviewer didn't know how to make the amp work. Sometimes that claim may be true, but on the other hand if an amp is that tricky to operate, it may be at least a tacit admission that the Mark amps could have some design flaws. After all, if someone bought a TV that you had to spend a month adjusting in order to get its 'real' performance, would you really blame the owner getting frustrated and panning it? There is something to be said for user friendly designs, and after experiencing the Mark V, I can say that dialing in other amps is a blessedly short and simple process. And yet, every other amp I've used or auditioned can't do what the Mark V can. So, like a Diamond in the rough, you've got to get through a lot of useless junk in order to hit pay dirt. Which brings me to my main criticism of the Mark's features: The EQ. Why, oh why would Randall Smith design an EQ section with so much range, but so little utility? Each of the rotary controls of the preamp have a very limited range of good tone because of their interaction with other parts of the EQ. The design is completely counter-intuitive. For instance, if you would like anything approaching an acceptable high gain tone, you must not turn the rotary bass knob above 9 o'clock! This caveat is even written in the user manual (and more than once). This is your first, and certainly not your only, clue that Randall Smith realizes how quickly you can render your Mark a farting mess with a half turn of the bass control. Since this is the case, wouldn't it be a good idea to change the sweep of the knob? After all, wouldn't it be comforting to know that you could use the entire sweep of the knob without destroying your sound? So, naturally, you could ask yourself why a smart guy like Randall Smith would leave such a curious design flaw in place? The only possible answers are that it is somehow necessary to the overall sound of the Mark series, or that the abnormality, being an artifact of the Mark design from the very first of the series, is now the norm for Mark users and can't be tampered with for fear of alienating purists. In either case, it's weakness and folly to perpetuate a feature that should be revamped in favor of utility. There are other artifacts within the preamp that virtually beg for renovation as well. Another is the odd interactivity in the EQ section. The treble, mid, and bass controls fight for bandwidth within the Mark V in a zero sum fashion that strains at the edges of abuse. If you crank the treble, it changes the way the bass behaves and vice versa. The mid and treble change the way the gain behaves. For all the possibilities the interaction creates, the confusion it generates almost destroys the magic of the sounds you can conjure. This apparently, is another unfortunate artifact of Smith's Mark designs. Now, there are other instances of this, but it would be an act of extreme tedium to list and describe each here as I'm sure you (the reader) would like to be able to digest this review in one sitting. Suffice it to say, that the Mark V has many useful features that, so long as you are very careful with them, will lead you to good and possibly great tones. But each feature comes at the cost of testing your patience with an irrationally confusing preamp design. You'll quickly find the graphic EQ built into the Mark V indispensable. Without it, the amp sounds unforgivably boxy. Unfortunately, you can't customize the graphic EQ for one channel without messing up the others. There are presets you can select for each channel to bypass this dilemma, but if you don't like the presets, they're little consolation. The issue I've encountered arises from using an extreme V shape to achieve a good metal tone on channel 3. However, applying this shape to the first channel, yields a less than desirable tone. Switching off the graphic on channel one makes it difficult to balance the volumes between the channels. So I'm stuck with the preset to ease the problem. Unfortunately, the preset is lacking to me. So, although the Mark V is a 3 channel amp, you still end up having to sacrifice one channel's tone for the sake of another. This is a problem that has been present in the Mark series since the Mark II. Why can't it be resolved? Another problem with channel one is that the reverb becomes a little too subtle in the tweed mode. Also, in answer to the previous reviewer, midi switching, albeit in a half-arsed form, is possible.