Small valve amps are becoming more and more popular, and there are quite a few models available for reasonable money too. The problem I’ve found with many of them is the lack of effects loops. I settled on my Blackstar HT-5 because of it’s fantastic dirty channel, and it’s effects loop. I love to use a few pedals, and I want to be able to keep them before the preamp to make sure they play nice with my overall tone.
Browsing through one of the local music stores Pirana Music, I noticed that they had launched their own in-house affordable valve amplifier range. Starting at little 5watt heads and combos, through to 100watt heads.
First thing I noticed was the KS-5C heads and combos. They have specifications very similar to the Blackstar HT-5s so I thought I would contact Pirana Music to see if they would mind me borrowing one for review. They were happy to oblige and I have brought the combo model home to review.
Lets start by looking at the specs:
- Built and modified especially for the fussy muso’s at Pirana
- Technical Jargon…worth reading
- Power: 5W
- Speaker: 10″ Custom Design
- Input: 1
- Channels: 2 switchable, Clean Volume, Drive Gain & Level
- EQ: Bass, Middle, Treble
- Channel select switch, as well as footswitch control
- Speaker output, 8ohm/16ohm
- Tubes:Preamp 12AX7 x 1, Power EL84 x 1
- Dimensions: 43cmW x 27cmD x 39cmH
Looking at the amplifier and the specifications it is easy to notice the visual similarities with the Blackstar HT-5 combo. The size of the amplifier is comparable, and the control layout is very similar. Does the Pirana KS-5C sound at all like Blackstar’s venerable little powerhouse?
The obvious difference on paper is that the KS-5C uses a somewhat more conventional poweramp valve in the EL84. Pirana have loaded the KS-5C with a Ruby Tubes EL84 and 12AX7, as they felt that they provided the KS-5C with the tone they were looking for.
Plugging in to the KS-5C I was somewhat expecting to hear some similar tones to the Blackstar HT-5, but I was very much surprised when I switched it on.
The clean channel is very bright, cutting, and has a lot of chime similar to Fender valve amps. Great clean tones to suit a wide array of styles can be coaxed out of the KS-5C with any combination of humbuckers and single coil pickups. I particularly liked the “in-between” sounds of the middle single coil, and split bridge and neck humbucker in my Ibanez RG550.
I was also able to keep a fairly nice clean sound with the volume up to half way. Soft picking still yielded the nice clean bright tones, and heavier picking gave a little vintage crunch. Turn the clean volume right up and you had great blues crunch sound.
I hooked up an MI Effects Crunch Box Distortion and my modified Boss MT-2 Metal Zone to see how the clean channel handled distortion pedals. As I expected the Crunch Box sounded fantastic, and really turned the Fender chime into massive Marshall grunt. I was able to dial in some sweet tight metal tones with my modified MT-2 as well.
Switching over to the dirty channel I was amazed by how much gain was on tap, quite a bit more than the Blackstar HT-5 I was comparing it against. Just because a lot of gain is available doesn’t mean it necessarily is usable though. I personally found that diming the gain introduced too much of a fizzy tone, losing a bit of definition. Dialling the gain back to 2/3rds I found about the limit of dirt that I was happy with tonally.
However I felt something was missing with the KS-5C’s dirty channel. Sure there was plenty of usable gain on tap, and there was a nice amount of chunk and grind to the tone. A/B-ing between my HT-5 I realised what the KS-5C was missing – low end oomph.
This may be just personal preference, but I feel as though the KS-5C could really do with a bit more available bass. I was almost maxing out the bass, and scooping the mids back to 11-1 o’clock depending on what tone I was looking for. I kept the treble control within the first half of the dial most of the time as well just to get some low end in my tone.
I thought that the stock 10″ speaker may have something to do with lack of low-end oomph, so I plugged the KS-5C into my 1×12″ Celestion Vintage 30 cabinet to see if I could get a more full range sound out of the amplifier. I did find that there were more dynamics, and a little less fizz at high gain, but the low end was just at the minimum of where I would have wanted it. It may just be that the Vintage 30, with it’s mid-range hump, was not quite the right speaker for this amp.
I do still believe that the KS-5C would be better served with a little more bass though, especially since it’s paired up with a 10″ speaker. I typically set the bass at about 12 o’clock on my amps, and set the mids and treble to 3 and 1-3 o’clock respectively. This sort of set-up still gives me plenty of range if I plug in different guitars and feel I need to adjust the tone controls slightly to accommodate for different pickup types.
In saying this the KS-5C did give some really nice mid-gain rock tones with a lot of mid-range chunk and grind. Muted power chords cut through really nicely with a really bright, defined crunch. It was fun to play Tom Morello style riffs, as the amp was capable of that really heavy without needing lots of distortion sound that Rage Against The Machine and Audio Slave are famous for.
The dirty channel is capable dirty blues and classic rock, through to more modern rock tones. It could handle most metal tones, although with the lack of low end it probably couldn’t handle more modern brutal scooped metal without the aid of an eq pedal.
Unlike a lot of low wattage valve amps, the Pirana KS-5C comes with an effects loop. This is particularly handy for those who use modulation and reverb effects. It doesn’t have an effects level switch like the Blackstar units have, but it does seem to work fairly well with most pedals.
The build quality appears to be quite solid considering the KS-5Cs low price. The cabinet is nicely built, and all controls and jacks seem to be solid enough to last a long time. The amp doesn’t generate a great deal of heat either, so it seems like the layout of everything is quite nice.
Overall the Pirana KS-5C is a value for money small footprint valve amp, perfect for those who want something for home or studio use. It’s clean channel is capable of gorgeous clean tones, and the dirty channel is capable of nice clean crunch and grind. The dirty channel by itself the KS-5C gets a little too buzzy and lacks low end for more modern metal tones, but it is quite capable of most other styles. However the clean channel takes distortion pedals really nicely, and you could probably dial up any sound you wanted with your preferred choice of dirt box.
The 10″ speaker is probably it’s weakest point, as is the case with most amplifiers sporting a single 10″ speaker. They just aren’t able to produce the full level of dynamics that a nice guitar with a good amplifier is capable of producing. I’d prefer to buy the head version of the KS-5C, and pair it up with a 1×12″ cabinet. It would be nice to see a combo built with a 1×12″ speaker though.
This is a keenly priced budget valve amplifier though, and as such it is a great bargain. I believe that if you get the head version, and pair it up with a nice 1×12″ speaker cabinet you will have a fantastic little package that will probably be great for gigs too.
Thanks to Keith at Pirana Music for providing the Pirana KS-5C to me for review.