Mesa/Boogie Lone Star
Review by: Matt Pinson
|Features Usability Sound Documentation & Product Support Price Other Comments
Contact Info Overall Rating—Product Summary
Every once in a great while an amplifier comes along that really knocks you out. For us, this is that amplifier. For anyone looking for an amp that delivers lush, three dimensional clean tones that would stand proudly next to any black face amp; unbelievable thick, throaty mid-gain lead sounds that make it hard to put your guitar down, and an incredible range of sounds in between, look no further!
The Lone Star’s name might imply that its focus is strictly on Texas blues sounds, but the truth is that this amp is incredibly versatile and ideally suited to blues, jazz, rock, pop, and alternative styles as well. In addition to sounding like a dream, the Lone Star is beautifully crafted, masterfully engineered, and (as with all Boogies) available in a wide array of custom finishes and options. The hardest thing about reviewing the amp, besides having to unplug from it long enough to write this review, has been the fact that we know we eventually have to give it back! Can you say Wish I Had One???!!!
The Lone Star’s controls are intuitively laid out and are symmetrical between both channels, with Channel 1’s controls sitting directly above Channel 2’s. Having the controls laid out in this fashion makes it easy to know, with a little bit of time and familiarity, what parameter you are adjusting regardless of stage lighting conditions (reading the small black text on the brushed aluminum front panel can sometimes prove difficult).
In addition to independent master volume controls for each channel, global controls for output and solo levels are provided on the front panel as well. This makes quick volume adjustments on stage a breeze, as well as when fine-tuning an appropriate level of boost for the footswitch-controlled Solo feature. In fact, most controls that you would typically adjust at the gig (including wattage selection, channel voicing, and Tweed or Full Power) are conveniently located on the front panel, with the exception of the reverb controls (independent for each channel), which are located on the back panel. All of this makes dialing in great tones in either channel an intuitive and fairly straightforward experience for anyone that has been around tube amps long enough to understand the interaction between the parameter controls.
Wattage (100W or 50W in full power mode) is channel assignable and the method of rectification (silicone diodes or 5U4G tube at 50W or silicone diodes only at 100W) can either be preset or can be “auto tracked” so that the diodes are engaged whenever 100W is selected, while the tube rectifier is engaged whenever 50W is selected. Together, this ensures that you can dial in the appropriate headroom, feel and amount of “sag” for each channel, independently.
With further regards to power tube settings, EL-34’s can be substituted for the stock compliment of four 6L6’s with just the flick of the bias switch. No re-biasing or other modifications necessary! This allows players to experiment with the differing tube characteristics and their associated British and American flavors. For those who crave further tonal variety, courtesy of the flexible power stage, the manual even states that you can substitute 6V6 power tubes for the stock 6L6’s to give the Lone Star a looser, breather feel (It is recommended, in so doing, to plug the eight Ohm speaker load into the four Ohm speaker jack).
The high quality, series effects loop is hard-wire, “true-bypass”-able when not in use, and has its own control over the send level to ensure it plays nicely with both your modern rack gear or vintage pedal effects.
The heavy-duty two-button footswitch (included) allows control over channel switching and the Solo feature. Additionally, these functions can be controlled externally via ¼” TRS jacks located on the rear panel for if you want to interface the Lone Star with more sophisticated switching systems.
Adding to the list of pro features, there is a Slave output and control on the rear panel for connecting to other amplifiers and mixing consoles, as well as a switch to keep the fan from turning on during critical studio recording.
Hearing all of the buzz regarding this amp’s clean tones, we couldn’t wait to plug in both a ’59 Re-Issue Gibson ES-335 and a Fender Eric Johnson Stratocaster and hear it for ourselves. Having a lot of experience with Boogies, we took our time dialing in the controls, knowing that the best Boogie sounds sometimes take a little time to unlock.
We first set the power selector switch to 100 Watts and turned the amp to full power (rather than Tweed) to get maximum headroom. We were soon able to dial in a gorgeous, breathy clean tone with incredibly detailed lows, sparkling highs, and an elastic midrange. Taking some advice from recent MusicPlayers.com interviewee Andy Timmons, we set the effects loop to one o’clock.
Having the basis set, we began to adjust the reverb, setting the control to Bright for a more a vintage sparkle and dialing just the right amount of mix at about ten o’clock. The reverbs in the Lone Star are simply the best reverbs we have ever heard in an amp. The Bright/Warm switch for each channel allows you to change the characteristic of the reverb from yesteryear to more of a modern studio sound. While we preferred the brighter sound for our cleans and the warmer sound for our overdriven tones, either choice proved to be simply gorgeous, with extraordinary detail and a very lush decay.
On either guitar, the sound of the Lone Star clean was very three-dimensional, and we were immediately impressed with the clarity and extreme detail of the low end. The top end had a very elegant shimmer to it and also possessed a level of sonic sophistication that is rarely heard even on boutique gear costing thousands more.
One of the things that is immediately noticeable with this amp is its incredible transparency. All of the guitar’s inherent characteristics shine through the amp without loss of detail or nuance. The ES-335’s woody resonance and throaty vocal quality came through in vibrant clarity. The Strat’s trademark chime, quack, and hollow flutiness were reproduced in stunning resolution. The Lone Star truly allows your instrument’s unique voice to shine through in a way that very few amplifiers can.
Selecting Tweed power, switching the wattage down to 50W, and engaging the tube rectifier, we were able to quickly conjure up a decidedly vintage vibe. Instantly, the clean tones became more bubbly and scooped, the feel of the amp became more spongy, and we were able to easily push the amp into a purring power clip. Mismatching the impedance of the speaker load by plugging the eight Ohm speaker load into the four Ohm jack further enhanced this retro experience by yielding a brighter, snappier, more percussive quality. Suddenly, it sounded as if we were playing through a completely different amp! We had to look again to make sure the custom purple floral-patterned leather on our review amp hadn’t suddenly transformed into aged tweed! We almost thought we heard each guitar protest when we tried to unplug it!
It should be noted, that while there is no need for using stomp boxes to get fantastic overdriven tones from this amp, the Lone Star worked incredibly well with the variety of overdrive, fuzz, and distortion pedals we tested with it. More and more of the vintage-minded players we talk with seem to be going back to pairing such devices with a great tube amp set completely clean or on the verge of break-up . Such players will find the Lone Star an ideal companion to their favorite old Tube Screamers, Fuzz Faces, Tube Drivers, Big Muffs, or whathaveyou.
With thoughts of overdrive now dancing in our heads, we were able to contain ourselves no longer, and decided to explore the Lone Star’s second channel. Returning the speaker load to eight Ohms, but leaving the power set to Tweed, we set this channel for 50W and Tube Rectifier as well. Plugging in the Strat and setting the channel to Drive and setting the selector switch to Normal, we were quickly able to keep the vintage mojo working and dial up a Texas flood of some tasty, howling blues tones ala SRV.
Switching guitars to the ES-335 and setting the Lone Star to 100W and dialing the selector switch to Thicker, we were able to help the poor (of tone, that is!) and conjure up a throaty, singing tone that brought to mind thoughts of Robben Ford. Once again, absolutely none of our test guitars’ characteristic nuances were compromised in any way, regardless of Gain or Drive settings. Truly remarkable!
Swapping in EL-34’s for the stock compliment of 6L6’s and switching to the Thick option on the channel voicing selector switch, we were able to grab our Strat and cross the bridge of sighs into sonic territory reminiscent of Robin Trower. Plugging into a closed back 4x12 cabinet loaded with Vintage 30’s rather than the stock speakers thickened and focused the sound of the Lone Star’s higher gain offerings and added an extra touch of voodoo for such Jimi inspired sounds [Editor’s note: Those specifically looking for the EL-34 based British tones reminiscent of such players should also consider the Mesa/Boogie Stiletto, also reviewed by MusicPlayers.com. And because I can’t stop interrupting this review, it should be pointed out that Andy Timmons is currently using both the Lone Star and Stiletto for his amplification rig. Read about it in our interview with Andy.].
In further use we found the Lone Star to be gorgeous sounding at any volume, to have ample power and headroom to handle almost every situation (when you start playing arenas, though, you might want to think about miking your cabs!), and to be rugged enough to survive the rigors of the road. Where some combo amps (okay, most!) begin to sound thin and shrill at high volume, the Lone Star remains rock solid and as soulful as ever.
In fact, allowing the power tubes to sweat (most easily achieving this by switching to Tweed and 50W) unleashes a vibrant palette of toneful vintage-tinged colors. With the Lone Star, though, you can “have your cake and eat it too” by switching Channel 1 to 100W and silicone diodes for maximum clean headroom, and setting Channel 2 to 50W and tube rectification for a purring power tube crunch with a spongy feel. Turn up the Gain and Drive or step on that vintage Tube Screamer to take it over the top into howling blues. It’s like having a high-powered blackface and a low-powered tweed, both with the added soul and additional mojo that only Randall Smith and company could add.
Of course, don’t let us lead you to believe that these are the only sounds that the Lone Star has to offer. In truth, there are a myriad of sounds lurking beneath the Lone Star’s beautiful exterior that pay homage to the finest sounds of yesteryear as well as the cutting edge tones of today. For instance, we were able to coax classic rock tones ala AC/DC and Led Zeppelin by turning up the treble (which increases the gain a bit and tightens up the bottom end), switching the Channel 2 voicing to Thick (think Plexi!), and dialing to taste. Additionally, as we turned the Lone Star up a bit, we noted how the power section began to compress a bit and fill in the subtle cracks in the preamp gain, offering us a huge, rich tone.
The Lone Star was voiced to capture the elusive magic of Black Face, the purr of vintage Tweed, the throaty vocal quality of the fabled Mark 1’s mid-gain, and an eclectic array of incredible sounds in between. Players seeking these sounds need look no further!
Players seeking the hellacious amount of gain and sledgehammer attack currently in vogue with many Nu Metal, Emo-Core, Heavy Prog, and Black Metal bands (think Linkin Park, Staind, Dream Theater, and Opeth, respectively), though, won’t find those sounds here. Fans of the heaviest Boogie tone should look to the Dual and Triple Rectifier Solo heads, or, for over-the-top gain possibilities with a distinctly British vibe, the new Stiletto designs. Players seeking those modern heavy sounds (as well as a comprehensive arsenal of other great tones) should also consider the new Road King Series Two amplifier.
In all respects, this amp is simply a joy to play! Not only do the sounds inspire, but it just feels great!
Documentation and Product Support
If we could award ten stars in this category, we’d have to consider it. The kind folks at Mesa/Boogie (most especially Tien Lawrence and Tim McKee) have always gone way above and beyond what one could reasonably expect from any amplifier company when it comes to product support.
Mesa/Boogie product documentation is outstanding. Well written and often entertaining, the Lone Star documentation (as with other Boogie manuals) offered many suggestions for getting a wide range of tones from the amp. Mesa also provides a number of instant gratification settings and sample settings to get you going right away with the Lone Star. For those of you just stepping up to a premium tube amplifier like the Lone Star, reading the manual will help you learn how to get the best possible tone from these amps.
Anyone familiar with Boogie manuals has come to appreciate the real-world explanations, race car analogies, and witty humor that round out the wealth of knowledge of the product in question. On top of it all, we received some of our first education in amplifiers and tube technology – everything from understanding bias to how circuits work – courtesy of Randall Smith and company.
We have had plenty of experience dealing with Mesa/Boogie for various sales and support issues throughout the years, long before any of us at MusicPlayers.com ever dreamed of writing for a music publication, engineering sound for artists, or shooting rock photos… in other words, long before they had a reason to give us more time or attention than any other tone-obsessed kid with a guitar and a lot of questions. Every experience we have had with Mesa/Boogie has been an incredible testimony to what customer service should be like!
Not only are the folks at Mesa/Boogie extremely knowledgeable about amplifiers, but they are incredibly knowledgeable about all things musical. In the past, we’ve gotten recommendations from Tien on everything from tube selection to guitar pickups, and Tim continues to turn us on to new music whenever we call or stop by with a question about their latest gear.
Mesa/Boogie treat their customers like family and that alone would keep us coming back with our business. The fact that their amplifiers are among the best on this earth just makes it that much easier!
$1,599.00 1x12 Combo
$1,699.00 2x12 Combo
Numerous custom options are available at an additional cost (typically in the $150-$500 range) for different colors, grill coverings, and cabinet materials. Options range from colored vinyl to leather, suede, and hardwood. Our gorgeous review unit featured purple leather with an embossed floral pattern, a $399 option. Details on custom options can be found on the Mesa/Boogie web site.
The tone, build quality, and flexibility of the Lone Star not only rivals, but quite simply outdoes a vast array of significantly more expensive amps, both boutique-contemporary and sought-after-vintage models. Boogie’s fixed pricing structure ensures that you can get the amp of your dreams for the same price as anyone else, regardless of haggling skills, sales trends, or geography.
With their worldwide recognition as one of the leading manufacturers of guitar and bass amps, it’s hard to believe that Mesa/Boogie is still a small company with fewer than 100 employees. As such, they operate with the feel and personal attention many of you have experienced when dealing with other boutique manufacturers and custom shops.
On a recent visit to the Mesa/Boogie factory in Petaluma, we were actually given the opportunity to play through some vintage Mark IIC+’s by the sheer kindness of none other than Mike Bendinelli, the co-designer of the amp, just because we expressed a particular enthusiasm for vintage Boogie gear!
Lest you think our review is overly enthusiastic, let us offer you the added endorsement of saying that, after reviewing the Lone Star, we decided we couldn’t live without this type of tone, so we ordered one for ourselves!
Matt Pinson, former MusicPlayers.com senior editor, is an accomplished musician and engineer based in the San Francisco Bay area. His production audio engineering talents are used by television networks and motion picture companies, and he consults on equipment and music technology for professional musicians.
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