Peavey Penta

With its green covering (which, according to Peavey, is the same flame-resistant material used on school bus seats), offset chassis, and cream-colored grillecloth, the single-channel Penta (head $1,499 retail/ $1,249 street; cabinet $899 retail/$749 street) is the hippest looking rig in this roundup.
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The heart of this single-channel beast is its 5-way Pentatone switch, which, via a series of internal relays, alters the EQ and gain structure with each click. In its first position, you get the Penta’s cleanest tones. These sounds are thick and stout with humbuckers, which makes the task of dialing in a shimmering clean tone a bit tough. Ultimately, I was most satisfied with single-coil guitars for this mode, and the chunky midrange component helped my prickly Strat pack a more guttural punch.

Clicking the Pentatone to its second position, you get a grinding, hopped-up tone that cleans up well when you back off on your guitar’s volume control. These sounds also sport a healthy amount of brusque, muscular midrange. The three remaining presets on the Pentatone switch offer varying degrees of gain, with the fifth position delivering the most modern, scooped-mid insanity. The Penta’s low-end heft is impressive—even at whisper volumes the amp’s tough, brutish tones made me feel like I was being whacked in the midsection by a 2x4.

The Penta isn’t a channel-switching amp, but you can toggle between any two Pentatone settings via footswitch. To test this feature, I dialed up my best clean tone, and then set the rear-panel Pentatone switch for some heavy grind. This gave me the ability to toggle between clean and distorted tones. It was effectively like having a two-channel amp—albeit a very flexible one, thanks to the myriad voicing options the two 5-way selectors provide. The downside, of course, is that you have to use the same EQ for any two sounds you configure. For example, with my Gibson SG dialed-in for a clean, cutting slice, I had to live with a brighter-than-ideal lead tone when I switched to the second Pentatone setting. Much of this could be mitigated with my guitar’s trusty tone knob (it is there for a reason), but players used to having independent EQ on their clean and distortion channels will likely consider that an antiquated solution. Of course, if you’re the type who likes to plug in, dial-up your baddest tone, and just rock out with one great sound that you make leaner or meaner with your guitar, then the vintage-vibed Penta may be the ideal amp for you.