Home recording has probably been the liveliest growth area of the music industry in the last few years and this has caused a surge in demand for compact guitar gear of all kinds. Any major manufacturer who isn't offering something home recording-friendly should be sitting up and taking notice.
There are plenty of experienced pro players working at home, looking for the sort of sound they get on stage from gear that's easy to record, handle and store, and even more newcomers looking for the way in to that sound.
Marshall has always been well abreast of the market, and the Class 5 is their UK-built response to this. Dr Jim himself has made mention of the number of Marshall fans that have requested the sound of the classic 100 stack in a small amp - and it's no mean feat, if you consider the mutual dependence of volume and tone in the way we hear amps.
Visually the Class 5 treads a familiar path, with Bluesbreaker geometry and styling. One departure from classic Marshall is in its massive gold-anodised strap-handle brackets. Some players consider the carrying-strap a key indicator of build quality - by this standard the Class 5 is the most expensively-made Marshall yet!
The quality of the case is excellent. It's plywood and expertly finished over wide-radius contours - and as anyone who's tried to cover a cabinet will tell you, that takes some doing. Efforts have clearly been made to keep the weight reasonable, and the the panelling is of 12mm timber rather than the usual Marshall 18mm.This is of little acoustic significance with the reduced dimensions of the Class 5, but it will be appreciated by anyone who has to move it around.
The big gold mesh ventilator harks back to the early days of Marshall before moulded plastic and flat steel pressings became the norm, while the bold slanted ‘5' motif on the control panel is a contemporary touch that simply but cleverly asserts the little amp's identity. The solid back panel is ported, both to access the amp rear panel and to provide some tuned loading for the Celestion G10F-15 speaker specially developed for this model, but it won't allow storage of anything more than a cable or two.
One useful feature is the headphone jack. Most valve amps offering this feature use op-amp headphone driver circuitry, picking up the signal as it exits the preamp and interrupting its connection to the power stage, which has the advantage that the speaker can be left connected to the output, avoiding the risk of an unloaded output valve.
The Class 5 has instead a manual phones/speaker selector that inserts an output-loading resistor when phones are in use, at the same time changing the output contour to compensate for the brighter characteristic of headphones. This allows the player to hear the whole amp in the cans, not just the preamp. This seems better than ignoring the business end of an amp you've paid good money for.
The Class 5's price puts it halfway between the lowest and the highest in the low-power league table. Although the cabinet work is premium-quality, the chassis, with its printed circuit board assembly and 1mm steel chassis, is more cost-conscious. It's fixed to the top and rear panel of the cab, reducing the likelihood of deforming from heavy handling, but out of the cab and unsupported it lacks rigidity.
Jacks, pots and valveholders are printed-circuit fixing types. Some recent and reasonably-priced Marshalls have used old-school techniques like hard-wired pots and valveholders, but this isn't extended to the Class 5, perhaps because it isn't primarily intended for a mobile work environment. Between the rock of building cost and the hard place of retail price, the chassis is where the squeeze has been applied, although given its sensibly-engineered cabinet supports, there shouldn't be any ill effects.
Switched on, the Class 5's background noise isn't obtrusive, given the general tendency of single-ended amps to hum. There's a bit of post-fade valve noise, perhaps because of the unusual number of gain stages in this non-switching amp which are assigned to recreating the colouration of the big Marshalls.
Plugging in a Strat with Volume and all three Tone controls set to 5 gives a healthy level of clear, detailed sound with an unmistakable Marshall ring on gentle chords. Bite in, and the Class 5 responds with a smooth transition into second-harmonic-dominated warm distortion. In both modes the Strat sustains well, and the touch response is delightful. The three-pot tone stack works smoothly, with more useful separation of frequency bands and less weakening of the sound at low settings on any given control.
Push the volume, and things only get better. The sound gets twangier and crunchier, and puts a big margin between the Class 5's sound and the glassy, fizzy sound of some other low-power offerings under these conditions. Plug in an SG and the emphasis changes: the hooting overtones suggest some kind of brass instrument but stay controllable, whistle-free and entirely musical.
Although this amp is aimed at the studio, the available volume is enough for rehearsal or a small gig, widening its possibilities as an auxiliary amp for players with lots of different kinds of live work.
The headphone jack captures the Class 5 tone effectively, but it works only as well as the cans permit. In-ear Walkman headphones will be challenged, adding their own special tinny fizz to the sound as the amp transits into overdrive. Good quality, over-ear types only, please - you do have some, we assume - but you might do better to mic the amp and use the desk feed for serious work.
A word of approval for the G10F-15 speaker.
Low-power Celestion 10's have mostly been characterised by a tendency to be too brittle while the high-power ones are thought to lack edge, the sweet spot seeming to be the now-obsolete G10L-35 (although this could sound distressed with a distorted amp, even within its power limit). The F-15 seems to have all the virtues: clarity at low levels, a rich midrange for semi-saturated work, and a refusal to fizz and flap when pushed hard. It does a good job in the Class 5 and could have a great future in twos and fours in bigger amps. Class 6, anyone?