EL84 shootout on a lark Dr.Z/Mesa


Live gigs killed here
Silver Supporting Member
So, I've been moving amps around, thinking about tones, main gigging amp, back up, trading up/down, etc. You know, all the OCD things we do with our gear. On a lark, I decided to A/B compare my Dr. Z Maz 18JR NR cleans against my Mesa Express 5:25 Plus cleans. It just seemed like the thing to do. :jo

Dr. Z Maz 18JR NR is a 2xEL84, Class A, purpose built single channel, boutique, hand-wired head, and designed to do its "one thing" really darn well. It is generally regarded as a fantastic one channel boutique amp.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Mesa Express 5:25 Plus. It also is 2xEL84, and can be run in Class A (which I did), but it is PCB based, multi channel, with multiple modes, EQ, voicing options, and designed to be immensely flexible, so it has a lot more circuitry and perhaps is more of a "swiss army knife". But, it is Mesa, so it is very high quality manufactured. Mine is a combo, with a Mesa Celestion MC-90 speaker.

This seemed like a cool comparison of the cleans of two Class A, 2xEL84 amps coming from very different design/build philosophies.:fisticuffs

So, my not-so-scientific testing conditions were as follows: Mesa set to Class A 15 watts, to be as comparable to the Dr. Z's 18 watt Class A configuration. I ran the Z through an Avatar open back 2x12, with a Mesa MC-90 and WGS speaker, which is as close as I could come in my inventory to the Mesa combo's MC-90. I plugged my Tom Anderson Classic into an A/B box, used identical cables to each amp, and positioned the speakers as close as I could to "identical" in location and angle to me. So, I tried to be reasonably fair given this, again, is just a lark to avoid working.:brick

I set up what sounded to me like a great clean tone on the Dr. Z, which frankly isn't hard with that amp and the Anderson. Then I tried to get the identical sound from the Mesa, using all its tone shaping options. Couldn't do it. I could get close, but the Dr. Z had a richness and dimensionality to each string that just sounded "more"; it was fuller, creamier, more 3D than I could get the Mesa. The Mesa's tone and the sound of the notes were very darn close, but the "complexity" of the tone wasn't there. It was more forward, more focused, not as subtle and rich.

Frankly, though, I was surprised at how close the Mesa could get. But, then, in a moment of nearly epic lucidity, I ran the Mesa through the 2x12. The skies parted, voices came down from on high, and more of the depth and richness of the tone was there. The Mesa's cleans were very very close to the Dr. Z when played through the same cabinet.

The win still goes to the Dr. Z, which I fully expected. The Maz still had a little richer sound, but the Mesa could get so very close. Very impressive. What I did really establish, though, is that the combo is more of the limiting factor, at least for this Mesa Express. Yes, I am sure I could get a better sound with a Gold or a Blue or some comparable high end AlNiCo, but I think that the size and shape of the combo cabinet is a limiting factor in the quality of the tone. Playing the amp, both clean and gain, through the combo and then through several cabinets confirmed that it sounded much better through the external cabinets.

So, what did I learn? :bonk
That I could spend a lot of fun time in the middle of the day playing with amps, but I kinda knew that. The Dr. Z is a gorgeous amp, but I knew that too. The Mesa Express has some great tones in it, better than I thought and expected, and better than I had been able to coax out of it to date, but it is the combo that is holding it back..... Through a good 2x12 or a Thiele 1x12, the little Mesa actually sounds pretty damned good.

It won't hold up to my Mark V or my Bogner, but at half the price, half the power, it is a very good sounding amp (head!).

Well, I guess I've parlayed this lark into enough time spent. Back to the salt mines...... :drown


Gold Supporting Member
It would've been interesting to hear what the Maz would have sounded like through the Express' cab and speaker, i.e. the better "controlled experiment" would be plugging the Express speaker into the Maz head -- apples to apples.

Now get back to work.


Platinum Supporting Member
Try the Maz 18 1 x 12 combo with reverb ($1999) against a Mesa Lone Star Special 1 x 12 combo with reverb ($1849)

Seems like a better comparison.

I still own the Mesa............


Gold Supporting Member
Thanks for the post - this is great info as I debate between a Mesa Express Plus/Rectoverb 25 or a Dr Z M12. I owned and absolutely loved a Dr Z Maz 18 but it was too loud and heavy for what I needed at the time.


Silver Supporting Member
chiming in, seconding spaceman_spiff... a better experiment would be to use the same cabinet. that way you're not judging the speaker as much.

"Whole package" evaluations are totally legit, but by isolating variables you'll have a better sense of what you're hearing.

fwiw I have a Dr Z and a mesa, each one has their strengths and weaknesses. If the question is "either/or?" my answer is "both!" if you can swing it.

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