This 140-watt all-valve head is rather different from anything Peavey has done before - it's simple and direct, but with a twist in the shape vinyl and cream fabric, our sample's finish isn't as perfect as it could be.
The radiusing on the front panel cut-out surrounding the controls is a bit lumpy and uneven, especially in the corner near the mains switch. Under the cream fabric, to the left of the Peavey badge, there's also a noticeable bump where a screw has been driven in too enthusiastically. These are small things, but not what you'd expect on an amp with the Penta's price tag. Having said that, this is an early sample and such gremlins are usually ironed out before proper production begins.
Construction and features
The Penta sports two gargantuan transformers that are probably capable of powering a small village, let alone a single guitar amp. These are crammed in at one end of the chassis, making the head unwieldy and difficult to carry on its single handle. Inside the chassis, the smaller components are fitted to one large PCB, including all the pots and valve bases. This board is riveted into place, making removal for servicing an interesting challenge.
Despite the simple control layout, there's a lot going on inside, with no less than 11 relays that could be mounted in sockets, but aren't. Relays are normally very reliable, although if by any chance they should fail on this amp, it won't be easy to repair. These reservations aside, the general standard of components, wiring and soldering is good.
The Penta's main controls are simple: a pair of input jacks to suit high or low output guitars, gain and master volume controls, plus three-band EQ and presence, all of which go to 11. Next to these is the Pentatone switch, a five-way rotary that does all the clever reconfiguring stuff. On the rear panel is another identical Pentatone switch that lets you select a different voice. You can swap between the two using the footswitch. In keeping with the Penta's purist design, there's no effects loop - instead, there's just a pair of speaker jacks with an impedance selector and a footswitch socket.
The Pentatone switch is what makes this amp special, delivering five different amp sounds. With great wisdom, Peavey doesn't describe them in too much detail, thus neatly avoiding the trap of making the Penta out to be just another modelling amp, which it certainly isn't. Nevertheless, Da Vinci Code enthusiasts could while away a happy hour or two trying to work out the meaning of the five cryptic icons that represent each sound. Going from left to right, they are: Tree, Star (clue: actually a six-pointed badge of the type worn by US marshals), Bull, Cactus and Mudflap Girl (as seen on Peavey's Triple XXX).
Tree is a very big, fat, clean sound. Even with the gain control full up, there's only a minimal amount of overdrive, with a sparkly treble, warm midrange that isn't peaky, and a full bass. The Star setting adds a gentle dose of overdrive for a rich Plexi-inspired tone that works nicely for blues rhythm or lead. Bull piles on a lot of extra distortion - run the gain control high and you'll get an excellent hot-rodded Marshall-type tone, with a tight bass and smooth treble response. Cactus is similar, but with a brighter edge and looser bass response that's ideal for Texas-style blues or rock, while Mudflap Girl delivers the highly saturated bass and treble-heavy fizz that's perfect for thrash and metal.
Apart from this last sound, which benefits from the usual scooped mid EQ, you can switch from one voicing to another without having to spend ages resetting everything. It's evident that someone spent a lot of time getting the EQ curves and volume levels right, and the result is a very useable tool.
As for volume and headroom, with 140 watts and an output transformer roughly the same size as an estate car, when you hit the strings hard on this amp with the master set around halfway, every window in your house will move out about half an inch before hopefully returning to its original position. Having said that, the Penta is one of those amps that does sound good at low volume, although there's a pronounced acoustic hum from the mains transformer that might intrude on low-level practice or recording. We'd like to have seen a few more options on that back panel to tame it for smaller venues or studio use, where 140 watts is overkill. However, on big stages, where you can wind up the master and let rip through the matching rear-vented 4 x 12, it's an impressive package, with all the power and projection you need to make you heard in the muddiest of mixes.
Boutique-style amplifiers can be difficult to judge. Instead of a versatile and often complex product that's designed to appeal to a broad spectrum of musical styles, you're dealing with an amp that's usually so well dialled-in for a particular tone that it's difficult to get anything else from it. The benefit of such designs is that they're usually a lot simpler, with more direct signal paths, resulting in a purer, more authentic sound that's there immediately, with little or no fiddling. Because of its clever design, the Penta manages to pull off the trick of being versatile and simple. It's a concept that works well in the real world; if you know how to drive an amp from the guitar rather than using a pedalboard then you'll appreciate the way the Penta works and you'll get the best from it too.