America is not a nation famous for downsizing. From the luxury sedans of the ‘50s and ‘60s to the serving sizes of today, it seems that everything is bigger not only in Texas but across the whole country. On the flip side, bucking the trend is in their blood, so it stands to reason that several American manufacturers are leading the charge in the lower wattage amplifier game. Several issues ago I reviewed Peavey’s range of 20-watt versions of their most notable builds and was suitably impressed, so I was wringing my hands with glee when the Jet City Custom 5 came waltzing my way.
Philadelphia’s Jet City is one of a crop of US designers whose design focus is on the glory days of classic rock. Alongside contemporaries like Bogner and Peavey they’ve made a name for themselves crafting affordable and well-built units that have the indelible imprint of HiWatt and Soldano as their tonal ancestry. In the Custom 5 the challenge seems to me to be pouring all that might and muscle into smaller quarters without neutering it.
The only other build of Jet City’s that I have had the pleasure of exploring is their Custom 22, essentially the bigger, burlier brother of the Custom 5. The main functional difference here is the number of tubes driving the preamp stage and the front end of the head. Where the Custom 22 has a whopping five 12AX7 tubes, the Custom 5 has a modest two and only one 6L6 in the power stage as opposed to the twin EL84s inside the former. Aside from the more technical wiring and transformer differences, this is the key ingredient that the engineers have used to narrow down proceedings without straying too far from the blueprint. And it’s quite a successful experiment too. You certainly notice the physical difference between the two models, but taken out of the context of comparison the Custom 5 certainly holds its own as a gnarly little rock box, even when stepped down even further to run in 2-watt mode.
For a brand name normally associated with a more high-gain-addicted clientele, I was suitably impressed by how this mini mean machine cleaned up. With the pre-amp dialed down I was able to bring to life some tastefully crunchy, bristling, telecaster friendly jangle not far removed from that of an AC30 pushed just barely into bluesy break-up. Even more surprising was how funky and pressed the mid-range response is. With the mid boost switch engaged I couldn’t help but do my best Nile Rodgers impression; interesting given the fact that the job of a mid-boosts is usually to send solos searing through the cheap seats. However, it was most at home with itself when I gave everything a nudge towards ten. With everything dimed you have just about every heavy characteristic you could need at your fingertips. From Josh Homme-style, squelchy fuzz to searing, brazen thrash tones, the Custom 5 is certainly at its most versatile with the pedal to the floor.
All in all, I continue to be impressed by this new breed of smaller stature, lower volume amplification. Jet City have managed to maintain the rage made famous by their bigger, flagship builds in this diminished incarnation and if anything, have brought a sense of manageability to the wild side of rock and roll.
Hits and Misses
Unforgiving and versatile dirt tones that clean up in a unique and attractive way
Definitely for the heavy rock set