Laney makes great guitar and bass amplifiers and has done since the 60s. Lyndon Laney began as a teenage tinkerer making amps in his shed for friends such as Tony Iommi and grew from there. The company’s range includes hand-built in the UK amps and less expensive products built for the company in the far east. While not as famous a British brand as Marshall, thanks to bands such Black Sabbath and Opeth Laney has a reputation for making great amps for metal players. So when Laney launches a new amp with metal players in mind we should all sit up and notice.
The new Laney Ironheart comes in three flavours; a 120 Watt head, 60 Watt head and 60 Watt combo. There are also associated cabs. However for the purpose of this review I mated a 60 Watt head with a 2×12 Harley Benton cab loaded with that old favourite – a pair of Celestion V30 speakers. First impressions? Well this amp is a solid beast. The aesthetics are pure metal. The chunky built in handles and a view of valves and transformers give the impression of an amp that does not mess around. The industrial design is just the thing for an amp designed for purveyors of metallic noise. However as we’ll come to in a moment the design is somewhat deceptive as the Ironheart is a very versatile amplifier.
This particular head features four 12AX7 pre-amp valves and two 6L6 output valves. You might have expected Laney to go with the more traditionally British EL34 output valves. That’s an option if you prefer thanks to a simple valve selector switch round the back. Also round there you’ll find all the cab output options you’d need and input/output jack sockets for the serial effects loop. A switch changes the loop from line to stomp level or cuts it out of the circuit completely. There’s a socket for the footswitch din jack, plus the nice touch of regular jack sockets if you want to use a different switching system. Round the front and there’s plenty to talk about. This three channel amp offers gain, volume and EQ pots for the two dirt channels. The rhythm and clean channels share the lower of these pots.
In practical use – using the switches on the amp and footswitch – the first two channels act more like different modes of the same channel. How so? Well you switch between clean/rhythm and then can switch to the lead channel. This may confuse you at first, especially using the footswitch, but once you see the clean channel as a mode of the rhythm channel it all makes sense. The clean channel was added fairly late in the design process and I imagine this is the reason for this setup. Moving on we have a control pot for the pre-boost (more on that later), plus pots for dynamics (and more on that in a moment too), overall tone control. reverb and watts (essentially a master volume). All the pots and switches are super chunky and look like they could stand a beating on the road. But what does it sound like?
Switching the amp on the first thing you notice is the attractive red glow within the amp chassis. No it’s not about to destroy your valves, it’s a set of red LEDs that lend the amp a rather demonic visage. Does it look cheesy? No, it’s just subtle enough to stop you looking a fool if playing down your local pub. Onto the sounds. The biggest surprise for me with this amp is how good the clean channel is, especially as it was added late in the design. I suppose one shouldn’t be too surprised given the 6L6 tubes but the Ironheart clean channel really is rather lovely. It’s bright, organic and just the ticket for both strumming and arpeggios. Add a little of the onboard reverb and it’s even better.
Given the amp’s metal design it’s amusing to discover one of it’s finest features is a great clean channel, certainly one that’s better than many metal amps I’ve used. The EQ controls are very positive and you’ll find plenty of different tones in there. As if that wasn’t enough each of the EQ pots has a pull control which changes the tone. The bass pot adds more bottom end, the mid pot tightens up the lower midrange and helps to get a scooped tone (if that’s your bag) and the high pull fattens up the high-end. I found the latter particularly useful when playing through single-coil pickups and stops the bridge pickup in a Strat from sounding too thin. These controls are identical on the lead channel too.
There is a slight tonal difference between the two channels. It’s not obvious at low gain settings, but crank up the juice and differences do appear. The rhythm channel is a little tighter and brighter – more of a classic British hot-rodded tone. The lead channel can get more saturated and has more low end. It’s a thick, snarly, modern lead channel at the extreme end of the gain range. But unlike some amps, that gain is usable all the way to the greatest available.
How much dirt is on offer? Plenty, both for your bedroom rockstars who must have a ridiculous amount for your djent adventures and for working musicians who really won’t need as much. Thanks to the 6L6 valves there’s a very strong and bold midrange to the gain tones, strident is the word that comes to mind. This is a very powerful amp yet one that refuses to supply a thin fizzy tone. There’s a clear family resemblance between the Ironheart and Tony Iommi’s signature amp, that same bold full tone that supplied plenty of power without the wick having to be dialled all the way up. Thanks to the EQ pots and the pull-control options you really can dial in some very different tones on the rhythm and lead channels.
At full volume there is some hiss but this is to be expected on a high gain amplifier, but at anything other than full chat this is a pretty quiet piece of kit. Further tone sculpting is provided in the form of the dynamics control. This helps you tighten up the bottom end even when running the amp very hot. As Roger Hickman of Laney explained to me, “Turning the Dynamics control fully anti-clockwise is maximum damping – which is how the amp would function without the control there, so this would be neutral. Turning the control clockwise reduces the damping factor and lets the bass response extend, giving you a fuller bottom end.” Next to that we have an overall tone control – a common feature on many Laney amps. This is particularly useful when changing guitars – allowing you to brighten or darken the tone without messing with your regular EQ settings.
The watts control – as far as I can tell – is a master volume control. I don’t know if there’s any more witchcraft going on here, you can’t mute the sound as you would a regular MV for example, but if you are wondering turned all the way down you can play at some very low volumes. While some guitarists scoff at those who may want such a beast of an amp in their bedroom I say balls to that, and as long as you don’t go mad with the channel gain you can get some very usable tones at bedroom levels with the Ironheart. You can also use the FX loop send as a line-out and I’ve actually had some success recording with the amp into a PC DAW with some power-amp/speaker impulses added.
But we’re digressing here, as usual. Getting back to the way the amp sounds I’m very pleased to report that the dirt channels offer plenty for the non-metal guitarist. In fact my favourite sounds I’ve squeezed out of the Ironheart so far have been at the bluesier and more classic rock end of the scale. This is a very dynamic amp that reacts well to the strength of your playing and guitar volume, with beautiful light crunchy tones that are begging for some Les Paul neck pickup noodling. You’re more interested in the metal tones though right? Don’t worry. Not only is there tons of dirt available, it’s thick, powerful and musical. Sure you can create an awful fizzy scooped tone if you try hard enough, but sensible users will easily be able to coax massive metal tones from the Ironheart.
Having also tried a pair of EL34 power tubes (no need to rebias, just flick the switch) I can safely say this is a snarling beast of a high-gain amp whichever power output option you choose. How does it sound with dirt pedals? Well since the Ironheart arrived I’ve not used a single one of my overdrive or distortion pedals, make of that what you will. As if three channels, with pull-pot EQ options weren’t enough the Ironheart is fitted with pre-boost option. While the amp itself has a classic valve signal path the pre-boost kicks in a solid-state clean gain stage. This is like having your favourite dirt pedal in front of the amp.
Some of you bedroom players might be wondering why you’d want to do that into what is already a high-gain amp. The truth is sometimes the right tone is about a combination of things, and two FX dirt pedals running half gain in series can sound better than one pedal on full. Similarly there are plenty of pros who will run a dirt pedal into an amp like a growling Mesa Dual Rectifier. Set at a middle level on the front panel control the pre-boost gives some extra crunch and compression on higher-gain settings. This is particularly useful for leads due to the welcome extra sustain. At lower volumes on the clean channel the boost acts as a clean volume booster, on louder settings pushes the clean channel into a crunchier tone. Thanks to a gain control on the amp you can try all manner of settings, whether simply adding more dirt or a higher setting for a volume boost during solos.
With three channels and the pre-boost you’ve got six different sounds under your feet, plus a perfectly respectable reverb. The footswitch is a sturdy beast and runs to the amp via a generous long cable. If you want to use your own footswitch or switching system the amp features a couple of jacks on the back to let you engage the different channels, boost and reverb.
Any downsides? I found the switching – especially with the footswitch – confusing at times. There’s one switch to change between rhythm and lead channels, plus another switch to change the rhythm channel to the clean one. A footswitch for each channel would have been more welcome. But having used the amp for a few weeks this is no longer an issue. Also the clean channel might be gorgeous but it won’t stay pristine all the way up. For many this is a welcome feature as it breaks up beautifully at higher volumes, but for those of you who want more clean headroom you should look at the 120 Watt model of this amplifier.
You might also question the amp’s styling. The looks and marketing are all pure-metal, but I’ve never used an amplifier as versatile as this. For clean, blues crunch and classic rock tones this amp is fantastic without even touching on high gain. With three channels plus the pre-boost you readily have six tones on offer at the kick of your foot. Laney would do well to sell the amp to other markets other than us noisy metal nutters. That’s not to say it isn’t a brilliant metal amp, it certainly is, you will find crushing chunky rhythm playing easy to dial in. Whether playing clean, crunchy or full-bore metal this is a beautiful sounding amplifier.
So let’s talk money then. We’ve three channels, reverb, pre-boost, EQ controls with pull pots and a huge choice of big chunky tones on offer. So this is an expensive amp right? Wrong. The current media darlings Blackstar will sell you the high-gain 50W Series One S1-50 for £8991. That’s for a two-channel amp made in the far east. Laney on the other hand will let you have this three channel 60 watt amp for the bargain price of £540. For this much tone and versatility it’s the guitar amplifier bargain of the year. Highly recommended. For more information on the Ironheart range of guitar amplifiers visit Laney.co.uk.
1You may be wondering why I didn’t compare the Ironheart to Blackstar’s HT Venue range instead. The reasons are twofold. Firstly the Series One range is marketed as a high-gain metal amp, as is the Ironheart. Second and more importantly the lower-end HT Venue amps do not have complete valve pre-amps, they are a hybrid design with some of the dirt coming from solid state components. They are great sounding amp – but hybrids and not valve amps. Akin to an Ironheart where you couldn’t switch the boost off.