EL34 Taste Testing

Written by
Dave Hunter
Published on
January 21, 2021 1:52:36 PM PST January 21, 2021 1:52:36 PM PSTst, January 21, 2021 1:52:36 PM PST
Several ingredients contribute to the sonic signature of any guitar amplifier, and in many designs the output tubes are the major characterizing component that defines the core nature of the amp itself. With smaller American amps, we think 6V6; smaller British amps EL84. Larger American amps are, in part, defined by their larger 6L6 output tubes, while the big British classics like the Marshall Plexi and its brethren, Hiwatt, Orange and others are archetypes of that mighty EL34 tone.Known for they’re use in amps displaying an aggressive midrange, thumping low-end, and sizzling highs, EL34s are particularly dynamic and succulent when pushed into distortion, but can also deliver bold, characterful clean (and semi-clean) tones.Let’s dig into the characteristics and capabilities of three newly manufactured makes of this iconic output tube, all of which are currently available from Mojotone: the Electro-Harmonix EL34, Mullard EL34 Reissue, and JJ E34L. In addition to my own “live” impressions gleaned from playing each set of matched EL34s in the same amp over a prolonged period, I’ve recorded several sample clips for the purposes of easy A/B/C comparisons. Please note, too, that the notes below were taken without any previous reference to the manufacturers’ or sellers’ promotional info, but are provided as an objective impression of these tubes’ individual strengths.

Guitar, Amp & SettingsFour samples of each tube were recorded using a Gibson Les Paul with OX4 Medium-Wind PAF-style humbucking pickups into a Friedman Small Box 50-watt head and a 4x12 cab with Greenbacks, using the Plexi channel for “Cleanish” and the Lead channel for “Overdrive”.
  • Each of the three clips begins using the Les Paul’s bridge pickup into the Plexi (aka rhythm, or clean) channel with the Gain set to 50% and the Master at 60% (the latter applies to all clips). Around the 0:18 mark you hear the Gain being turned up to 100%, after which a similar phrase is played again, delivering more of an archetypal “cranked-Plexi” tone.

  • The second segment in each clip is played on the Les Paul’s neck pickup with the Plexi channel’s Gain set back to 50%, and the segment that follows this remains on the neck pickup, with that channel’s gain cranked back up to 100%.

  • The third segment is the Les Paul’s bridge pickup into the Friedman’s high-gain channel (more of a modded-Marshall preamp, akin to a JCM800 or 2204 Master Model sound), with that channel’s gain at around 60% and its Master, again, around 60%.



Taste-Testing
Mullard EL34A reissue of the legendary British-made Mullard EL34 manufactured at New Sensor’s Xpo-Pul factory (aka Reflektor) in Saratov, Russia.
General Notes: A great-sounding modern-day EL34 that delivers confidently on all fronts, without trying to slip in any notably detracting sonic characteristics along with its many pluses. Most notable, perhaps, is its rich, warm, and very appealing midrange under clean, semi-clean, and overdriven conditions alike, along with its ability to achieve archetypally EL34-like sizzle and granularity in the highs without inducing any harshness along with it. Lows are full, round, and appealing, and able to induce sufficient rocking thump with the right amp settings and cab pairings.
Overdriven: A tube that exhibits excellent character and good bite when driven hard, with a lot of swirling harmonic action that lends depth in the upper mids and highs without ever sliding into harshness, and impressive articulation amid the clipping. Appealing transients, and responsive dynamics too. An elegant tube overdriven, and great for anything from classic-rock to modern fusion.
Clean: Appealing “zing”, sparkle, and shimmer when played clean and semi-clean, with good clarity, relatively tight lows, and abundant harmonic overtones that add dimension and movement to the upper mids in particular. Overall, a very sweet tube when played clean.
Good For: A great tube for adding class and quality to just about any EL34-powered amplifier. Rich, well-balanced, and very musical sounding across a range of playing styles, yet entirely “EL34-like” throughout it all. This one definitely favors elegance over raw and raucous, but it can still dish out the snarl and bite.




Electro-Harmonix EL34A Russian tube manufactured at New Sensor’s Xpo-Pul factory (aka Reflektor).
General Notes: A lively, energetic sounding tube overall, with some rawness and granularity in the midrange that add to a sense of raucous aggression when used right. Lower-mids are full and round, while low end is tight if not overly abundant. Note that this tube set resulted in just slightly less overall output when testing straight after the Mullards, and was a bit quieter again in comparison to the JJs. If not overtly apparent to the ear when playing the tube individually, this but showed up instantly in the soundwaves recorded in the Pro Tools editing window, and can be heard upon playback if you flip between the clips below. Not that it’s a big deal – if you prefer the sound of these, just turn up a little!
Overdriven: Overall when driven hard the EH EL34 displays some looseness, along with jagged harmonics that lend bite and cutting power, but perhaps mar the articulation just slightly. Expect a little slurring of the transients, which may or may not appeal depending on your genre and playing style. Lots of “sizzle” in the highs when pushed hard, amid other sonic characteristics that positively scream “late-’70s early ’80s rock!”
Clean: Considerable jangle and twang in semi-clean tones, with some bark and “clank” in the midrange that helps chordal work push through, and lends bite to single-note runs. Bridge pickups might risk being a bit strident, although these characteristics lend a gritty and appealing edge to neck-pickup playing.
Good For: A good choice for adding more edge and bite to an amp that you’re finding overly smooth or recessed, or for tweaking your EL34-fuelled tone toward a more raw, unrefined voice.




JJ E34L

An Eastern-European tube Manufactured by JJ Electronic in Cadca, Slovakia.
General Notes: The E34L is intended as a sturdier and more powerful rendition of the EL34 from the same maker, and takes on some of its own sonic characteristics as a result. In use, it’s a full and gutsy sounding tube with a lot of body and relatively good balance overall. Lively, punchy, and authoritative at all amp settings. Definitely a loud tube, too, with the most overtly aggressive volume and attack of the three EL34s tested in this batch. Which is not to say it’s harsh or strident by any means, but favors “in-your-face” over elegance.  
Overdriven: Overdriven tones are forward and aggressive without being harsh, with a very lively sparkle and shimmer within individual notes. Plenty of bark in the upper mids, with an earthy, bovine thump in the lower mids, and enough bass to please the metal crowd. There’s a very “electric” feel to the distortion, with an about-to-explode edginess when you really dig in.
Clean: Cleans are crisp, clear and articulate, but with good bite when you increase your pick attack, and tight lows. Relatively musical, with good balance, but predisposed toward a certain edginess and aggression amid the clarity. Pushed into edge-of-breakup, this tube goes crispy and sizzling in ways that really help cut through the mix, while retaining excellent punch in the low end.
Good For: A great EL34 variant for adding a sense of power and aggression to any amp, yet without sacrificing classiness or musicality. It’s a great metal and heavy rock tube, but also very good for blues-rock, alt-rock, grunge, garage-rock or other styles where you’re looking to achieve a little more in-your-face-ness rather than smoothness.