EL84 Taste Testing

Written by
Dave Hunter
Published on
January 21, 2021 2:15:20 PM PST January 21, 2021 2:15:20 PM PSTst, January 21, 2021 2:15:20 PM PST
The output stage forms the foundation of any amp’s tone and character, and the tubes used in that stage have an enormous impact on the overall sound and feel generated by this crucial final part of the circuit. The EL84 is the smaller of what we think of as the most common “British” output tubes, since they were essential to the sounds of several smaller to medium-sized amps made in England in the 1960s and ’70s.
Used in pairs in the Vox AC15, Marshall 18-watt models, WEM Dominator and others, and in quads in the legendary Vox AC30—as well as countless reissues and boutique amps inspired by these classics—these tubes developed their reputation partly from the amps in which they appeared. But they have also been used in plenty of other amps since that time, many of which are not remotely “British." Designs as diverse as Fender’s Blues Jr. and Pro Jr., Mesa/Boogie’s Mark Five: 25 and 35, several iterations of the Traynor Bass Mate of the ’60s and ’70s, and many other North American amps have also done their thing via EL84s.
In classic British-voiced amps, EL84s contribute to sonic characteristics that we hear as chime and shimmer, with a certain glassiness in the highs, a balanced midrange, and a reasonably tight low-end (relative to an amp’s output rating). In almost any amp design, these are tubes that can be pushed into breakup relatively easily, and tend to deliver a smooth segue into distortion when they are—with plentiful harmonic overtones and great dynamics via their juicy compression.
Let’s check out the sound and performance of three pairs of newly manufactured EL84s currently available from Mojotone: Electro-Harmonix, Tung-Sol, and JJ Electronics.
In addition to the notes on my own “live” impressions taken after playing each set of matched EL84s in the same amp over a prolonged period, I’ve recorded several sample clips for the purposes of easy and comparable A/B/C comparisons.
Please note 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 & Settings
Samples of each tube were recorded at four different guitar and amp settings. These featured a ’57 Fender Telecaster with single-coil pickups and a Gibson Les Paul with OX4 Medium-Wind PAF-style humbucking pickups, into a TopHat Club Royale combo (a hand-wired amp that shares some DNA with the Vox AC15 and Marshall 18-watters), recorded to Pro Tools via a Universal Audio OX Box for convenience, into a Universal Audio Apollo interface.
  • “Clean with edge”: Each of the three clips begins on the Telecaster’s bridge pickup, into the TopHat set with Volume at 9 o’clock and Master on full, with the boost off. Toward the end of this segment the Tele is attacked a little harder to exhibit some edge-of-breakup tones and test the tubes’ dynamics.

  • “Warm but bright”: The second segment—in at around 0:19—is played on the Tele’s neck pickup, with the same amp settings except the Bright Boost is switched on.

  • “Fat and overdriven”: The third segment—at 0:43—features the Les Paul’s bridge pickup with the TopHat’s Volume turned up to 11 o’clock and the Fat Boost on; at around 1:00 the guitar switches to the neck pickup.


Taste-Testing
Electro-Harmonix EL84 EHIntended to replicate the classic British-made Mullard EL84, and manufactured at New Sensor’s Xpo-Pul factory (aka Reflektor) in Saratov, Russia.


General Notes: A good all-around EL84 with a relatively firm body and an appealing, well-balanced tone. Firm lows and silky highs, with just enough midrange to punch through. It’s not so much “dark” as “warm”, retaining sweet highs along with it.
Clean: Played relatively clean, the EHX’s apparent warmth prevents most settings from getting shrill, even with the Tele’s bridge pickup. It exhibits good shimmer and twang, yet—again—without becoming harsh. Introduced to the Tele’s neck pickup, this tube is nicely round and rich, yet still admirably detailed.
Overdriven: Relatively smooth when overdriven (for an EL84), but with enough crispy edge and grit to help it cut through the mix. Appealing layers of harmonic overtones that refrain from being over-hyped or fizzy. Good midrange grunt for rock’n’roll, without being particularly notched or humpy. Lows are full enough to give weight, but not prominent to the point of being muddy or boomy.
Good For: This is a good all-around tube for the guitarist who wants to segue between clean and overdriven tones without encountering any unexpected extremes from either. It’s admirably free from harshness in the midrange overtones and devoid of ice-picky trebles, and while it isn’t overly glassy like some EL84s, it still delivers shimmering highs with a touch of sweetness. If described as “warm”, that’s not to say it’s at all lacking in clarity and articulation.


JJ EL84An Eastern-European tube Manufactured by JJ Electronic in Cadca, Slovakia.


General Notes: An aggressive EL84 in some ways, which is particularly apparent in its swirling and slightly granular highs and pumped midrange, but not one that’s lacking in richness and subtlety when played clean.
Clean: Quite a jangly tube on the Tele’s bridge pickup, with a lot of sizzle around the edges of the arpeggiated notes (which can lead to a little blurring when the guitar is hit harder, but that in itself can be appealing and characterful in the right circumstances). Nicely tight lows when kept clean, bubbly midrange, and lively highs. Good richness in neck pickup playing, with more than enough brightness to cut through.
Overdriven: A lively rock tube that can be a little gnarly when driven, with just a little fizz when pushed hard with big chords, but that translates to lots of overtone character on single-note runs. Prominent and buoyant midrange and gritty, edgy highs when driven hard (though not necessarily unpleasantly so), with rounded-off lows amid overdrive.
Good For: A good choice for adding more edge and bite to an amp that you’re finding overly smooth, dark or recessed, or for adding lively, gritty overtone chime to semi-driven tones. Will brighten up most overly dark EL84 amps, but might sound cluttered in the mids and highs in some amps that already lean toward a lot of brightness and detail.


Tung-Sol EL84

Designed by New Sensor to high standards and manufactured at the Xpo-Pul factory (aka Reflektor) in Saratov, Russia.


General Notes: An elegant tube that delivers both lively detail and good depth, making it a great all-around choice in a modern EL84. Well balanced, musical, and very likeable on all settings, it’s also a notably punchy and powerful EL84.
Clean: Crisp, clear and articulate, with lots of shimmer and overtone-laden sparkle amid semi-clean tones, and good bite with increased your pick attack, yet without segueing too easily into harshness. Very plummy and musical on the neck pickup—revealing underpinnings of cushiony warmth—with a tube-y roundness that’s really appealing. Perhaps the richest and most “present” lows of the group, though not blatantly so, which make a good foundation for the balanced mids and highs.
Overdriven: Meaty and full when overdriven, without slurring into aggressive mush. Perhaps a little added fur around low notes amid distortion, but still with very respectable articulation even on the Les Paul’s neck pickup. Great classic rock’n’roll character on the bridge pickup, with vowel-like midrange and tasty harmonic sparkle in the highs, which always stays on the side of musical sweetness rather than harshness. Really sings when pushed hard into lead lines.
Good For: A classy EL84 all-around, and arguably the most “expensive” sounding tube of the bunch. No particular characteristic stands out as over-prominent, yet good detail, depth, warmth, and harmonic shimmer are blended together to make a very appealing tube overall.