review

Traynor YCV20 Custom Valve 20

Review by Mark Starlin

Traynor YCV20 Custom Valve 20 The current crop of 15 watt guitar amps is typically divided into three camps: inexpensive solid state “practice” amps, stripped down tube amps, and expensive boutique amps. One of the few exceptions to the rule is the Traynor YCV20 Custom Valve 20, a feature rich 15 watt tube amp at an affordable price.

In The Market

I recently began teaching guitar again and was in the market for an amp portable enough to carry one-handed to lessons. I also play regular gigs for a church singles group in a room that holds about 250 people. Since we use electronic drums and run the guitars through a PA, I don’t need the power of a 50 or 100 watt amp. In addition, I wanted an amp I could crank at reasonable volumes in my home studio. A 15 watt tube amp seemed like the ideal choice to fill all these needs.

Solid State Amps

These amps are called solid state because they use transistors for their preamp and power sections instead of tubes. Because there are no tubes to change or go bad, they are very reliable and seldom need repairs. They often have a very clean tone, although many come with “distortion” channels also. The distortion you get from these amps can vary greatly. Transistor distortion can be harsh in some cases (think a cheap distortion stomp box), or quite pleasing with some of the newer “tube simulating” circuitry in higher end units. If a distortion channel is important to you, you will really need to use your ears and compare when you buy a solid state amp. These amps are popular with players looking for a sturdy, reliable touring amp.

The Search

Being a long-time tube amp player (Mesa/Boogie Mark II), and not wanting to try out numerous solid state “starter” amps, I decided to explore my tube amp options. The Boutique amps were out of the question due to price alone. Gibson’s Goldtone Combo was also little more than I wanted to pay for a single channel amp. Fender offered two single channel models at attractive prices, but I really was looking for a two channel amp. Ashdown offers a two channel 15 watt amp with reverb, but it has a 10" speaker and is about $100 more than the Traynor YCV20. I had heard good things about Traynor amps, so I decided to give one a try.

A Little History

Traynor amps were popular Canadian built amp back in the 60’s and 70’s. They never gained the notoriety of Fender or Marshall amps, but those who owned them didn’t care. They were built tough and sounded great. A few years back, Yorkville (maker of high quality studio monitors) resurrected the Traynor name and created a new line of tube amps worthy of the Traynor name.

Features

The YCV20 Custom Valve 20 is loaded with features including two foot-switchable channels (the footswitch is included) with independent gain and volume controls; a boost switch on the lead channel and a bright switch on the clean channel; three tone controls; spring reverb; an effects loop; a 12" Celestion speaker; and a standby switch for extended tube life. This is one decked out 15 watt tube amp.

Looks

Let's be honest. Looks are important. The Les Paul and the Stratocaster would not be as popular as they are today if they weren’t so cool looking. The Traynor is cool looking also, sporting a sort of retro look with an arched cabinet face, flying wing logo, and chicken beak knobs. The amp is covered in black vinyl with a silver grill (there is also a red wine vinyl option available.) The controls are recessed on the top rear of the amp — exactly where they should be on a small amp.

Traynor YCV20 back
Construction

The amp cabinet is birch plywood with a heavy gauge, perforated speaker grill for protection. There are also chrome plated corners to prevent scuffs. Inside the cabinet, everything is laid out neatly, and a protective metal plate covers the power tubes. Traynor obviously knows how to build a solid amp. Three Sovtek 12AX7A preamp tubes and 2 EL84 power tubes power the YCV20. It has regulated power supply and a special DC powered filament supply on the preamp tubes that help reduce hum. While the claims of “hum free” operation are perhaps a bit of marketing hype, the YCV20 is truly quiet for a tube amp. I have certainly heard solid state amps that put out more hiss than the Traynor.

The amp features a detachable power cable so you don’t have to stuff it in the back of the amp or loop it around the carrying handle. It also has a long style Accutronics Reverb with dual springs.

YCV20 controls
In Use

The YCV20 is a breeze to use. Simply adjust the gain and volume controls for each channel to get the tone you want (and match volume levels) and you’re good to go. Although you do have to remember that channel 1 is the overdrive/lead channel and channel 2 is the clean channel. I initially expected the opposite. I am not sure of the reasons for this, but I quickly adjusted to it.

The footswitch is also a bit confusing at first. There are two switches numbered 1 and 2 with LED lights above them. However, the switches do not correspond to the two channels. The “1” switch, switches between channels — LED on is channel 1 and LED off is channel 2. The “2” switch turns the boost on and off. Once I understood this, using the footswitch was no problem. The footswitch is silent — there are no pops when changing channels. Yes! There are also buttons on the control panel that allow you to switch channels or turn the bright and boost functions on and off if you don't want to use the footswitch.

For 15 watts, the YCV20 is surprisingly loud. It’s not loud enough to compete with a pounding acoustic drum kit, but it is probably loud enough for anything else. It worked great when I used it at smaller room gigs miked and run through a PA. And it is perfect for giving lessons, as I can get clean and overdrive sounds at levels that no one objects to. It also records nice. I was able to captured some nice tones using a Sure SM57.

The Sound

How does the YCV20 sound? In a word: great. Don't expect high gain recto metal madness, but everything from warm clean tones to tasty crunch can be dialed up. I used my Gibson Les Paul Custom and my (Japanese) Fender Stratocaster (with Kinman pickups) to test the amp.

I would characterize the clean channel as “warm.” It took a little of the brightness off my Strat and made my Les Paul sound thick. However engaging the Bright switch added some sparkle to my Les Paul and made my Strat very bright. The tone controls are very useful and made it easy to tailor the amp to each guitar. The clean channel starts to break up as the gain control approaches 8 or 9 depending on the guitar used.

The Overdrive/Lead channel has a nice crunch that fits tonally somewhere between a Fender and a Marshall. The boost switch adds a little more gain and volume to your tone making it useful for solos. The distortion tends to become a little harsh for my tastes as it reaches the higher gain settings.

In my opinion, this amp is better suited for crunching than for screaming. Think late 60’s, early 70’s rock. The spring reverb is nice but nothing special. It works fine at lower settings, but anything over 3 sounded “sproingy.” Plus, higher setting also added a bit of noise to the signal. It's pretty much a “set at 1 1/2 and forget it” type of thing.

Final Thoughts

The Traynor YCV20 Custom Valve 20 packs tons of features and lots of tone into a small, portable package. After spending some quality time with it, I think prefer the YCV20 with the single coil pickups on my Strat (my Les Paul seems to prefer 6L6 tubes.) Those wanting to compete with acoustic drums may want to check out one of Traynor’s higher wattage models, but those looking for a full featured, low watt tube amp at a “working man’s” price should definitely check out the YCV20.

Reader Comments

Better Guitar encourages your input. Agree with this review? Think I’m crazy? If you own or have used a Traynor YCV20 Custon Valve, email me your comments and I’ll post them below. The more opinions we have available, the better our buying decisions will be.

Randy Wyatt

I've had this amp for about a year. I replaced with JJ tubes right out of the box. It is a well built piece of equipment, but even with its modest cost it is just an average amp at best. I don't like the lead channel, but the clean channel is very decent. I have a little Vox Pathfinder SS that seems to have better tone and it cost 1/3 of what I paid for my Traynor. Problem with the Pathfinder is noise and poor build quality. Oh, I guess the kindness thing I can say for the Traynor is it is extremely quiet.

Tim Miles

Thanks for the JJ tube ideas on the YCV 20. I have owned most all of the small tube amps in the market today. I am on my 3rd YCV 20 WR. This second generation with the line out and external speaker out is a huge improvement over the initial model. This is by far the most amp for the money and I just keep coming back. On tubes, I tried the EH EL 84s and the JJs. The JJ has a smoother compression. I also tried combinations of EH 12ax7 preamp tubes with the EH power tubes and JJ power tubes. The total JJ package seems to be the best overall. Final improvement — replace the Greenback with a Celestion G12H-30 Speaker. I removed the Greenback and now the amp sounds large. The G12H-30 has a higher SPL so you get more volume for the watt. It has tight bass and clean highs. I set the Clean channel volume on 10, Gain on 5 and use my guitar volume to regulate clean or crunch on Strats or Telecasters. Then set the Overdrive channel volume on 9 and gain on 4. Overall you have 3 crunch-overdrive options between the two channels. The amp does like single coils better than humbuckers. I have been playing since 1964, so many amps have come and gone. These are keepers if you take time to get to know them.

Cy Taggart

I am a Traynor dealer, user, and collector. I agree with the JJ tubes they really give the YCV 20 more headroom. I personally think the lead channel is better than most in its class and price range. I use the lead channel for “crunchy rhythm” and the boost for my lead. I also use pedals for overdrive. If you really want more headroom try a tighter more efficient speaker. I put the celestion 70/80 (used in the Traynor ycv40) in mine and it sounds great. A bit louder and not harsh. I also run the tone controls wide open with the exception of the mid control when I am playing a humbucker. I have also put a speaker output jack in the chassis. The amp sounds great through a 4x12. I had to use an acoustic guitar end pin style jack to do the mod without altering the amp. Works great. Check out the “gear” section of my site to see my collection of old Traynors. Still the best buy for old hand wired tube amps.

Mark Stultz (Sandblasters)

Just a comment on the cool Traynor 15 watt Class A. I have played for many years owning many vintage and modern amps. This amp is the best amp buy under $500, but the lead channel is UNUSABLE in my opinion... weak, unmusical, harsh... yuk! BUT... I tried the single channel amp setup on the clean channel and hit it with my Fulltone Fulldrive II, Fat Boost and Pedal Man modified Tube Screamer and out came the lead sound I was after! So please post this tip for users out there to try. It will take that amp to the next level for them. Regards.

Gary Dunham

Mark, I just read your Traynor YCV 20 review. Having just bought a wine red optioned one a couple of months ago I too have really enjoyed this amp. However, joy has been added to with love and respect... man, I put a regular set of JJ's in it three weeks back. (grade 28) This amp has suddenly grown up! Harshness gone, edginess smoothed out. Louder, just exactly what the amp needed. Yorkville should look into these as standard equipment. The speaker is just fine. Easy to keep up with the drums, (standard old Strat at about 5 or 6 on the amp). The amp seems to respond in some circular way with me now, instead of the big fight to wrench a note out of the neck, now its just; the head thinks with an attendant emotion, the body moves into it, the amp gives it right back to me. I dunno, never had this happen before. Magical.

Frank Pacella

I have owned this amp for about one year now. I agree that the distortion/gain is in need of some help. I started by swapping out the stock Celestion Rocket 50 for a Reverend Alltone 1250. When I pulled out the Rocket 50 I did a visual comparison with the Alltone 1250. The build quality difference was clearly evident so I knew It would be better. Once broken in the Alltone sounded awesome. I considered the Celestion V30 but didn’t want to sound like everyone else.

Now I will follow your lead and get some J&J tubes. I will opt for the “Blues” option tube kit they sell for the Traynor YCV20. Their description: “A hotter matched pair of the JJ EL84's a standard ECC83S for V2, an ECC832 for V1 to drop the gain just a bit and give a more natural drive tone and a balanced ECC83S for the phase inverter in V3.”

I believe that once I do the tube swap combined with the speaker upgrade I will have a killer tone machine. I have found that my American Series Strat with the Delta Tone Pickups can do almost anything from clean to scream with this amp. I like the drive channel boosted with high gain with my bridge p/u and the delta tone rolled all the way back. It actually opens up like a humbucker. The clean channel with a bit of reverb with the Strat is just beautiful. I also have two guitars with humbuckers, one is a semi-hollow. I like using the lead channel with those guitars without reverb. I love my Traynor YCV20. It is a very versatile amp. It can play soft or loud. I compared it to a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe before buying it. The Fender got very loud too soon when increasing the volume. The Traynor has a more gradual volume control and it was cheaper so...

stats

  • • 15 Watts
  • • Class “A” Cathode bias amplifier
  • • DC filaments on preamp tubes lessen hum
  • • Fully regulated power supply with tube rectifier emulation
  • • Long Accutronics spring reverb
  • • Classic Celestion speaker
  • • All plywood enclosure
  • • Heavy gauge perforated grille with cloth cover
  • • Custom design "Chicken Beak" knobs
  • Positives
  • Loaded with features and tone. Solid construction.
  • Negatives
  • Distortion is a little harsh at higher gain settings; Reverb is noisy and “sproingy” at higher settings; Tubes are somewhat difficult to access.
  • Rating
  • Performance: 9
  • Sound Quality: 8
  • Construction: 9
  • Overall: 8.7
  • Ratings Key
  • 0 = Worthless
  • 10 = Excellent
  • Approximate Street Price
  • $699
  • Sound Samples
  • (mp3 format)
  • Settings for all sound samples (except “Les Paul High Gain”) are Volume: 4 Gain: 4.
  • Tubes Note
  • In an attempt to get an improved tone, I retubed the YCV20 with Eurotube tubes. You can read my review of them here.

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