For about a decade I played using my Johnson M150 combo (I stopped playing for years). I traded my Laney half stack in on it. I was living with relatives at the time and the Laney was too much. The Johnson was the supreme guitar emulator/simulator (it preceded the Line 6 and blew it away... and still does in many ways). The amp was truly the top of the line, it even has ENGLISH made Celestion V30's (the good ones I don't care what anyone says). The Johnson is friggin awesome for playing at practice volume (it is perfect for apartment playing, for example). It will literally do everything from a clean Fender Twin, SRV, Billy Gibbons, EVH Marshall, to a Mesa Recto (the factory presets are enough for just about any situation... you really do not need to learn to program it). I used the a Johnson J12 control pedal to control the amp (included 10 buttons, channel switching, program switching, inline on-board tuner, wah pedal, volume, etc).
When I started jamming again I hated the thing at loud volumes... and in retrospect I had a lot of things to learn about tone all over again. So, I put myself on a low budget and decided to make the "big brother" to the Johnson combo since I was so familiar with it.
So I bought a Craigslist Digitech 2120 , a Craigslist Carvin TS100, and a Craigslist Carvin 4 x 12 with Celestion V30's. Basically, what I have now it is the louder, fatter, more capable, refined, TUBE version of my Johnson M150 combo. Even use my J12 foot controller to control the 2120 EXACTLY like I used it on the Johnson (they are fully compatible).
The Digitech 2120 is infinitely more thought out and powerful brain than the Johnson programming model it is based on (and I am an expert at the programming structure... I actually read the manual). It puts the compressor in the chain at the front, and moves the effects loop past the distortion modules. It has tube and solid state distortion that can be used simultaneously and separately. Lastly it has DOUBLE the processing power of the Johnson and is PC programmable.
After changing the Digitech 2120 preamp tubes to 1960's Sylvania's I have to say I quite pleased with it. The tone is so sweet now (the tube recommendations from the web sucked ass BTW).
To power the speakers I have a Carvin TS100 and it is really great for what it is. It is a stereo 50/50 tube power amp, and is bridgeable to 100 tube watts. I have installed 1960's Sylvania's 12 AX7's in preamp there also (they control the presence) and it really warmed up the tone and made the presence knobs actually useful. I have JJ EL 34's one side and GT GE 6L6's on the other, the EL 34's are much punchier and the 6l6's are softer. I only use one side at a time with my 4 x12. It sounds much sweeter at 50 watts than it does at the bridged 100 watts (I assume due to the fact that the tube output transformer is effectively "coasting" running one channel at a time---it is still loud as shit at 50 watts).
My Carvin cabinet was literally brand new and for the price I paid for it you could not buy the speakers. It is built like a tank and wonderfully finished. It even came with casters and a cover). I suppose I would put it up against anything I have ever seen (including Mesa and was never really impressed with Marshall cabs). The V30's needed a lot of breaking in... They are very tight compared to my English V30's in my old Johnson combo... most people like really old cabinets for a reason, they sweeten with age if not push too hard.
All emulators like the 2120 have compromises, but at least mine has a tube preamp (I added NOS Sylvania 12 AX7 tubes to make it really sweet). I think I am getting some wicked tones (and I can do a lot of things at the push of a button that most guys cannot... my friends are generally impressed with what I can do with it), and I have learned a whole lot about what an EQ can do (the 2120 has an 8 band ACTIVE EQ at each distortion module).
Good guitar tone is not "flat"... there are definite frequency that get boosted a lot and some that need to go away completely. That is what good amps do, they boost the right frequencies and clip the bad ones... That is why a resistor change and there here and a cap change or two can make an old Marshall sound so much better... there are guys all over the place making old tube amps sound so much better with upgraded parts.
That all being said but I would love to have a fully modded all tube head... The EVH 5150 III looks very cool (transparent channel switching is insane).
I really like the Genz Benz El Diablo... a local guy has one for sale. My unit will not do the "buzz saw" distortion levels like some of these new amps, it tops out at about Mesa or Marshall JCM 800 levels of drive. I could change to a JJ high gain tube to get the "chain saw" sounds for Death Metal, but to me it sounds like shit.
This is my 1992 Jackson Professional... I have since changed to Dimarzio and Seymour Duncan pickups.
"The reasonable man adapts himself to his environment. The unreasonable man adapts his environment to himself, therefore all progress is made by unreasonable men."
-George Bernard Shaw