Being one of the most respected of the old guard of amp makers, Vox has – for better or worse– not spent a lot of time resting on their laurels. Their Valvetronix series was one of the first digital modelers to go to market after Line 6 moved the goal posts for amp design by unleashing their Pod technology on the world. These days, with customer focus shifted back to the bespoke, boutique and craftsman-like, it is understandable that Vox would try to bridge that new gap. The rubric here seems to be to find the exact midpoint between analogue fidelity and the plethora of options offered by the digital world.
Aesthetically, these amps take a huge cue from the 50s and 60s. The rounded corners of the cabinet and odd angled grill cloth look plucked out of the Bakelite Age and mirror a visual sentiment offered up by Supro and other vintage makers. The façade wouldn’t look out of place propped up next to the fondue pot in the sunken lounge of a Peter Sellers go-go-party movie. Far from aping other builders the effect is only slightly removed from the other famous faces in the Vox line-up and so narrowly avoids looking like a pale imitation.
UNDER THE HOOD
The AV30 and 60 are both powered by twin 12AX7 power tubes, while their little brother the AV15 only relies on one. This offers signature tonal warmth that is so sorely missing from other modelers and means that the length and breadth of the gain stage is far wider than most other amps offer. One clever feature is the presence of the ‘bias’ and ‘reactor’ switches. Flicking the former to the right allows the player to shift the bias of the tubes so that they are ever so slightly out of phase with each other, an incredibly subtle effect but given that it takes a fraction of the sting out of the high end it is one that could definitely prove useful. Tapping on the reactor switch seems to push a touch more power into the front of the tubes that lends some heat to the tone and finds a few more harmonics to throw into the pot. Both these options seemed to be exaggerated more in the AV30 than its bigger counterpart, but in both cases struck me as a clever touch.
You have the option of switching between two identical channels via a Vox VFS2/VFS5 footswitch (sold separately). Both channels boast 8 analogue power circuits, each designed to emanate a different type of gain character. This is where Vox have really hit the nail on the head. Instead of relying on digital mimicry to emulate other amps, the AV series has actual copper and capacitors driving the variety of tones and the result is actually quite successful. The cleaner channels let the tubes do most of the heavy lifting; push the gain a touch and volume down and you get the kind of antique break up that melts the edges of your playing. Climb up the higher gain settings and you get that stacked to the point of feedback squall that made the AC30 the amp of choice for shred lords of yesteryear. Happily absent is the ugly, robotic, digital clip that was so maligned in the first wave of the digital revolution, and it is at this point where I started to realise they might actually be onto something.
WE’RE LIVING IN A DIGITAL WORLD
The one concession to the digital world offered by this amp is the in-built effects stage which, to be honest, feels a little tacked on. The reverb is a dark ‘large room’ sound that only really arcs up at about 30% dialed in. Stack it on top of the delay, which is reminiscent of MXR’s Carbon Copy, things start to get interesting as the decay on both effects crash around each other resulting in some nice, rolled off tails. The chorus or ‘mod’ effect is a touch too binary and thin sounding on it’s own for my taste, but pushed in front of a bit of overdrive it affords you the kind of searing solo tone that will have you digging your leather pants out of the bottom drawer.
Another interesting design feature is the closed-back cabinet. Coupled with the fact that the speaker is mounted to one side of the front panel, leading to off axis resonant frequency inside the cavity of the amp itself, there is a sense of tidiness and control present. I assume these details are another nod to 60s mod design but you end up in charge of a booming low-end reigned in by the crisp highs brought about by the tubes. Far from being unruly, it is either a happy accident resulting from the nifty aesthetic or a really clever bit of sonic alchemy. Either way, it drops in another piece missing from the modeling amp puzzle; individuality. It’s touches like these, design oddities, untamed electronic nuances and unflinching tonal control, that really give the AV range its unique sense of character. These amps are not emulators, as you know them, more like smorgasbords of colour not limited to a single pallet.
It is a rare pleasure to be proven wrong by equipment sometimes. Cynical as the relentless quest for innovation has made me, I am nonetheless impressed by the choices Vox have made here. The AV range is not trying to be everything to everyone, more trying to offer a range of options without sacrificing quality. On first glance they seem as light and ashy as their throwaway, digital contemporaries but plug in and feel out your own voice and they are streets ahead. They seem to under-promise and over deliver with a bounty of tonal opportunities that never veers into the trite or banal.
For more details, head to voxamps.com.au.