Gear Review: Vox AC30 Custom Classic 2
By Scott Auld
I had been considering picking up a VOX AC30 guitar amplifier for a while. After reading a lot of glowing reviews, and a few negative ones, I figured that I had to try one for myself to find out what I really thought. I posted a thread once asking what music people think of, and the varied responses led me to believe that the amp can really do a lot of things. I pulled the trigger on Saturday, 2/2/08, and picked one up. (I didn't 'pick it up' for long, mind you -- they are very heavy. More on that later.) They are not cheap - mine was $999. You can find used models for considerably less, and when you factor in that a used model probably has the tubes replaced, this becomes a very attractive option.
I was in a music store one Saturday morning, playing a few guitars through the AC30CC2 (Custom Classic). I was not really bonding with it. I was kind of dejected, because I really wanted to like this amp. I was talking to one of the salesmen and he said, "well, this is not a very good room for listening to amps. Everyone is playing around you, and the room is carpeted and dead. You might be surprised at how it sounds in a better room. And you can always bring it back if you don't like it." Good salesmanship, but also a statement that makes sense.
I went home for a few hours and decided to go back, buy the amp, and give it a try. After another hour driving, I had the massive box at my house and started unpacking it. Did I mention that these are heavy amps? Yeesh. Playing the amp in my living room was a very different experience from the guitar store. I played a couple of guitars through it and found a LOT of sounds I liked. That was when I really started bonding with the amp. It seemed as if no matter where I put the knobs, I found sounds I liked.
Now, after playing this amp for a while, I think the key word that I keep coming back to is "flexible". This amp has so many available tones, it is like getting about five different amps in one. I play in a jam band / church situation, and flexibility and variety are key. When your songs might last 20 minutes, it is nice to be able to spice up the songs with different sounds during the journey. For the more traditional straight-ahead rocker, I guess it gives you more choices from which to pick your "single sound".
Here's my rundown on the things I have figured out about the amp so far:
Unlike that Brian May AC30 that VOX put out (which only has one knob!), this AC30 Custom Classic model has ten knobs and seven toggle switches, all of which affect the types of sounds you are getting. Now would be the time to use the word 'plethora' -- as in, 'There is a plethora of sounds you can get from this amp.' Did I mention that the key word is "flexible"?
To start with, there are two inputs. There's a clean channel (called "Normal") and a overdrive channel (called "Top Boost"), each with their own preamp volume knobs. A master volume for the poweramp allows you to dial in as much (or little) gain for each channel as you like, without rattling the drywall right off the studs. Plus, using the "input link switch", the two channels are "blendable," so that you can mix them together, and by setting each channel's knob independently, you can decide how much of each channel is mixed in.
The downside is that you cannot switch back and forth between the Normal and Top Boost channels using a footswitch. One way around this would be to run an A/B splitter, one line to each input, but if you have the Link Switch set to blend the Top Boost with the Normal channel, then the Normal channel by itself is muted. There is no easy solution to have ALL three modes at your foot's beck and call.
A "brilliance" switch adds top-end brightness to the Normal channel. Flexible!
The EQ section affects the Top Boost channel, and includes Bass and Treble. There is a toggle switch between them called "Standard/Custom" which controls how the two EQ controls work with each other, one setting the EQ to a "interactive" setup, which makes the midrange move the opposite direction from the Bass/Treble. In other words, in "Standard" mode, when you turn up the Treble & Bass, you are effectively turning down the Mids. In "Custom" mode, the midrange stays in place regardless of where you put the Bass/Treble. Again, these choices just add more variety to the amp's available sounds.
The built-in reverb tank sits in the bottom of the cabinet, protected by a padded canvas bag. It is controlled by a reverb section on the main panel, with a knob labled "Mix" (which controls how much reverb is added) and one called "Tone" (which controls whether you are getting a dark or bright reverb effect. There is yet another toggle switch labled "Dwell," which sits between the two reverb controls, and the manual says to use one setting for high-gain sounds and the other for low-gain sounds. So, yet more flexibility in the type of sound you can get. Reverb is footswitchable.
The tremolo section provides the expected Speed & Depth controls, and the tremolo can be also turned off/on with the footswitch.
Right before you get to the Master Volume knob on the control panel, there is a "Tone Cut" knob -- this tone knob affects the power amp section, not the preamp section (which is where the other EQ knobs do their work). Turn up the Tone Cut knob (clockwise) and it cuts more high end out. Turn down the tone cut knob and it lets more high end through. I kind of see it acting like a High Pass Filter (...or, is it like a Low Pass Filter?) on a speaker cabinet. It's a cool feature you don't find on some other amps, and it adds yet more flexibility and variety to the amp.
On the back panel of the amp, we find two speaker outputs, one for an extension cabinet and one for an external cabinet. The extension cabinet output keeps the internal VOX speakers running, and is looking for a 16 ohm cabinet. The external output mutes the built-in VOX speakers, and is looking for either a 16 ohm or an 8 ohm cabinet. There is an output switch next to these jacks where you tell the amplifier what you are connecting.
Further down the back panel, we find two more switches that provide yet MORE tonal flexibility and variety. The "Output Bias" switch has two settings: "82 Warm" and "50 Hot". I do not know much about biasing, so I will tell you what the manual says: "The 82 Warm setting will run your amplifier at about 22 watts clean (before clipping), with less headroom and a warmer sound at lower volume. The 50 Hot setting will run your amplifier at about 33 watts clean (before clipping), which will run the tubes hotter but will provide more clean headroom." What this means to me is ... you guessed it, more flexibility.
Next to the Output Bias switch is a "Smoothing" switch. The manual says this switch "changes the values of the filter caps within your amplifier." Now we're getting into boutique-amp-lingo. I do not know as much as I should about amp schematics, components, capacitors and diodes, but I know that people who are hardcore into the electrical engineering side of amplification talk about the various values of filter caps in an amp, and switch them out to get different characteristics. I am sure there are MANY people who are reading this who understand exactly what this does to an amp, from an electrical standpoint, and I am pretty sure I wouldn't understand their explanation either. Ha ha. The choices available for are "22µf Vintage and "44µf Modern." The 22µf Vintage setting is described in the manual as "more open & loose," with more hum, while the 44µf Modern is described as being "tighter & quieter". That I can understand.
There are effects loop Send & Return jacks, and a switch that completely bypasses the loop if you don't want it obfuscating your signal.
I did not spring for the extra $500 they wanted for the Alnico Blues model, which has the expensive British speakers installed. Instead, I got the one with the Wharfdale speakers. I figured that I could put blue Celestions (or Webers) in it later if I feel like it. So far these Wharfdales sound good to me, and I will pound on them for a while and see how they sound after a couple of months of break-in.
The only downside in my amp was the tubes - the stock Sovtek tubes just didn't do the job. $85 spent at eurotubes.com for the AC30 kit replaced all the tubes (including A matched quad of JJ EL84's, a JJ GZ34 rectifier tube and three ECC83S's with one balanced ECC83S for the phase inverter. Many amps use solid state components for rectification, but this one uses a giant GZ34 tube).
With the VOX AC30CC2, you get boutique features and classic sound for around $1000. It's worth checking out, especially if you can find a place with a liberal return policy, 'just in case.'