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Vox AC-30C2 Combo Amplifier Review
Standard Retail Price: $999.99
Typical Used Price: $550 to $750 (US dollars)
Features: 2 channels, Normal and Top Boost, with a High and Low input for each channel (a total of four); 30 watts; two 12" Celestion G12M "Greenback" speakers; powered by three 12AX7 preamp tubes and four EL84 power tubes; spring reverb; tremolo; effects loop input and output; switchable 8/16 ohm external speaker output.
Controls: Normal volume; Top Boost volume, treble and bass; Reverb tone and level; Tremolo speed and depth; Master tone cut and volume; standby switch.
Famous Users: Daniel Jorgenson of Owl City; Theresa Wayman of Warpaint
(Users of other AC-30 models include U2's the Edge, Brian May of Queen, and Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters)
Further Information: VoxAmps.com
The Vox AC-30C2 (the "C" stands for "Custom") was released in early 2010 to replace the previous AC-30CC (or "Custom Classic") line. For those who are unfamiliar with the venerable AC-30 amplifier, this combo has been in production since the early 1960s and has appeared on countless stages worldwide, and on many of the most popular rock and pop recordings of all time. The secret to the Vox AC-30's magic seems to lie in its versatility: it is capable of producing beautiful, chiming clean tones at high volumes, yet it can also dish out some fairly nasty overdrive sounds when it's cranked. And more importantly, it can hit every sweet spot in between these two extremes.
Bear in mind that these amps are no longer manufactured in the UK. Korg acquired Vox in 1992, and in 2005, they moved production to China. Subsequently, some players insist that the quality of products has diminished. And indeed, with the release of the AC-30C2, some changes were made to the company's flagship amp that offended purists, but it's worth noting that many of these alterations are considered by other players to be improvements.
As the former owner of an AC-30TB/6 that was manufactured in the UK (which I unfortunately had to part with several years ago for financial reasons), my personal opinion is that the AC-30C2 represents a step forward in some ways, and a step back in others.
When I first plugged into the amplifier at my local music store, I was immediately struck by the build of the amp. It's every bit as heavy as I remember my old AC-30 being, but the three plastic handles on the modern model feel thicker and sturdier, making transportation at least a little easier and less worrisome. Also, although the cab is apparently made of MDF (particle board, basically), the whole thing seems well-constructed and very solid.
The amplifier retains its older siblings' classy looks, with white piping around the diamond-pattern grill cloth and a handsome black tolex covering the cab. I even thought the metal screen covering the open back over the speakers was a nice cosmetic touch--it's reminiscent of another major British amplifier manufacturer's "heavy duty" appearance.
My first test-drive with the amplifier quickly yielded the beautiful tones the AC-30 series is famous for. From chiming, ringing notes to hard-hitting distortion, the C2 seemed capable of generating any sound I required or tried to coax out of it. It retained a lot of its own character even when switching between single-coil and humbucker pickups.
Ease of Use
The elegant simplicity of operating an amplifier with so much versatility and such depth of sound is a major selling point for me. The AC-30C2 has a little bit of a learning curve compared with some of the more modern designs out there, due to the one hangup most players will encounter--which is the fact that the amp has two channels, but no footswitch to toggle between them. In this way, the C2 resembles classic Vox AC-30 designs, but it's a curious oversight in a model that touts a number of modern streamlined improvements.
Nonetheless, the C2's controls couldn't really be easier to understand, interpret, and use to dial in a huge variety of sounds. Each channel ("Normal" and "Top Boost") has its own Volume knob and tone controls. The Volume knobs interact with the amp's Master Volume in such a way that it's possible to get really saturated overdrive sounds by keeping the Master Volume high and the individual channel's volume low, it's possible to get a beautiful clean sound with plenty of headroom. Conversely, lowering the Master Volume and cranking the individual channel's volume will produce that thick, saturated overdriven sound for which the AC-30 is famous.
Another stumbling block modern players may encounter is the EQ section. The "Normal" channel only has no tone-shaping options, although you'll find that the equalization changes with the application of Master and channel volume. The "Top Boost" channel has only two EQ controls: a Bass knob and a Treble knob. For anyone who grew up in an era where amps typically feature one or more Mid controls, this may seem disorienting at first. However, listen as you dial in tones with the Treble and Bass controls and you'll quickly learn how these two knobs also affect the Mid frequencies. It can take a little more experimentation to find your ideal setting, but the AC-30C2 has a fairly strong presence in this range anyway, so you're unlikely to find that you don't have enough Mids to cut through a full band mix.
The Tone Cut control, located next to the Master Volume, is slightly counter-intuitive in that the further you turn it, the more high-end frequencies are taken OUT of your signal. By lowering the control, you're opening a filter that allows for more treble, or cut. Keep this in mind if you're playing a guitar with humbuckers and find that the tone seems muddy, even when running the amp's tone clean. It's a really useful tool for sculpting and fine-tuning the AC-30's sound, and the secret to unlocking that legendary Vox sparkle.
The built-in spring reverb (which, thoughtfully, has its own Tone control) and tremolo effects sound gorgeous, although I found that they sounded a little weak on the lower settings, and only really started to stand out at the point where they might be considered too prominent. That said, they're still very musical and useful, and are great, simple-to-adjust options for adding color.
Unlike many past AC-30 models, the C2 also incorporates an effects loop. Previously, most of Vox's 2x12 combos required all effects to be run in front of the amp's input. While not necessarily a bad thing--AC-30s play notoriously well with effects pedals, another likely reason for their popularity--the addition of a true-bypass loop makes it possible to obtain pristine tones from delays, outboard reverbs, and other effects that often sound better when run "clean." (Overdrives and distortions should always be placed before the input, however, to avoid damaging the amp.) Using the effects loop is as simple as running a cable from your effects' outputs into the Vox's Return/input, and then another from the Vox's Send/output to the effect's input. It couldn't be easier.
There's also a pair of external outputs meant to drive speaker cabinets, should the C2's dual 12" speakers not throw off enough sound for you. I have not utilized these myself, but the impedence selection switch opens up additional options for those who need to push even more air than the AC-30 already does.
When push comes to shove, an amplifier's first impressions and ease of use go out the window if the unit can't deliver where it counts: in actual performance. This is where the AC-30C2 shines.
Purists will take issue with Vox's removal of the GZ-34 rectifier tube. I've heard some players complain that this changes the feel of the amp's response, or sag, especially when the amp is being run hot to create overdrive. Personally, I didn't notice a substantial difference in feel between my TB/6 model and the C2 model that couldn't be accounted for by any of the other changes--such as the speakers, which we'll get to momentarily--and which didn't bother me in the slightest.
In fact, my old TB/6 sounded beautiful about 65% of the time; however, it was a highly inconsistent amplifier, which I later discovered was due to the GZ-34, which was prone to either burning out completely or going microphonic due to the use of the amp's "standby" mode (ironically intended to preserve tube/valve life). The inclusion of a solid-state rectifier has, I've found, made the C2 into a VERY consistent amp. It's much easier to dial in the tone I'm looking for in a variety of scenarios or rooms than ever before, and I have yet to encounter any issues that I used to have to put up with from the TB/6, such as onstage power failure, squealing microphonic feedback, and the seeming inability to get the amplifier to sound the same in a large club as it did in a small studio.
The other alteration that has Vox AC-30 devotees steaming is the installation of Celestion GM-12 "Greenback" speakers, which are often more closely associated with Marshall amplifiers. These purists insist that the only "correct" match for an AC-30 is a Celestion Alnico Blue speaker (which is, in fact, installed stock in slightly pricier versions of the C2). And I can confirm that there is a definite tonal difference between the two, but in my experience, the amplifier's character is not unpleasantly different. It's just... different.
For instance, although I found the blues to retain more clean headroom at higher volumes and to have a different mid-range response (especially when overdriving the amp), the Greenback speakers have a much tighter bottom end that seems especially well-suited to rock guitar playing. While they do have a slightly thinner tone, this can be compensated for via the tone controls or the use of pedals to some extent, and it's unlikely that a Vox enthusiast won't immediately feel at home with the sound of the C2 model.
And speaking of effects, this Vox loves them. Every dirtbox, delay, compressor, flanger, phaser and reverb unit I've run through the input and/or the effects loop sounds phenomenal through this amplifier. For a combo that has a really great dirty sound on its own, the C2 seems especially comfortable with overdrives and distortions. I've tried everything from lower-end Boss pedals to higher-end Fulltone units and all of them sound as full and smooth or as spiky and angular as I want them to be with just a little bit of tweaking on the EQ section.
Okay, so with all of that said, let's look at the amplifier in the three contexts in which you're most likely to use it:
- Practice/rehearsal - The AC-30 is a notoriously loud amp, and the C2 is no exception. It's capable of roof-shaking volume when all the controls are dimed. However, the inclusion of the Master Volume control really makes the amplifier more versatile in that you can get great, tube-driven tones at something approaching bedroom volumes. This makes the C2 a solid amp for solo practicing at home, although I don't personally recommend trying to mic and record this amp at at low volumes because while your ear may not detect it while you're playing, under the closer scrutiny afforded by playback you'll notice that there's a lot less "oomph" in the sound. This is typical of tube amps, which are frankly made to sound their best at high volumes where tube saturation and speaker distortion begin to set in. To that end, if you're in a live rehearsal studio with a full drum set, you'll have no problem being heard in the mix. I've even dragged mine to a practice where the other guitarist was playing through a 50-watt Marshall tube head into a 4x12 cab, and while he himself experienced a little difficulty discerning what I was doing, the other four musicians present reported that I sounded every bit as present to them as he did.
- Live - Again, this is another situation where the C2 really earns its keep. I play in a band that performs both original music and, on other nights, full two-and-a-half hour cover sets. My needs for each are fairly different, but suffice it to say that I require an amp with a high degree of versatility as well as quality tones. I added the Vox to my rig a little under a year ago, and since then, I haven't looked back. Whether we're cranking out hard rock classics or modern dance pop floor-fillers, the AC-30 keeps up ably. I tend to use a pretty fair amount of effects, and the C2 blends them into the signal more smoothly than any other amp I've owned, outside of my previous TB/6 model. As previously stated, the AC-30 is a very loud amplifier, and as my band performs anywhere from small clubs to medium-sized theaters, it has no problem giving me the stage volume I need in either scenario. (I highly recommend investing in a good amp stand, though, to angle the combo in such a way that the speakers are aimed more or less up at your head. This way, you'll know how loud you're really playing, and avoid accidentally deafening yourself and your bandmates by overcompensating for sound direction issues with more volume.)
- Studio - The AC-30C2 is a fine piece of gear to have along in a studio environment, especially if you're recording in a facility that already has its share of amplifiers available for use. For instance, the studio where my band records its original material has an older, UK-made AC-30TB equipped with Alnico Blue speakers. There's no doubt that it's a great amp, but my C2 is just different enough tonally that between the two, we're able to achieve a very wide variety of sounds using just these combos! Sometimes, playing the same part on another track through the other amplifier adds a fullness you wouldn't get by using multiple microphones on amp, or even using a totally different kind of amp. The fact that it's so easy to dial in great sounds on the fly once you get used to the controls is a big time-saver in a studio, too. There's no fiddling with presets or deciding which of three channels you want to employ for a certain part: often, it's as simple as finding the right microphone placement, adjusting the tone controls to get them where you like them, dialing in the amount of overdrive you want via the Volume/Master Volume settings, and letting it rip.
Of the following popular tube/valve combo amplifiers, which is YOUR favorite?
Two months ago, I played a show in a theater that often attracts national touring acts who often stop in to play smaller, more intimate shows when they're passing between the bigger cities in the area. The soundman was hugely enthusiastic about the fact that I showed up with a Vox, and after the show, he complimented my tone by comparing it to that of a much better-known guitarist who'd performed there recently. I asked if said guitar player had been playing one of the newer C2 models too (this seemed reasonable, as this band could be politely said to be past the peak of their popularity). The tech replied that he wasn't, and had in fact been using a late 1960s amplifier. He was a little bewildered that the Chinese-made late model AC-30 I was playing through could sound as good as a vintage Vox.
It would be foolhardy for me to claim that this is the best amplifier I've ever owned, because as time goes on, I'll get to know its quirks and maintenance issues more clearly. In fact, the time may come where I choose to modify the amp by replacing capacitors or speakers to get closer to what I consider the optimal tone. I may even end up switching the components into a higher-quality cabinet. However, in a year of near-daily transportation and use in a variety of environments, in my opinion the AC-30C2 has proven itself to be the perfect middle-ground between quality of tone, reliability, consistency, and versatility.
In fact, the single complaint I have is that the optional footswitch can only be used to turn the reverb and tremolo on or off, and not to toggle between the Normal and Top Boost channels. I have come to admire all of the C2's other potential shortcomings, such as the lack of a tone control on the Normal channel, as quirks that add a specific and unique flavor to the sound of this version of the much-revered Vox AC-30.
If you play blues, jazz, or rock (even hard rock or alternative, but not metal) and you're in the market for a relatively inexpensive tube combo, I would not hesitate to recommend the C2.