In every aspect of technology in the current age, it seems as if miniaturization and portability is all the rage. Cellular telephones, television sets, computers and (as we all know by now) guitar amplification have all been caught up in the trend toward packing more and more features into ever-shrinking containers. In the case of the Night Train, VOX Amplification’s newest addition to their guitar amp line, the design considers technologies that lie both in the past and present, merging both into a deceptively potent tone machine. A dual-EL84 tube power section coupled with a dual-12AX7 preamp allows the Night Train to pump out either 15 or 7.5 watts from its retro toaster-sized packaging.
Loaded like a freight train
At first glance, the Night Train seems like a less-than-imposing creation. Its small, compact design sits at just a little over a foot wide, and it’s dwarfed by any cabinet larger than a standard 1x12” (like the V112NT, VOX’s companion for the Night Train with a custom-voiced Celestion Greenback speaker). The construction quality is extremely solid: the chassis is a combination of brushed and mirror-finished steel, weighing in at slightly less than 17 pounds. Thankfully, VOX didn’t cut any corners with building materials, as the only plastic parts that are exposed are the classy, off-white chickenhead knobs that adorn the faceplate. The thing I noticed about the Night Train right away is how streamlined the build is. All of the screws joining the chassis together are recessed, and the corners are slightly rolled. This might not seem like a big deal to some, but it really shows the attention to detail and presentation that it’s designers put into the head. VOX describes it as an “armored lunchbox,” and the solid, smooth design helps ease worries of dropping the amplifier on an exposed foot or off the edge of a stage. In addition, it just looks really cool, like a space-age toaster of the future that a 1950s sci-fi writer would dream of. Transportability was a major factor in designing the Night Train, so VOX also included a sturdy, padded carrying-case with a shoulder strap for taking the amp to jams and recording sessions.
Flyin’ like an aero plane
Eager to hear VOX’s new creation, I plugged in a 2008 Fender Telecaster and set up the head with an Egnater 1x12” cab with a Celestion Vintage 30. Following some careful dialing, a very nice clean with a surprisingly chimey top end poured out of the speaker. The front panel of the amplifier has a simple, comfortable layout consisting of Gain, three-band EQ, and Volume controls. Nestled between the Gain and Treble knobs is a switch labeled Bright/ Thick, which produces a highly perceptible difference in the voicing of the amp. Roundingout the controls is the Standby switch, which also functions as a wattage selector.
According to Dave Clarke of Vox R&D, the preamp was inspired by one of his favorite amplifiers: the Trainwreck Express, designed by Ken Fischer. Apart from its legendary sound, the Trainwreck Express was produced in very small numbers and is extremely hard to find, commanding tens of thousands of dollars in some cases. The Night Train’s power section was born from concepts introduced by the AC15CC, and various component changes and tweaks were thrown in to give the Night Train its own, unique voice amongst its British siblings. In the up position (Pentode), the Night Train runs at 15 watts, and the down position (Triode), the head drops the wattage down to a modest 7.5 watts.
Speedin’ like a space brain
I put the Night Train in Pentode mode, with the Gain barely above the 9 o’clock position, tone controls at noon, and the tone switch selected to Bright. Most small-wattage heads have an issue with clean headroom, but the Night Train is certainly an exception. Pushing the master volume just made it louder and punchier, and only when I used a really strong pick attack was there any sort of dirt on edges. Moreover, it was surprising how easy it was to get this loud, tight clean tone out of the tiny, gleaming wonder sitting in front of me. The newfound excitement lead me to trying a more diverse array of instruments with this clean sound, just to see if I could get the amp to give without having to perform any major adjustments. While the Gibson Les Paul Custom, Duesenberg MC Signature and Fender USA Stratocaster all had obviously varying tones, the Night Train still kept its sterling high end and authoritative punch. It would be interesting as well to see how this channel would react with a 12AT7 in the first position, instead of the standard high-gain 12AX7 that it ships with. The Night Train also seems to respond a little better to single-coil pickups, especially Tele-style ones. With humbuckers, the tone is wider, but seems to lose a little bit of focus when pushed to higher gain and volume modes, whereas the Tele’s bridge pickup stayed twangy and detailed at almost all levels.