The reviewer's recently acquired silverface Fender Vibro Champ that was used in reviewing all these 8" speakers.
Everyone questions their existence, yet we all hold out hope for a sighting of our own. No, I’m not talking about yetis or UFOs. I’m referring to the phenomenon of stumbling across big-name vintage gear being sold at a decent price. For most of us, stories about finding, say, old Fender or Gibson gear at anything other than multiple times its original price is nothing short of urban legend. But I’m here to tell you this stuff does still happen.
My story isn’t about an amazing score of a $200 ’67 Jaguar or anything, but finding a silverface Fender Vibro Champ for significantly less than six or seven bills is still unusual. Unusual enough that I was tempted to dismiss the Craigslist ad with a single blurry photo and an asking price of $400. Was it real? Was it busted? Was it ruined by a stupid mod?
When I showed up to test the little 1x8 combo, Telecaster in hand, the owner led me to his garage and proceeded to relate how he got the amp: A friend had purchased a repossessed cabin still stocked with the previous owners’ contents—including a Fender M-80 combo in pretty bad shape, and a Peavey amp that they’d decided to throw in a bonfire with other junk they determined wasn’t worth a drive to a second-hand store. (I was tempted to ask if alcohol was involved in this careless, dangerous decision, but I bit my tongue.) Neither guy played guitar, but the nice fellow I was dealing with had recognized the Fender brand name, figured he could make a little money, and stopped his buddy from burning the M-80 and Vibro Champ.
The 6V6-powered combo was dusty, scuffed, and pretty dirty, but to my great surprise everything functioned properly when I plugged in, strummed, and twiddled the knobs. Flipping the cab around, I examined the tube chart and serial numbers, quickly cross-referencing online tools to determine that it was built in 1976. As I noodled for a few more minutes to make sure it didn’t fart-out under consistent use or heavy playing, the only thing I couldn’t figure out was why it was so much quieter and less dynamic at full-bore than the silverface VC I’d (stupidly) sold years before. So I took a closer look at the speaker and discovered it was a cheapo replacement that looked like something a budget-strapped teenager might throw into a makeshift extension cab for his car stereo.
I explained to the owner that the horrible speaker wasn’t original, he knocked $50 off the price, and I headed home with the grimy little thing—crossing my fingers that the speaker was the only real issue. Not being remotely qualified to open it up and diagnose its health, I then sent my “new” Vibro Champ off to amp guru Tim Schroeder at Schroeder Amplification in Chicago. A few days later, Tim called to say the amp checked out fine and was all stock—he’d simply cleaned it up a bit, upgraded the power cable, and swapped out a 12AX7. It was now ready for our voyage into the adventures of speaker replacement.
Replacing an 8" speaker isn’t remotely as daunting as looking for a new 12" speaker. The total number of models from all mainstream manufacturers is a tiny fraction of what a single big company offers for full-size amps. Even so, we didn’t have the resources to test every compelling 8" on the market and were forced to narrow it down to six 4-ohm models.
Each speaker was installed in the ’76 Vibro Champ—which features a tube complement of a single 6V6 in the power section, two 12AX7s (one for the preamp, one for the tremolo circuit), and a 5Y3 rectifier—and tested with a Telecaster and a Schecter Ultra III. The Tele is outfitted with vintage-voiced Curtis Novak pickups (a traditional Tele unit in the bridge, and a Jazzmaster neck unit), while the Ultra III has a TV Jones Magna’Tron bridge pickup and Duncan Designed mini humbuckers in the middle and neck positions. I tested each speaker at various settings, but to streamline the sound samples I recorded each speaker at two settings: with volume, treble, and bass all at 5, and then with them all at 10. The samples were captured with a Royer R-121 dead center on the speaker and up close to the grille. For much of the playing, I also used a J. Rockett Audio Designs Archer (with output and treble at noon, and gain at minimum) to push the amp a little. I also used Catalinbread Topanga and MXR reverb pedals, and at times engaged a Jordan Fuzztite.