Looking for vintage AC30 tone? The AC30H2 is worth a look.

Download Example 1
Ch. 1 (EF86 pentode mode) Vol.  2 o'clock, Brill. off, Cut noon
Download Example 2
Ch. 2 "Top Boost," Vol. 10 o'clock, Treb. 1 o'clock, Bass 11 o'clock, Cut noon
Download Example 3
Ch. 2, Vol. 1 o'clock, Treb. 2 o'clock, Bass 11 o'clock, Top Cut 9 o'clock
Nash S63 Lollar bridge pup; recorded in Sound Studio on a MacBook Pro using Digidesign Mbox (SM57).
Everyone knows that VOX is a name to conjure by. The AC30 in particular has achieved its reputation among all types of rock ‘n’ rollers by earning it over the long haul. Tonehounds know it as a great all-around amp with a sound entirely its own—as sought after for its bell-like, pristine cleans as it is for its raw, saturated overdrive that gets rich and creamy with just the flick of a knob. Anyone who’s ever played a good one knows it’s a dynamic, sensitive and responsive tone machine, and almost as simple as they come. A good guitar and an AC30 can be the quickest trip to tone heaven you can take.

So, plugging a guitar into the handwired AC30H2 Heritage combo, made to celebrate VOX’s fiftieth anniversary, expectations are going to be… well, high. In addition to a reputation that precedes it, this amp has a smart vintage styling, with cream vinyl covering, gold trim and logo, light brown leather handles and brown diamond grillcloth, complete with a VOX 50th anniversary badge. Under the hood it sports a handwired circuit (using TAG board) with the usual EL84 power section, GZ34 rectifier and a pair of VOX/Celestion Alnico Blue speakers, as well as combining, for the first time, the EF86-driven preamp channel from 1958 with the ECC83/12AX7-driven Top Boost channel of the early sixties.

I also have to admit I had high expectations for the EF86 preamp channel, which VOX phased out during the transition to the renowned AC30/6 Twin model. This pentode tube has a higher gain, but a reputation for becoming severely microphonic; although debate flourishes about the exact nature of the problem, most agree it can be temperamental. It’s also become legendary for its tone and character, which is why the EF86 has been showing up for years in VOX-inspired (and other) boutique designs by Matchless, Valvetech, Dr. Z, 65 amps, Top Hat and Xits, just to name a few. Channel one of the AC30H2 features two inputs and only one knob for volume. The remaining controls are all switches: a three-way Brilliance switch that offers a flat response and two other voicings for tone shaping; a Bass Shift switch for a vintage-correct or a tightened bass response; and a switch that changes the operating mode of the EF86 from Pentode to Triode. True to form, this channel boasts a somewhat darker, more aggressive sound, without so much of the chime or compression. It does have fat, punchy mids and a meaty grind, and a very different breakup than the more common ECC83/12AX7 preamp. It’s a splendid complement to the brightness and clarity of channel two—think down and dirty rock. The pentode mode does indeed put out a sweet high gain tone, but the triode mode has a less vibrant response and sounds dull in comparison. Personally, this option doesn’t appeal to me because I don’t see why you’d want to run a Pentode circuit in triode mode. The sound of channel two is the inimitable sound of the Top Boost preamp circuit. Everyone has heard the description, so perhaps I’ll narrate instead. For a test, I took the VOX out to a recent gig. Setting up for the sound check, I decided to forego my usual desire for versatility and run my new Nash S63 Strat-style guitar with Lollar pickups into the AC30H2 on the backline with no mic and nothing in the signal chain but an EH Small Stone Nano phase shifter (gotta have some of that Outlaw sound), a Lizard Leg Flying Dragon boost, and a Boss tuner. I had my Duesenberg out on a stand, and another rig ready to go, but I shouldn’t have bothered—I didn’t touch either one all night. Although I hadn’t played the Nash and the VOX together yet, I’d played them both and had a good feeling about the combination. Damn if it wasn’t the best decision I’ve made in months.

The dynamic sensitivity was just right, and the clarity was just ridiculous. That rig merged into a single instrument that unceremoniously knocked me and my band mates out, over and over again all night.

The shimmering, sparkly highs, the focused mids and low end, the compression, the richness of the harmonics, the breakup—all of it was brilliant. The sweet, ringing cleans opened up a lot of the tunes on which I normally look for a darker sound, and the vintage character of the tone was so warm and woody. The flawless sixties sounds would have been enough for me, but I also got some fat, muscly blues tones, SRV and Rory Gallagher tones, a seriously spanking country tone, and some delicious in-betweens—all without touching the amp. I stayed on channel two with the same settings for four and half hours. That might sound more like a testament to the quality of guitar and the pickups than the amp, but that kind of control is exceptional. The “swish” of that phaser has never sounded clearer, and it took the boost like a champ. And, while I’m used to using a bit of reverb and a slap delay every once in a while, I didn’t miss either of them—the openness and depth of the amp made up for their absence.

The amp also offers output Pentode/Triode switching, which changes the operating mode of the EL84s as a way of achieving a half-power mode in the amp—the idea is to get the same cranked tone at tamer volume levels, but it’s not correct to say the volume is cut in half, or even necessarily “tame.” More importantly, changing to Triode mode seems to take some of the swagger out of the amp when it’s cranked, and I’m not sure about what I’m getting in return for giving that up. A half-power mode can be a useful feature (and clearly popular), but in this amp it seems like a shortcut. There are other ways to offer that kind of control, like “shutting off” one pair of output tubes while allowing the other pair to work the way they were designed. It’s not that I have a problem with this feature, it’s just another option I wouldn’t use.

To be sure, any reissue should have an old-school look that harkens back to the days when it all began, but it’s the tone that really makes it a celebration, and the tone of this one is above reproach—two channels of real VOX magic. Although it’s got a vintage look, up close it discloses the signs of modern mass production: plastic vent covers, small flaws in the cabinet fit and covering—nothing major, but it’s got me wondering.

For me, the downside is that I’d feel like I was paying for features I wouldn’t use, and it has a look I’d have to get used to; the upside is that an amp this good doesn’t need a lot of features, and it does have a look of its own. It’s dead simple to use, and it gives up great tones. My expectations of the AC30H2 turned out just a bit higher than what it delivered, but it unquestionably lives up to its name and reputation sonically. I have concerns about its roadworthiness, but I would have no qualms whatsoever about using it in the studio or on an occasional gig.
Buy if...
you’re looking to add an AC30 (or another AC30) to your lineup, and you want it a bit different.
Skip if...
you’re looking for more of a straight-up reissue or something better suited for road abuse.

Street: $2000 - Vox Amplification - voxamps.com

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