|Aracom Amplifiers Vintage Rox 22 Watt Amplifier (a.k.a. VRX22)
Summary: This brand-new 22 watter is the newest in the Aracom low-wattage amp series now called the Vintage Rox or VRX series, which includes the original RoxBox 18 (now called the VRX18). Loaded with a pair of 6V6 power tubes, this amp oozes vintage American clean and dirty tone ala Stevie Ray Vaughn.
Pros: More clean headroom in Channel 1 as compared to its EL84-based 18 Watt sibling. And despite its lower wattage rating, this amp is capable of getting LOUD! Plus the VRX series sports what I think are the best power switching and master volume in the business!
Price: $895 Head / $995-$1095 for Combo (dep. on speaker)
- (2) 6V6 Power Tubes
Let’s roll back the clock a couple of months. I get a call from Jeff Aragaki. The conversation went something like this…
“Hey Brendan! How’s it going?” asks Jeff.
“Not bad. Howzit with you?” I ask.
“It’s going good. Listen, I’m experimenting with a new tube compliment for the RoxBox and put a pair of 6V6′s in it to see how it sounds,” says Jeff.”
“Oh REALLY? Kinda tryin’ to get an American voicing, are ya…”
“Yeah, plus the output rating should be bit higher at around 22-25 Watts,” Jeff states.
“Okay,” I say, “Now you’ve got my attention. When can I try it out?” I ask.
<chuckle> “Well, I called to see if could bring it over to you for you try out and give me some feedback,” replies Jeff.
“Brand new amp? Experiment? Need you ask to see if I’d like to try it out? I’m free Saturday morning!” I exclaimed.
Fast-forward to the following Saturday, and Jeff lets me try the amp for a couple of days before he has to take it back, and I immediately start taking it through its paces. I even gig with it. I’d instantly fallen in love with it! I call Jeff and tell him that I think he’s onto something with this amp. He’s glad for the feedback, then a couple of days later, he picks it up to finish it out.
A few days later, he calls and tells me that he had to tweak the circuits a bit to handle the increased power. Uh-oh. So I asked, “Did it change the tone?”
“Hahaha… not at all. In fact it was actually running at way below 22 Watts. Since I reworked the circuitry, it has tons of power now, and it sounds even better. I even adjusted Channel 1 so you get even more clean headroom, and Channel 2 breaks up real nicely now. In any case, I’m going on a business trip to Indonesia and you can play with the amp for a couple of weeks while I’m gone.”
And play I did! That was one of the most exhausting two weeks of my life because I was up till late (like 2-3 am) playing that amp. I just couldn’t get enough of it, especially playing “Goldie” (a Saint Guitar Goldtop I recently reviewed) through the amp. And in all that time, I wanted to write a review of it, but I had agreed with Jeff to not talk about it (though I hinted a lot) until he got back from Indonesia and turned it into a production amp.
Once he returned from Indonesia a couple of weeks ago, he came over to pick the amp up. He asks me the usual questions about how I liked it, and I just said, “Jeff, this is a PERFECT amp! I can’t say anything bad about at all. Channel 1 is gorgeous and works great with pedals. Channel 2 just rocks the house! It’s the channel I used the most, and it’s also real pedal-friendly. And for once in my life, I’m at a total loss for words; that’s how much this amp affects me to the core.”
Jeff just laughed, and said, “Well, I’ve got a couple of other amps for you to try out…”
I cut him off, and told him that it’s fine if he wanted me to review them, but as far as what amp I’d choose to go with for my personal amp, the VRX22 was it. Search over. He laughed again, and said he’d get started on it….
Okay… fast forward to yesterday…
Jeff called me up to give me a status on my amp, and that he talked to someone this past week who is also getting one, choosing the VRX22 over a well-known boutique manufacturer. So it was definitely going into production, and he was almost done with the web page and announcement. Of course, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and immediately wrote an announcement, despite his recommendation to wait until today). I just promised I wouldn’t say too much, which I didn’t because I wanted to write a review.
What’s in a name…
To create alignment in the series, Jeff has renamed the “RoxBox” line to the “Vintage Rox” or VRX series. If you recall, the original RoxBox 18 sported a pair of EL84 power tubes and is now called the VRX18; and the only difference between the two amps is that the VRX22 employs 6V6′s and circuits that can deal with the increased power. In essence, with the VRX series, Jeff is providing both British (VRX 18) and an American (VRX 22) voicing options. The EL84-based VRX18 breaks up very similarly to a VOX AC15, with a lot of high-freq shimmer. The VRX22, on the other hand, breaks up like a classic Tweed. Frankly, once I have the bucks, playing both together will sound absolutely awesome!!! And priced at $895 each for the head models, that’s A LOT cheaper than a single hand-wired amp from most boutique manufacturers.
Hand-wired goodness at an affordable price
I can’t stress this enough: The thing that originally blew me away with Aracom Amps was the price of the RoxBox. I couldn’t believe Jeff could sell a hand-wired amp for less than a grand – even with a solid-state rectifier! As I’ve gotten to know Jeff, and I’ve come to understand one thing about him: He’s an incredibly shrewd businessman. As he shared with me this morning, “It’s a matter of philosophy. Some guys make boutique gear, give their stuff a nice paint job, then charge a bunch of money for their gear. Then there are other guys who just want to make a few bucks off their gear, but sell it at a lower price so more people will play it.”
The net result is that we consumers reap the rewards of that philosophy, and probably one of the reasons why Jeff’s amps are starting to gain a lot of traction in the industry. And artists have started to find out about Jeff’s amps. Gene Baker of B3 Guitars fame plays an early-model Evolver, and just recorded his new album using the Evolver in all the songs. Obviously, a guy like this who gigs all the time is a believer. I’m nowhere near Gene’s abilities, but I totally dig his amps – I think you can tell.
How It Sounds
I’m not going to rehash features here, since the features are the same as the original RoxBox 18 that I reviewed a few months ago. Again, the fundamental difference is the use of 6V6′s.
If you’re looking for a classic American tone, this amp is it. Yeah, you COULD go with a classic Tweed from Fender or other boutique manufacturers. But you’d pay way more for the sound. But I also need to qualify that. The tone is “American-like.” It has a voicing that whether Jeff stumbled onto it or not, is a voicing that is at once familiar, but all its own at the same time. To me, I don’t give a rat’s ass about the power rating of this amp. All I know is that it sounds like nothing I’ve played before. That’s the feeling I get with the Reason SM25, which is another 6V6 beauty, but has a sound all it own.
Channel 1 is bright and gorgeous. It’s chimey as you’d expect from a classic Tweed sound, but it’s amazingly very lush as well – which is where this amp is really distinct. The words that come to mind with this clean channel are “subltely sensuous.” It’s not like a hot chick dressed in a tight mini skirt. It’s more akin to a gorgeous woman dressed in a simple cotton summer dress who doesn’t need any makeup to enhance her looks, and she has nothing to prove. She just looks to be all-woman. The net result is that you’re just drawn into aura without really knowing why – nor caring. The clean channel of the VRX22 has a similar effect on me. It’s just a gorgeous tone with any guitar (though I especially loved play “Pearl,” my Strat through it. The raw tone just draws you in, and when you add effects, it just handles them beautifully.
Channel 2 is also bright and ballsy, but its breakup is incredibly smooth. This is the channel where I think Jeff has really hit the ball out of the park. One of the things that has bugged me about the power tube distortion in a lot of Tweed-types of amps is the harsh grind from the power tubes that you oftentimes have to tame with some filter cap and capacitor changes – it’s a bit too open. Not so with this amp. The “hidden” gain stage that acts as a tube overdrive pedal that’s always on helps smooth out the distortion by making it a bit tighter, but not so much that you lose that openness that you expect from a Tweed-type amp. I loved slamming the front-end of the amp with tons of input gain, and pushing both pre-amp and power tubes at the same time. Talk about compression and sustain!
Here’s a clip I used for my review of “Goldie.” The amp is in Channel 2 for the lead, and I added just a tad of Tube Screamer to get a more punchy midrange response. The TS overdrive was maybe at 10 am – not much at all. Plus I layered on some reverb with my Hardwire RV-7 Reverb. The bulk of the breakup came from the amp. The rhythm track was recorded with Pearl on Channel 1.
Man! I just listened to that track again, and can’t get over how great the amp sounds. Normally I record at bedroom levels, but I wanted the amp to move a bit more air this time, and I recorded it at gig levels (for me, that’s around 90-100db, so it’s fairly loud but not over the top), and I used a ribbon mic to pick up the ambient a bit better. The mic was placed at a 45 degree angle along the speaker cone about a foot and a half away from the amp.
I just can’t rave about this amp more! To me, it’s the perfect balance of tone and power for practically all my needs! I’m getting the head with a 1X 12 cab, both wrapped in that awesome blue tolex that you see in the picture above!
Admittedly, the purist in me originally scoffed at the idea of a solid-state rectifier in the original RoxBox series. But as I told Jeff this morning, what people are typically after is the voltage sag you get with a tube rectifier. Jeff has built a custom “sag simulator” circuit that does the job so well that frankly, I can’t tell the difference. Besides, it’s what the amp sounds like that counts, not necessarily its components. Look at the classic Roland JC-120. That has to be one of my all-time favorite amps – even Satch played with one for years. It’s completely solid-state and it sounds freakin’ awesome!
But circling back to the VRX22. You can’t go wrong with this amp. Yes, it’s priced for value, but the tone that you get for that far surpasses anything that I’ve played at these lower wattages.