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Aracom Amps VRX22 - First in the series

Aracom Amps VRX22 - First in the series

You ever play some gear that from the moment you start playing, you feel like you’ve died and gone to tone heaven? In the last few years, and especially in the last couple since I started writing this blog, I’ve literally played hundreds of different types of gear, covering the spectrum of all things guitar, from guitars to effects to amps. I don’t have enough time to write about all the things I’ve played, but to keep my content fresh, and to satisfy my overwhelming curiosity about different types of gear, I’m constantly trying stuff out.

And in all that time, and through all that gear, I’ve only had some gear totally slay me once: That was when I played the very first prototype of the Aracom VRX22. The back story is pretty cool, so I’ll share it with you…

Several months back, Jeff Aragaki contacted me on my blog asking if he could buy ad space. I replied that I didn’t want to commercialize my site, but if he’d be willing to send me an amp to review I’d put his logo on my “The Dawg Digs” area if I really loved his product. Fortunately for both him and me, he only lives about 40 minutes away, so he delivered what was once called the “RoxBox,” an 18 Watt, EL84-based amp. I had this thing about EL84-based amps for awhile, and was really excited to try a non-brand-name amp; not to mention that I was entirely intrigued by the fact that that hand-wired head cost only $895! That evaluation turned into testing and reviewing several of Jeff’s amps over the next few months from heads to combos with different configurations. Talk about feeling lucky to have so much gear to play with!

Jeff and I have become fast friends. We’re contemporaries not only from our obsession with vintage gear (or any kind of gear for that matter), but we’re almost the same age, and are both local boys from the Silicon Valley. Jeff’s a great guy, and someone I really enjoy spending time with; plus he’s super smart, and I like to be around smart people. 🙂

Anyway, a couple of months ago, Jeff called me up and said, “Hey Brendan, I’ve been working on an experiment with the RoxBox, and popped a couple of 6V6’s in the amp to see what it would sound like.”

“Oh?” I replied, “That sounds quite interesting. I dig 6V6’s a lot. They have a sweet, open distortion when they’re saturated.”

“Yeah, they do,” said Jeff, “Anyway, I was wondering if you’d like to test it out.”

I immediately replied, “Need you ask? Bring it on over!”

A couple of days later, Jeff brought the amp over to the messy garage I call my home studio. We plugged it in, I hooked up my Strat, and Jeff switched on the amp. I took one test strum in the clean channel, stopped and asked, “What did you do? This f-in thing sounds incredible! Let me play a few licks…”

Jeff didn’t say anything. He just smiled, and let me play for awhile. After a few minutes he said, “Okay, try out channel 2, so you can hear the overdrive,” at which point he plugged me into the second channel, then cranked the volume.

The amp literally sang with this beautifully smooth overdrive tone, chock full of overtones and harmonics. The tone was on the bright side, similar to the Reason SM25 that I was testing, but was rich and thick, and ballsy. I just closed my eyes and smiled, luxuriating in pure tonal heaven!

When I came out of my trance, I looked at Jeff and said, “Dude, I think you’re onto something really special here. You know I’ve played tons of different amps, but this one’s special. It’s the best-sounding amp I’ve played of yours to date; and ranks very high on my overall list. Are you thinking of putting it into production?”

“Maybe. I wanted to get your feedback. I still have some stuff to do on it, but I’m really liking the tone of this amp,” Jeff replied.

“Yeah… You’ve just piqued my curiosity.”

Fast-forward a week and I get another call from Jeff. “Hey Brendan! I worked out the power handling of the amp. The one you tested wasn’t outputting at the full 22 Watts, so I made some adjustments and now it’s running at full power. To me, it sounds even better. Anyway, I’m going away on a business trip for a couple of weeks, and I’ll leave it with you to test.”

So Jeff dropped it off a couple of days later, and test it I did. I took it to gigs, recorded some clips with it, and fell in love with it even more. Jeff was right, the power handling adjustments he made turned that amp into a pure tone machine.

When Jeff got back from his trip, we met for lunch, so I could give the amp back, and give him feedback. He asked, “So how did you like the amp?”

I replied, “Uh… the word is love. I’ll keep on testing your other amps, but this is the amp I want to buy. Everything about it is perfect. The clean channel has oodles of clean headroom, and the sag you’ve built into the simulator makes it sound like the amp has a reverb. The drive channel is like nothing I’ve played before. Quite simply, Jeff, this is the perfect amp!”

Jeff just chuckled, and said a very understated, “Glad you like it.”

Since then, I’ve purchased the amp – I got the very first in the series! And while I realize that my excitement about this amp is purely subjective, other people who’ve played this amp – WAY, WAY better guitar players than me – have been just as blown away by its tone. The other day, Jeff asked me to meet him over at Gelb Music in Redwood City to show Jordan, the guitar department manager, my VRX22 (Gelb carries Aracom Amps on consignment – for now 🙂 ). I just chuckled when he plugged a guitar into the drive channel, cranked it up, and let it rip. He didn’t play more than 30 seconds before he said, “This amp rocks! It’s real ballsy and has tons of harmonics. Wow!”

Jordan had to help customers on the floor, so he gave the guitar over to another customer named Chris with whom Jeff and I had been chatting while waiting for Jordan. Chris sat down, and started to rip it up! He played with this hybrid picking technique that was just amazing to observe, and he made the VRX22 absolutely sing! I knew it sounded good, but in the hands of a truly gifted player like Chris, it was other-worldly!

Jordan returned a few minutes later to listen to Chris play. Mind you, it was loud. Chris was plugged into a 65 Amps 2 X12 cabinet and had the amp cranked. Jordan turned to me, and with a quizzical look on his face asked, “This is YOUR amp?”

I just laughed because I knew what he was thinking – he was hoping that it was an inventory amp so he could buy it himself. I said, “Yup. You thinking about getting one for yourself?”

Jordan just smiled and nodded his affirmative. We finally had to turn down the amp, and Jeff and I had to go, and as we were leaving, Jordan asked Jeff, “So what’s the turnaround time for when we order?”

Jeff said, “Between two to four weeks.”

“Cool. That’s just about right. Hey! Thanks for bringing the amp over, guys! Man that thing has f$ckin balls…” with a huge grin on his face, “That’s all we ask…” and he laughed.

I laughed with him. Jordan is a real bad-ass player himself, and when he has this type of reaction, I know he thinks it’s special. I told Jeff he better build two: One for the store, and one for Jordan.

Folks, I realize you might think I’m full of it when I say that the VRX22 is the perfect amp. But Jeff is really onto something with this amp. I’d put it head to head against a Dr. Z MAZ or a Buddha any day. I actually played a Dr. MAZ the other day. It’s a great amp. But guess what? The VRX22 is only $895 for the head! That’s almost half of what other hand-wired, boutique amps cost! Yeah, it doesn’t have a tube rectifier – the VRX22 is designed with a solid state rectifier for extra punch and it has a sag circuit to provide the vintage vibe. And in case you’re concerned that a solid-state rectifier means lower quality, I just have one thing to say: So what? Lots of vintage amps such as classic Marshall Plexi’s and many Fender amps use solid-state rectifiers. Besides, it’s the tone that matters, and compared to the MAZ, which is really nice, expressive amp, the VRX22 has a much bigger sound.

Fantastic sound for an unbelievable price? SOLD!

Disclaimer: I want to make it absolutely clear. Jeff doesn’t pay me to do reviews or pay me to give nothing but positive feedback. He calls me up to say he’s got some gear for me to test, and I test it, then write a review. To date, I haven’t received any bad gear from him, so I haven’t given his gear a less than stellar review. You might think this from the rave reviews I’m giving the VRX22, but just to alleviate any concerns about me having an affiliation with Jeff other than being a friend, remember that I clearly stated that I bought the amp. What I’m sharing is my excitement. And showing it to the folks at Gelb? That was purely a favor. I simply had the fortune of being able to play with the prototypes. It is truly a magical amp!

Click here for more information on the VRX22 and other excellent Aracom amps!

Share your slayer experience!

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Yeah, yeah, I know… My last few posts have pretty much centered around this amp, but hey! I just can’t contain my excitement about how good it sounds! This afternoon, I brought it to my weekly church gig to try it out in a live situation. I already loved it in my little home studio, but you just don’t get to really know what am amp can do until you play it live.

Today was one of the first days that I didn’t use my pedal board all that much. In fact, I only used my chorus on one soft song, and then only used my booster at the very end of last song to throw the gain over the top to finish off the service. Other than that, I just played the amp straight. Most of the songs I played were through Channel 1, and with my Strat, the VRX22 delivered gorgeous, bell-like tones that seemed to hang in the air, with so much presence that you could almost touch them – it doesn’t even have presence knob to up the mids and highs! Switching over to Channel 2 for a couple of numbers, I was rewarded with layers of open and complex overdrive that were so very smooth; none of that phasing in and out that you often get with lesser amps at high gain. It stayed nice and even. And the sustain and touch sensitivity at high gain was just to die for – all on a Strat, no less!

When I slammed the front-end with my booster pedal, I was in compression heaven! But luckily the 6V6’s don’t compress so much that they make the amp lose volume. The compression is noticeable, but the gain tone stays fairly open. It tightens up, but not too tight.

I’ve tested several Aracom amps, and they’re all very sweet sounding. But the higher wattage amps need tons of volume before they really start sounding good. The VRX22 is so versatile. With a 1 X 12 cabinet, it can be used with ease in small to medium-sized venues, like clubs and small halls. For larger venues, a bigger cab will get you the volume you need. On top of that, both the amp and cabinet are pretty light in weight, making lugging to and from a gig real easy!

All in all, I’m just tickled to death with this amp! You gotta check this amp out at the Aracom site!

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5 Tone Bones - Gear has stellar performance, value, and quality. This is definitely top of the class, best of breed, and it's a no-brainer to add this to your gear lineup!

Aracom Amps VRX22 22 Watt Combo Amp

Aracom Amps VRX22 22 Watt Combo Amp

Aracom Amps VRX22 22 Watt Head

Aracom Amps VRX22 22 Watt Head

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!

Cons: None.

Price: $895 Head / $995-$1095 for Combo (dep. on speaker)

Specs:

– (2) 6V6 Power Tubes
– (3) 12AX7 Preamp Tubes
– S.S. Rectifier with “sag” circuit
– Hi/Low B+ voltage switch (22/10 watts)
– On/Off Switch
– Indicator Lamp
– Custom Heavy Duty Aluminum Chassis
– Custom Wound Transformers
– 4, 8, 16 ohm Speaker Jacks
– Custom Handcrafted
Turret Board
– HandwiredTone Bone Rating: 5.0 – Jeff Aragaki has hit the ball out of the park with this amp! I loved the original RoxBox 18, and gave it a 4.75, but with this amp, Jeff “fixed” the harshness of the breakup at lower volumes. To me, it’s the perfect amp!

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.

Overall Impression

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.

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