Vox VT30 Valvetronix Amp Review

I am a tube amp snob, or at least I used to be. The warm glow of tubes as they crunch my guitar’s signal into auditory bliss is just something that feels right. I also disliked most modelers until recently. Every time I tried some modeling gizmo I hated it. That is, until about a year ago when I bought a little Roland Micro Cube. The little cube sounded pretty good, but I didn’t really care so much about sound quality because I used that amp to amuse myself in the park or the back yard.

My main amp for the past two years has been a Peavey JSX 2×12 combo. It’s heavy, it’s loud, it’s a shredder’s dream, and it’s not capable of making the Fender Bassman tones I needed for an event. I wasn’t about to buy a Fender Bassman for one event, nor was I going to lug my nearly 100-pound JSX for only a couple of songs, so I asked around and was told yet again to go try some modeling amps. “They’re better now” they said. Yeah sure they are, I thought. This was one solo gig for maybe 200 people. I needed a small grab-and-go amp to give me some passable Brian Setzer tones for not a lot of cash. I was told to try the Line6 Spider Valve, Vox VT30, the Fender Super Champ XD (SCXD), and the Peavey Vyper. I set out to try them all. Well, all but one.

The Bake-Off

First, regarding Line6: I’ve owned the Toneport UX2 and I’ve had a couple of PODs. I know a lot of people think highly of Line6, but without getting into the gory details, I refuse to ever buy another Line6 product. So they were out of the running.

I had played a Peavey Vypyr 30 in a local store in the past and was uninspired by its fizzy digital-sounding tones. I tried another and disliked it it all over again. To my ears, it sounded the way a modeling amp should sound based on my cork-sniffing tube snobbery. I know some people get some great sounds out of this amp with some tweaks, but from what I could see, it required significant tweaking. These amps are also needlessly complicated in my opinion. I sat with one for 40 minutes and still had to refer to the manual. No sale.

The Fender Super Champ XD was a nice little amp. It put out some nice Fender tones that were impressive for its size. This amp uses a tube hybrid approach to tone for some surprisingly good results. My main requirement at the time was a simulation of a Fender Blonde Bassman, and I really liked the sound I got from this little Fender. It was a great looking amp, befitting its heritage, and it was easy to use and understand.

My main complaint with the amp was the knob labels. The amp model label was labeled simply 1-22 (or whatever the top number was). There is no way I would ever remember what they all were. The type was so small I couldn’t even tell easily how it was set. The effects label was just as bad with its tiny labels, though at least there were words describing the effects. Usability was a big minus for me on this amp, but I tend to dial an amp in by ear, and sound is what I was after, so it was a contender.

Next I tried the Vox VT30. The sound on this amp was noticeably fuller and more lush than the Fender to my ears. Sure it was twice the wattage than the Fender, so it wasn’t a totally fair comparison, but wow did I like the tone from this amp! I think part of that full sound might have to do with the fact that the Vox VT30 employs a completely closed back design. Whatever the reason, to my ears, the Vox won based on the tone alone. What really won me over though, was the control layout. The controls were obvious, well labeled, and easy to read. I had figured it out in seconds and had the perfect tone dialed in with ease. Very impressive. Within a couple of minutes I was saving patches into banks, all without using the manual. It couldn’t have been simpler, it sounded great, and my pathetic aging eyes had no problem reading the controls.

I think the metal speaker grill is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen on an amp, but looks were a low priority for me. Even with the ugly grill, the amp still looks like a Vox, and that classic look is great. I briefly thought about replacing the grill but soon forgot all about it since I was too busy playing the thing.

One downside to both the Fender and the Vox for me was no aux input. I’d like to have been able to play backing tracks through the amp, but again with the Vox VT30, it sounded so good I quickly got over it.

Another nice feature of the Vox was the price. The VT30 was only $249 compared with the Fender at $299. I bought the foot pedal which tagged on another $60 or so, and walked out of the store with my first real modeling amp.

The Controls

As I whined about earlier, many of the competing amps in this class employ confusing or poorly labeled controls. Most of the amps use some sort of combination control as well. For example on a Roland Micro Cube, the reverb is one the same control as the delay. You can have one or the other, but not both. To nail the Brian Setzer tone, I needed reverb and delay together. The Vox VT30 has a reverb that is separate from all other effects, which is a pretty big deal when you need it.

A quick note about the pictures is in order. The observant will notice that my VT30 has two big red chicken head knobs. The amp does not come with red knobs; I put them on myself. I put a red one on the amp selector and another on the master volume mostly because I liked the way it looked, but also because of the way the master volume behaves. It was the only knob I needed while playing so I highlighted it with color.

Amp Controls

The amp controls include a dial for selecting one of 22 amp models, gain, volume, 3-band EQ, reverb and master volume. The master volume is the only knob that doesn’t behave like a regular tube amp. On the VT30, the MV simply raises or lowers the signal to the power tube without affecting the other controls. This is actually very useful since your dealing with models. There can be power tube distortion dialed in, but the master volume is not saved in the presets. I found that for the most part, I could use the master volume to raise an lower the volume of the preset with little change in overall distortion. Note that this was with the amp at full power using an only slightly dirty preset with the pickups tapped. Pushing the amp with more crunch and full-on humbuckers, the dynamics change a bit.

Mode Controls

The amp has three modes, though one mode has three sub-modes. Don’t worry, it’s much easier to use than it seems. Push the Preset Mode button and you’re in factory preset mode. Push the Manual Mode button and you’re in manual mode. Push any of the User Program channel buttons and you’ll be taken directly to your pre-saved patch. See? Easy!

Effects Controls

Controlling the effects is the only function where I needed to hit up the manual to completely understand it. The easy part is choosing your effects. There are a wide variety of effects and I won’t list them all here. Zoom into the picture and you can read the labels from around the knob. Some commonly stacked effects are listed like chorus+delay and octave+chorus. Remember that reverb is separate and can be added at any time with the reverb amp knob.

The effects control include a tap tempo that flashes to the beat, and a bypass control that does what you’d expect it to do. These two buttons serve double duty though, and that’s where the manual came in for me.

The central edit knob in the effects section controls the primary effect. Holding down the tap tempo and turning the knob will change the second configurable option on the effect(s). Holding the bypass and turning the knob will similarly change the third configurable option on the chosen effect(s) if one exists. It’s easier than it sounds.

Using chorus as an example, the controls work like this:

  • Tap – changes speed of modulation
  • Edit – changes depth of modulation
  • Tap+Edit – fine adjustments of delay time
  • Bypass+Edit – adjusts the mix

If you choose the Chorus+Delay effect, the controls change a bit because there aren’t enough buttons to accommodate both effects. This is only a $250 amp after all.

Modes

The three modes are: Manual, Preset, and User Program. To my mind, they should be called, Manual, Factory Preset and User Preset.

Manual

In manual mode, the amp behaves like a normal amp with the addition of the amp model knob. You set the amp model, twiddle the knobs utill it sounds good and play. You can choose effects as well and edit them to your hearts content.

There are 11 steps on the amp modeling knob. Each step has two choices: A (green) and B (red). These are chosen with the A/B button and corresponding bi-color LED. Each position has a label such as Deluxe Tweed/Tweed 2×12. The top label is the green model and the bottom one is the red. In the time it’s taken to read this paragraph you’d have figured it out by playing with it.

The amps are labeled in typical modeling amp fashion. That is to say they describe the amp being modeled without actually naming the amp. Tweed 2×12 might mean more than one thing to different people. Tweed 4×10 probably means Fender Bassman, but remember that the Bassman came in a tolex 2×12 too. I don’t get too hung up on the names though. I spin the dials until it sounds good.

Preset (Factory Presets)

The Preset mode is a little odd. All of the amp models work as they do in manual mode, but now each amp model has three presets with it. When you hit the preset mode button, a tri-color LED changes between green, orange and red, though it’s very tough to tell the red and orange apart. You can hear the difference though. The three modes are:

  • P1 (green): Basic – typical sounds for that amp model (no effects)
  • P2 (orange): Effected – typical sounds with typical effects for that amp model
  • P3 (red): Song – programs designed to sound like famous songs

Remember that for each amp mode (green/red) there are three presets (green/orange/red). Thus there are 66 factory presets. It sounds complicated, but it’s not. I had it figured out in minutes – not hours.

The song mode attempts to replicate the guitar tone from famous songs. Songs include Sultans of Swing, Tush, Hot for Teacher, Day Tripper and many others: 22 in all. These patches aren’t perfect, but they’re close. For example I feel that most of the modern Marshall tones have too much gain. The good news is that you can tweak them all to your heart’s content. The bad news is that you cannot overwrite the patches. You can, however, save your changes into user patches.

The list of songs is not printed on the amp. It’s in the manual and it’s on a cardboard cutout that sits on top of the amp in the store. I tend to dial the amp in by ear anyway, so that wasn’t a big deal to me.

User Program (User Patches)

The User Preset Bank has room for eight presets. These presets are unfortunately named channels and are divided into two banks controlled with the Bank button. The bank button is accompanied by a two-color LED (red and green). Thus the eight presets are:

  • Green: CH1, CH2, CH3, CH4
  • Red: CH1, CH2, CH3, CH4

Saving a preset is as simple as using a car stereo. When in any mode, dial in the amp to a sound that you like, then hold down one of the four channel buttons. After a couple of seconds the channel and bank lights will flash and your preset has been saved. This is a fabulous feature because you can tweak a factory preset, or tweak one of your own, then save it into a new channel. The downside is that there are only eight user patches, so they get used up quickly.

User Programs are what the optional JFS5 foot pedal is for. The layout of the foot pedal is the same as the User Program buttons: bank, CH1, CH2, CH3 and CH4. See the picture up in the Bake-Off section.

The Tube

This amp, like the Fender Super Champ XD, incorporates a 12AX7 tube to give the amp a tube-amp like sound and feel. Does it work? I can’t tell you categorically if the tube makes this a better amp, but it does make the tube amp snob in my snicker with a sense of satisfaction.

The fact that there’s a tube in there might be psychological, and that’s fine. It’s in there, and it glows, and this amp sounded the best to my ears, so there you have it. I will say that this amp feels more like a tube amp than most modelers I’ve played. There’s a real sense of dynamics that I’ve always felt was lacking in modeling amps. You can see the tube glowing in the left vent on the above image.

Power

The Vox VT30 is a 30-watt amp, but a pleasent surprise lurks on the back of the amp. Next to the 1/4″ stereo phono jack used by the foot switch, there is a small knob labeled Power Level. This lets you vary the power of the amp from .2 watts up to 30. I’ve never used this and prefer to keep it at 30, but it does seem to help keep the “tubiness” of the amp at lower volumes. Really though, at those lower volumes a lot of the punch of an amp is gone, so I tend to find the differences, especially at bedroom levels, to be minimal using the power vs. the master volume. At playing volume the dynamics would change, and lowering the power should lower the headroom allowing for earlier tube crunch.

Conclusion

I like this little amp – a lot. I have to admit that I was surprised that a small, inexpensive modeling amp could sound this good. I’ve owned a vintage Fender Twin and a ’66 Fender Princeton, so I know what good fender clean and crunch tones can sound like. Certainly I won’t claim that this amp will nail those tones, but it can come respectably close, even at volume. This amp is small, it’s light and it delivers the goods.

I bought this little amp to play at a show for my kids. No one in the room cared about my tone besides me. I played a song that everyone knew (Stray Cat Strut) and it sounded great. The little amp was big enough for me to play in front of 200+ people in a 1200-seat auditorium while I sang through the PA. When I watched the video I was surprised how good it sounded. No modeling fizz, no harsh treble and no farty bass. It sounded the way I wanted it to sound. I will point out that in this size room with only 200 people, the amp was pushed to the limit. The good news is that it still sounded great at that limit.

For $250, I was quite impressed. I was so impressed, in fact, that it’s made me reconsider my tube amp snobbery. For the first time, I find myself considering advanced digital devices like the Fractal Audio AxeFX. Stay tuned to see if I go down that rabbit hole.

7 thoughts on “Vox VT30 Valvetronix Amp Review

  1. I enjoyed your review. I bought this VOX VT390 amp about two months ago and have enjoyed this amp more than any amp I have previously owned (after 40 years of playing I have had quite a few). I use it to play live in clubs once or twice a week and besides the fact that there is no line out, I consider this my all time favorite amp. I love the sound and just hope it holds up to my “gentle” abuse. I think it will.

  2. I too am un-impressed by the metal grille on the old Vox VT range.. now a much sexier black diamond fabric.. the variety of sounds on offer mean that I am in no hurry to upgrade my VT15.. but something had to be done about the look, sure it’s fine if ya into the whole metal thing but not for me. heres my answer to toning down the harshness i was’nt looking to replicate a former amp but wanted to create a vintage feel
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/billywhizzz/5593777046/in/photostream/

  3. I see that you replaced two of the chicken head knobs on your amp. Were they hard to remove? Did you just pull them off? I’ve ordered two red knobs for my amp to clearify the interface a bit but wonder how the original switches should be removed – they seem very solidly connected..

  4. I guess I got a lemon. Mine is so noisy I cannot record with it. Turning down the “power” control in the back helps, but that’s inexcuseable in terms of performance. Even with the “Master” (top controls all the way off, there is still residual noise which I suspect is more likely to be a crappy IC or transistor rather than the tube itself. And of course, VOX will not release any schematics to allow one to investigate.

  5. I know this is an old post but I am going to coment anyway, and subscribe to your blog as well.
    This is the best and most comprehensive review pf the Vox Vt 30 on the web that I can find.
    I recently purchased a pre-loved VT 30 for $40 whole U.S. dollars and all I can say wow… i dont think I will be using my Hot Rod Deluxe at home any longer.
    This is best small amp I have ever owned certainly for the money.
    I couldn’t quite dile in the right slapback echo from the on board effects so I bypass the effects section and use my Roland RE-20 space echo or my Danelectro reel tape echo to get that great Rockabilly sound.
    Thanks for a great review.

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