Can you really get the tone and power of a British-voiced rig without any of the shoulder-wrenching heft? Review by Martyn Casserly
Description: 400W solid state/valve hybrid amp head. 2 x 12AX7s in preamp stage. Made In the UK
Contact: Matrix Amplification – support@matrix amplification.com – 0845 108 54 49 -uk.matrixamplification.com/
Let’s face it, most gigs we play these days are in pokey clubs, pubs, or wedding venues where a 100W head and 4×12″ cab arrangement are about as useful as a 2015 product catalogue from Blackberry. That’s assuming of course that you have a van that will get your stuff there in the first place, and then that you can summon the strength of five tigers to carry it all up some ludicrously tiny stairwell. In moments like these, that Fender Twin which seemed so cool in the shop takes on a Sisyphean quality. To add insult to – quite probably – hernial injury, you finally set up on the postage stamp-sized stage only to find the sound guy has turned you down to a level where those tubes are barely warm. It’s going to be a long night.
The thing is, we love that classic valve sound – the responsiveness, aural charm, and brutish power – but we don’t want to hump the damn things around. Can nothing be done to save us from our desperate plight? Well, belay those thoughts of digital modelry, because on these very isles is something that might just be your salvation.
The Matrix VB800 is a very lightweight head that combines the flavour of a valve-powered preamp section with the weight-reducing luxury of a solid state power amp. Now while the purists recoil in horror at the very thought, it would be well to note that Matrix Amplification has been building a big reputation behind the scenes thanks to its GT-FX range of rackmount amps that have been used by pros on stages all around the world. The VB800 is not some cheap Chinese-made compromise to fill a market sector in the company’s portfolio; it’s an impressive little unit that packs quite a punch.
While there are several other mini heads available – Tiny Terror, Blackstar H5, and Vox AC4 to
name a few – they mostly retain the ‘lunchbox’ style of construction, with handles and boxy bodies. The VB800 looks more akin to something that might sit comfortably in a hi-fi system, although that’s not to say it seems delicate. Weighing in at around 4lbs, the VB800 is lighter than most laptops. Removing the metal top plate reveals a low, rectangular, unibody chassis finished in a bronzy gold colour that looks not unlike another classic British amp manufacturer’s livery.
Within the chassis is a neat, if somewhat cosy, PCB board that houses the solid -state power amp section, and two directly mounted ECC83s/12AX7s for its preamp tone. The circuitry behind the power stage is based on Matrix’s Class A/B MOSFET design, which the company asserts will break the poor image that solid-state power stages gained during the ’80s and ’90s.
One other useful feature is a power mode switch on the motherboard that allows the user to quickly change between 240v and 110v, which would prove very useful if you’re on tour and don’t want to fiddle about with step-down transformers.
As this is a single-channel amp the front panel is simple, with just a power button, high and low inputs, three band EQ, plus gain and master volume. There’s also an LED marked SIG, which according to Matrix gives you ‘an indication of how much power the amplifier is outputting at a given impedance’. If it’s flickering then it’s running at around 12.5 per cent, which when paired with a 4ohm speaker will give you around 50W, while full-on means closer to 25 per cent, which equates to 105W.
Those mathematicians amongst you will have calculated that this makes the full output of the VB800 to be around 400W. That’s pretty loud for a little box, although we’re still not really sure how useful that light will be.
Around the back there are twin outputs for speakers, Send and Return for the FX loop, and a Send Level control. The loop is multipurpose, as the Send socket doubles as a DI out and can also be used (with a suitable interface) to record directly into a DAW, although there’s no cabinet voicing so you’ll need to pair the signal with a virtual one in your computer. We tested this out and were pleased to find a strong, rich tone coming through with plenty of life. The Return socket also acts as a direct input to the power stage, meaning you can use the VB800 to beef up an existing preamp or modelling device. Handy.
As the name and livery might suggest, the VB800 owes much of its inspiration to a certain early ’80s amp favoured by top-hat wearing rock gods. Paired with Matrix’s own NL12 cab – which is also ridiculously lightweight – the VB800 spits out a classic British rasp that sounds instantly familiar. There’s an immediacy to the tone, especially on cleaner settings, that can be a little unforgiving at times, but with the gain increased this becomes a definite advantage. The throaty roar exuding from the amp is full of power and grit, with sharp edges that can be a touch harsh until you tame the EQ.
It’s loud, too. At home you’ll have the volume control way down low to stop any domestic disturbance court cases, but due to the solid state power stage this doesn’t steal much away from the sound. Moving to a rehearsal/gigging setting shows that there’s a respectable amount of headroom for clean to edgy breakup, and the VB800 reacts nicely to TS-style pedals that firm up the overdriven voice.
This is of course a vintage-style amp so you’ll need pedals if you want heavy distortion or lead boosts, and reverb would help the clean tones enormously. It does sound great when it’s cooking though, and while the lightweight NL12 lacks somewhat in the low end, we reckon a 4×12″ would roar.
Tags: Amplifiers, Home, Reviews
There’s plenty to like about the VB800. It’s remarkably light, yet delivers loud and toneful sounds. It’s entering a fierce part of the market, and while £549 is fair, it does place the unit about £200 more than the street cost of a Tiny Terror, which comes with a carry case. It all comes down to whether you want the particular British sound that the VB800 sets out, with a good degree of success, to recreate. If that’s the case this amp will get you a good part of the way, and save your back a lot of pain.