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Fender EC Twinolux and EC Vibro-Champ

July 13, 2012
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Fender’s introduction of its first artist signature amplifiers got off to a great start last year thanks to Eric Clapton’s collaboration on three models—the EC Twinolux, EC Tremolux and EC Vibro-Champ. These variations on the original amps from 1957—the Twin, Deluxe, and Champ—are hand-built in the U.S. and have updated features that include ’50s-era output-tube-bias tremolo and a switchable power attenuator. We previously reviewed the mid-power EC Tremolux (April, 2012), so this review focuses on the two flanking models, the 40-watt EC Twinolux and the 5-watt EC Vibro-Champ.

EC Twinolux

We tend to think of Fender’s great tweed amps of the late ’50s as hallowed ground, a recipe that can’t be improved upon, only diluted. So what do you get if you take one of the most revered tweed circuits, reproduce it faithfully, add sumptuous tremolo (which was never featured on a tweed amp of more than 18 watts), and cap the deal with a built-in output attenuator? Fender’s new EC Twinolux, that’s what. This 40-watt, 2x12 combo brings these utilitarian features to a hand-wired, made-in-USA package that otherwise stays true to the 5E8-A “low-powered” Twin circuit of the late 1950s, and creates one whoppingly versatile—yet tonally pure—bundle of tweed goodness in the process.

The “EC” in the name stamps this amp with the approval of Eric Clapton, who has already been using Fender’s ’57 Twin Reissue for several years, and saw fit to request these two bonus features in his signature model. As much functionality as the updates add, they fit virtually seamlessly with the original, too. The classic bias-modulating tremolo circuit makes more efficient use of the fourth preamp tube than the original circuit (which used two preamp tubes to achieve what its legendary brother the Bassman did with one), and with just one channel the control panel now has space for Speed and Intensity knobs that the tremolo requires. Plus, in this age of heightened volume-consciousness, the Twinolux delivers your cranked-tweed tone at studio and small-club volumes with its own attenuator, which adds a resistive load between the output transformer and the speakers to knock it down to 20 watts, with options for one speaker or both in the process.

Inside the chassis, the traditional eyelet board reveals MSR signal caps, carbon-film resistors, and large electrolytics from Illinois Capacitors, among other components. Around the back are three high-quality transformers from Mercury Magnetics of California (the darlings of many a boutique amp maker). The tube complement includes a pair of Groove Tubes 6L6GE output tubes, four 12AX7s in the preamp, and two 5U4GB rectifier tubes, which were a short-lived quirk of this design.

(Note that an original 5E8-A would have shipped with lowergain 12AY7 tubes in the preamp and cathode-follower tone stack positions, so we might anticipate a little more sizzle from the Twinolux at comparable settings).

Two 12" Alnico speakers designed by the late Ted Weber and manufactured in Kentucky by Eminence populate the fingerjointed solid-pine cabinet. The genuine lacquered tweed covering and brown-with-gold-stripe grille look the part, as does the leather handle, although the latter feels a little strained with the weight. Fender includes a spare leather handle in the goody bag that looks close to the original, but is heavier duty. It’s easy to install, and probably not a bad idea to do so. I’d sure hate to have the vintage-style handle break on my load-out down the stairs from that awkward third-story venue!

Fired up, the EC Twinolux stabs straight at the heart of juicy, narrow-panel goodness. With the dual rectifiers and a fixed-bias class A/B output stage, this 40-watter achieves decent headroom at the attenuator’s fullpower setting, with a firm and chunky lowend response. Lower volumes make for sweet clean country and jazz tones, but with plenty of that characteristic papery bite that helps my Telecaster do what it does best. Single coils don’t induce much grit until the Volume knob approaches noon, but by that point the EC Twinolux is extremely touch sensitive, allowing easy control of clean-to-crunch with pick attack alone. A Les Paul’s humbuckers induce more of a bluesy sizzle at the same settings, taking you toward Bluesbreaker territory, and a clockwise twist of the Volume control gets you there with a Stratocaster, too, for impressively Claptonesque creamywith- clarity blues tones.

Despite the EC endorsement, however, the Twinolux is more than just “God” in a box. Like the original 5E8-A, this amp excels at gnarly twang, rockabilly, and straight-up contemporary rock’n’roll, too. The buoyant, watery tremolo is a cool bonus, and hugely addictive. True to the bias-modulated breed (as enjoyed on Fender’s tweed Vibrolux and Tremolux amps), this cool effect doesn’t squelch a note that happens to fall in the “valley” of the pulse, as with some other types of tremolo. Instead, it allows the pick attack to push on through, with the throb reasserting itself on the decay. The low-power settings take the output down to useful home and small-club levels—while inducing easier compression and a slightly warmer, rounder sound—and the Bass, Treble, and Presence controls let you carve out EQ settings to suit most any guitar or room you could throw at it.

In short, the EC Tremolux is a clever marriage of Fender classics that achieves, with admirable simplicity, a useful bundle of tweed tone for today’s player. —Dave Hunter

EC Vibro-Champ

Built to Slowhand’s specs, the EC Vibro-Champ is based on the venerable late ’50s 5F1 tweed Champ—the same amp that Clapton allegedly used on 1970’s Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The tweed Champ’s reason for hallowed stature is simple—it yields all of the dynamics, compression, and emotion of an ecstatically raging tube amp, but at a fraction of the volume. The tones are also small sounding, but in the best sense of the word, as they are easily controlled and placed in the mix for an in-your-face sledgehammer sound or a lilting clean tone. Rather than simply copy a classic ’50s Champ, however, Clapton wanted the EC Vibro-Champ to offer a couple of other appointments, most notably output tube bias tremolo (which yields a deeper throb than later Fender circuits), and a power attenuation switch that takes the 5-watt amp down in power for even more cranked amp goodness. The EC Vibro- Champ features a hand-wired single-ended class A circuit as well as a finger-joined solidpine cabinet and spiffy leather handle.

Plugging in various Fender Strats and Teles, as well as a Gibson SG Standard, the EC Vibro-Champ’s tones sneer and spit with a raucous, aggressive attitude when you push the Volume control upward. It’s easy to hear how the tough and pronounced midrange snarl and lean bottom-end work magic in front of a studio microphone. Singing lead lines, barky double-stops, and punctuated power chords are what the EC Vibro-Champ does best when it’s cranked past halfway. However, once you start inching down your guitar’s volume control and backing off your picking attack, the EC Vibro-Champ cleans up like, well, a champ! The range of sonic goodies that can be had in this scenario are plentiful indeed. Even with humbuckers you’re afforded a perfectly compressed, glistening clean tone that is rife with detail. The spongy attack and rich upper-midrange content adds a tactile thickness to all of the tones, giving complex intervals and open-string chime a warm, three-dimensional quality.

The Vibro-Champ’s trem provides a deep, undulating throb with the Speed knob at about halfway up, and even when it’s turned all the way down the pulse doesn’t get super slow. I found it to be an excellent sounding tremolo that can add a subliminal texture or funky lo-fi chop to a track. This super-simple amp may look like a one-trick pony, but with the addition of tremolo, a half-power switch for even more tube compression, and its ultra-dynamic tones, the EC Vibro-Champ is anything but. Simply turn it up and use your guitar and your touch to conjure the magic that has captivated Eric Clapton and so many others. —Darrin Fox

Specifications

CONTACT Fender Musical I nstruments, (480) 596-7195; fender.com

EC Twinolux

PRICE $2,999 MAP
CHANNELS One
CONTROLS Volume, Treble, Bass, Speed, I ntensity, Presence, Output
TUBES Four Groove Tubes 12AX7s, two Groove Tubes 6L6s, two Groove Tubes 5U4GB rectifiers
POWER 40 watts max; switchable for half power through one or two speakers
SPEAKER Two 12" Weber-designed A lnico speakers made by Eminence
EXTRAS Built-in power attenuation. Biasmodulated tremolo. Single-button footswitch and fitted cover included.
WEIGHT 53 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS Excellent mid-sized tweed tube tones in a clever update of a legendary circuit. Great build quality. Luscious tremolo.
CONCERNS Light duty handle is perhaps too accurate a reproduction of the original.

EC Vibro-Champ

PRICE $999 MAP
CHANNELS One
CONTROLS Volume, Speed
TUBES One Groove Tubes 6V6, two 12AX 7 preamp tubes, 5Y3GT rectifier
POWER 5 watts
SPEAKER Weber Signature 8" Alnico
EXTRAS Half-power switch. Schumacher transformers. Fitted cover included.
WEIGHT 13.3 lbs
BUILT USA
KUDOS Outstanding tones for recording. Extra features add flexibility.
CONCERNS None.

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