March 1, 2004

If you have a love-hate affair with acoustic amplifiers, it probably stems from the very way they evolved.

Unlike conventional guitar amplifiers, acoustic amps didn’t start out simple and slowly become more complex though a long process of trial and error. Most acoustic amplifiers hit the ground behind the Trace Elliot TA100R—all sporting multiple drivers (and sometimes piezo horns), digital effects (typically derived from the same Alesis DSP chip), and a potpourri of tone controls, quasi-parametric midrange filters, and graphic EQ. Add to that the array of knobs and sliders found on many pickup-equipped acoustics, and it’s a small wonder acoustic players often felt like they were spending more time fiddling with controls than playing. And then there’s the issue of power, which is something acoustic amps never seem to have enough of in order to maintain clear, detailed, and dynamic tones.

Fishman sought to address some of these concerns with its new Loudbox, which swims against the current in the acoustic-amp stream by taking a back-to-basics approach. A glance at the Loudbox’s simple front panel reveals only a handful of controls for its one channel. That’s right, there are no auxiliary inputs for plugging in a mic, CD player, or drum machine. However, with 250 watts of solid-state power lurking under the hood, the Loudbox is way better equipped than most amps to keep pace with other instruments without running out of headroom. And, like a mini P.A. system, the power is distributed in a tri-amp configuration that provides 160 watts to the bass speaker, 60 watts to the mid driver, and 30 watts to the two tweeters. An important point here is that the richness-enhancing midrange frequencies are given a dedicated delivery system—the frequency spectrum isn’t simply divvied-up between the bass and treble speakers, as is the case with most acoustic amps.

The Loudbox’s only built-in effect is spring reverb, but a basic series effects loop (with no level or sensitivity controls) is provided for use with external effects. Other useful features include an XLR output (for connecting to a P.A. or mixer), an easy-to-use Anti Feedback control (a variable frequency notch filter that provides 14dB of cut from 20Hz to 400Hz), a handy Mute button (for killing the input signal when tuning or switching guitars), and a built-in stand that allows you to tilt the amp back at three different angles (45 degrees, 57 degrees, and 70 degrees).

The cabinet is very sturdy, and it features metal grilles over both the speakers and the rear-mounted heat sinks. However, due to its 55-lb weight, top-mounted handle, and cube shape, the amp proved to be a real pain to carry. Though an inexpensive luggage trolley helped solve the mobility problem, it sure would be great if Fishman could outfit the Loudbox with some suitcase-style wheels and a retractable handle. Also, while the recessed front panel is designed to protect the controls, I still managed to lose two of the plastic press-on knobs when the amp accidentally took a face-down tumble. Knobs with set screws would be a welcome addition, though Fishman reports that the knob mold has been changed to provide a tighter fit.

Tone Box
Sporting an active EQ section that consists of shelving-type Low and High controls and resonance-style Midrange and Brilliance knobs, the Loudbox can deliver deep, tight lows, shimmering highs, and if desired, enough midrange honk to lure a flock of migrating geese. I found that by keeping the Mid control at a fairly low setting and boosting the lows and highs, it was easy to obtain balanced, sparkling sounds while maintaining flat EQ settings on the guitar. The Loudbox’s abundance of midrange firepower was a little off-putting at first—after all, part of dealing with the honk of some piezo-equipped acoustics is finding an ideal way to cut mids—but the midrange control gives the amp the muscle it needs to punch through a loud band mix, and it also provides for smoother, warmer, and more complex sounds across the entire frequency spectrum. For all its power, the Loudbox is surprisingly quiet. Even with the Volume maxed and tone controls in boost mode, the hiss level was quite low. Only when I turned up the Reverb more than halfway did some audible hum enter the picture.

Tested with both a Martin 000C-16GTE (equipped with a Fishman Prefix Stereo Blender system) and a Taylor 754ce-L1 (fitted with Taylor’s radical Expression System), the Loudbox easily lived up to its name by quickly dispatching a venerable Trace Elliot TA100R into the realm of the small and boxy. The Loudbox packs tons of tight–fisted punch—which makes it ideal for players who like to do those skull-popping rhythm slaps—and just enough compression to prevent harsh-sounding artifacts when you hammer the strings. With no tendency to cave-in under hard attack, the Loudbox just keeps dishing out increasingly loud, clean tones until you get the Volume knob past the two-thirds mark and distortion starts creeping in.

The spring reverb adds airy ambience to the tones, and its smooth decay can make you forget it’s even on. The effects loop works well, too. When I patched in a Boss Giga Delay pedal, there were no level or noise problems. (Fishman says the loop was designed to work with battery-powered stompboxes, which is great, because pedals usually become tone suckers when deployed this way).

Somewhat amazing was how close I could stand to the cranked-up Loudbox without inviting an avalanche of feedback. And, when a howl did occur, it was easy to subdue it with a quick twist of the Anti Feedback control. Of course, as you can only attenuate one narrow range of frequencies at a time, the Anti Feedback function isn’t much help in situations when you’re fighting simultaneous rumbles, howls, and squeals. Activating the Phase switch can also help to deal with feedback, though I never needed it, even when running the Loudbox at ear-splitting volume.

Loud & Proud
The Loudbox is a potent little beast that can deliver crisp, natural-sounding tones at volumes that put other acoustic amps to shame. It’s definitely Spartan in the feature department, but what you get for your money is a super-studly power section, a hip speaker configuration, and a well-voiced set of tone controls that won’t leave you fussing endlessly to get a happening sound. In many ways, the Loudbox is the primordial acoustic amp that never was. Loud and simple enough to have harkened from the 1970s, it scores big on the bang-for-buck scale, and it gets an Editors’ Pick Award. And take note: If the Loudbox still isn’t enough for you, a 500-watt Loudbox Pro ($1,199 retail) will be available this spring!  

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