Vero Chicago Zephyr

The 2x10 variant of the 44-watt all-tube Chicago Zephyr is a relatively new model from Vero, and it’s housed in what is also a new cabinet style for the Chicago-based company. Early Vero amps were made in more limited runs of semi-custom, handwired models at elevated prices—the company now deals primarily in what you might call “production boutique” designs, of which the Chicago Zephyr is one.

I think the art-deco esthetics of this amp are extremely cool. The cab measures 20"H x 22"W x 112"D and is constructed from premium plywood, with a rigid stylized grille in front of the speaker cloth and smoothly rounded edges. Its shell-pink finish is produced with a sprayed-on textured industrial coating that Vero admits is a little more delicate than Tolex or tweed—hence, the amp comes with a quality padded cover. (The Zephyr is also available in a variety of other colors.) Close examination of our review sample revealed some minor hairline cracking of the finish at the seams of some of the panels and a little more deterioration where the washers on the chassis mounting bolts had dug into the finish. Also, the translucent Vero emblem in the lower right corner of the grille is illuminated by a bulb that is positioned to take a fatal hit from the first pedal or heavy cable that’s tossed into the back of the cab. (Vero says the stress cracks were caused by shipping the amps cross-country in a single box. They have now switched to a double-box system that prevents this from happening. Also, the chassis bolts now get an extra washer that keeps the cup washers from digging into the finish.)

The Chicago Zephyr is primarily designed to deliver the firm-yet-tactile sound of the medium-wattage Fender amps of the mid-’60s, though it can also emulate the looser, browner textures of earlier Fender models thanks to a few clever twists in its circuit. These include a Range control (a 5-position rotary switch that determines where a notch in the amp’s midrange response occurs), and a Damping knob, which varies the negative feedback in the output stage to allow the player to determine the relative tightness or looseness of the sound. One unseen factor in the brew is Vero’s Smooth Electric Power circuit that helps to smooth out the crossover distortion that many class AB amps exhibit at the onset of clipping and beyond. Vero says it allows the Chicago Zephyr to sound more like a class A amp, while retaining the punch and liveliness of a class AB design.

This is a powerful amp for the two 10" speakers it carries (together they’re only capable of handling 55 watts), and the Zephyr’s hefty output transformer and big, donut-shaped toroidal power transformer indicate that we can expect a full 44 watts. Unbolting the chassis’ rear cover reveals a single long, narrow printed circuit board (PCB), with separate boards for the top-panel controls and power supply. The tube sockets all connect directly to the PCB (they’re also anchored to the chassis for extra strength), as do all of the pots, jacks, and switches.

I tested the Chicago Zephyr with a number of guitars, including a ’57 Telecaster, a Gretsch Duo Jet reissue with Dynasonic pickups, a Gibson ES-330, and a Reverend Charger HB. With the Volume at around 10 o’ clock, the tone controls mid way, the Range notch set low, and the Damping knob fully clockwise (tight), the amp quickly went into mild breakup, even with single-coils. These settings maximized a Gretsch’s bright, gritty bite, providing a nice edgy twang in country and rockabilly runs and good note definition amid chords. The amp distorts even quicker under the load of hotter humbucking pickups, offering singing Chicago-style blues tones with reasonable clarity and sparkle. My Telecaster sounded a little harsh in this realm, but higher Range and lower Damping settings helped to smooth things out. From here it was easy to nudge the Zephyr in a toothier direction that was certainly tweed-esque, though a hair spikier than most ’50s-era Fender amps. The Smooth Electric Power circuit seems to do its job, as the Zephyr’s distortion tones sound quite balanced and full overall.

There’s already a lot of volume here, but cranked toward noon, the Chicago Zephyr really starts to roar. And past the two o ’clock point, the speakers sound like they’re hanging on for dear life—a very cool floored-tube lead tone, but I wonder for how long? Even well below this level, however, I encountered some microphonics in the preamp circuit, which hovered into hearing amid hard-picked notes, or when I tapped the chassis. It wasn’t enough to render the amp unplayable, but the noise hung on persistently through a few tube swaps. (Vero states that a switch from Russian-made to Chinese-made 12AT7s has solved the microphonics problem.) The deep, lush, all-tube reverb circuit is a winner for those who like super wet textures, however, the lack of footswitching capability means you have to control the reverb entirely from the top panel.

The Chicago Zephyr is as stylish as all get-out, offers some big, powerful tones, and is far more versatile than its single-channel simplicity belies. It’s an amp that has plenty to offer retro-minded blues players, rock ’n’ rollers, and jazzers alike. And if you’re looking to stand out with something different on the bandstand, it’s all aboard for the Chicago Zephyr.