When we first took a peek at the Vox AC30 amPhones, we were ready to write them off as yet another dud from a company that has no business designing headphones. The English brand Vox is better known for guitar amps, pedals and organs — gear for musicians, not listeners. To draw upon that bloodline, the AC30 can plug directly into a guitar and produce all kinds of effects. To us, this sounded a lot like a gimmicky ploy designed to conceal a subpar-sounding set of cans. Boy, how wrong we were. We really liked the sound of the Vox AC30s, especially once we learned what their asking price was. Read on for our detailed impressions.
Out of the box
Upon pulling the AC30s out of their box, we took an instant liking to their build quality. They impressed us with their excellent fit and finish and overall durable design, though the leather-textured hard plastic caps over the earcups are a bit tacky. Both the earcups and headband and cushions had ample, soft padding, and the featured a decent amount of padding as well. We were also pleased to find a screw-on, quarter-inch headphone jack adaptor in the box.
About the only thing we found questionable was the thin headphone cable. For regular home listening sessions, it should be more than adequate. But if you’re interested in monitoring with the AC30s, we might suggest keeping those head-banging, rock-out sessions on your guitar in check so as not to accidentally weaken or sever the cord over extended use.
The AC30 is part of Vox’s new amPhone series of headphones, designed in partnership with Audio Technica. All of the models in the series can be used in two different ways: either as a conventional pair of music listening headphones, or as a personal guitar-sound monitor. When used as a monitor, a built-in amPlug device can be activated to replicate the sound effects of Vox’s AC30 guitar amp.
Several different controls add adjustable reverb, chorus, and delay effects, and should be used only when listening to your electric guitar or bass while laying down some scorching-hot licks on your ax, man. All effects should be switched off when the amPhones are used as regular cans.
Other than the inclusion of the amPlug device, the AC30’s features are very similar to many other full-size headphones. They feature a circumaural (around the ear), closed-back design that makes them commuter and public transport friendly. The earcups slide along metal bands and feature adjustable tilt and swivel to accommodate various head sizes. Other features include 40mm dynamic drivers, a single-sided cord with 3.5mm termination, and foldable design.
We used the AC30 the way we figured most folks purchasing headphones in this price range would: straight from the headphone outputs of an iPhone 4, iPod shuffle, Dell Latitude D810 laptop, and Marantz SR6007 and NR1602 receivers. We also kept handy hand several pairs of headphones for comparison, including the Bowers and Wilkins P5, Panasonic RP-HTX7, and Grado SR60i.
Even without more than a few hours of break-in, the Vox AC30s had us grinning over what we heard. The overall sound character was ear-catching, with an exciting, upfront presentation and slightly forward tonal balance. While the Vox cans do a fine job with all different kinds of music, they really seemed to favor heavier rhythmic and beat-centric fare, such as hard rock, electronica and hip-hop.
One area where the AC30s seemed to excel was in its detail retrieval. Listening to “Interstate Love Song” and “Vasoline” from Stone Temple Pilots’ Purple album, we could clearly hear timbral details and transient information lesser cans struggle to reproduce. Electric and bass guitars sounded crunchier, more appropriately distorted, and just plain more realistic than with more laid-back sounding cans.
We then played Kruder and Dorfmeister’s The K&D Sessions for some bass testing, and here also the AC30s did not disappoint. Deep bass notes were especially well-developed, and at times we could feel them pounding and resonating away in our canals. The Vox’ had just enough emphasis to drive forward propulsive and bass-heavy music without ever sounding too thick or muddy.
Middle to upper midrange sounds also had excellent clarity through the AC30s, and vocals, cymbals, and horns in particular possessed a high level of tonal accuracy. We never struggled to pick out individual voices on densely layered choral music, and we could clearly separate one horn from the next on full-tilt, big-band recordings, for example.
Perhaps the only area where the AC30s were consistently less than stellar was in the upper bass and lower mids. They were just a bit thin through this region compared to the other headphones we had on hand, and consequently they lacked some warmth overall. They simply didn’t sound as big, rich, or full as the others, especially when we tried listening to some large-scale rock or orchestral music.
At times, the Vox’s upfront character can also result in some treble hardness as well. Feed them a steady diet of bright, horn-laden or cymbal-heavy recordings and after a while the AC30’s can sound mildly fatiguing. For example, Stevie Wonder’s horn section on “Signed, Sealed, and Delivered” and “Superstition” from the album At the Close of a Century sounded noticeably brassier and harsher than we’re used to hearing. Cymbals on “Superstition” were also too heavy-handed.
Still, the Vox AC30s never lost their composure, and they always delivered excellent detail, clarity and instrumental separation. They had an uncanny way of emphasizing the rhythmic and percussive elements of all kinds of music that made enjoying our favorite recordings effortless.
Just for grins, we decided to try out the AC30s with their amPhone effects switched on to see what would happen. That was a big mistake: The effects gave everything a shouty, midrange-centric quality with way too much reverb. Even with the effects dial set low, there was definitely some bad sonic juju going on that made music sound like it was being played through an old AM-radio on its last leg. We’d suggest following Vox’s advice to just leave the darned thing off for music listening.
That said, the amPhone’s built-in amplifier and effects features worked wonderfully for their intended purpose. We connected the AC30s to a Fender P-bass and let ‘er rip with no effects and only moderate gain and volume. We were immediately taken aback by what we heard. Even without any effects dialed in, the AC30s sounded like an actual guitar or bass amplifier, rather than a dry reproduction of the P-Bass’s pickups. As we cycled through the available reverb and chorus effects, we were pleased at how realistic they sounded.
Headroom was never a problem, either. We were able to drive the AC30s to nearly ear-damaging levels without any distortion, and when we put some slap down on the E-string, the headphones didn’t bat an eyelash. What we heard was punchy, robust bass with lightning-fast attack and aggressive bite. Considering the amPhone’s accessible price point, one might think these headphones a novelty or toy, but nothing could be further from the truth. These headphones are a bona fide tool and would make a terrific gift for traveling musicians or anyone that needs to keep their jams on the down-low.
We also found the AC30s to have a comfortable, secure fit. The soft, cushy earpads always kept the AC30s well-anchored to our head, even if they did get warm a little quicker than some other similarly designed cans. It was never enough to detract us from getting our musical kicks though, and we appreciated their overall lightweight feel, even when we inserted batteries for the amPhone feature.
Like most sealed cans, the Vox had fairly good noise isolation overall. While they weren’t the best we’ve heard, they did manage to mask most average-level TV sounds at everyday listening volumes. And if we came across some especially noisy ambient sounds, we enjoyed the AC30s enough to not care about having to turn them up just that little bit more to compensate.
Based on their overall look, feel, and sound quality level, we guessed the Vox AC30 would’ve been somewhere in the $150 range, which would’ve made them a safe buy regardless. But with a price tag of only $99, the Vox AC30’s value factor shoots way up, especially given their dual-purpose nature and overall sound quality. Were it not for those consistently thin lower mids and occasional treble brightness, we’d give them a really solid 8.5 out of 10. Such as it is, the Vox AC30s are a still an excellent value and stand as one of the best sub-C note set of cans out there.
- Punchy, upfront, and exciting sound
- Deep, well-defined bass
- Built-in amPhone amp lets you directly plug in your guitar for monitoring
- Sturdy overall build quality
- Lower mids lacking a little warmth
- Some lower treble harshness can cause fatigue after extended listening
- Cord seems a little wimpy