With a valve power-amp stage, a DSP modelled preamp and effects section, and direct-to-computer recording, this amp is brimming with promise. Can it deliver?
Launched in 2007, the Super Champ XD saw Fender turn the DSP-meets-valve technology trend on its head. While everyone else was busy adding a glowing glass tube to the preamp section of their d igital amp-modelling devices (with debatable practical benefit), Fender took a valve power amp and bolted a DSP preamp on the front. The result was an affordable combo with a sense of genuine valve-amp dynamics and dimension, but with the versatility of 16 different amp voicings and a range of on-board digital effects.
It seemed like a great idea then, and it still does today, so it's pleasing to see that for the XD's successor — the Super Champ X2 — Fender have kept all the original XD features intact, while adding a USB port that allows users both to tinker with detailed settings under the hood via the Fender Fuse software and to record via USB straight into their DAW. Attractively priced, the X2 is within reach of hobbyists and bedroom players, but can it deliver the versatility to satisfy this competitive market, and could it even find a place in professional studios?
Ignoring the USB port for the moment, let's look at what the Super Champ X2 has to offer as a self-contained amp. With its familiar Fender 'blackface' styling, outwardly this 1x10 combo adopts a traditional look. A single input feeds two independent, switchable channels sharing common treble and bass EQ controls and a DSP effects section. As on the XD, the first channel simply has a volume control, while the second has volume and gain knobs, plus a 16-position rotary switch to select amp voicing. Around the back, there's a single 8Ω speaker output, a line out and a footswitch input. No footswitch is included, but purchasing the requisite Fender accessory will let you remotely switch channels and turn the effects on and off. The effects controls consist of another rotary selector switch and a single parameter-adjustment knob.
This amp is also available in head format as the Super Champ X2 HD (this is not a 24-bit/96kHz version — HD simply stands for 'head'!) and there's also a matching 1x12 cabinet. The X2 combo reviewed here features a 10-inch Fender Special Design speaker. In terms of construction, like most affordable modern Fender amps, the cabinet is fairly thin and light, with a minimally braced 'floating' front baffle. It feels solidly put together and neatly upholstered, however, and it's comfortable to carry with one hand. Rated at 15W, the amp employs a pair of 6V6 power-amp valves — as seen in classic small Fender amps like the Deluxe, Deluxe Reverb and Princeton — as well as a 12AX7 valve acting as the phase splitter, preparing the preamp signal for the Class-AB valve power amp.
Channel 1, the non-master volume channel, provides some very nice blackface-style clean tones, with plenty of headroom and trademark Fender sparkle. Besides the design of the circuit, the lightweight cabinet and 10-inch speaker naturally lean towards a brighter sound that can become a little brash and fatiguing on the ears. However, with a good-quality compressor pedal in front of the amp and a touch of reverb and delay supplied by the on-board effects section, there are some enjoyable Fender-y clean sounds to be found. As you'd expect, there's not a huge amount of bass on offer, but it's important to remember that guitar parts often don't need a lot of it. Close miking will generally firm up the low end, but you'll most likely roll off the bottom in any case, to avoid cluttering up the mix.
Over on channel 2, the Super Champ X2's amp voicing selector greatly expands the combo's tonal palette. By altering coloration, compression and overdrive characteristics, the various voicings do a good job of imitating a range of classic amps. Fender's own stable is well represented, from the boxy-sounding, quick-to-distort Champ to the clean and bright Twin, and while some of these characteristics are laid on a little thick, with a little tweaking all are interesting and usable. It's not all Fender, however, and the vintage Vox- and Marshall-style sounds add some welcome variety in the overdrive department.
The X2's higher-gain voices, based on modern Marshall and Mesa Boogie templates, as well as Fender's own Super-Sonic, are slightly less successful, in my opinion, and at higher volumes the physical limitations of this small, bright-sounding speaker can become exposed. However, the amp sounds good across the board at the kind of levels you'd use for playing or recording at home, and the variety in its clean and dirty repertoire makes for a fun and inspiring practice companion.
The delay, reverb and modulation patches available by default on the effects selector knob also work well in this context. With a single parameter-adjust knob (set to control the wet/dry mix in most cases), the emphasis is naturally on speedy selection and ease of use rather than in-depth tweaking, but the accompanying tap-tempo button is a welcome addition. There really is a lot more complexity here than is first apparent, however, and it's probably time to plug in that USB cable and take the X2 into the 21st century.
Fender's Fuse software, a free Mac- and PC-compatible download, is a combined editor, librarian and practice partner. Besides giving to access a varied library of free backing tracks to jam along with, the main draw is that Fuse lets you tweak parameters that are not available on the front panel of the amp. You can also save amp and effects presets on your computer and actually edit the settings stored within the amp and recalled by the voicing and effects rotary selectors.
In the case of the amp models, firing up the Fuse software gives access to a mid-range tone control at the very least, and in some cases a presence control and bright switch too. These are extremely helpful — almost essential, in fact — if you want to optimise a particular model (and the bright-sounding cabinet) for the particular guitar you're using. A further page of advanced amp parameters lets you adjust the model's sag and tube bias settings. These controls have a subtle but noticeable effect on the compression and overdrive characteristics. You'll also find controls to set a noise gate here, along with a USB gain control (we'll come to the USB audio features shortly) and a drop-down menu to select a cabinet model to use. There are cabinets here that correspond with each model, but you're free to pair them how you please. As with the amp models, comparing the Super Champ's impersonation of, say, a small tweed Deluxe combo and a big 4x12 cab can make these models seem a little over-the-top and caricatured, but the variety is both welcome and genuinely useful in further expanding the amp's repertoire.
On the effects side, the extra possibilities accessible via Fuse are perhaps even greater. Multiple variations on the initial set of reverb, delay and modulation effects are now available, plus previously concealed compression and distortion models, with an array of tweakable parameters that goes way beyond the capabilities of the average stomp box. These are nicely designed and lots of fun, the only let-down being the absence of a decent studio-style reverb with a long, smooth decay. There are some limits to what you can place where — there's nothing like the freedom or flexibility found in the more comprehensive amp-modelling software packages currently available — but there's still a great array of sounds on offer and scope for up to four effects placed in front of the amp model and a further three in the effects loop.
Once you've put together your desired amp, cab and effects chain, the whole set (including your chosen backing track, if you wish) can be saved within Fuse and shared with other users online. When it comes to saving sounds to the amp for use later on, it's a question of saving the amp settings and effects combinations separately to one of the slots on the voicing and effects knobs respectively. Recalling the whole patch from the amp once it's disconnected, therefore, involves setting both knobs to the appropriate position, but it also means that the amps and effects you've carefully tweaked can be freely recombined.
USB digital recording is handled via ASIO (PC) and Core Audio (Mac) drivers. Fuse is not directly involved, but there's nothing to stop you running it alongside your DAW to adjust your guitar sound as you would with a software amp sim. Recording direct, the Super Champ X2's speaker and cabinet emulation comes under more scrutiny. Once again, the cleaner sounds are more convincing than the heavily distorted ones, but in general, the amp performs well, sounding very much like its real self and delivering a range of tones that could work well in a mix. But for really prominent parts — or really serious, professional-quality recordings — the Super Champ falls a little short of what the best amp modellers can do in terms of depth, subtlety and realism.
When hooked up to record via USB, the volume knobs on the amp itself only affect the signal coming out of the speaker. The volume of the USB audio signal is set independently and can be adjusted using the USB gain control on the advanced amp settings page in Fuse. This means that you can turn the amp itself right down for silent recording. However, when monitoring via the software you'll have to deal with any latency you encounter, and monitoring the amp's analogue line out via a mixer may be preferable.
In marrying physical amp hardware with a software interface, it's as if the Super Champ X2 is trying to satisfy the average guitarist's twin, conflicting desires: 'real' valve tone on the one hand, and an endless variety of effects and amp sounds on the other. Expecting the ultimate amp at this affordable price would be folly, and while it's certainly not that — as an amp, it could really do with a bigger, better speaker, while as an amp modeller, it doesn't offer the depth or sophistication to trouble the best in class — the Super Champ does go some way to scratching both itches at once.
For home and hobby use, it's an appealing package that offers a wide range of sounds at the right volume level. What it lacks in sophistication is largely redeemed through plug-in-and-play appeal: from the amp's front-panel controls to the user-friendly Fuse software, it's all about instant gratification. Similarly, the USB recording capabilities are basic, but ideal for laying down demo parts or creating a quick backing track to play along with.
So far, Fuse works in conjunction with a number of Fender amps — the Super Champ X2, plus the G-DEC and Mustang ranges and the Bronco bass amp — that are principally aimed at beginners and hobbyists. It would be really interesting to see the X2 approach applied to a pro-quality amplifier at the other end of the price range. Without the need to build to a lower cost, we could hear what was possible if more sophisticated modelling software and beefed-up on-board DSP capabilities met a really high-quality valve amp, cabinet and speaker.
Of course, there may well be no market for such a product: surveying the ranks of high-end, hand-wired guitar amps currently available, it can feel like, as with hi-fi equipment, the more you pay, the fewer features you get. Fender is not the largest musical instrument manufacturer in the world for nothing. This is a company that knows its market, just as it knows how to pack value into entry-level products. The Super Champ X2 sits above that level — as the next step up from a solid-state practice amp, it will greatly expand a player's horizons — but probably remains destined to stay in the bedroom, for now.
Line 6's Spider Valve MkII range straps POD amp models and effects to a solid valve-amp platform designed by Reinhold Bogner. At 40W or 100W, though, these amps are designed principally with the live stage in mind.