AER Amp Reviews
AER ACOUSTICUBE IIA
$2,600, 120 watts, one eight-inch speaker and one tweeter, two channels, 28.7 pounds.
The German-designed Acousticube incorporates just about every feature imaginable in a highly portable, 120-watt powerhouse. It sports two quarter-inch inputs on channel one (one of which is capable of delivering nine volts of phantom power), a clever combined quarter-inch/XLR input (capable of delivering 48 volts of phantom power) on channel two, and separate three-band EQ. The only type of input that would add to the package is a TRS for players who use stereo pickup setups, but one can be connected via a simple Y cable (the amp can also be special-ordered with a TRS input built in). The Acousticube's back panel is more complicated than some amps' front panels. It houses several different outputs (separate line outs for each channel as well as outputs for DI, tuner, headphones, stereo effects loop, etc.) along with their controls and switches. It also includes built-in, 32-bit digital effects, whose 100 presets are accessible by footswitch.
The sound of the Acousticube defines the term transparent. All of the guitars we played through it were reproduced with extreme accuracy, and the amp highlighted each pickup system's strengths and weaknesses. The voices of the Huipe and the Lowden came through with a complexity I've previously achieved only through a full-scale PA system. Some noticeable compression kicks in at higher volumes, but it is never unmusical and I suspect that this is the only way to keep the bass response from overpowering the small unit. The amp's superlative performance can be further improved with an optional sub-bass box (Sub 10/250 P, $699), an active extension speaker designed to provide lower bass response and additional volume. Although $2,600 for an amp could cause serious sticker shock, the Acousticube is a professional tool that is bound to please connoisseurs of high-end guitars as well as gigging pros who need the ultimate in sound and portability.
AER Amp One bass combo
Even though small sized quality bass amplification has been around for some time now, there's still always an element of wonder when you try something new that is this compact, yet still manages to deliver a truly great sound.
Although we only really hear the lower end, the bass guitar actually produces sounds across a whole range of frequencies and the ease with which distortion tends to creep in is nothing short of alarming. However, in the hands of AER (Audio Electric Research), these problems are kept in managed proportion. The company has long championed compact amplification and the Bass Amp One promises yet another step forward.
Design and features
Sharp in looks and extremely compact in size, this certainly is one of the neatest packages of bass amplification currently available, but rest assured it comes bearing a host of features more commonly associated with much larger combos. It also features all the linking possibilities you could possibly need. In fact, the back panel is awash with a host of sockets including headphones, effects loop, tuner and an adjustable DI. The whole amp section is loaded from the back, neatly presenting the controls to the top of the unit and effectively sealing the whole thing, except for the small slit port at the lower rear.
Anything that is this portable needs robust construction in order to handle the expected constant use and transportation. To this end the Amp One is constructed of 12mm birch plywood and covered with serviceable water-based acrylic with a black spatter finish. The front grille is expanded metal, there's a substantial strap handle on top and even the feet are big and solid. And as if all that wasn't enough, it comes with a tough, all-enclosing padded cover that sensibly has a pocket provided that's ideal for leads and strings
With just the one input socket AER has provided a high/low switch to accommodate both active and passive basses, along with a gain control and a clip indicator so you can set your instrument for optimum performance, or indeed add a little distortion to the front end should you wish. There's also a mute switch provided, ideal for silent plugging and unplugging.
Of course any bass combo is primarily concerned with just how big the bottom end of the spectrum sounds, and with something so small you naturally expect a degree of compromise - but you won't find it here. Being equipped with a low distortion limiter and subsonic filter assists in giving the Amp One low frequencies to spare with a warm basis of control, plus the ability to boost the bass still further. And if this still isn't enough the rear panel provides linkage to an external active sub woofer if you prefer your bass truly trouser flapping.
There are three main EQ controls covering the usual bass, middle and treble, but there are also two rotary controls provided for the mid-range that allow you to choose the frequency to adjust and the corresponding gain. The mid-range is such a critical area of tonal shaping as it's where you can give true personality to your sound, so having this finer degree of control is a huge asset. The treble is less dynamic as it concentrates more on note definition rather than piling on unwanted top end that only serves to thin out the overall sound: which makes a lot of sense
With colour, bass boost and bandwidth switches also included as part of the tonal package, the spectrum is widened to satisfy even the most demanding of situations, or indeed players. The bandwidth switch accentuates the attack so if note definition is important to you, you'll like this a lot.
The tone balance section (where the intensity and notched balance controls are housed), offers still further enhancement but, like the treble control, the effect of these is relatively subtle. Essentially it offers a pre-shape option that can either favour the bottom or top end or allow for scooped middle, but as it's fully adjustable you can explore all the variations along the way. It's great to have, but considering the effectiveness of the tonal section already this could be seen as a degree of overkill for such a small amp.
However, having a compressor included is always welcome, and here it's particularly good as it comes with both threshold and ratio controls. This means it can be as gentle or as brutal on your sound as you desire, and with the associated active LED you can see when it's kicking in. With the ability to aid in sound projection as well as providing a degree of protection to the speaker, this is a very effective addition.
A huge part of any bass amplification is the physical force with which the sound is projected, and naturally the smaller the unit the less pressure is felt on the player or audience. However, being loaded with this Neodym magnet 10-inch speaker (ideally suited for small bass reflex enclosures), the efficiency of operation ensures that this does indeed give a healthy kick to the delivery and it's particularly noticeable when activating the bass boost switch. This physicality is as delightful as it is surprising and certainly helps to make the whole playing experience more dynamic and satisfying.
AER bass amps often come with a high price tag, so fact that the Amp One bass combo comes in at less that £1000 is an unexpected surprise. It will still represent a significant outlay to many players, but what you're paying for is the sheer quality of sound, build and that portability.
With so much linking ability provided, the Amp One is destined to become one of the most versatile bass combos on the market. It's ideal for small gigs, rehearsals and personal practice and for the studio.
We always expect good things to come from AER and yet again the company has delivered the goods. Despite its micro size, the AER Amp One bass combo delivers a versatile and impressive performance.
For the ultimate busking sound or for gigs in flowery meadows, AER offers
high-end off-grid acoustic amplification. Jerry Uwins counts the pennies
|Pros:||good for.. Clear and precise sound,reassuringly sturdy and easy to carry.|
|Cons:||bad for ...Not cheap if you want to buy it for busking|
Battery-powered amps are usually budget buys, but AER's Compact
Mobile is aimed at the well-heeled player looking for high-quality,
go-anywhere amplification. It's based on the popular Compact 60 but adds
a 12V lead-acid battery, doubling the weight to 14kg and giving up to
six hours' playing time. Use mains, and the battery automatically
charges; there's provision to connect an external battery, too. It also
offers extra features: an Aux In with Level control for an external
accompaniment source, and switchable 48V phantom power.
The Mobile has a 8" twin-cone speaker and two channels: Ch1 has three-band EQ and a mid-cut/high-boost Colour switch; Ch2, with a jack/XLR input, has two-band EQ. Each one provides gain switching and a clip LED. The Master section presents four preset digital effects, two hall-type reverbs and a couple of reverb/delays, all of decent quality. Rear-panel connection options are generous, and the black spatter-finish cab, with recessed carry-handle, is smartly finished, reassuringly sturdy and easy to carry.
AER amps are known for exacting, studio-grade reproduction, and the Mobile's sound is clear and precise, conveying the natural nuances of your guitar. The EQ is responsive, and Colour adds a sparkling lift to Ch1. The only caveat is that Ch1's main Midrange control has little effect between 'min' and 'max', save for a slight thickening towards full boost. AER is always cautious with the mids, offering only +/-3dB as against +/-8dB for bass and +/-11dB for treble. I reckon this is taking subtlety too far - but at least it's impossible to dial up a crap sound.
The Mobile costs a lot more than the mains-only Compact 60. Sure, it's a lot of dosh for busking convenience, but being an AER - still made in Germany, not the Far East - it's a fine-sounding and versatile amp, and our quibbles over the midrange tailoring may well be regarded as a minor irritation at worst and an irrelevance at best. You decide!
AER Acousticube 3
Acoustic Instrument Amplifier
Specialised amplifiers for acoustic instruments seem to fall broadly into two factions: those that are designed primarily to mitigate the known defects of the most common pickup types, by imposing a character of their own, and those that assume you're using a high-quality pickup system that you would like to hear amplified as faithfully as possible. The line between products in the latter group and PA systems really is a fine one, with perhaps only the need for a wider range of input matching in the instrument amp differentiating the two. German company AER (Audio Electric Research) definitely make amps that fall into the 'virtual PA' category, with their acclaimed flagship Acousticube series having carved out an enviable reputation for itself as the benchmark product in its field for several years now. As an owner and very happy long-term user of an Acousticube IIa, I was pleased to be able to check out the latest Acousticube 3 model, complete with a new speaker design, new preamp configuration and a USB connection allowing reprogramming and organisation of the on-board 32-bit digital effects processor.
Measuring just 13 inches square by 10.4 inches deep, the Acousticube is amongst the smallest acoustic instrument amps on the market, but this certainly doesn't seem to compromise its performance in its intended applications. The cabinet houses a single Hexacone-based eight-inch driver with Neodymium magnet and a concentric one-inch dome tweeter. Hexacone is a composite material based on Kevlar, which allows the cone to be both stiffer and lighter than conventional paper or polymer cones, giving less cone break-up and an overall faster response, for a tight low-end and smoother mid-range. Only a small port on the rear panel identifies this as a bass-reflex design.
The 120W RMS power amp resides at the rear of the box, with the preamp sub-chassis slotted in the top. A ribbon cable joins the two, lying exposed on the surface of the back panel for a couple of inches, creating what seems like an unnecessary vulnerability in an otherwise pretty bullet-proof design. At a little over 28 pounds, the Acousticube is an easy one-handed carry via the side-mounted, recessed handle, or the twin webbing handles of the impressively padded gig bag provided with the amp. The open-cell acoustic foam that covers the speaker actually conceals a steel mesh grille underneath, so there should be no danger of accidental damage in that area.
Where previous Acousticube models have offered, effectively, a dedicated instrument channel and a microphone channel, the preamp is now configured with two apparently identical channels, each with a three-pole quarter-inch jack input on the front and all input-selection options available to both. A balanced XLR mic input is still available, but it is now on the back panel, and although both channels have a Mic input setting, only Channel two can in fact access the XLR. Channel one's Mic setting seems to switch its quarter-inch jack to mic sensitivity. The additional flexibility that the two almost identical channels confers will, I'm sure, be welcomed by most users, particularly for working with dual-source pickup systems.
The jack inputs can each be cycled around four modes, optimising the connection for passive piezo pickups, which require a very high input impedance; line input; mic input; and 'E/P' -- an electret mic and piezo combination, with pickup on the tip and mic on the ring circuit. Phantom power at 9V can be activated on the line input and mic/pickup combo, and at 48V on the mic input, by holding in the Mode selector switch for three seconds. The huge disparity in sensitivity between some of the modes makes it all too possible to give yourself a nasty surprise when you inadvertently cycle back from the last one to the first -- the most sensitive of all -- unless, that is, you actually follow the advice in the manual about making all connections and settings with the master volume control well down!
Preamp mode and phantom status can be seen at all times, thanks
to a row of multi-coloured LEDs, and a 15dB pad can be inserted to
optimise gain range with exceptionally hot signals, although I didn't
find anything at all that required it amongst my extensive arsenal of
pickup systems, and I rarely provoked the Clip LED into action once
the gain setting was optimised. There's a lot of headroom on these
The one area of the earlier Acousticubes that invariably came in for criticism was the lack of any facility to edit the effects programs. Even if you were quite happy with the programs themselves, you would usually want different mix settings for, say, a reverb, at maybe 15 percent effect, and perhaps a chorus effect where you would probably need a 50/50 balance. Even this most basic requirement was beyond the scope of the Acousticube's single Return level control, often rather undermining the benefit of having two memory locations at all.
A Mute switch is a welcome new addition to the preamp section, allowing silent instrument changes on stage, and the useful 'Colour' voicing switch of the earlier models now features on both inputs. This offers a preset EQ curve, simultaneously dipping the mid-range and lifting the top end, giving a sparkle and transparency that particularly suits finger-picking and lighter playing styles. I find the Colour switch well-voiced for taking excessive mid-range out of magnetic pickups, or sweetening an aggressive-sounding under-saddle pickup.
The effects editing software allows you to design your own programs as a block diagram.
The effects editing software allows you to design your own programs as a block diagram.
The preamp stages all seem subjectively a little quieter than the IIa -- the IIa is itself a very quiet amplifier-- and activating the Colour switch now raises the hiss level barely at all, unless you have a noisy source connected. A three-band EQ completes the channel facilities. Channel one's frequencies are Bass, 60Hz (+/-10dB); Mid, 600Hz (+/-6dB); and Treble, 13kHz (+/-13dB). This is a rather different configuration to most instrument amplifiers, working mainly at the two extremes of the spectrum, with a low-Q soft slope and limited gain range in the mid band. Channel two's EQ is subtly different, with more conventional turnover frequencies at top and bottom (100Hz and 10kHz) and a much wider mid-range gain (+/-12dB at 1kHz). If your pickup needs radical surgery, neither of these EQs alone will do it. It would be better to get an outboard EQ/preamp with a sweep mid designed for the purpose and use the AER's EQ for what it does best: adjusting the amp's overall tonal response to different rooms, without producing anything too peaky or coloured that might provoke earlier onset of feedback. To further help combat the latter, there is a notch filter -- still located at the back, as on the IIa, and still not sweepable. Being an analogue filter, it offers nothing like the pinpoint notching we have become used to with digital anti-feedback processors. A notch that is 24dB down at 120Hz, recovering to -12dB by 36Hz, makes a sizeable hole in the bottom end of most guitars -- so much so that I have only ever found myself using it with naturally boomy big-bodied instruments or in particularly adverse monitoring conditions. Even then, I always put back a little bottom end with the Bass control, to avoid over-thinning the sound.
One further tonal adjustment is available in the form of the Presence control, again located on the rear panel. The documentation implies that this is for fine-tuning the response of the tweeter, affecting frequencies above 4kHz, but I have never felt the need to set it anywhere other than maximum. Still, it's good to know it's there.
The Acousticube 3 has sprouted a new Pre-Master control, alongside the main master volume, governing the Left and Right line-level outputs and dedicated recording outputs independently of the main master volume settings, adding still more flexibility to this range's legendary interconnectivity.
The on-board 32-bit digital effects processor has a very simple
three-control interface: a continuous rotary encoder for program
selection; return level; and pan to assign the effect between the two
channels. A comprehensive selection of treatments is offered, ranging
from different sizes of dark, bright and soft rooms, halls, churches
and cathedrals to ambiences, unusual spaces such as corridors,
a swimming pool and a railway station, and assorted choruses, flanges
and delays. A lot of subtle variations are offered on the same basic
themes within the 100 programs.
Even more connectivity
Acousticubes have always been renowned for their comprehensive connectivity, yet the latest version has still managed to add some more, with the addition of a pair of phonos for connecting a CD player or other -10dBV line-level source. A level control allows you to balance this source independently of the main signal paths. Although the Acousticube itself is mono, the aux signal, like the on-board effects, is sent to the left and right line outputs and the phones output in full stereo.
A master insert point has also been added (while retaining the Effect 2 send and return loop). This appears on a stereo jack (tip send, ring return), allowing for the insertion of a permanent master effect such as a compressor, limiter or EQ, without having to tie up the footswitchable Effect 2 circuit. I must admit that this was one of my few frustrations with the IIa configuration and it's great to see it solved in the latest model.
Two sets of line-level outputs are provided: Left and Right line outputs for connecting to active extension cabs or a PA system; and two Recording outputs, which allow you to access the separate signals of channels one and two, with their EQ, but without effects and independent of the master level setting. The Left/Right line outputs include anything patched into the Effect 2 return circuit, but not the internal effects unit, with the front-panel Pre-Master control determining the level independently of the master monitoring level. There's also a separate mono Line output which both tracks the Master volume and includes the on-board effect signal, for expanding your rig with another amp (AER would probably like you to use their CX8 powered extension).
An electronically balanced XLR forms the main DI output for connection to a PA. DI level is independently adjustable (via a rather too small pot shaft on the back), and the signal can also be switched between dry with no EQ, or post-EQ and with the internal effect signal.
The Effect 2 circuit allows the connection of an external effect in addition to the on-board processor, with both being controllable from the supplied footswitch. The return is in stereo, which is retained in the line outputs (and headphones), though not, of course, in the main amp, which is mono. The send is switchable between series and parallel operation, allowing you to set the mix locally, using the Return level control, and also keep at least half your signal entirely in the analogue domain if you are not entirely convinced about the integrity of your effects unit's A-D converters. A Pan control determines whether the send to Effect 2 is sourced from channel one, two or both.
Staying with the theme of signal integrity for a moment, the presence of a dedicated Tuner output allows you to keep a tuner permanently in circuit without having to have it in the primary signal path. Helpfully, the line-level output is independent of all level controls except the input gain setting.
A dedicated line-level sub-woofer output is slightly unusual in
this type of amplifier. This one is optimised for connection to AER's
active auxiliary bass-box, the Sub12/400A, and automatically engages
a high-pass filter to relieve the Acousticube's own speaker of
everything below 200Hz. The signal includes tone controls and effects
and follows the master volume. The comprehensive connection facilities
are completed by the stereo phones output, which cuts out the internal
speaker, the eight-pin DIN master control socket and the newly added
USB connection (see 'Editing effects via USB' box).
An eight-pin DIN cable connects to the supplied Acousticube two-button footswitch, allowing remote selection between the two user-stored effects in the memory one and two slots. Effects are stored by dialling up the one you want on the amp's rotary encoder and simply pressing the pot in towards the chassis. While one footswitch toggles between programs, the other activates or deactivates either the internal effects processor, via a short tap, or the Effect 2 loop, via a longer press. Very clever, and far more intuitive to use than to describe! The footswitch also features a couple of controller inputs giving access to a VCA in each channel. A simple 'shorting' footswitch will act as a channel mute here (although, cleverly, the tuner output stays active), or you can use a volume pedal. There's nothing in the documentation to suggest an optimum pot value, but my empirical messing about settled on 22k Log as the best combination of offering both a progressive taper and ensuring no loss of volume when the pot is fully turned up. The nearest off-the-shelf component is an Ernie Ball 25k 'line' pedal which worked well enough, although I felt that the usable range was too concentrated at the toe-end compared to using the same pedal in-line with the signal.
Acousticube in action
The Acousticube 3 delivers everything that its predecessors have always offered, and then some, offering smooth, neutral sound that is every bit as at home with acoustic guitar, vocals, or even amplified upright bass. Power delivery seems more effortless than the IIa, for while there's still a speaker protection limiter in the system it now seems virtually impossible to trigger it with normal music signals. The overall response of the new speaker system seems better, too, the subjectively smoother sound being confirmed by a higher initial feedback threshold.
In my primary application, acoustic guitar amplification, the Acousticube 3 surpasses my IIa version in areas that I really hadn't expected, such as lower front-end noise and higher headroom, whilst retaining the same intrinsic quality of sound. Specific settings that worked with certain pickups on the IIa still work on the '3'; they just work a bit better. This is a remarkably versatile, high-quality amplifier, equally adept at filling a room on its own in a 'reinforced acoustic' context, or slotting into a larger rig as a performer's monitor feeding an FOH system. Despite the diminutive driver, there's a reasonable amount of volume on tap. I use mine with a small band line-up including drums and electric bass and never need to ask for any guitar in the monitor mixes. The single (actually dual-concentric) driver and narrow cabinet frontal dimension serve to create a very predictable and even spread, both vertically and horizontally, with none of the beaming effects of larger boxes or multi-driver systems. There are practical limits to how much level a single eight-inch driver can generate, however, and I wouldn't expect to be able to keep up with a less subtle drummer, or an electric guitar-based line-up, unless it was just with background strummy filler.
The on-board effects, with a few exceptions, are mostly the kind you can just dial-in as a sweetener and leave alone. I know some people criticise them as not radical -- not 'effecty' -- enough, but I think they have been well chosen as subtle enhancements rather than show-stealers. Of course, now you can 'roll your own' anyway, via the USB link and supplied software.
Granted, the Acousticube 3 is by no means cheap -- there are perfectly respectable acoustic guitar amps on the market for a third of the cost of one of these -- but high-quality components and engineering cost. With the release of the new version, at least there might now be a few IIa models on the second-hand market, as owners look to upgrade! Will I be upgrading? Now that I've heard the new model, yes. Will everyone want to upgrade? Probably not. The IIa is still a great acoustic amp, and unless you're perceiving limitations with it, why spend more money?AER make a whole family of PA/acoustic instrument products, including a number of rather more affordable models such as the Compact 60 amplifier, but manufacturers tend to be judged on the performance of their flagship products, so, as a big fan of AER's 'quality is everything' company ethos, it's nice to be able to report that 'the best' just got even better.