Hands-On Review:Crate VFX 5212
by Eric Kirkland
Traditionally, if you wanted an amplifier with digital-quality effects, you’ve had to choose a digital amp. While that’s one way to eliminate the clutter of multiple stomp boxes and loose cables, it means foregoing tube amps and doing without their singular response and unmatched tone. In response to this dilemma Crate has created the VFX 5212, an exemplary tube amp with a well-integrated digital effects processor. A descendant of the company’s Vintage Club series, this modernized combo provides a variety of digital effects in a great-sounding and affordable all-tube design.
Appearance and Build
Covered in fine, textured Tolex and fronted by a black sparkle grille with silver piping, the new Crate VFX series has a classic appearance with a high-end vibe. Its all-American good looks are supported by solid construction and removable casters, and a superduty and attractive leather handle is provided for those foolish enough to lift the amp. Its somewhat unusual vertically mounted chassis makes servicing the amp easier, but it limits tube access, apparently in order to satisfy Crate’s global compliance standards.
The two-channel VFX 5212 pumps out 50 watts from two EL-34s, four 12AX7s and two custom-designed 12-inch speakers. It features volume and EQ for each channel, plus a gain control on the overdrive side and a shared presence control. The rear panel has an effects loop, footswitch jack and a speaker out with an impedance selector. The two-button footswitch selects between channels and a programmable alternate effect.
Without a doubt, the amp’s coolest feature is its integrated digital effects processor; you’ll be wondering why someone didn’t think of this sooner. The processor’s 16-position selector lets you choose from several reverbs, delays, vibratos and choruses as well as touch-sensitive wah and a bypass. A level control allows the mix of wet and dry signals to be adjusted from imperceptible to overbearing. The footswitch makes the amp even more versatile by allowing you to toggle between the main effects bank and an alternate bank during performance. For example, a small room reverb can be used on rhythm passages and then switched to a short delay on solos to fatten the sound.
I tested the combo with several single-coil and humbucker-equipped guitars. In all cases, the amp’s response, feel and compatibility were excellent. Optimized transformers and front-mounted speakers increase the amp’s response time without translating a stiff or hard feeling to the player’s hand. As a result, every note played through the VFX 5212 is heard instantaneously, with a stringy feel that is usually reserved for boutique offerings. I was also surprised to find that the digital signal processor (DSP) actually add richness wherever it is applied, thanks to a tricky placement in the signal chain that remains a Crate secret. I preferred to leave the DSP on all the time and thought of it as an extra tone control rather than a digital add-in. Among the standout effects was a keenly applied tube compression that balances a tight feel at the string with a dynamic sound from the speakers. Refreshingly, this amp operates as well as it sounds, and all of the controls are useable throughout their entire range. And while higher settings of the delay effects produced some noise, it’s unlikely anyone would use such extreme, tone-drowning levels.
This new Crate amp has one of the most versatile and responsive EL-34-based clean channels that I’ve heard from equipment at any price. It can easily make the transition from plunky and tight to dark and silky, with any pickup in any position. This is achieved through a highly adaptable EQ that serves to optimize the tone of the guitar instead of fighting it in favor of the amp’s voice.
On the overdrive side, whether I wanted some Texas edge or angry superdistortion, the VFX delivered faithfully. It has that classic early Marshall midrange with a well-controlled and finely tuned presence that’s never buzzy or thin. Low-gain settings were particularly inspiring: picking lightly kept it clean, while hitting hard pumped the volume and gain in waves from the amplifier. Dialing out the midrange yielded a single-coil-like open sound from my high-powered humbucker, but the amp never lost its liveliness or inherent qualities. The bass response is typical of EL-34s, trading some low end for near perfect mid-to-high balance.
The Bottom Line
Crate is famous for building quality amplifiers for budget-conscious professionals and hobbyists who need a lot for their money. The VFX 5212 maintains that tradition by offering innovative features and two of the best-sounding channels in its class. It’s versatile, well built and, with onboard effects and classic tube tone, truly represents the best of both worlds