Price paid: A$ 3000
Purchased from: Online retailer
Sound — 10
I generally use the Axe-FX with a Les Paul Studio with Bareknuckle humbuckers and a Dean Razorback V. It almost exclusively gets played in a large church auditorium, where its signal is run directly into a Midas desk. Unlike many older digital multi-effects units, the Axe-FX Ultra sounds superb when plugged straight into a system via line-out - no need to mic up your amp just to sound good. I play a variety of patch styles on the Axe-FX - metal, hard rock, dark and bright blues, clean, ambient - and they all sound fantastic. Metal influenced players will enjoy the variety of tones on offer, and softer players will appreciate the ease with which a cleaner sound can be tastefully coloured to sound fat and well-rounded. The effects all sound fantastic, and when routed in funky and creative ways in the signal chain can do everything from adding a touch of sparkle to satisfyingly mangling a signal beyond recognition. It must be said however that many of the convolution effects patches (i.e. patches featuring a highly processed, extreme layered sound) on this unit are, to a large extent, unusable. It's not that they don't sound good. They just don't have much of a practical place. Other than that, the factory presets cover virtually every genre and sub-genre of electric guitar and some of the presets are programmed to emulate existing signature sounds such as Slash's overdriven "Sweet Child O Mine" tone and AC/DC's searing classic "Hells Bells" sound. These signature sounds, I might add, are emulated with a staggeringly high degree of accuracy, although with such a high price tag on this unit it's fair to expect nothing less. The Axe-FX Ultra features input and output volume controls, which allows guitarists to compensate for a lack of input gain while still maintaining total control of the output gain. This is fantastic for those who want to squeeze the maximum gain out of their guitar. The Axe-FX is also designed to emulate the behaviour of tube amps; it "naturally" overdrives with higher gain input. Oh and by the way - the Axe-FX Ultra is perfect for bass guitars too, although you're gonna have to get your hands dirty creating your own patches. I've created a few and they work a treat. In particular this unit provides a cosmetic mask for nasty-sounding basses - a bit of compression to even out dull strings, some tactical EQing and subtle Overdrive for shape and character... It won't solve all your bass issues, but it's a pretty good band-aid solution.
Overall Impression — 9
Regardless of what style of music you play, this sound is the pinnacle of effects and signal processing. There are many other cheaper units coming out now that perform a very similar job for much cheaper - Line 6 POD HD500 immediately springs to mind - but if you want the very best, you found it. If you want metal, you got it. More metal? Patches a-plenty. Vintage rock? You're set. Tastefully warm jazz and blues tones? Axe-FX has it covered. Ambient patches that leave the audience scouring the stage for a synthesizer? Right here baby. I've been playing guitar for 16 years, however musically this is just part of who I am. I also own a very respectable Ableton Live rig running a suite of top-end instrument, effects, mixing and mastering plug-ins. I am not a shred master or guitar god, however I'm also not a young guitarist who still counts his playing experience in months. I am a musically mature guitarist and home producer with a highly tuned ear for sound - developed and honed through countless hours composing and mixing in a home studio, a decade of regularly performing live, and mixing with close friends who work as professional sound engineers. This isn't me self-glorifying by the way. I just mention this as I'm shocked by how many guitarists with less than 12 months playing experience post reviews on here. This unit is not a toy, although it's so easy to get a great sound with it you'd be forgiven for thinking it was. This unit is your reason to sell your rack compressors, patch bays, pedal collections and any other signal processing gear you own. Chances are unless it's a guitar lead the Axe-FX Ultra has it covered. If my Axe-FX Ultra was stolen, I would go into an extended period of grieving. I'd then harden up, save some cash and buy an Axe-FX II. I might add by the way this unit has been superseded but is by no means obsolete. If you can find a cheap second-hand Axe-FX Ultra somewhere, grab it. What do I hate about this? The price. It's really, really expensive. And the fact the software is so buggy. Also this unit doesn't feature a headphone jack input which is a massive let-down, although in all fairness it was designed to be a high-end piece of rack gear. I also argue this unit should come with the MFC-101 footswitch included, as this is essentially what it was designed to be run with. For this, I take away a point. My favourite features of this unit are its superior sound quality, and some of its highly usable clean sparkle patches which are layered with subtle delays, reverbs and pitch shifters run in convoluted signal chains - I've had professional synth players convinced I was running synths, samples or loops on-stage. I haven't had the chance to compare this to a lot of units. Despite what Line 6 fans may say, it obliterates the POD HD series. I've got a few friends who run the HD500 - they're fantastic units, but don't stand up to the Axe-FX in the long run. Disagree with me? Then take up your case with Megadeth and Dream Theatre, to drop a few Axe-FX users. If money is no object and you absolutely MUST have the best money can buy, then go no further than this unit or its successor the Axe-FX II (again make sure you Pick up the Fractal Audio MFC-101 footswitch if you intend to use it live). This unit boasts big and delivers in spades. If this sounds like the unit for you however you can't afford it, I highly recommend checking out the Line 6 POD HD series as an alternative - for well under $1000 you can get an easy-to-use product that still sounds incredible and arguably offers much better bang for buck. Video from YouTube:
Reliability & Durability — 9
I've been using this unit regularly for two years now and have never had a problem with it. This is possibly partly due to me buying an SDK roadcase for it - the Axe-FX is a rackmountable effects unit, not a foot pedal. I've never used it with a backup, if only because you just can't back something like this up and hope to achieve anywhere near the same result. It's just not that easy. On the topic of backing up, all the factory presets (and any of your own) can be backed up on your computer via the ingenious albeit unstable software (on this last point I deduct a point).
Ease of Use — 8
Purchased this bad boy in 2011, then cried respectable manly tears when the Axe-FX II was released. This baby is so easy to get a great sound out of. Amp emulations have come a long way over the past decade, and the emulations on the Axe-FX are top notch. Dial-and-play multi-effects lovers of all music genres will drool over the factory presets (some of the convolution "sparkle" patches on this are mindblowing). Those seeking to create their own signature sounds will relish the high quality amps, cabs, effects and signal routing options which make patch creation a true joy. And to top it off, there's even a free downloadable software interface that makes creating your own patches a drag-and-drop affair. On a sad note... The process for syncing the Axe-FX Ultra with the aforementioned software is highly tedious. Rather than simply plugging a USB cable into the computer, the Axe-FX requires two MIDI cables. Which in turn requires some way of plugging them into the computer (in my case an external soundcard). To top it off, in my case it won't actually sync. This is a tragic oversight on behalf of the developer; in my view it's equivalent to designing a high performance sports car and forgetting to add airconditioning. Still, the unit's LCD interface makes quick work of creating and editing patches. Ideally users of this unit will have had the foresight to use it in conjunction with the MFC-101 MIDI footswitch board, which is technically multipurpose but in reality was specifically designed for use with the Axe-FX. It's outrageously expensive - mine cost an extra $900 - but is somewhat a necessity for the live player looking to use the Axe-FX Ultra to its full potential. I'm unsure of the firmware version for this unit, which is technically now superseded.