Price paid: C$ 1200
Purchased from: Other
Ease of Use — 8
It's easy to use if you've used modelers/effects processors before. If you're new this will definitely give you a headache considering that the presets suck out-of-the box (except for the cleans). Editing patches is fairly easy once you get used to it, everything has the same format and you can literally do it step-by-step, it's a well designed system. The manual is good and has good commentary on the unit itself. The author/developer of the unit discusses it's uses and multiple different ways to arrange it (the 4 cable method, the poweramp -> AXE FX -> CAB method, and others at expert-level detail). Firmware 11. It has been upgraded.
Sound — 5
The sound from the Axe-FX Ultra has a distinctive trait in every single preset and patch, a characteristic that comes directly from the core of the effects processor itself. As mainly a strat player for 7 years, I rely heavily on dynamics. The Axe-FX has ironically another effect that I'll call the "Noise Cancelling" effect. Sounds good right? Nope. The "Noise Cancelling" effect would be amazing if dynamics and advanced techniques did not exist in modern guitar playing. But sadly (not really) they do. For Axe-FX Ultra users, please try this. Any distortion setting (for heaviest contrast on the effect) AMP + CAB is good enough, it gets worse with chorus and delay and makes another effect but we'll talk about that later.
The effect is decently clear on the low frequencies. Lightly pick an open E. The moment you pick it, sound is made and it immediately fades away (the noise cancelling part). A real amplifier would keep the note humming. My guess is that Axe-FX cancels any frequency that does not come loud of enough to be considered "played" (a db threshold to cancel out noise). Now try the same thing except play a melody while keeping the notes ringing as long as possible to keep the noise-cancelling effect from occuring (you need to pick light but keep picking, this allows the other string to not be cancelled while playing chords). This is how real Amplifiers work. If you play lead guitar lightly the notes cancel themselves and DO NOT ring. I can't stress how much of a problem this is. It completely erases the dynamic of light picking and hard picking in contrast. Rest in peace you fusion and jazz/blues players.
Now here comes the part where the metal players cry. The low end frequencies suck so bad it's unreal. They fuzz like crazy past a drive setting of 6 for most amps, and 5 for metal amp settings. But that's not the end of it. Add reverb and delay and it creates a mess of fuzzing muddy low-end frequencies, it sounds absolutely distasteful and not musical. I tried a variety of amps and cabinets as well as skewed with their settings and advanced settings, I found that the amps that aren't geared towards heavy distortion play the best.
The Fryette cleans are really good and snappy and have a generally good tone. However the Axe-FX itself is super dark, the brights don't shine at all and it's still really muddy. There is not a single setting that can brighten up the tone. I tried my strat as well as an LP style guitar and it did not make much of a difference. It is dark by nature. The Axe-FX itself is fairly noisy, but not during playing (which ironically is the issue I'm talking about). The noise does not interfere with a direct-recording mix, but it is loud outside the mix. Kind of like an overheating computer.
The thing I like the most about this piece of gear though, are the janky effects. There are lots of arpeggiators and similar effects that are amazing and beautiful sounding, and definitely musical. Conclusion: Distortion low end sucks, a player's dynamics are ruined/limited by the Axe-FX's noise cancelling, but the other effects are amazing.
Reliability & Durability — 10
This thing is pretty solid and apparently only has computer parts inside rather than real tubes and fragile materials, as mentioned in the manual. It probably wouldn't break if it fell but it is indeed an expensive piece of equipment and I doubt you'd gig with this without a rack (which protects the unit from falling and etc) unless you're not a very bright person, or you have abundant wealth.
The value knob of the Axe-FX goes bad very early and becomes a major pain to anyone who's frisky with details. Most controls go from 0-100, and the knob would sometimes skip by 5 units. In a list of types of amps in the amp-edit function, it would skip a range of amps, and since the amps are not numerically sorted it would take a while to go back and find where you were again. This problem doesn't matter as much when sorting through presets because they are numbered. But as you can imagine, it's not a pleasant experience to have a faulty value wheel.
Overall Impression — 6
I play mostly everything. Rock, metal, blues, fusion and probably other styles like folk. The effects processor unit doesn't really match any of those styles besides rock. If you hard-pick everything and strum everything hard then you won't have any issues with the unit. But if you're not braindead and are musical, you'll find the Axe-FX has a very limited play-ability. If it were lost I might try the Axe-FX II and hopefully change my mind, or the Kemper profiling amp. I wouldn't buy this thing again. I love the clean effects (chorus/harmonizers/etc), the tone-shaping EQs, and noise-gate effects, but I have a distinct hate for the distortion and the lack of usability of it. I can compare this to a Boss GT-10 and ME-25, and I can say even the ME-25 has an amazing distortion range of effects that sound natural and sound almost like a real amplifier. The Axe-FX Ultra screams of digital.