Axe FX vs Helix vs Kemper vs AmpliFIRE – Modelling Amps Shootout

Elliot Stent

Elliot Stent

Over the last few years, digital modelling amps have become incredibly advanced. They can now match the sound of real tube amps, effects and cabinets with amazing conviction. Offering immense versatility, not to mention better reliability, there are many reasons why guitarists are choosing to abandon their more traditional setups for these all-encompassing digital beasts.

With processing and technology rapidly improving year-after-year, now is a great time to look at the many different systems being offered on the market. The purpose of this article is to help you discover which one will suit your needs the most!

There are many options available today, with many companies jumping on the bandwagon and creating their own amp and effects modellers. But in this article, we will look at four of the main systems available today, detailing the pros and cons of each and comparing them against each other.

What will I learn in this article?

  • The main features of the Fractal Audio Axe FX, Line 6 Helix, Kemper Profiler and Atomic AmpliFIRE
  • The advantages of each of these units; identifying their pros and cons
  • The alternative units available within Fractal, Line 6, Kemper and Atomic’s ranges
  • Players that use these modelling amps and why

What is the Fractal Audio Axe FX?

When you think of high-end digital modelling amps, the Fractal Axe FX may be the first name that comes to mind. Whilst Line 6 have been making high-quality digital amp processors since the late 90s and early 00s, it was Fractal that made what can be considered as the first ‘pro-grade’ modeller.

Designed for touring musicians looking for optimal tonal consistency every night, studio geeks have also adored this feature-packed unit for its excellent, recording-ready tones. Emulating some of the most famous amplifiers around, the Axe FX is most synonymous with metal players, hugely popular for offering soaring high-gain tones with its 5150 and Mesa Boogie models – to name just a few!

Who uses the Fractal Audio Axe FX?

It was therefore no surprise that a raft of high-profile names flocked to Fractal a few years ago, taking advantage of the Axe FX’s renowned ease-of-use and high-fidelity sound quality. With massive names such as Devin Townsend and Misha Mansoor on Fractal’s roster, these pioneering players have used the Axe FX to break new ground in the guitar world.

But not all artists have deserted their tube amps and replaced them solely with this powerful and intuitive unit. That’s because the Axe FX is almost as famous for its amazing arsenal of effects as its amp models, with many players enjoying its gorgeous delay, reverb and modulation palettes. That’s why a handful of players prefer to use the Axe FX in conjunction with their classic tube amps, using it just for its premium-sounding effects. Steve Vai and John Petrucci are a couple of established names that use the Axe FX in this configuration.

What Axe FX modelling amps are out there?

Fractal have released several versions of their flagship Axe FX processor, and below we are going to look at their most recent offerings in great detail:

Axe FX II

The Axe FX II is powered by a pair of Analog Devices TigerSHARC DSPs (some of the most powerful in the world), and this high-spec has allowed Fractal to go overboard with other features. Capable of offering emulated dual-amp setups, you can achieve super-rich and unique tones by playing around with different amp sim combinations. Alongside its huge array of genuine-sounding effects, you can create huge, experimental sounds with next-to-zero audible latency.

Axe FX III

Now in its third generation, Fractal have taken this concept a step further with the new for 2018 Axe FX III. Boasting two Texas Instruments “Keystone” DSPs, these run at an eye-watering 1 GHz, coupled to 512 MB of high-speed RAM. The Axe FX III also has enough memory to store over 4000 cabinet impulse responses and 500 presets, giving you an insane amount of flexibility.

With an improved interface for more user-friendly operation, letting players craft their sounds with even more detail and refinement, the updated amp models offer even closer emulations of their real-life counterparts. With thousands of UltraRes™ speaker cab simulations, the amount of options is nearly endless.

Fractal Audio Axe FX – Pros & Cons

Unfortunately, the immense power and quality of the Axe FX comes at a cost. You can easily spend upwards of £2000 on the latest version of the Axe FX (the III), and even older versions are commonly sold on the used market for over £1000. Bear in mind that the Axe FX is by far the most expensive unit featured in this article, so don’t feel put off by the cost. Having said that, its price is indicative of just how unbelievably diverse and impressive it is.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that there are some things that it does not handle as well as other units. Although its ‘amp-matching’ feature is incredible, intelligently analysing a recorded guitar track and creating a patch based on its tonal qualities almost like-for like, it can’t however capture the sounds of your real amp collection via a conventional mic’ing process. So, if you want properly matched tones based on your own amplifiers, the Kemper Profiler is capable of doing that.

Another downside is that Fractal only sell their units direct, and not via retailers (unless you find a second-hand example). This means that you can’t try one of their units in person before purchasing, unless you know someone that owns one. This also means that if something goes wrong, there are very few service centres that can resolve any issues.

Back to the pros of this unit though, if you are constantly touring and moving from session to session, the unbridled versatility of the Axe FX makes it a great investment. The sound quality is unparalleled, and the control that you have over your patches with its deep editing and MIDI functionality makes it easy to alter and change your sounds on-the-fly.

What is the Line 6 Helix?

It’s fair to say that Line 6 are the founding fathers of digital modelling amps. Their cutting-edge POD was released all the way back in 1998, and two decades later their formula has only improved heavily. Now boasting two flagship processor units, with the high-end Helix and more modestly-priced POD HD500X, Line 6 have catered for players of all budgets.

With our focus turned to the Helix for this article, this immense piece of gear is another all-encompassing processor that was designed with user experience in mind. Available as a rack-mountable unit like the Axe FX, one advantage that Line 6 has over Fractal is its floor-based iteration of the Helix.

Packing as much of a punch as the rackmount version, this ergonomically-designed pedalboard is a dream for gigging musicians. If you want a large selection of amp models, cabinet IRs and high-quality effects all crammed into one portable enclosure, the Helix fits the bill like a dream.

Line 6 Helix on Andertons TV:

It’s fair to say that a massive flaw with previous products similar to the Helix, is that it is easy to edit patches with the product’s accompanying computer software, but in the “heat of battle” it can take a long time to change up a sound quickly. The Helix doesn’t suffer from this potentially gig-destroying problem though, as its highly intuitive interface is very simple to navigate and make edits with.

From the capacitive touch buttons to the 6.2” colour display, not to mention the huge range of controls on the front panel, Line 6 has done everything possible to give you ultimate control over your tone. Of course, we can’t talk about this without giving a shout out to the Helix’s sensational sound quality. While the default patches may not be as strong or inspiring out-of-the-box as the Axe FX, with a bit of tweaking the quality is evident and matches up brilliantly.

Similarly powered by a pair of high-spec DSP processors, there is certainly enough punch to handle a stereo set of amps laden in effects. Trust us, this unit can cover all of the sounds you would ever need!

Who uses the Line 6 Helix?

The Line 6 Helix has become a popular product in its relatively short lifespan so far. With Dustin Kensrue (Thrice), Pete Thorn (Alicia Keys, Chris Cornell, Don Henley) and Chris Robertson (Black Stone Cherry) all using the Helix live and in the studio, it’s evident that it is a pro-standard piece of equipment.

A big perk with the Helix is its size and portability, making it easy for musicians to fly out with the unit on tour. It’s also easy to setup quickly for festival-type gigs, and less susceptible to failure with minimal cabling and routing required. This is something that a large, stompbox-loaded pedalboard is more prone to, with multiple patch cables connecting them all together.

What other Line 6 Helix modelling amps are available?

The Line 6 Helix range isn’t strictly limited to the floorboard and rack-mounted units previously described. In this next section, we’ll look at the other offerings in the Helix lineup:

Helix LT

Fractal have expanded their range with the AX8 floor unit, a scaled down version of the full-fat Axe FX. Made to compete with products such as the Helix, Line 6 has been slightly more savvy and diversified their Helix line to accommodate players with differing needs. For example, the Helix LT is a smaller and more portable version of the standard Helix, boasting all of the same amp and effect modelling technology of its bigger brother, but with less footswitches, a simplified interface and not as many inputs and outputs.

Line 6 Helix LT on Andertons TV:

Helix HX

The new for 2018 Helix HX is a recent addition to the lineup too, even smaller than the Helix LT. Purely a multi-effects unit, the Helix HX contains all of the top-quality effects from the standard Helix but without any of the amp or cab simulation technology. This makes it a fantastic unit for guitarists that don’t want to put together a big, expensive pedalboard, and of course for those who are keen to maintain their tube amp rig.

If you’re interested in finding out the difference between Line 6’s Helix products in greater detail, read our full ‘Line 6 Helix vs Helix LT vs HX Multi-Effects‘ article.

Line 6 Helix – Pros & Cons

Compared to the Axe FX and also the Kemper (coming up next), the Helix is missing a couple of extra features such as amp-matching, meaning that you are limited to only the amp models within the unit. You can obviously attempt to match your tone to a desirable sound manually, and with the large amount of amp and cab models available, you’d be able to closely imitate almost any amp tone with great conviction. Line 6 are also known for offering regular firmware updates, meaning you can expect new amp models and patches every few months.

Despite this minor flaw, the Helix is a unit that can be easily integrated into almost any rig. If you want to use the ‘four-cable method’ with your amplifier, or run it independently and straight to front-of-house, it is very easy to adapt it to any gigging or recording situation with a product as diverse as the Helix. Just don’t spill your drink on it!

What is the Kemper Profiling Amp?

The Kemper Profiling Amp is a slightly more unique beast within its class. Different from other modelling amps, the Kemper units don’t use standard digital processing, but they instead profile real tube amps through a recording setup, to ultimately get the best possible recreation of your favourite amp, cabinet and room.

Of course, you don’t need to model just your own rig, as you can download thousands of ‘profiles’ online – created by players all over the world. With a number of studio-heads having access to some of the most desirable amplifiers ever made, including Dumbles and early Marshall Plexis, many owners will sell profiles of these incredible amps for just a fraction of their multi-thousand dollar cost, accessible to all Kemper users.

Kemper Profiler Demo with Rabea Massaad:

This is a huge advantage over other units that offer modelled patches, as with the Kemper you are limited to genuine amps that actually exist, giving you the most realistic imitation of their tonal characteristics and feel. Although this means that some of the more out-there, esoteric sounds are not as achievable as with the Axe FX or Helix, the Kemper would appeal strongly to conflicted purists interested in accepting digital alternatives.

It also has a plethora of built-in effects, and although these are not the easiest to control using the unit’s front panel, the dedicated Kemper Foot Controller or any MIDI floorboard will allow you to control almost any parameter at a moment’s notice. The Kemper is not held in as high regard for its effects as the previous two contenders, but they are still more than usable and recording-worthy.

Who uses the Kemper Profiler?

Kempers, like Axe FXs, are extremely popular with touring musicians. Saving them the massive costs of shipping large amplifiers all over the world, with a Kemper, everything they need is within one unit. With a huge amount of players taking advantage of Kemper’s near-identical amp emulations, many studio producers use these amazing units too, for the sheer amount of versatility they offer.

Renowned users of the Kemper include Alex Skolnick and Eric Peterson (Testament), James “Munky” Shaffer (Korn) and Keith Merrow (Conquering Dystopia). But Kemper modelling amps are also popular with bassists for their brilliant bass amp profiles, with Billy Gould (Faith No More) and Mark Hoppus (Blink 182) taking advantage of the Profiler’s tones.

What other Kemper modelling amps are out there?

The Kemper range isn’t formed of just the standard head version however, as they also manufacture a powered version. Fitted with a 600w power amp, delivering a mighty amount of headroom, this can be run through an FRFR speaker for on-stage monitoring or through any standard guitar amp cabinet.

This is more expensive, but the powered version is even more all-encompassing than the standard model, meaning you don’t have to purchase a separate power amp for live use. Any Kemper unit, powered or non-powered, can be sent straight to front-of-house too, if you don’t want any onstage monitoring.

Kemper Profiler – Pros & Cons

There are very few downsides to the Kemper, apart from the size of the head version and the lack of a floorboard-oriented model. You do have the option of the slightly more compact rack-mountable versions, but the normal amp head is a fair amount bigger than the competition.

The inferior quality of the effects compared to the Axe FX and Helix modellers is also worthy of note, and the Kemper certainly isn’t as acclaimed for them. But if you’re someone that is keen maintain some analogue magic, the Kemper works fantastically with pedals. An effects loop allows you to run your time-based and modulation effects through the Kemper like a traditional amplifier, and of course the MIDI capabilities are an added bonus.

What is the Atomic Amplifire?

Atomic are the underdogs in this list, but their products are definitely up there with the best. Their AmpliFIRE is a very interesting unit, and the quality of its amp, cabinet and effects models are almost as good as any of the other units in this list. But, the big plus point is that their standard model only costs half as much as the next cheapest alternative!

Atomic AmpliFIRE on Andertons TV:

Using a pair of SHARC processors, the AmpliFIRE has more than enough power to provide you with all of the amp emulation, cabinet IRs and effects you need to cover practically any genre. This has just as much juice as any other unit on the market, yet it is so much more portable in comparison. You can easily mount this unit onto a pedalboard, letting you have the centrepiece of your rig literally at your feet.

With just three switches on the top, these can be used to engage any assigned built-in effect and to switch between patches. If you’re not a fan of frequent tap-dancing and require more control however, you can set up a MIDI controller to manipulate every single internal parameter, whether that be amp or effects settings and patch changes. This makes it a very modular unit, easy to take with you anywhere and to adapt to any gigging situation.

What other AmpliFIRE modelling amps are available?

In similar style to Line 6, Atomic have expanded their AmpliFIRE range with additional models, to cater for players looking for something bigger and more functional:

AmpliFIRE 12

The AmpliFIRE 12 is like the standard unit but on steroids. With a far bigger enclosure and boasting a raft of footswitches, this unit is more of a direct contender to the Helix, but again, it is available for far less money. Featuring similar ins/outs as the base model, the AmpliFire 12 also sports two expression pedal inputs, allowing you to directly control effect parameters with external pedals.

With 12 footswitches, you have the ability to engage multiple effects and easily switch between patches. Dedicated ‘bank’ footswitches let you effortlessly switch between your preset selections, meaning that you can set up patches for a particular song in your setlist and swap to other banks for different ones.

Atomic AmpliFIRE 12 on Andertons TV:

AmpliFIRE 6

Fresh from NAMM 2018, the AmpliFIRE 6 gives you the best of both worlds. Featuring 6 footswitches (hence the name), this unit is exactly the same size as the standard model, but with the 3 extra switches to let you control it far more easily. Only slightly more expensive than the original AmpliFIRE, making the jump to the 6 is definitely recommended.

Atomic AmpliFIRE – Pros & Cons

Although its ergonomic size is an amazing benefit, because of this, the standard AmpliFIRE does have a few key disadvantages. For example, editing profiles on the go can be tricky and frustrating if you just want to make a quick tweak. Having said that, the free PC/Mac software is great, and allows you to get deep and really fine-tune your tones. Its small enclosure also means that there are far less inputs and outputs, however the essentials are covered – with stereo outs, MIDI in/out, an effects loop section, stereo aux outputs, and a headphone jack for silent practice.

If you want a powerful amp and effects modelling unit that doesn’t cost an arm and leg, the standard Atomic AmpliFIRE is a no-brainer. But, Atomic have expanded their range to offer users more flexibility and options…

Conclusion

It’s clear that all 4 of these modelling amps offer a lot, and any of them would serve as an amazing option. Whatever your budget is, we’re lucky to live at a time where you can attain excellent-quality tones even from relatively inexpensive units.

Fractal Audio Axe Fx Line 6 Helix Kemper Profiler Atomic Amplifire
Pros
  • Pro grade tones.
  • Great wiring options.
  • Well respected and endorsed.
  • Intuitive to use.
  • Great sounding HX models.
  • Long history of reliability.
  • Unlimited tone opportunities.
  • Great quality profiling of your amps.
  • Powered head available.
  • Small format.
  • Great value.
  • Powerful processing with pro grade sounds.
Cons
  • Very Expensive.
  • Not many places to go if something goes wrong.
  • No amp matching.
  • Presets are not the best.
  • Head versions are quite large in comparison.
  • Not the best integration in to analogue amp rigs.
  • Not as easy to program.
  • Lack of premium features like tone matching.

The Fractal Audio Axe FX is arguably the most powerful and all-encompassing processor. With almost endless wiring options, the Axe FX is easy to integrate into practically any setup. Its professional-grade tones and incredible selection of effects justify its expensive price-tag – but that is indeed the only downside.

The Line 6 Helix units, rack-mounted and floor-based, offer the best user experience. With an easy to navigate and intuitive user interface, you can experiment with different amp models and the effects signal chain. Those tones are fantastic, however they aren’t quite as legitimate as the ones offered by the Axe FX or Kemper Profilers. The amp-matching technology is a feature that is missing from the Helix too, but it’s not a deal-breaker as there is so much variety within this powerful unit.

There’s a reason why Kemper are so loved in the guitar world. And that’s because their profiled tones are so close to their real-world counterparts, that it can be incredibly difficult to even tell them apart. Just ask Chappers and the Captain!

Kemper Profiler vs. Real Tube Amps on Andertons TV:

With near-unlimited tonal opportunities and a powered iteration of the Profiler available, this unit is made for live and studio use. The size of the head version may be an issue for those looking to downsize their rigs, and it can be difficult to integrate the Kemper into an analogue amp setup, but its sheer amount of versatility and quality is unparalleled.

Last but not least, Atomic’s AmpliFIRE processors are incredible value for money. There would be absolutely no shame in picking up one of these stellar units, as the fabulous sound of the amp models and effects are professional-grade. The main advantage of these, especially the standard model and the AmpliFIRE 6, is that they are so portable and easy to add to your rig that no one would struggle to use them. It may not be the easiest unit to programme due to its small screen, but there’s a reason why we love them so much here at Andertons Music Co!

Interested in finding out more about music gear and expanding your knowledge? View all of our Learn articles by clicking here.

What are your experiences with these amp modellers? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts!

Elliot Stent
Elliot Stent
Elliot is a digital content specialist at Andertons, a guitarist and a YouTube gear demonstrator. Having studied Music and Music Technology, his interests lie equally in both performance and production. Favouring Fender instruments and Marshall amps, Elliot is also a pedal fanatic with a large collection of effects.

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