Kemper Profiling Amp and Axe FX II XL+, an objective comparison For those that just want to just cut to the chase, and not wade through how I got to the conclusions I did, skip to The Bottom Line Which do I Get?. Below is a bit of a read, but it does explain how I get to my opinions and conclusions. Preface Since I have both of the premier digital amp platforms, I thought I would give an objective comparison of the two. I dont mean to sleight the Helix, Atomic or Bias products. But, most people consider the Kemper Profiling Amp and the Axe FX II XL+, the top of the heap. Many are also in a qundry as to which they should purchase over the other. This wont be a complete comparison of every feature and spec. If you want that, go and pull down their respective spec sheets, get a few beers and have at it. No, this will be more from an average players use standpoint (and boy am I average at best). I hope, also, that this will provide help to those that are undecided as to which to purchase. Intro To start, I want to talk about why I went to this technology, for my guitar amplification needs. It is relevant, in case youre saying to yourself, or out loud, what the F does this have to do with anything. Knowing why I went to digital, gives some perspective into what I was and am looking for from the technology. Over the last 5 or 6 years, I have owned 6 Modelers, 1 SS, 1 hybrid , 18-20 tube amps and somewhere past 40 pedals over that span. I dont begrudge any of it. I had a good time buying and selling and playing that gear. It is obvious though, that something was always missing. It was also a lot of money lost buying new, selling used. I also finally realized that I could see no end in that process for me. With one son in college, and another about to start H.S, I thought it prudent to understand the WHY to the buy, try and sell cycle. I came to realize that some of it is I do like to hack through different styles of music. I like to play a little blues, a little surf, punk, classic rock, older metal, etc. I also, like many, was constantly seeking that tone(s) in my head as well as from the music Ive loved. One important NEED of MY tone-seeking, was getting that sound at home volumes. This, I knew was a major need for me. I wanted that note bloom, feel and response cranked of some amps when cranked. There is also a part of me that likes to tweak and tone shape, and fiddle. There is also a part of me that likes to find a new tone, and see where it takes me musically. I also, certainly wanted the responsiveness, feel that I thought only a tube amp could bring. I tried a lot of tube amps. Towards the end, I specialized in sounds great at low volume amps as well. In fact until the Kemper, that was all I had. I tried several attenuators. However, I realized that I never FULLY hit all of those marks I wanted above, let alone hit all of them. GAS was a regular thing because of that inability to fully check off all those areas; great tone at all volumes, great response and feeling, a myriad of tones, ability to try new tones and directions. Modelers would seem the obvious answer. I tied a few. There were Amplugs, software plugins, BOSS JS, to Peavey Vypers, to Pod XTs to other older, lower end kits. They all were lacking in at least one way, some even, in too many ways. The tone wasnt good enough, or the feel, or dynamics, or response, or the sub harmonics, or several of those. I kept trying, while still going through tube amps. However, I always knew I was playing something not real. Even the Blackstar ID TVP, which was one of the best, only came darn close. It may even have been close enough for government work. My premier amp in a box pedals via a Two Notes Torpedo C.A.B. IR machine was pretty good as well, but still didnt quite do it. Point of fact, there were tube amps after I got both those. So, that tone seek GAS marched on. But, even then, I still knew this tech was the future, at least for my needs and wants. It just needed to get there where the rubber meets the road, in tone and feel. The technology HAD improved. I missed it, or, like many didnt listen to those that knew it had. In fact, I personally think it has hit the point finally, where the top end gear provides everything a tube amp does (and more). We are/will starting/start to see that quality get cheaper and cheaper soon. The Axe and the Kemper To start, and to state it simply, both of these amps are as good sounding, feeling, responding, playing and reacting as any of those tube amps I have had or played. Yes, that day has finally come. Either of them solves all of those needs I mentioned above. Once I had decided to take the plunge, I had planned on getting both in a two phase approach, with the Kemper being first. Although they are the same kind of solution, they do bring different things to the table. Aspects of each fits me and my predilections better than the other, and vice versa. Both the Kemper and Axe sound great, using actual Guitar Cabs, and disabling their CAB simulation variants. However, in my humble opinion, you are handicapping the technology that way. For heavy live playing, I can see the attraction to that. But, for me, using amplification with FRFR speaker solutions is the way to go. Without it, you cant have all those many speaker options. You drastically reduce the technologys versatility. So, the following opinions are based on a FRFR rig. I use both the Kemper and the Axe through FRFR 8 monitors, as well as through a Matrix GT1000FX, SS mosfet FRFR amp and Atomic CLR passive Cab. Amp Tone First off, both of these sound real. I am certain people in a blind test with tube amps, could never identify which was a tube amp, and which wasnt. They sound that good. They both sound as good as the actual amps they are modeling/profiling, even if, in some cases, that isnt 100% exact. In reality, in my humble opinion, in some cases, they actually sound better than the actual amp. All of the harmonics and sub harmonics are there. All of the issues in older modeling tech of missing harmonics, digital artifacts, harshness, thinness are just not there. There are tons of vids out there as testament and proof to these facts. Believe them, and believe your ears. Close your eyes, and you would never tell your not playing a tube amp. So, the $20,000 question is at hand. Which sounds the closest to the actual amp it is intending to be? I will say the Kemper beats the axe in this regard, as a general rule. The difference, with the latest Axe Firmware Quantum 7.* is very, very small. The gap was a little bigger with Quantum 6.*., and that mostly in the breadth and complexity of the tone. But, Quantum 7 firmware has really narrowed that gap. I CAN tweak the Axe preset to be pretty damn close to exactly the same. BUT, in some cases, this is actually an advantage of the Axe. It may not sound EXACTLY like the real amp, but I like its tone more than the real amp, or the Kempers profile, in some cases. There is a couple of areas, that the Kemper is NOT more accurate, however. The Axe Amp models seek to recreate the Amps circuitry so exactly, that if that amp has hiss at certain settings, the model will as well. Kemper profiles are hiss-less. It is actually a nice side-effect of the profiling process, but it isnt as accurate to the real amp that way. Additionally, that Axe Amp Model will model the amps actual eq stack, and how it interacts with the amp. The Kemper doesnt really have that. See Profiles Vs Models for detail. If I had to pick, overall, just on the amp sounds/tones between the two, I would pick the Kemper. The Kemper Rigs have a little more fullness/complexity/sweetness to their distortion tones, generally speaking. AGAIN, that can be tweaked in the Axe to get back, PARTICULARLY after the latest Firmware version 7 (still beta). But, there is still a little something on the distortion, that I like on the Kemper a little better. That said, I can see how some people, would actually pick the other way. Heck, there are days, when I prefer the Axe tone better. Other days, I prefer the Kemper. Overall, however, the Kemper has a few more of those days than the Axe. I will say, I have rarely tweaked GOOD profiles on the Kemper, except for the Amps Volume setting (to match the majority of the others I have). I havent done a lot on the Axe either, but I have tweaked presets a little more. They are really close, though. And, they are both really stellar sounding. Just the other night, after doing the Axe Firmware upgrade, I was flipping between the Axe and the Kemper, both on Friedman Dirty Shirley setting. Either was just glorious, even if slightly different. And ultimately, both sound as good as any tube amp I have ever had (better really for use at home). Feel, Dynamics, Responsiveness and Touch Response This is where Modelers failed the most in the past, in my humble opinion. Well, this and sub harmonics. Neither of these platforms fail in these areas now. Both, have everything you would want from an amp in this regard; Pinch harmonics, feedback in front of the speaker, responding to pick attack as you would expect a tube amp to do. You name it, and both of these will feel to you, like you are playing a tube amp. For real amps I have actually played, the Kemper or Axe corresponding profile or model, seem spot on to the same feel. From that, I make the same assumption, thats the case for all their profiles and models. In fact, both of these amps can actually do better than the real amps in this category, in my opinion. You can actually dial-in better pick speed response and reaction in the profile or model than the real amp has. Now, one reason I think these can feel better than tube amps for many of us is they can be a cranked amp, at home volumes. You can get all that cranked amp feel, note bloom, sustain, etc. For many of us, we just never get that at home, because we never got our tube amps humming due to volume restrictions. That is NOT a problem with either of these amps. With the Kemper and Axe, you can get that at low (and I mean low) volumes. So, to me, thats also better than the real even if you have accurate settings in this regard. At the 6.x Quantum Axe Firmware level, honestly, I think the Axe was a little behind the Kemper in this category. BUT, the new firmware level, 7.0 (beta 2) went after this specific area. That isnt to say it wasnt great before. The Kemper, improved from its 3.x to 4.x in this category last year as well, to other worldly status and pulled a little ahead. Axe quantum 7 just closed that gap back up. And, I am talking some small differences to begin with. They do differ inother respects. A lot of Axe presets, OOB, stock or purchased, feel a little tighter in general, than the Kemper equivalents. Once, again, and this theme is common, I can tweak either (now) to have the same feel like the other. I notice this on dirty tones more. I actually think an explanation for this is that a lot of the presets arent setup with the amp cooking. However, most Kemper profiles were done with the amp at a sweet spot, and thus are. It is easy to tweak the output saturation on the Axe preset. And again, this is less there for many presets, post Quantum 7 (i.e. already tweaked). Kemper profiles, more often, have a more pronounced dynamic volume range, as it relates to picking strength and velocities. This is more noticed on clean rigs. In this regard, I think some might like the un-tweaked Axe presets better than the un-tweaked Kemper Rigs. Others might like the Kemper better in this respect. Overall, If I HAD to pick one over the other in this category, I would give the Kemper a very slight edge here. BUT, I also think it is something that is very subjective and depends on the player. I will say, I enjoy playing either just as much as the other and would be happy with either. Effects and Stomps Whereas Fractal was closing a gap in Amp realness with their latest Firmware upgrade(s), the Kemper has been trying to close a gap in the FX area. Their last 5.x firmware upgrades have done that in some ways. It introduced new delays and improved existing. The new Delays are as good as anything out there in my humble opinion. Axe was already there on Delays. Kemper has some world class harmonizer and pitch shifting fx due to its formant controls. Axe is close, but this is one effect I think the Kemper is a little better. After that, the Axe is just better. The Kemper Reverbs and Choruses are useable. They match most amps with built in versions of these out there. But, the Axes are top quality. Additionally, the Axe has more versions of each. Lastly, the Kempers FX have your typical pedal like controls. The Axe, has those and some serious deep dive tweaks as well. When it comes to OD and distortion stomp boxes, well The Axe is just better. The axe has more pedals, and they are very accurate to the real thing. The Kempers are useable, for the most part, but the Axes are just great. Additionally, with the complete control of the signal path you have (more below), and the massive amounts of parameters you have to tweak on each pedal, you can create other pedals not already modeled. NOW, I will say, that on the Kemper, I find myself tweaking the Amp profile to what the pedal WOULD have done to it, instead of the onboard dirt/boost pedals. That, and using Rigs where the Amp was profiled with a pedal, is really a better option. The biggest difference though is how one can use the FX in the signal chain. The Kemper allows for your basic physical amp type chain. You can put up to 4 effects pre amp stack, another 4 in the virtual loop (though only one of those can you choose WHT kind of effect it is). You can also use a physical loop for whatever you want. The Axe, however really is only limited by CPU capacity and your imagination as to how to do your signal chain, in what orders, branches of the chain, numbers of effects etc. This is an extremely powerful tool. The second biggest difference is the amount of parameters you can tweak for an individual effect is much more on the Axe. Like an amp, it models tha complete circuit of the pedal. As such, you can tweak all manner of things, including component values. Axe also has a few more other FX as well. Compare the manuals on those. I think the Kemper has one or two the Axe doesnt have. But, the Axe has more in this regard. Profiles Vs Models Both of these are actually very similar in many respects. They both tell the DSP and circuitry how to recreate the particular amps tone, feel, reaction, etc. They are just created differently, and as such also have a different viewpoint. First I will go through some nomenclature. Kemper uses Rigs. A Rig is a complete rig, of Amp profile, Cab Profile or IR, and effects. Axe uses Presets, which is the same concept, amp model(s) and effects. Kemper can group Rigs into Performances, and the Axe can group Presets into Scenes. A Model of an amp, as the Axe uses, is created by programmers. In this case, they are created by Fractal. The model, models, or duplicates digitally, the entire circuitry of the amp, its tubes, etc. If it is a pedal, then it models that pedals circuitry. It is this approach that provides all those parameters that can be tweaked. It also means, for the most part that if you adjust the gain and the EQ of the amp model, it responds just how the amp it models would. This is an important distinction over Kemper profiles, as we will soon see. A Kemper profile is taken from an amp, with the amp dialed in a certain way. This is generally with the amp dialed in for a particular sweet spot, or ideal setting, for humbuckers, or single coils, or P90s etc. As such, it captures some things as they are, at the time of the profile. For instance, it captures how the EQ, Gain etc interact AT the setting used when profiled. A generic EQ stack is then added to the profile. However, it wont be a reproduction of that particular amps eq, or exactly how that amps controls all interact. For some amps, its actually better EQ, in my opinion, though not exactly accurate. The profiling process DOES capture how the amp responds to gain changes, volume changes, input signal changes etc. This results in accurate to the original amp response of the gain, volume knobs. This IS a deficiency in the profiling process, if one had just the one profile, and had to make radical changes of EQ. Overall, a particular profile responds on the complete sweeps of each EQ control like a real amp, just not exactly like that particular real amp. Kemper has said they have been working on adding via firmware a set of different, accurate to the amp, amp EQ stacks. I.E. you can add a Mesa stack on a mesa profile, and have it act like a mesas EQ stack. But, it isnt here yet. What many pro profilers do, and anyone can do, is take multiple profiles of the amp at different settings. In reality, we dont usually use the full sweep of our Amps settings all that often. We dial in an amp a certain way for the kind of music we play. We mayl tweak the amps EQ a little from that for a different locations, or different guitars. A single profile works perfectly fine like this. And most provide profiles set for sweet spot settings for SC at different gain levels, HB, same, etc. Most also, and anyone can, create multiple profiles at different EQ settings as well. These can then be placed in groups of Performances (groups of Rigs). Then in Performance mode, you can switch between those rigs. Signal Chain As already mentioned, the Kemper has a limited ability to adjust the signal chain. You have 4 spots for FX before the amp, 4 spots that are essentially the virtual FX loop. However those latter 4 spots are 1 that you have ability to choose, but the other three are Delay, Chorus and Reverb. There is also a Dedicated EQ in the Stack (amp and Cab) section, as well as individual EQ settings on the Amp and Cab portions. There is also a Parallel mode that allows you to split 2 of those pre amp section slots into a parallel signal that bypasses the Stack section and loop effects. But, the Axe is as flexible, complex and with as many effects as you want, to the limit of CPU capacity. As such, you can get some serious signal paths. Among many things, you can dual amp. Okay, there are limits on number of parallel paths. But, for most of us, it can handle anything we want, assuming the CPU can. In this area, it isnt even close between the two. I will caveat that though. The Kemper takes a different approach. The Kemper aims at simulating the analog amp in a way most use one. In a typical analog rig, you would click on a few pedals before the amp, a few in the loop and play. This is, basically what is represented on the front panel with buttons for each pre amp spot, the loop effects has its own after the amp block buttons. But, this does mean some basic Rigs. Some players might like the simplistic Kemper approach above. Others will want the complete control you have on the Axe. Front Panel Some will argue with my opinion here. The Kempers front interface is very logical, and easy to use. Although a software editor WOULD be nice, it really isnt necessary in my mind for most uses. It is really straight forward and logical. In most cases, day to day, you will select a rig (Amp+cab+FX) by twisting a knob, then using the designated buttons to turn on, or off various effects. There are knobs to adjust the usual amp settings, gain, base, mid, treble, presence, volume and master volume. If you need to tweak an FX, or the deeper amp parameters, hold the appropriate button in for the amp, or particular FX, or the Output section, etc. This puts the page(s) for tweaking that item on the screen. The buttons around the screen now adjust parameters on the pedal (usually like the actual pedal would have, or amps deeper parameters like definition, sag, bias, etc. Some, like Output and Amp have several pages of parameters, there is a next button to slide through them. All in all, it is very intuitive to use. Most will be using it without ever reading a manual, and be proficient within an hour. The Axe, on the other hand needs Axe Edit in my opinion. Using the front panel to navigate on the Axe is a chore and a half. I am still fairly lost using it. In fact, I havent bothered to learn it and gave up on learning it (for now), because, well Axe Edit is just that good. Software Interfaces Because of the Kempers front interface (see Front Panel), and lesser number of tweaks, they never developed an Editor. What Kemper has is Rig Manager. This is a way to copy, upload, try and organize your Rigs. By default, it has Local, Your Profiler (what is currently loaded in the Profiler) and Rig Exchange areas for Rigs and an Area to organize and build, then upload Performances. Performances are a selection of 5 Rigs, handy for live use. You can create sub folders in local folder. The new (still beta) 2.0 RM has added the Rig Packs, from Kemper. One, of the best features of Rig Manager is the try, or audition. Double click on any rig, in your local folder(s), Rig Exchange, or even profilers active, and it is loaded active in the profiler without any delay. You can then try it out. If you like it, then right click and upload to your Kemper. You can also drag and drop between folders. Axe Edit is arguably the best editor of its kind out there. It is very simple and intuitive to use. The only time I used help or manual with it was when I first wanted to load in outside CAB IRs. It is relatively simple to use. Preset is shown at the top with the signal path and each piece is a separate block. Want to turn off an effect double click on it. Want to tweak anything, click on its block and the tabbed pages of all its parameters are below. Want to change the effect, stomp, amp, cab etc? Use the selection list pop ups from those panels. Creating a preset from scratch is a no brainer too. It is very simple to do with the top part of the display. Other Features of Note A powerful feature of the Kemper is the Morph feature. This is often used with an expression pedal. One simple use, is you take a Rig at one state, say little gain, set that to pedal full up, then the Rig in state 2, gain cranked, at full down. Now THAT expression pedal can be used to increase and lower the gain setting on the amp in the Rig. But, it can be multiple settings. It could be the gain, sag, EQ, etc. that change as you press the pedal down or up. Thus you could use it to have an amp at the edge of breakup to full cranked, with EQ adjustments as well. Thats very powerful stuff. Kemper now has Merged Profiles. These are profiles designed to have both a DI profile, i.e. with no CAB sim, and Studio (with CAB) in the same profile. These can be used to run one output from the cab to FOH with CAB sim et al, and another to a backline Guitar cab (no cab). Axe has a feature called Tone Match. This feature allows you to take a preset (one close to what you want) and an outside reference (another amp, a recording or some other device) and then tone match the preset to that reference. It analyzes the difference of the EQ frequency plots of the two and creates a CAB module to use with that preset. Axe also has an IR Capture facility. With a Mic, Mic preamp and a linear power amp, you can create your own speaker/CAB IRs. The Axe also has a built in Audio Interface. Personally, I would rather use EITHER units S/PDIF outputs into a top notch Audio interface. Taking Pedals Both take pedals as good as any amp I have ever tried. More to the point, they take them just like the amp they are simulating (as compared to amps I have tried). Firmware Support I wont comment on Hardware support, as I have no personal experience on either (and hope I never do). I have watched both upgrade their firmware though in the relatively short time periods I have had both. Both companies seem committed to constantly making their products better via firmware upgrades. I have seen both make the product a lot better with firmware. Remote Pedal/Controllers I only have the Kemper one. Ive seen an Axe one, but have no practical experience. Both are built to last forever and suffer the worst gigging rigors. Both have the ability to add 2 switches and 4 Expression pedals, or 6 switches, or 3 switches and 3 expression pedals, etc to the main units existing 2. Both will allow you to switch presets, rigs, and performances and turn FX on and off. The Kemper one is the ONLY way you can use the Kemper Looper. They look different because of the set number of FX you can use at a time on the Kemper, compared to the Axes potential many more. Things I Wish They Each Had Kemper - An editor. This seems to be the biggest want for most. Axe Preferably a midi controller add on, that had knobs that would control the Volume, EQ, Gain, Master Volume etc., usual Amp controls. If not that, an Axe Edit light that provides just those knobs. Sometimes I just want to play, and adjust the amp like an amp. The Bottom Line Which do I Get? Hopefully you read all of the above. If you have, I hope it laid the groundwork in your mind already as to which is a better fit for how you work and play. Because, ultimately, that is how I see it as to which one someone should get. One of these will fit you better than the other as far as how you interface with it and what you want out of it. Both, will give you top notch amp feel, tone and playability as good as any conventional amp out there. Both will give you any amp youll likely ever desire. Both will give you cranked amp tones, well any amp tones, at any volume. Both will give you great tone in Headphones. Both will give you the best Clean tone (as you define it), crunch, driven, pushed, distorted, you name it. Both, will make you want to play more, and will MAKE you play better (it is amazing how a super responsive amp can teach you better technique). Both, in my humble opinion, will be the best gear purchase you ever made. They just get there in different ways, that frankly suit different people better. Gee, Cyber, that doesnt really help me decide, dude. Okay, fine then. If you insist. IF You Prefer a straight forward interface, and just want a very simple to use, bevy of great guitar amp tones and response that you wont be able to tell from the real thing, enough effects to get the job done, just need enough tweaks to make the presets/profiles sound and feel exactly how you want, willing to give up 100% accurate complete controls reaction for the best overall amp tone, AND/OR have conventional amps you want to capture and leave at home, then get the Kemper. If You Prefer a lot of FX, complete control over the signal chain, ability to create a preset from the ground up, create a unique model or almost any tone, ability to tweak just about every aspect of the virtual amps/pedals circuits, want to create your own IRs, be able to tone match from songs and clips, want an editor, want amps that sound and feel as real as it gets, are willing to give up a TINY bit of amp tone for completely accurate control action on a single preset, OR you need multiple signal paths, then get the Axe. If you Want the best of both worlds, and the ability to just have the best amp tones and playing, bar none, with an endless supply of the best amp tones, then get both like I did. Working Together 1. Run the Kemper in the Axes loop, and: a. Use Kemper Amp profiles as amp blocks in Axe, and all the Axes FX and signal path control b. Use Axe FX, signal path AND IRs with Kemper amps. c. Use Kemper Amps to dual or multi amp with Axe Amp blocks. d. Use Kemper Effects (they have a few that cant be Duped on Axe, along with all the above. e. Use the Axes audio interface with the Kemper. 2. Run the Axe in the Kempers loop as a multifx unit. Run them in tandem via a Mixer.