Fractal Vs Helix - 1+ Month Review

Discussion in 'Digital & Modeling Gear' started by AZG, Nov 29, 2015.

  1. AZG

    AZG Supporting Member

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    I’ve now had the Helix for over a month and thought I would give my impressions of the unit compared to my Axe-Fx II now that I’m through the honeymoon period.

    UI
    After using the Helix for a few days the novelty of the big color screen started to wear off. It is actually one of the first things I would trade for other features like Bluetooth/Wifi connectivity to a smartphone or iPad for editing and control, smaller/lighter design, lower cost, etc. Furthermore getting around the UI and doing things is not nearly as easy as hoped. The joystick controller can be rather fiddly making it easy to change settings by mistake, and moving things around can also be challenging. While there are a number of cool UI features like foot edit, overall I greatly prefer using a good computer/tablet editor like AxeEdit for general editing.

    Tone and Feel
    First impressions of the Helix were good, but the more I jump back and forth with the Axe-Fx II the more I prefer the tones I’m getting out of the Axe. As someone else recently put it, the Axe-Fx just sounds and feels right. While I think some amp models on the Helix sound good to very good, others don’t do much for me and I’ve yet to find anything on the Helix that makes me go wow like my Axe II or Mesa Boogie.


    Pros and Cons

    Fractal Pros (most apply to both Axe-Fx II and AX8):
    1. Many more amps (220+ channels)
    2. Tone and feel: IMO better and more nuanced overall, little details add up to make a more enjoyable playing experience.
    3. More cabs
    4. Loads IR's for unlimited cab options
    5. Effects: Overall I prefered the effects on the Fractal and there are many more of them to choose.
      1. Reverbs: Studio or nearly studio quality. Startlingly better than those on the Helix.
      2. Drives seem warmer and less strident to my ears.
    6. Computer Editor: AxeEdit is excellent and better than any on unit UI. I greatly prefer using it when setting up presets to bending over and using the UI on the floor or rack.
    7. Routing grid: Much more flexible and easier to use.
    8. Scenes: Every modeler should include this function. I actually find Scenes and X/Y far more useful than LCD scribble strips.
    9. X/Y amp/cab/effect switching: Again something every modeler should include.
    10. Tuner (Nearly strobe quality)
    11. Support. Bugs are fixed very quickly and Fractal is constantly improving and adding features through firmware updates. For example, In the month since I started comparing the two, Fractal has released several firmware updates that include new amp channels, delays, cabs, drives and other enhancements plus a few bug fixes. In the last year the number of enhancements is hard to count because there have been so many. Line 6 has also released several firmware updates during the same time period, but new features were much more limited as they were mostly bug fixes.
    12. Made in USA

    Fractal Cons:
    1. On unit UI is not pretty or super easy to use, but it is functional once you learn it. AX8 should definitely be easier to use with dedicated ring LED knobs and other changes.
    2. One DSP is dedicated to amp and cab modeling. If you are like me and seldom use 2 amps and cabs, 50% of one DSP often sits idle (Axe II only). It would be nice if Fractal could allow some effects to be assigned to the amp/cab DSP when not fully utilized for amps/cabs through a firmware update.
    3. No USB audio on AX8 (but it does have S/PDIF out so you can feed digital to a recording interface). Axe-Fx II has USB audio.


    Helix Pros (floor unit):
    1. On unit UI. Nicer than any other modeler I’ve owned including HD500, 11 Rack, GT-100, Kemper and Axe Fx II. But it still has some clunkiness and other usability issues.
    2. Scrible Strips: Every floor device should have them. They’re that useful.
    3. Tone and feel (best I have tried outside of Fractal and Kemper)
    4. Loads IR's for unlimited cab options
    5. Foot edit mode: Another feature every modeler should include.
    6. Delays: Not as many options as Fractal, but they sound really good and a few of them are different and fun to play.
    7. Effects: while limited in number, many of them sound good with delays being a highlight IMO.
    8. More simultaneous amps and effects compared to AX8, but generally not Axe II.
    9. USB audio.
    10. Amp relay switch for use with real amp.
    11. Lots of in and outs including two separate paths and mic input.
    12. Built in expression pedal
    13. Variax input

    Helix Cons:
    1. Tuner (big and pretty but not as accurate)
    2. Very limited number of amp models, and some don’t sound very good to me.
    3. Limited number of cab models, and again some don’t sound very good to me.
    4. On unit UI is not nearly as easy or intuitive to use as a good computer editor. Moving things around, particularly when there is no open space or between paths, and some other functions seem very clunky.
    5. Reverbs: most modelers out including my lowly Zoom G3 have as good or nearly as good reverbs. Particleverb is possibly an exception since many devices don’t include a similar reverb.
    6. Rather large and heavy for a floor unit
    7. Joystick knob can be fiddly. Sometimes when trying to move an item I accidentally twist it changing something I did not intend. No undo makes this even more annoying.
    8. No kick bar to protect knobs. If not from damage, accidental changes from an errant toe.
    9. Made in China (this is not a comment on the quality of goods out of China, but a statement of my preference to support workers in countries that have better trade, labor, economic, currency and environmental protection laws and standards)
    10. Over packaged. Box inside a sleeve inside a box that the music store put inside of another box (like Russian nesting dolls), seems like a lot of waste. A plain brown box is more than adequate, maybe a color graphic sleeve for display in stores.

    After one plus month of testing the Helix (firmware v1.04.1) next to my Fractal Axe-Fx II (firmware Quantum v1.05) and Mesa Boogie I have come to a few conclusions. The Helix sometimes (depending on amp model) sounds and feels almost as good as the Fractal and Kemper. But to me the Fractal still wins, sometimes by large margins, especially at being more amp like and inspiring to play. The user interface on the Helix is the best i’ve seen on a unit, but it is still somewhat clunky and at times frustrating to use compared to a good computer based editor. The novelty of the big color screen quickly wore off for me, but the scribble strips are awesome and some other functionality like foot edit mode is really nice. There are lots of things to like about the Helix, but with Fractal offering the AX8 at a similar price I find it hard to recommend the Helix unless you really need some of its unique features. If quality and quantity of amps, cabs, effects, routing and support are your top priorities I highly suggest getting the AX8 or Axe-FX II. Or better yet try them both for an extended period of time and make your own decision. Personally, I returned the Helix since I’m now sure the AX8 will be a better fit for my want of a great sounding and feeling but smaller and more portable rig. Hopefully others find my quick review helpful.
     
    Last edited: Dec 9, 2015
  2. mikah912

    mikah912 Member

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    Nice review, but just curious why you listed "Limited number of cab models" as a con on Helix? It's fully expandable to allow you to add lots of IRs running at full resolution.

    Otherwise, sounds like you gave it a fair shake and it didn't work for you. Thanks for the detailed recount of your experience.

    I think a lot of it comes down to Line 6 starting from scratch whereas Fractal has been iterating for many, many years. Hard hurdle to leap.....
     
  3. AZG

    AZG Supporting Member

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    Out of the box Helix has a "Limited number of cabs" compared to Fractal out of the box. Both can load 3rd party IR's, but Fractal has an advantage there also because most Fractal IR's are proprietary (UltraRes) and can not be used on other modelers. I updated my review so this is now listed as a "pro" for both.
     
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2015
  4. tochiro

    tochiro Member

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    Why is it a pro that IRs cannot be used on other modelers?
     
  5. AZG

    AZG Supporting Member

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    Not sure I understand the question? Fractal produces a lot of good IR Cab packs in UltraRes format that can only be used on Fractal equipment. Fractal units can use most IR's in any format, Helix can not.
     
  6. aruark1

    aruark1 Member

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    Thanks for the detailed opinions! Hope you enjoy your inevitable AX8!
     
  7. ejecta

    ejecta Member

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    Thanks for the detailed review. I've got a Helix and on the list for the Axe8 so I'll see for myself what works for me in my rig. For me personally though.... having a ton of options with amps and cabs haven't been always been what I'd mark as a pro. I've had Fractal, Avid, Kemper, and Line 6 products with varying degrees of the amount of stuff you get right out if the box. Sometimes I liked the units more that were limited in that area.
     
  8. nicolasrivera

    nicolasrivera Gold Supporting Member

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    Nice comparison.

    The dedication and comitment to achieve greatness and perfection from the Fractal team translates to what many of us Fractal users have been enjoying since we got our units and we are still getting more great tones with each firmware.
     
    prinspatrick and dealmaker like this.
  9. AZG

    AZG Supporting Member

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    Not sure I understand this opinion. On the Fractal you can limit yourself to only using 10 amp models and 10 cabs if you want. But for me some of my favorite amps models on the Axe II are not the standard bread and butter models the come on both the Helix and Axe.
     
    Elric and CubanB like this.
  10. Pedal Dan

    Pedal Dan The Island of Misfit Pedals Gold Supporting Member

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    I think the Helix has the most going for it at it's price point.

    The tuner works great for me... It is a guitar after all.

    And what does "Made in USA" really mean? 10%? BTW, I don't see that on any of the AX8 pics.

    Anyway, as others have said, the Helix is new.

    Hopefully there will be more stuff added in updates.
     
  11. ejecta

    ejecta Member

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    I'll try and clarify.... in my experience with some of those units with a ton of amps a good portion of them just started feeling and sounding a lot alike. So for me more was just more of the same or very similar. So when I look at possibly buying a unit like that... the fact it has more amps and cabs than other offerings isn't something I put a lot of weight in. That said I agreed with some of what you posted about the Helix as well.
     
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2015
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  12. nicolasrivera

    nicolasrivera Gold Supporting Member

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    Yes, Fractal has many many years of experience developing the Axe FX II platform, Helix has a bright future ahead, lets give it some years to fully mature and give the user base some firmware love like we get.
     
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  13. Pedal Dan

    Pedal Dan The Island of Misfit Pedals Gold Supporting Member

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    We?
     
  14. nicolasrivera

    nicolasrivera Gold Supporting Member

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    We as in all fractal owners get firmware love for free!
     
  15. AZG

    AZG Supporting Member

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    I agree that many models sound similar and it takes time to figure out each model. But I prefer having more options and often find my favorite models are not the standards. Similar to the standards they are based off of, but enough different that I prefer them.
     
  16. Pedal Dan

    Pedal Dan The Island of Misfit Pedals Gold Supporting Member

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    Well... I might buy one down the road.

    Will I be one of "them"? 8^}
     
  17. AZG

    AZG Supporting Member

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    I would suggest not buying something "hoping" it will get better with time. Ask POD HD owners how well that worked out for them. As purchased today the Fractal units come with a lot more good stuff IMO.

    Fractal has said the AX8 is being made in the USA.
     
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  18. Pedal Dan

    Pedal Dan The Island of Misfit Pedals Gold Supporting Member

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    I like it now.

    But they've already had an update with additions.

    I've been looking into the AX-II, doesn't it cost over $1000 more with the foot controller?
     
  19. ejecta

    ejecta Member

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    If that were true then I'm not sure buying any digital modeling unit would be a wise choice. Heck even Fractal has been through countless firmware versions and in the last few years even new hardware that were championed as making it "better" with every version.
     
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2015
  20. tochiro

    tochiro Member

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    Is there a sonic comparison of the 2 somewhere?
     

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