Last modification: 01/19/08 19:26

Dallas' Gear Review
ENGL 530 "Modern Rock" Twin-Tube Rack Preamp

(click pics to enlarge)

Product: ENGL Tube Preamp 530
Price Paid: USD 430 (used, $600 street)

Ease of Use : 8
Pretty straightforward - the front panel is just like an amp, while the back panel makes some concessions to record and line-mixing uses. That said, the unit has some unusual bits that add to its versatility, such as stereo FX returns, separate stereo frequency-compensated outs (which are always active - even in Preamp Defeat mode), and an optionally frequency-compensated headphone out with enough power (1.5W/channel into 4ohms) to possibly mic an iso cab with. The manual is excellent, packed with tips and a very usable signal flow diagram. Best of all, the power-supply is built in so there's no wall wart to mess with and the pair of 12AX7's run off a native high-voltage supply, just like a real amp.

Sound Quality : 8
While the ENGL is a two-channel preamp, both the clean and crunch channels bring an extra tube stage to bear when the "Gain Lo/Hi" button is depressed. Additionally, the clean channel has a treble-boost ("Bright") button dedicated to it, while the Crunch channel has "Contour" (very large midrange boost) and "Lead" (yet another tube stage) buttons. While ENGL recommends engaging the Contour switch for solos, when recording I often found myself going back and forth trying to nail a happy medium between on and off. The 530 is clearly a preamp designed for metal, with the Clean channel being kind of midrangey (even with the cab emu off) and non-sparkly. The Crunch channel is where the unit shines - it's got the best and tightest chunk of all the amps & pedals I've used to date, with way more gain than anyone is likely to need. Compression-wise it's only modest, more like a real tube head than a low-threshold, infinite-sustain (Line 6 "Insane") type of amp. This is designed to make the rhythms pop out with definition - but if you want to get some real squeeze for soloing I recommend sticking a pedal like the Xotic BB Overdrive in front. In fact, that's what seemed to work best for leads - once the unit's been set up for rhythm, kick on the Hi Gain switch, stomp on the overdrive (just a touch) and let rip. For crunchy rhythms, I prefer using an overdrive with less squeeze to preserve definition, in my case being the Tube Zone overdrive (review here) set to very gentle levels. Like most good tube amps, conditioning the guitar signal a bit before hitting the amp yields maximum amount of thickness and consistency - it only takes a bit!

Then ENGL's built-in cab emulation exhibits the typical "men's hat" response curve (see impulse response here or try it out w/Waves Q-Clone here), with resonant peaks @ 355Hz & 2700Hz, with ~9dB cut at 1KHz. The rolloff above 2700Hz is about -12dB/octave, and below 300Hz itís about -3dB/octave - fairly gentle as these things go. While this is fine for monitoring purposes, you can do better at mix time with the help of convolution or amp modeling software designed expressly for this task.

The ENGL 530 is not quite True Bypass when using the line outs, as clicking the "Preamp Defeat" button still runs the input guitar signal through the line amp/headphone amp buffering and optional cab emulator circuitry. This adds extra versatility to the unit, but interferes with reamping slightly as the signal level rises 4-9dB when engaged in this mode. Also - should you actually try to drive a real cabinet using the Headphone Out, (yes, you can do this...) the manual recommends using a stereo cable in order to avoid shorting one of the output channels. Ouch!

For recording & reamping purposes, setting the back-panel Line Level to max, the Clean Volume to ~3.5 and the Lead Channel Volume to ~7.5 is a sensible starting point for gain-staging, particularly when recording from the unit's louder uncompensated line outs. On the ENGLís clean channel, the closest I could come to approximating a not-so-flat EQ (as measured on the lab bench) was B=2,M=full,T=1, Bright Off (Gain Lo) or B=3,M=6,T=min, Bright On (Gain Hi.)  [ Note: When using with Preamp Defeat ON, set the back panel Line Level to min. ]

Reliability : 10
This would be a pretty tough unit to break. The only problem I could imagine might be if you were to break the tip off a cable in the back, as the jacks are pretty snug.

Warranty (unverified) : 1 year on unit, 90 days on tubes

Customer Support : N/A
I've never had to deal with ENGL personally for any reason at all.

Overall Rating : 8

It's surprising that the ENGL530 doesn't have more competition. On the plus side, it's a well-designed product made by a brand-name amp company that carries great cachet with metalheads retailing for just a fraction of ENGL's MIDI-controlled products - but where are the others? It seems like everyone making a tube preamp these days is putting them into (mostly single-tube) pedals selling in the $150-$400 range rather than building rack preamps. In fact, the only other product that comes to mind right now in a similar price range is AMT's  SS-10 ($650 street - translated link) which is currently available only by special order direct. So do I like it - heck yes! But is it that much better than a well-designed pedal like the AMT SS-20? (review here.)  It's like comparing apples vs. oranges - I have to say the ENGL's chunk is more defined and "woodier" than the AMT pedal, but not by a huge amount - just as the AMT pedal's glassy clean tones and squeezed leads give it a bit of an edge when used without an overdrive pedal. It's worth noting that while the 530 is not MIDI-controllable by itself, ENGL does make a MIDI footswitch controller (the Z-11) that is compatible with this unit. Footswitch-controllable features include the Channel, Contour, Gain and Preamp Defeat options, which also override the front-panel buttons.


ENGL 530 Tube Preamp / Overdrive Mix Demonstration
Full Mix
Rhythm Guitar Backing (lo gain, w/Tube Zone Overdrive)
Lead Guitar Backing (hi-gain, w/BB Plus Overdrive)
Guitar Solo Example (cab emu off, reamped using vintage Marshall impulse)

fig. 3 Back cover removed (look at all that air - and all those relays! (click for detail)


Versatile I/O combinations make it useful for live rack as well as recording use
Crunch tones to die for, and responds well to overdrive pedals
Easy to use, with plus for stereo returns and headphone outs
Quiet, even at highest levels of gain
A bargain by ENGL standards (but c'mon - how expensive is this to build?)


Not MIDI controllable - but given that, you'd think footswitches would be included
Could use a separate mono power amp out for reamping purposes
Clean channel could be voiced better
"Contour" button would benefit from being a variable knob

Wish List:

+4 dBu Balanced Outputs
Footswitch pedals (these are currently optional)
More robust Stereo Headphone output to make power-amp reamping less of an afterthought
Additional Line Out trim for use in Preamp Defeat mode

Personal Observations: 

You can read the ENGL 530 documentation here (PDF), and the schematics here (PDF). (Note: The "Contour" circuit appears to be missing - thanks to Tom Schnater for providing a reverse-engineered schematic, which you can find here. Note how the Hi Mid & Lo Mid controls are affected when contour select relay RE6 kicks in.)

Note from the documentation that while Tube V1 (Input & Lead stages) is "First Quality" (for low noise & microphonics), while Tube V2 (Hi Gain Boost & Output stages) is merely "Selected" (for microphonics). The former also happen to cost 10 Euros more here.


Dallas' Gear Rating : (out of 5)

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