Review: ENGL Ironball

February 25, 2014
Small tube heads are all the rage these days, with the format typically being two channels driving a pair of EL84 output tubes for about 20 watts of punch. The Ironball meets these criteria while offering a bevy of features that enhance its flexibility. Both channels share a common set of tone controls (Bass, Middle, Treble, Presence), and there are Clean Gain and Lead Gain knobs for each channel, as well as a Lead Volume and a global Master that adjusts the overall output level for both channels. A Boost switch ups the gain on both channels, while an adjacent switch selects the channels. These functions are also footswitchable, as is the reverb and another function called M.V.B., which is a preset volume boost that’s only accessible by footswitch. With all these useful functions ready to be put to use, it’s too bad that a footswitch isn’t included with the Ironball, even if it made the package a little more costly.

A standout feature of this amp is its 4-position Power Soak, which lets you set the wattage at 20 watts, 5 watts, 1 watt, or “off” for silent recording when using the balanced line out. The Ironball is quite loud when running at full clip, so being able to knock the wattage down in increments makes it possible to run the amp at high output settings to take full advantage of power tube harmonics without it being too loud for the room. Between this function and the well-implemented Master, you can easily get this amp dialed in volume-wise for whatever the situation calls for.

The Ironball is a rugged affair with a sturdy steel enclosure, a stainless-steel handle, recessed knobs, and a perforated grille that provides excellent protection for the tubes while allowing plenty of airflow around them for cooling.

Firing up the Ironball in Clean mode though a Bad Cat 4x12, the amp delivered a warm, clear tone that sounded tight and well-focused in the 20-watt mode with the Gain knob at a lower setting and the Master cranked. You can get grindier rhythm tones by turning up the Gain, with heavier crunch awaiting as the knob gets close to the maximum setting. The nicely voiced EQ made it easy to get great clean-to-crunchy rhythm sounds a with a PRS 22 and Buzz Feiten T-Pro, and there was plenty of gain on tap for tough-sounding distortion with the Feiten’s single-coils—especially with the Boost switch engaged, which slathers on more gain and makes it possible to go from a dynamically grinding rhythm sound to a stout lead tone by toggling the Boost switch on and off. The dynamic sensitivity is such that you can also control the distortion level using only the guitar’s volume control. The digital reverb has an open, airy sound and trails off in a smooth, organic manner. You can’t preset a different reverb level on each channel, but that’s a realistic concession due to the limited space for knobs.

In Lead mode the Ironball turns into a distortion machine with lots of sustain available as the Gain is rolled up. The tones are tight and aggressive, and this channel’s touch responsiveness allows you to transition from searing solo tones to lighter crunch simply by adjusting your picking or backing off on the guitar’s volume. The Lead Master provides good control of the volume level, and here’s also where a 5-watt or 1-watt Power Soak setting helps to maintain much of that girthy output-tube character while keeping the volume in check. Connected to the Eminence-loaded 1x12 cabinet, the Ironball obviously didn’t sound as big as it did through the 4x12, but it was loud enough for a smaller stage and had headroom to spare.

The Ironball makes a lot of sense for players who need a small head that can deliver a wide range of clean and overdriven tones on the bandstand and/or in a home studio environment. It scores well in the features department and lands at a fair price considering its German origin. Pack it along with a compact speaker cabinet, and you’ve got a rig that can make for a one-trip carry from the car to the club. That alone might be reason enough to give the Ironball a shot, but spend a little time exploring its tones and you may find this little amp to be a great choice even if you enjoy the luxury of having a crew to lug your gear.

 SPECIFICATIONS

MODEL Ironball

CONTACT engl-amps.com
PRICE $1,199 street

CHANNELS 2
CONTROLS Clean Gain, Lead Gain, Bass, Middle, Treble, Presence, Lead Volume, Master. Gain Boost and Lead/Clean switches, Standby and Power switches. Rear panel: Reverb Level, 4-position Power Soak switch
POWER 20 watts. Switchable to 5 watts, 1 watt, or speaker off
TUBES Two EL84 power tubes, four 12AX7 preamp tubes
EXTRAS Digital reverb. Effects loop. Headphone out. Balanced line out (1/4” TRS). 8Ω and 2x16Ω speaker outs. Reverb/ Master Volume Boost footswitch jack, Clean/Lead/ Gain-Boost footswitch jack.
SPEAKERS Tested with a Bad Cat 4x12 and a 1x12 cab loaded with an Eminence EJ1250 speaker.
WEIGHT Head 15.2 lbs
BUILT Germany
KUDOS Excellent clean and overdriven tones. Handy Power Soak function. Compact design.
CONCERNS Footswitch not included.

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