While the über-high-gain Fireball, Powerball, Screamer, and Thunder models forged German amp maker ENGL’s reputation for thumping high-gain excellence, the Retro Tube 50 promises to jump these bounds a bit by providing what ENGL calls a “journey into vintage soundscapes.” However, the name doesn’t really do this versatile tube head justice. Sure it can deliver pristine cleans reminiscent of big “blackface” tones and JTM45-flavored crunch, but the Retro 50 is perhaps most enticing when flexing its muscles in JCM800-overdrive territory and beyond. Consider also that the optional Z-9 footswitch gives you a whopping five instantaneous channel voicing selections (clean/lead, with/without boost, tone shift) plus dual Master Volume settings, and there’s a lot more going on here than conventional notions of “retro” might imply. Although if retro means tones that are juicy, warm, thick, and saturated, well then, retro it is!
Like other ENGL amps, the Retro Tube 50 is well designed and built with a plethora of features that make it a superbly capable performer on the professional rock stage. In addition to the dual channels with independent EQ and the many footswitchable options already described, it offers an FX loop with wet/dry balance control and footswitchable bypass, an adjustable noise gate for Channel 2’s Gain Boost mode, and multiple outs for speaker cabinet connections. And while it still stems visually from ENGL’s contemporary stable, the Retro Tube 50 nods toward its name with the inclusion of three differently colored front panels that let you choose Classic Black, Vintage Vanilla, or Rockin’ Red to suit your rig or your mood.
I tested the Retro Tube 50 with a Gustavsson Bluesmaster for fat LP-like tones and a ’64 Stratocaster for wirier single-coil action, through Engl’s Retro 4x12 as well as a 2x12 cab loaded with Celestion G12-65 speakers. The amp’s clean settings proved bold and confident, and if I say they weren’t my favorite tones, that’s not to dis Channel 1’s quality, but rather to underscore that I didn’t really feel like switching back there once I heard what Channel 2 had to offer. From beefy EL34-fueled AC/DC crunch to more saturated classic-rock lead tones, and even some shredcertified capabilities with Gain cranked and Gain Boost on, this overdrive channel packs hours of fun for self-indulgent lead hounds.
Although the three-knob EQ stage is completely passive (as is Channel 1’s), it did a great job at sculpting everything from plumby, midforward grind to more modern scooped thump, all packed with an extremely sweet harmonic saturation and presence that added both depth and cutting power to the note. The Tone switch shifted the upper midrange to boost the 500Hz to 1kHz range slightly, making it all feel a little more eviscerating, if not overtly louder. Similarly, but in its own way, Channel 2’s Gain Boost didn’t raise volume levels much, if at all, but increased the juiciness markedly, and engaging Gain Boost in Channel 1 actually introduced a slight dip in output levels in many settings, while also increasing that channel’s harmonic saturation.
Whether or not this ENGL head meets your definition of “retro,” there’s no quibbling with the amp’s ability to provide a wide bundle of rock lead voices and some viable clean tones at the stomp of a switch. In short, the Retro Tube 50 gets the job done, no matter what era you point it at.
ENGL Retro Tube 50
PRICE Head, $1,949 street
CONTROLS Channel 1 (clean): Gain, Bass, Middle, Treble, Volume, with pushbutton Bright; Channel 2 (overdrive): Gain, Bass, Middle, Treble, Volume, with pushbutton Tone; shared Gain Boost switch, Master A, and Master B (rear panel)
POWER 50 watts RMS
TUBES Four 12AX7 preamp tubes, two EL34 output tubes
EXTRAS FX loop with Balance control; noise gate threshold level; connectivity for channel, gain boost, tone-shift, FX loop and Master A/B switching; multiple speaker outs for 4, 8, and 16Ω loads
WEIGHT 46 lbs
KUDOS Versatile performance options. Impressive range of rock lead and rhythm tones.
CONCERNS Footswitch not included.