Tested by James Nash
THE WORLD OF GUITAR GEAR HAS BECOME increasingly polarized between boutique/vintage and iPhone apps, but Line 6 is blurring that line with the introduction of POD HD500—the company’s latest floorboard multi-effector—and the DT50, a 50-watt hybrid amplifier designed in conjunction with famed amp builder Reinhold Bogner. Both are solid standalone products, but linked together via Line 6’s proprietary L6 Link (more on this later), they form a system that fuses old-school tube design with cutting-edge digital in a way that delivers extreme versatility with little tonal compromise.
Consider, for example, dialing up a cranked-Marshall “plexi” sound. As you’d expect from a next-generation POD, the HD500 does an impressive job of modeling this tone—from the preamp and power tubes, to the speaker and microphone, delivered directly to a PA or recording line input. The HD modeling one-ups the previous-generation POD X3 (which used the previous generation of modeling from PODxt), offering more amp-like dynamics and organic compression, and more sparkle and air without sounding harsh. But could the HD500 really hang with a vintage amp? To answer that, I fired up a ’72 50-watt Marshall JMP and dug deeper into the new POD system.
A rugged and professional-looking unit, the HD500 features an ever-expanding list of amp models (ranging from a ’58 Bassman and ’67 Vox AC30TB to an ENGL Fireball 100), and a staggering array of effects, including a Roland Space Echo, ADA Flanger, Leslie 145, ProCo Rat, four flavors of Echoplex, and six vintage fuzz simulations. Any effect can be duplicated (e.g. you can chain three Tube Screamers together), and there are dual amp models with parallel effects paths. The HD500 lets you keep adding effects until you run out of processing juice: I maxed out with two amp models, delay, reverb, and a harmonizer. But backing off to a single amp model, the HD500 could easily run eight effects simultaneously, including a 48 second looper. The effects are uniformly high quality, derived from the popular M13 pedal (reviewed Jan. ’09), and the integral expression pedal worked flawlessly and adds a hidden toe-switch for, say, switching between a wah and volume pedal. The toe-switch takes a heavy stomp to activate, but the floorboard has a tough, stage-ready vibe, so stomp away.
Given the complexity, the POD HD is remarkably easy to use. There are dedicated amp-like knobs for tone and gain settings, and the graphical display makes most tasks intuitive—you can get a lot done without cracking the manual. In less than a minute, I assigned a single button to toggle on a fuzz, turn off a compressor, and increase delay feedback—cool! The interface isn’t perfect, however. Certain buttons do tripleduty in confusing ways, sometimes parameters do nothing (e.g., you can select a mic model when cab simulation is turned off), and the procedure for pedal calibration is bizarre enough that I challenge anyone to “Apple” their way through it.
But any interface limitations are offset by the mostly-doofus-proof “HD500 Edit” software, which reveals all the important POD controls in classy plug-in style. Tweaking settings, re-routing effects, playing with mic settings—all these things were übereasy across the USB connection. One click to backup all presets, and you can even maintain multiple sets of presets on your laptop and move them in and out of the POD for different gigs, etc. But if you quit the app without remembering to press Save, you lose all your changes—and there’s no warning message.
So how did the POD do side-by-side with the vintage Marshall? I found I could quickly dial in very realistic tones straight to tape using the POD HD, but it still couldn’t fully capture the smooth dynamics and simultaneous warmth and cut of the cranked amp into a miked speaker— I’ve yet to hear any modeler that can. But that’s where the DT50 comes into play . . .
Available as a 1x12 combo, 2x12 combo, or head, the DT50 is built like a tank, and weighs in at hefty 63 lbs for the 1x12 as tested. (The DT50 head squeaks in under 40 lbs, roughly the weight of a small-box Marshall.) The EL34 power section offers selectable Class A or A/B, and pentode/ triode operation—yielding four different output stage feels and power levels. Class A/B pentode is extremely loud and punchy: Cranked to distortion, it’s about as powerful as my 50-watt Marshall—meaning the kind of volume that could get you permanently banned from a small venue. Switching to Class A triode brings everything down to a more club-approved level (about one quarter the volume), with a rounder and spongier feel.
The digital preamp section borrows four models (or “voicings” as Line 6 calls them) from the POD HD, with a slick momentary switch to toggle between American Clean (Fender Deluxe Reverb), British Crunch (Park 75/Marshall JMP), Class A Chime (Vox AC30), and Modern High Gain (Mesa/ Boogie Dual Rectifier). Most fun is that the amp models default to suitable power amp settings (i.e. Class A/B for the Fender, Class A for the Vox), but you can also mix and match. The Marshall and Fender models sound great running Class A triode, yielding a unique and totally musical combination of big amp tone and small amp volume and singing sustain. At all settings, I found the Bogner-designed tube output stage and Celestion speaker contributed punch and clarity to the digital modeling, seriously upping the realism factor.
Also noteworthy is the DT50’s XLR output: a cabinet-modeled line out that is tapped off the output stage, so you can hear the EL34s working even when going DI. Line outs are always a compromise over a real speaker, but the DT50’s DI is possibly the best I’ve heard.
As with the HD500 floorboard, the DT50 works fine on its own, delivering four amp sounds with reverb that can be assigned to either of the two channels. But the real magic happens when the POD and DT50 are connected. Using a single XLR cable to transmit all audio and data back and forth, the L6 Link integrates everything into one mega-rig. Turn an amp knob, and the floorboard setting immediately syncs. Choose a model from the floorboard, and the amp automatically selects the corresponding analog settings, some of which are fixed to the model (tube biasing and feedback topology), while others (Class A or AB, Triode/ Pentode) can be changed and saved as presets. Or turn off floorboard amp modeling and the DT50’s preamp section takes over, freeing up DSP and letting the POD behave as a standard multi-effects box.
For the most part the L6 Link does all the heavy lifting automatically, so you quickly stop caring exactly which piece is doing what: change floorboard presets and the amp switches to Class A, then choose Class A/B on the amp and you can save that change back to the floorboard. The system works together seamlessly, and setup is a snap with only a single, easy-to-replace XLR cable running from floorboard to amp.
When I first connected the L6 Link, the floorboard automatically sensed it was connected to a 1x12 combo (not a 2x12 or stack), and optimized its output accordingly—impressive. And while I got good results routing the POD into other tube amps, I found it sounded fullest and punchiest matched with the DT50.
The HD500/DT50 was at its old-school best running the cleaner “preamp only” POD models, with the amp’s master volume cranked to get the EL34s cooking . . .wow! At those settings, the Line 6 rig morphed into a nonmaster- volume 50-watt fire-breather, delivering enough crunch and roar (and brutal volume) that I had to go back to my old Marshall for a reality check. I wasn’t able to match the tone of the vintage amp precisely (Line 6 doesn’t have a model of my exact amp, anyway), but when I stripped back the modeling on the HD500 and let the DT50’s tubes rip, the rig sounded totally respectable sitting next to a classic amp. And with the HD500/DT50, you always have the option of dialing down the volume and simulating the tone with digital output stage modeling, yielding footswitchable flexibility no all-tube amp can match.
The price of all this power is that the new Line 6 rig can at times be confusing. It takes the manual to decode the interaction between channels A and B on the amp and the single and dual models on the floorboard. It would be nice if the amp had a light to indicate when the floorboard is in command. At one point, my amp and POD got out of sync and required a reboot. But the HD500 can be easily updated via USB, and Line 6 is actively rolling out bug fixes and new features. It was trickier to update the DT50, however, requiring a MIDI interface, and the amp didn’t get along with my MOTU Traveler for some reason.
I was impressed by the POD HD presets, many of which were totally stage-ready, simulating well-tweaked amps with reasonable pedal choices, and the more bizarre and overthe- top tones were grouped and labeled “fx heavy”—nice! And when I connected an Ernie Ball 25k volume pedal, it immediately took over the wah in several presets. But there’s no way to disable the cab modeling globally, so many of the presets need to be tweaked to perform optimally with the DT50 amp.
Pulling the amp’s Master Volume knob engages a Low-Volume Mode, scaling the master for dialing in lower volumes, and toggling output stage modeling when the amp is used standalone. According to Line 6, there is also some give and take between the modeling and the tubes at various volumes. But I found I got the best cranked DT50 tones using a preamp-only POD model, and I needed to switch to a full model and tweak the tone settings to get a similar sound at low volume.
Noise performance is worth noting. The POD HD is extremely quiet—some of the high gain models have a little hiss, but no more than you’d get from the actual amps. A few of the models, especially the AC30TB, even have some audible 60Hz hum—perhaps the modeling thing taken a bit too far? And the DT50 puts out a little more hiss than I would have liked at whisper-quiet bedroom volumes: my ’67 Super Reverb is a bit quieter. Finally, scrolling the HD500 models generates a freaky analog-insect-brigade of clicks and thunks as the DT50’s power section tries to keep up.
This isn’t the first time someone has tried mashing up analog tube and digital technology, but for guitar amps, this may be the first time the result tastes more like peanut butter and chocolate, and less like Taylor Swift and T-Pain. It goes without saying that you should consider a modeling rig if you, say, play in a Top 40 cover band. But even if you gravitate toward simple rigs, and typically use only a single amp and a few pedals, this new Line 6 duo is capable of enough groovy vibe that you might just pick it on tone alone. In the battle between old school and new school, Bogner and Line 6 have taken a cue from Freddie Mercury’s famous line: “I want it all, and I want it now!”
CONTACT Line 6, (818) 575-3600; line6.com
PRICE $699 retail/$499 street
EXPRESSION PEDAL One onboard, one external
INPUTS 1/4" guitar, 1/4" aux, 1/8" mp3, XLR w/mic pre, Variax Digital Input (VDI)
OUTPUTS Balanced XLR, unbalanced 1/4", 1/4" headphone, S/PDIF, USB
EXTRAS Effects loop (series/ parallel), MIDI, 48 second looper, tuner, tap tempo, L6 Link (allows for controlling up to four DT50 amps)
KUDOS Insane number of models and routing options.
CONCERNS Sounds best when paired with the DT50 amp.
PRICE $1,850 retail/$1,299 street
CONTROLS (Both channels) Drive, Bass, Mid, Treble, Presence, Reverb, Volume
MODELS Four, available on either channel
TUBES Two EL34 power tubes, two 12AX7s
POWER 50 watts (Class AB fixed bias), 25 watts Class A cathode bias)
EXTRAS Effects loop w/return level control, Class A/AB and Pentode/ Triode switching, DI out w/cabinet simulation, MIDI, L6 Link
SPEAKER 12" Celestion G12H90
WEIGHT 63 lbs
KUDOS Glorious power tube overdrive. Selectable output power.
CONCERNS Slightly hissy at low volumes.