Engl’s reputation has been steadily growing in recent years, thanks to highly flexible amps like the Powerball head. You will find straightforward no-frills models in the company’s catalogue, but designer Horst Langer’s personal mission seems to be to push the limits of what can be done with an all-valve design – and his new SE head looks set to redefine those limits for just about every amp manufacturer out there.
Like all Engl designs, the SE is immaculately styled, with looks that easily sit alongside the best the USA can offer. The tough ply cabinet is neatly put together and expertly finished with a cool futuristic look thanks to the black chrome bars that serve as a front grille. There’s more visual candy from the 3D front panel, with controls and switches partly recessed into cut-outs which denote the main channel and preamp sections.
As well as looking good, it’s logically arranged, which is just as well as there are quite a few controls to play with. Inside the welded steel chassis the electronics are all PCB mounted. This is one of the most densely packed amps we’ve ever peered into, but everything is impeccably fitted and soldered.
The eight main boards are high quality epoxy double-sided affairs, with short ribbon cable links, and the overall parts quality is first class. It’s a totally professional piece of kit that’s easily going to handle heavy touring with a minimum of maintenance.
The front control panel looks complex and the rear one even more so, but thanks to an excellent manual full of diagrams and helpful advice, setting up the SE is actually quite straightforward. Just don’t expect to know everything in five minutes.
The SE is basically a reverb-equipped four-channel head with two partly shared EQs, though each channel has separate gain, volume and treble controls. Each channel’s voice can be varied with several small pushbuttons and, in the master section, there are more switches governing bass response, noise-gate and power amp functions.
There’s a fifth and sixth channel lurking on the rear panel: called a ‘Tube Driver’ this can be used in place of the main channels, either with or without its own EQ section. The Tube Driver is intended to feed combined preamp and effects units, bypassing most of the SE’s preamp functions, but also works well as a second clean channel with a totally different vibe to the front panel choice: fatter and warmer, with a nice mild overdrive when pushed.
There are no less than three effects loops – two parallel and a third series loop which can be preset to work with either of the other two. As well as a balanced line-out, the Engl’s pro standard is reinforced with unprecedented features that include microprocessor-controlled power valve monitoring, a cable tester and a speaker impedance checker.
There are two pairs of speaker outlets, each governed by separate master volume and presence controls, and you can switch from one to the other to capitalise on the effect of different drivers and cabinet types.
The big deal about the SE is that all this switching complexity is tamed by the magic of MIDI so you can punch in any combination of channel voicing, effects loop, power amp and speaker cab you like, store it and recall everything from one tap on a footswitch. The rotary controls are still manually operated, but there’s so much flexibility from the switch combinations that you’re never going to run out of ideas here.
Using just one MIDI effects processor, you can set up a clean channel with a touch of stereo chorus, a crunch channel with a small room reverb, preset both for 100-watt power and a closed back cab, then switch to either a vintage or modern lead sound using the SE’s spring reverb, 50-watt power and an open back cab.
You can vary any sound to your heart’s content, then copy it and store it up to the capacity of whatever MIDI controller you use. Engl’s own controllers simplify the process even further as they’re phantom powered down the MIDI lead, and for the non-MIDI user there’s the Z-9 footswitch which still lets you access most functions.
When we reviewed Engl’s Powerball, we felt it had a good range of highly useable sounds but lacked a little character compared to some of the competition. By comparison the SE packs deadly serious tonal power: cleans can go from crystalline clarity to fat and edgy, crunch can go from vintage Brit aggression to the bass-heavy designer tones that are so in vogue today, and the lead channels cover everything from raunchy down-home Texas blues to searing, almost infinite ballad sustain.
The classic/ modern power amp option makes such a big change that you’ve effectively got eight different sounds on tap, covering everything from tweed to ultra-modern thrash with an almost unnerving authenticity that defies you to find something the Engl can’t do. Well, we tried hard and couldn’t find a single weak link.
There are many key tones that you’ll recognise when you hear them. However, despite this the SE isn’t a ‘who do you do’ amp – it has a definite character of its own that’s generally bright and punchy.
There’s a highly dynamic response that could only come from valves and, despite the SE’s complexity, it’s also possible to dial in one good sound that you could use for everything if you wanted to go down that route. Single-coils worked well but the SE really came alive with an old Les Paul providing the signal. This guitar’s PAF pickups needed less work with the Engl’s tone controls and the amp instantly felt like it belonged at the other end of the guitar lead.
Aimed directly at professionals who need cutting-edge control in a simple (and well-priced by these standards) package, or well-heeled weekend warriors who want to experience the kind of performance normally reserved for high-end touring rigs, the Engl SE is a true tour-de-force.
Yes, it’s mega-expensive and we’ve thought long and hard about what you get for your cash. The SE’s electronics are well-sorted and, while it sounds utterly superb, there are other amps that sound as good for a grand less. However, none rival the Engl’s flexibility. In that area, it’s simply in a class of its own. To buy this kind of MIDI capability separately you would be talking big money, so on balance we’d say that it’s very good value, even at this price.