Engl Ironball by mixpan
Last September I bought the Engl Ironball after a quite extensive research for a high-gain full tube amp that could fit into my room without blowing up the windows. My criteria were: portability, record-ability and a modern metal tone with good note definition, especially at the low end, since I own a Schecter 7-String with EMG active pickups. Given Engl's good reputation, I initially considered buying the classic E530 Engl pre-amp, which can be plugged directly into an interface and is cheaper than the Ironball. But before making up my mind, I tested the E530, the Engl E315, the Orange Jim Root Terror amp, the Orange Dark Terror and, finally, the Ironball, just for reference reasons, because the Ironball back then was out of my price range. I went to the store on three consecutive days (really nice and patient owner btw) and tested all those amps with many guitars with both active and passive pickups.
Of all these amps the Jim Root Signature was really really good, with a very aggressive, in-your-face tone, but all that became apparent with the signature Jim Root cabinet (an extra cost of 400E); any other cheap set-up did not do it justice. The Ironball sounded a little less aggressive at first (a bit softer at the high mids), but had a very rich sounding crunch channel and was very flexible, with 2 channels and an extra gain boost, presence knob and reverb, all of which the Jim Root Terror lacked. I tested it combined with many cabinets and astonishingly it was better than the Terrors when connected to the cheap Orange PPC 112. Its main advantage: it responded perfectly at different picking and playing techniques and had clear note definition at the low end, a feature that comes in very handy in modern metal, adding articulation to the whole noise of the distorted mid-range harmonics. In other words: I didn't have to try to find out what note I was actually playing, when the lowest string was engaged. So, I gave the extra 200 - it was the display unit - and never looked back.
First of all, the build-quality is rock-solid; the amp is made in Germany, which considering its price is quite surprising. The tone of this amp is nearly impeccable, full and open but also very versatile and in many aspects better than more expensive Engl-amps, such as the Powerball, which sounds a bit compressed to my ears (Powerball: 100W/ Ironball: 20W). The lead (i.e. crunch) channel needs no further boosting - the amp offers a gain boost that justifies its name - sounds rich and pleasing on the clean channel and adds much sustain and distortion on the lead channel. Changing channels and adding the built-in reverb can be done through a foot switch (not included).
As far as overall volume is concerned, 20Watts are more than enough for bedroom use - actually you'll need to keep the master-volume down or reach to the built-in power-soak knob on the back, in order to reduce the wattage. In full power you‘ll be able to play in small rooms/clubs with no further amplification. As for the power soak: don't forget to read the manual as carefully as possible before plugging in the amp; the power soak could damage the amp if used with a wrong impedance-cab, and sometimes, though I had read the manual carefully, I found myself leaving the power-soak at the wrong position. Nothing actually happened, so I made an inquiry on Engl's website how this might have damaged the amp, but they never answered (NOT a good thing for Engl btw). Regardless, the power soak has a speaker-off position, so it can also be used to send a direct signal to your audio interface. However, I found the quality of it quite poor, even though the signal goes through both the pre- and power-amp valves (2+2, good enough, haven't changed them yet). I think that the E530, which is only a valve-preamp with a small built-in transistor power-amp, is more useable in that aspect. But of course, proper recording is done only with a mic, so this doesn't bother me that much. The combination I have - small and portable – namely, Ironball and a small Orange PC112, sounds absolutely amazing through an SM57, so I don't need to record at a studio to get the tone I like. I don't think anybody would be disappointed by the Ironball. It has indeed, as most people say, the sound of a big amp in a small package. If you live in Europe, the MESA Mini-Rectifier is more expensive, but even if it weren't, you should check out the Engl Ironball before making up your mind.