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As I mentioned, the amp did require some time, and fiddling, to get the hang of—and to find the tones best suited to each of the different guitars I plugged into it: a Fender Contemporary Tele, a Nash S-63, a Duesenberg MC Signature, and an all-mahogany Gibson LP Studio. The good news is that all that fiddling need not be repeated. Once you’ve dialed a tone you find especially likeable, you need only to push the Preset button twice to assign it to any of the 64 available preset locations.
Running through a single 12” FluxTone speaker cabinet, the amp puts out plenty of sound for practice or rehearsal. With the Tele, it served up bright, warm cleans using the 6V6, and the 3-band EQ allowed a solid range of control over the thickness of single notes and strummed chords. With single-coil pickups, I found myself gravitating toward the dual-stage preamp settings, as they were a little meatier, less anemic. Notched Strat-tones were particularly gratifying in the “low drive” stage with the EL84 output selected—just the right mixture of grit and chime for a terrific blues tone that went from thick and kind of jangly to a fat grind with warm, sweet sustain by using nothing but the guitar’s volume knob.
The single-state preamp setting did turn out to be very useful for smooth, mellow clean tones from the Gibson’s BurstBuckers and the Deusenberg’s P-90 and Grand Vintage humbucker. And, after switching out the 6V6 output tube with an EL34, setting the “low drive” Gain about halfway and cranking the Master, the ZenTone did a pretty decent imitation of a much bigger, British-style amp—albeit at much lower volume. I did find myself wishing for just a bit more of the richness and harmonic complexity that a great Class A amp can deliver, but I was nevertheless quite impressed with the ZenTone’s tonal range and precise tone shaping ability.
Recording the amp is a breeze—I ran the unbalanced line out directly into an Mbox, and was immediately rewarded with same tonal range and quality I’d heard through the external speaker. The addition of a line level control to the tone-shaping resources of the front panel made it perfectly easy to dial in just the right amount for any mix. We didn’t have the opportunity to test the balanced XLR output (which is hot) to a mixing board; the Mbox was unable to handle it without experiencing harsh clipping of the line-level input, even on low settings. That said, if you have concerns about the ZenTone 7’s compatibility with your setup or your interface, it’s probably worth contacting Backline Engineering to check with them.
The Final Mojo
The ZenTone 7 is not your ordinary low-power tube amp. While it’s not going to give you exactly the same level of touch sensitivity and tonal vividness as a high-end, handwired EL84 amp, it’s as good at what it does as anything I’ve played recently. If you’re looking to outfit a small home studio, want to avoid creating noise problems for the neighbors, and prefer a range of very useful functions over the perfect solution for one, specific application, the ZenTone 7 provides a great deal of them in a small, well-designed package.
You want a flexible studio tool that's packed with tones and easily adapted to practice, recording and performance applications.
You need the best boutique amp tone money can buy.
MSRP $995 - Backline Engineering - backline-eng.com