We don't generally combine reviews--especially ones where our conclusions on the gear are so wildly different but we used this combo as an actual rig for a couple of gigs so, there ya go.
We are going to start at the end of the chain and work backwards. The Power Engine 60 has been around for a while but has never really gotten its due. Like many things that Tech 21 has done, it was ahead of it's time when we first saw it when I was still doing GIG magazine so it had to be 10 years ago.
Back then the whole amp modeling thing was just in its infancy and only a few people were using stuff like the Line 6 POD live. The problem with modelers live was getting them to sound like an amp when you plugged them into something. A powered PA cabinet was an option but the were really too "full-range" to sound like a guitar amp. The nature of the speakers in a guitar amp mean that the highs "roll off' way before they do on a PA cabinet.
But plugging a modeler into a "real" guitar amp defeated the purpose because the amp colored the sound. The Power Engine took care of that problem by offering a package that looks and feels like a guitar amp but that takes a line-level input and provides just power and basic high mid and low EQ. It sports a Celestion speaker like tons of guitar amps and it does a really good job of just amplifying the sound of an amp modeler without really coloring the sound.
It is also really compact and lightweight.
The iRig from IK Multimedia is a pretty cool little interface that allows you to plug a guitar into your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. It is tiny and appears well built (we couldn't break it and we always try). IK also makes an iRig mic and the iRigMIDI for a keyboard. The whole idea of the iRig is to easily and inexpensively get the audio signal from a mic or guitar or the MIDI data from a keyboard into a mobile device. Once the signal is there, you have a lot of software choices for sounds. The iRig ships with a "light" version of IK's AmpliTube app. There are two other versions that add additional amps and effects. More on that later.
So we are really looking at three reviews here. The iRig, the AmpliTube software and the Power Engine 60 for making it loud. And there is video of us using it as well as some other reviews from other places. Access those with the buttons on the left.
Tech 21 Power Engine 60
Let's start this off with giving props where props belong. You could say that Tech 21 really created the whole modeling market segment. Years before digital modeling became the hip thing for guitar players, Tech 21 was doing it all-analog with a piece that most pro gigging players considered a must called the SansAmp. It is best described as a kind of a direct box for guitar players that imparts a damn realistic tube amp sound. Originally used to get a good sound on those times when a gigging player or someone recording tracks had to go without an amp, it grew into one of those things that everyone carried in their gig bag in case they got to a "back line provided" gig and were presented with a crappy solid-state combo amp with no decent tone. Running through the SansAmp gave the player a fighting chance. The Power Engine was originally designed as a 'back end" for the SansAmp.
(And for those of you with a "what happened to U.S. manufacturing" political bent, Tech 21 stuff is all made in the U.S. Actually, manufactured in Manhattan...)
The Power Engine is pretty simple. Single 12" "combo amp" style power amp for preamps and guitar amp modelers. Inputs include a standard 1/4" as well as a balanced XLR. Three "tone" controls are different from the controls on most guitar amps. A typical guitar amp has tone controls that are passive. In other words, all of the highs are being passed through when the high or treble control is set to maximum and dialing it back cuts the amount of highs being passed from the pre-amp to the power section.
The EQ on the power Engine 609 is "active." In other word it boosts and cuts. "Flat" (the term used to mean that the signal is passing through without being effected by the EQ control) is the 12 o'clock position. Dialing the control up or down boosts or cuts that part of the signal by up to 12 dB. For those of you new to this sound thing, a six dB boost is the equivalent of doubling the signal. A six dB cut, cuts by half. The rule is that every six dB doubles or halves the original signal.
So if you were to, say, crank the bass control of the Power Engine up all the way it would result in FOUR TIMES as much bass as the flat position. Remember, each 6 db is a double or half. So a 12 dB boost--what you would get with the EQ control all the way up--is TWO doublings. Hence the four times as much signal with the control cranked.
Truth is that if you are happy with the sounds you are getting with your pre-amp or modeler then you should start and probably leave the Power Engine EQ controls flat. The EQ controls are more about adjusting for a specific room or stage or performance situation than they are about shaping your basic tone.
Before we leave the back panel, note that you also get an XLR output which means that the Power Engine also functions as a direct box if you need to send a direct signal to the PA without miking the amp.
OK, what do we like about the Power Engine 60? Most important it sounds good. Second, the character of the sound does not really change in any noticeable way as you change the volume level. We can't emphasize that enough. Depending on the kinds of gigs you do, volume can be a major issue and we all know that some of our favorite guitar amps don't really sound great until they are cranked up. It is one reason why modelers are seen all the time on stage in places like Las Vegas where management is very concerned about the band being too loud. (For some volume control strategies for guitar players, check this story for Live2Play eZine #60 (http://live2playezines.com/L2P60/page2.html)
The third thing we like a lot? The weight. At just over 30 lbs, the Power Engine is very easy to haul. The gig we used this on which is in the video was at the Riviera Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip inside a pub called the Queen Vic. There is no stage door or easy way to load in. You have to park in the parking structure and haul your stuff inside. I parked on the 4th level of the structure and walked carrying all of my gear in one trip. And it is the equivalent of a couple of city blocks from the car to the stage. My "normal" rig is a pair of Mesa Boogie combos or a Boogie and a Fender Twin I would have needed a serious dolly along the lines of a Rock and Roller just for the amps for this gig normally.
What do we not like? What's not to like? It looks good, is easy to move around sounds good and does not really color the sound of your pre-amp or modeler. And it is plenty loud. We did a gig with an acoustic drum kit amped keys, amped sax and a couple of vocal mics and had no problem getting the guitar high enough in the mix and we never dialed the volume up past about half.
If you are using any kind of amp modeling live, then Power Engine 60 is probably the missing link in your rig. We recommend you check it out. They run about 300 bucks new online.
IK Multimedia iRig and Amplitube
The iRig is very very simple. A plastic cylinder about the length and diameter of the average thumb with about a 4-inch cable "tail" that terminates in a four-way 1/8th-inch mini plug like what is on your headphones or in-ears but with one more conductor. Next to the tail is a 1/8th-inch mini-jack for headphone output (or audio output for a powered speaker or amp). On the opposite end is a 1/4" jack for plugging in a guitar.
The cable plugs into the headphone jack on your mobile device (in our case an iPad 2). The guitar plugs into the 1/4" jack and headphones plug into the 1/8" jack. Couple of things here. First, there is no volume control for the headphone/speaker output. You control that level via your mobile device. There may not appear to be a lot happening here and that the iRig is kind of a Y cable on steroids, but looks are deceiving. It does not require power because the circuitry is passive, but there is circuitry. What it does is transform the impedance of the guitar output to something that the mobile device can use. (Side note: IK was the first company to use the headphone jack as a direct input.)
The iRig will set you back $39.99 list and you can find it for a few bucks less online. When you open the box there is just the iRig and a quick start guide with info on how to set the iRig up using a variety of mobile devices. No software. Welcome to the world of apps. As more software becomes a download expect to see this as the standard more often. In our case we are using an iPad so we went to the Apple App Store and downloaded the free version of Amplitube. Probably not a great idea, but I fired it up, made sure it worked and packed it up and went to a gig.
The free version of Amplitube is very limited with one amp model (kind of Marshall-y) and a single stomp box (delay) and a noise gate. and that's it. But the gig was very loose and I was just sitting in with a band that plays the room every week. I played a couple hours and it went OK, I felt the tonal pallet was really limited and there was not a lot of response to changes in the guitar volume control level. Explanation: A tube amp will break up when the guitar volume is cranked and clean up when that control is rolled back. Or it should. This is how the great guitar players of the "pre-stomp-box era" got tones ranging from clean to very overdriven. Just by playing with the guitar output. I admit that I am spoiled by 'real" tube amps but I have played other modelers that responded pretty well to guitar output level changes. The Amplitube app responded very little. If I backed off the guitar volume almost all the way, the tone would clean up some, but anything from 25% on to wide open yielded the same tone.
When I finished the gig, I got to the IK people and commented on the limited tonal pallet and was given a code to download the "full" Amplitube app with generally runs $19.99 in the App Store. This adds a bunch more amp models including something Vox-like, something that is something like a tread-plate Boogie and a quasi Fender probably modeled on a Twin. Oh, and a bass amp that looks like maybe an SVT. Like I said before, my normal rig is Boogies and a Twins so I set up two presets--one with the Fender model and one with the Boogie and headed back out a week later to the same gig. Similar experience. The Boogie-like lead sound was pretty good. Very overdriven and saturated but non-responsive to guitar volume changes. The Fender sound was not as clean as I wanted but I was able to clean it up pretty easily. Still, not doing backflips over it.
Let's address the "full" version thing. I have heard other players refer to it as the "full version" of AmpliTube and that is the way it is referred to informally as a way to differentiate it from the free version. But it is more like an "intermediate version" with five amps and about a half dozen stomp boxes. On the iPhone you can string four stomps together and on the iPad you get four slots. And you can put whatever you want in each slot. Which gives you a lot of sonic options. You also get preset slots where you can put an amp and cabinet and mic and effects of your choosing, dial up the sound you want and then save the whole thing for easy access while playing. I kept the preset "window" on screen during the gigs to easily switch between sounds.
There are a lot of things about the iRig/Amplitube combo to like. First, it has some useful tools including a tuner and a metronome. You also get a single channel recorder (more on that in a second). You can import loops or songs over wi-fi for practicing or jamming and you can import songs from your iTunes library on the device the iRig is connected to. What, else? Really compact, easy to use and the graphics are stunning.
My biggest issue is the whole "in app purchase" thing. The "splash" page that comes up when you launch the app has links to sell you an "iKlip" to attach your iPad or iPhone to a mic stand. Try to add a second track on the recorder and it tells you you are about to buy the full Record app ($9.99 for four tracks on the iPhone and $14.99 for eight tracks on the iPad). Not happy with the amps and effect? Just hit the "Add gear" button and buy more. I just don't dig the feel of it. but I have to admit it is easy and convenient. There is a whole Fender package with another four or five amps and stomp boxes that runs $14.99. I did not try these but if the clean sounds are a bit more "Fender-like" than the ones in the paid version of AmpliTube it may be well worth the cost.
The amp sounds did not knock me out, but the stomp boxes were pretty solid. And my comparison point here is a Line 6 M9 which is part of my "regular" rig. In my opinion, the sounds are fine for practice, but just lack depth and dynamic range for actual gigs or recording. My only other experience with IK stuff was the T-Racks mastering software which I loved. So my expectations here were high. And to be fair, I looked at a lot of other reviews online and most say the sounds are really good. So maybe it is just me being too picky or expecting too much from a "rig" that you can get into for a bit over 50 bucks.