Hands-On Review:Hughes & Kettner zenAmp Combo and Z-Board.

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by Emile Menasché


Hughes & Kettner zenAmp Combo and Z-BoardSo where’s the happy medium? Hughes & Kettner has found it with the zenAmp combo, a simplified version of the company’s powerful zenTera combo. With the zenAmp, H&K delivers the best of the zenTera’s features in a compact 2x12 combo with a 120-watt (RMS) stereo power amp.

Amp Models
Like most good modeling amplifiers, the zenAmp covers a wide range of sonic territory, focusing on the classic sounds of yesteryear but also reaching beyond tried-and-true tones. The model roster features 16 emulations that include Fenders (blackface Twin Reverb, tweed Deluxe and tweed Bassman), the Vox AC30 (one plain, one hot-rodded), Marshalls (50- and 100-watt plexis, as well as two progressively higher-gain versions of the JCM2000), a Mesa Triple Rectifier, a Roland Jazz Chorus and several H&K amps, including the Montana acoustic amp, the Warp 7 and the hybrid AS 112.

The zenAmp uses Hughes & Kettner’s trademark DSM (Dynamic Sector Modeling) technology, which creates a digital model of every component in a tube amp. This technology is designed to emulate the behavior of a tube amp as well as its sound. The proof is in the playing: DSM offers a very natural response to the guitarist’s input, providing tones that are truer and more lifelike.

The zenAmp sports all the core controls you’d expect to find on a conventional amp. In addition to knobs for gain, bass, mid, treble and presence, there is a preset volume control that behaves like a master volume for a given patch, balancing the relative level of each preset. There’s also an overall master volume control that sets the amp’s final output level. Unlike the preset volume, master volume settings are not stored as part of a patch.

The zenAmp’s controls are designed to behave as they would on the original amps. Obviously, this is a good thing, since the interaction of the controls is integral to every tube amp’s tone. However, the manual doesn’t go into much detail about how the controls are implemented for each amp. The Deluxe model, for example, is based on an amp with one tone control. According to the zenAmp manual, H&K “elected to assign a sound-shaping functionality to the three-band EQ,” but unfortunately, the manual doesn’t specify if the EQ is pre- or post-gain. Granted, most of us don’t care about the programming details—we use our ears to set the tone—but I would have liked to have seen a chart or other information detailing where each control lies in the signal path.

The zenAmp has a range of effects in three categories—delays, reverb and an all-encompassing FX group—and one effect in each category can be used simultaneously. The FX group includes a number of great-sounding effects, including wah, overdrive, compressor (which are placed pre-gain), tremolo, chorus, phaser, flanger and strobe, which creates a sound reminiscent of the arpeggiated synthesizer in the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” Most of these effects are presented in several versions and have at least two parameters. It’s rather limiting that such a mix of effect types can’t be used in combination. This constraint is mitigated somewhat, however, by the zenAmp’s excellent-sounding reverb and generous helping of 15 delay effects. The delay time is determined by tap tempo (you can’t edit the feedback level), while an onboard knob controls delay level. Note that tap tempo only affects delay—you can’t use it to synchronize modulation effects like tremolo.

As mentioned previously, the zenAmp is designed for ease of use, and for the most part, it succeeds. The controls function as expected, and you don’t need to dig into any program menus to tweak your tone. Satisfying both criteria of versatility and simplicity, the zenAmp functions in two modes: preset, in which stored amp and effect parameters are utilized, and manual, in which the sound is determined by the position of the amp’s control knobs.

In addition to the gain and tone controls, there is a rotary selector for choosing amp models and similar selectors for choosing effects and delay types. Control over the effects themselves is fairly limited. An FX Parameter knob lets you set the attributes for each effect, and its function changes to suit the selected effect. For example, with the fuzz setting, the knob controls gain; with the chorus effect, it controls intensity and rate. I generally prefer to have more control over the individual parameters, but I can see where the engineers at H&K are coming from: they keep things simple by choosing the most common applications for each effect.

The Z-Board foot controller adds tremendously to the zenAmp’s functionality. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend using the amp live without it. The Z-Board lets you select from 125 presets (without it, you’re limited to 30), and in Mode 2 individual effects can be toggled on and off. In addition to stomp box–like footswitches, the Z-board has volume and wah pedals that can be assigned to alternative parameters, such as gain. The Z-Board can also access the onboard tuner and tap-tempo functions.

The board is sturdy and comes with a very long cable that unfortunately is hard-wired to the unit. A detachable cable would be easier to replace should it become damaged.

Sound Quality
If zenAmp’s feature set and manual merit some criticism, its tone stands out as an example of how good ears and smart technology can combine to make something truly musical. The zenAmp sounds big and bold. The clean and “in between” settings—always an indicator of the quality of a digital model—have the openness you’d normally associate with analog technology, without any of the skull-splitting brightness that plagues some digital amps.

The models themselves sound very musical. Highlights include the plexi-generation Marshalls, the Blackface, the Recto and the Jazz setting, which produces some very smoky tone. Part of the credit for this rich tone goes to the amp’s robust 60-watts-per-side power section, which feeds two different types of Celestion 12-inch loudspeaker—a Vintage 30 and a RockDriver Junior. The speaker combination extends the dynamic range and prevents undesirable phase cancellations, while helping the zenAmp stand out from the modeling pack at performance volume. The zenAmp also scores with its natural dynamic response, another trait lacking in some digital modelers.

The Bottom Line
Obviously, it’s impossible to simplify an amplifier of this kind without removing a few bells and whistles. For the most part, and to its credit, H&K has kept all the good stuff intact. More important, the zenAmp works, sounds and responds like a real amp—you can turn it up and wail without feeling like you’re playing through some computer geek’s idea of what an amp should sound like. Attempting to strike a balance between versatility and simplicity, Hughes & Kettner has created an amp that will satisfy “tone tweakers” and players alike.