REVIEW: Line 6 POD HD300

The Line 6 POD is as much a classic line as the Gibson Les Paul or the Fender Stratocaster – the original was groundbreaking on its own, while various adaptations and refinements over the years have kept each in line with the expectations of modern musicians. PODs have been heard on thousands of recordings concert stages, from the original red bean-shaped desktop model to later floor-based units and POD Farm software. The HD series takes the POD sounds and philosophy we know and love, and rebuilds them from the ground up with even higher sound quality.

As it arrives in the box, the HD300 includes 16 amp models. However, a few days before the unit arrived for review, Line 6 announced an expansive downloadable firmware upgrade including six new amps and access to five new amp parameters: Sag, Hum, Bias, Bias Excursion and Master Volume. These additional parameters give you the ability to really fine-tune the character of the amp’s response, especially in terms of note attack and overall warmth, and they add a whole new layer of realism. For instance, the ‘hum’ parameter lets you actually select between 50 and 60 cycle hum (depending on whether you’re modelling the experience of playing in the USA or Australia – seriously!), and vary the amount of that hum, from zero to “oh dear, that’s quite a bit of hum” and any point in between.

As for the amp models themselves, you’ll find clean amps, dirty amps, crunchy amps, lead-focused amps and big loud metal amps, just as you would hope. The original, as-supplied models are based on:

Bogner Uberschall
Divided by 13 JRT 9/15
Dr. Z Route 66
ENGL Fireball 100
Fender Bassman
Fender Blackface Deluxe Reverb
Fender Twin Reverb
Gibson EH-185
Hiwatt Custom 100 (DR103)
Marshall JCM-800 (2204)
Marshall JTM-45 MkII
Mesa/Boogie Dual Rectifier
Park 75
Supro S6616
Vox AC-15
Vox AC-30 (Top Boost).

Following the firmware upgrade you’ll also get a few more Fender-based models (Deluxe Reverb Vibrato Channel, Twin Reverb Vibrato Channel, Tweed Bassman), a Marshall JTM-45 MkII model, a Park 75 ‘normal’ channel to complement the bright channel already included in the HD300 stock model list, and Line 6 Elektrik, a high-gain beastie with interactive presence and midrange controls. There are over 80 M-class modern and vintage guitar effects models (the HD400 and HD500 have more than 100) which seem more distinctive and characterful than you’re probably used to finding the average digital multi effects units. My main beef with digital multi effects is that they just don’t feel organic in the way that analog effects do – when you push them too hard, they behave too politely – but M-class effects really get into that magical zone where you can make effects such as phasers and flangers overload and distort realistically.

Other features include full looping (24 seconds worth!), a tuner, an expression pedal for wah/volume/pitch effects, USB connectivity, a stereo headphone out, a jack for an extra expression pedal and the L6 Link for allowing two Line 6 products (for example an HD300 and a DT50 amp) to talk to each other. You get even more in the HD500, including an effects loop, a mic preamp and a Variax input.

One especially welcome capability is that you can even create or edit your patches in your computer with software you can download from Line 6’s website. I really appreciated this method of designing presets, as it opens up instant visual access to every parameter including the new bias, hum and sag controls, which take a bit of button-tapping to access if you’re editing on the unit itself. The software is very simple and intuitive to use, and transferring your new presets to the HD300 is extremely simple.

Editing is easy, although there is a bit of menu-scrolling to contend with. There’s a 4-way button and a Presets knob, four rotary knobs to the left of the screen (FX1, FX2, FX3 and Reverb), as well as gain, bass, middle, treble, presence and channel volume controls. Personally I always feel like the 4-way button’s functions are in the wrong order: what my instinct tells me the left and right buttons do, the up and down buttons do, and vice versa. It took a few decent play sessions to re-train my brain to press the correct button at the right time.

Like the HD500 and POD Farm 2.5, the HD300’s sounds are even more responsive, natural and characterful than previous incarnations, especially with the addition of the sag and bias controls. You’ll feel more dynamic bass, sharper treble, more of a sense of movement, and more amp-like attack in every note. The medium gain settings especially benefit from the HD upgrade, and they clean up nicely when you roll back the guitar’s volume control. My only beef with the original POD was that it sometimes didn’t seem to matter so much what kind of pickup you had in your guitar: the high gain tones all sounded pretty much the same no matter which guitar you used. That really isn’t an issue any more, as the HD300’s high gain amps faithfully translated the individual character of whatever guitar I hit them with.

My favourite amp models include the Engl-based model (great for The Devil You Know-era Tony Iommi tones), the Hiwatt-based model (especially with modulation effects) and the Bogner-inspired model, which is a screaming lead guitar machine if ever I heard one. As for effects, the looper in particular is well laid out and musically useful, and the delays are great. There are plenty of delay options, from crisp digital sounds to much gnarlier analog ones, and you can set the tempo internally or via the tap tempo switch. The harmonizer settings don’t fare quite so well sonically – they sound a little bit squirrelly if you turn the mix up too high – but there are some great synth effects to make up for it. There are also plenty of wah options, from traditional to more modern and strident. I find that wah is a real key-dependent effect, and a wah that sounds great on one song in one key just might not work with another, so it’s nice to have so many wahs tucked into the HD300.

Because you can configure the HD300 for different output methods (headphones, amp, mixing desk) and amp types (combo, stack, effects loop or through the front end), you can incorporate the unit in interesting ways. I’ve taken to disabling the amp models and using it to provide delay and reverb through the effects loop of my Marshall, keeping the amp’s own distortion sounds but taking advantage of the ability to set different master volume, delay and reverb settings for rhythm and lead. If you’re using the HD300 as your primary onstage sound source, you can send one of the dual outputs to a mixing desk with full cabinet and microphone modelling, while sending another to your amp, minus cab/mic modelling, so you can still get the feeling of cranking through an amp, even if the front of house is getting direct modelled tone through the PA. Also – get this – you can use the amp models but disable the power amp and mic modelling, then feed the HD300 into your amp’s effects loop input or a dedicated power amp, in effect using the HD300 as a full pro-level preamp (in place of your amp’s preamp) and effects rack. (A modified cabinet emulation is provided in this mode but it doesn’t overly colour the tone). I really enjoyed using the HD300 in this way, effectively turning my amp into various other amp/effects combinations but with my own familiar power amp characteristics. It’ll be great for on-stage use.

The HD300 demonstrates a noticeable jump in quality from previous POD incarnations, especially in terms of real-world response, and the newly-added bias, sag, hum and master volume controls are incredibly addictive, allowing you to tailor the amp models even further than they already go. The amp models themselves are great (although it’d be nice to have the JCM2000 or Jubilee models from POD Farm 2.5 as well, as I’m terribly fond of both of those amps in the real world and on POD Farm), and the unit is incredibly flexible: you can use it as a sim for recording/live; an effects-only unit and even a replacement preamp for your existing amp. And one last thing: that big sturdy metal bar that prevents you from stomping all over your settings is a lifesaver!

LINK: Line 6

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