Blackstar Amps and HT Studio 20 Review
Whats up everybody? Jeff here, coming to you from UniqueSquared.com. We have been hitting you all pretty hard with the Pro Audio blogs so far and I really think its time we show all of our low tech friends some love! We just picked up the Blackstar guitar amplifier line…which is pretty cool, because until now we only had a few starter amps and a bunch of digital modeling stuff. With the addition of Blackstar we now have some serious ALL TUBE guitar amps!
I had heard a lot about these amps before they came in and knew a bit of the “Marshall” history that was involved and I have to admit, being a Fender guy through and through, I was very curious as to how they would match up to the classics we all love. So naturally I took this opportunity to bust one open and take it for a spin.
Let me give you just a quick history of who is behind Blackstar, its pretty interesting, then I promise we’ll talk more about the amps.
Blackstar amps haven’t been around too long, but the brains behind Blackstar have been on the forefront of some of the most classic guitar amps for years. Their founders, Ian Robinson and Bruce Keir, left Marshall with the intent to build guitar amplifiers that wouldn’t limit guitarists to the classic sounds of their favorite amps of the past, but, instead allow them to build upon those classic sounds and really create and discover their own tone.
Blackstar has quite the array of amps and pedals now, but today I wanted to take a look at a few of the amps we just got in here at UniqueSquared. The HT-1R, HT-5R, HT Studio 20 and the HT Club 40 just arrived at the shop and we couldn’t wait to see how they sounded.
At first glance, all of these amps look great cosmetically, almost boutique. They have a classic look and feel very sturdy. The pots seem a little cheap but the Switch, all the jacks and the general build of the amp seem to be pretty sturdy. One thing that did catch my eye is the ISF Control. ISF stands for “Infinate Shape Feature” and is a really cool feature that most Blackstar amps have. From what I have read, this allows you to basically “scroll” from the classic UK sounds of Vox and Marshall amps to the warm American tones made legendary by Fender and everything in between. We’ll talk more about that later though. Let’s see what’s under the hood.
I wanted to talk about the smaller ones first because, quite honestly, I didn’t even try them out yet. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the HT Studio 20, but I did do some research. Here’s a quick overview.
The HT-1R and HT-5R are all tube, 2 channel practice/recording amps packed with reverb, ISF and 8” and 12” speakers respectively. Any guitarist that loves tube amps knows that an old Twin Reverb or AC-30 doesn’t even start to sound right until they are turned up past 6, and being that loud usually isn’t an option unless you’re at the gig. Blackstar has the solution. They use ECC83’s and ECC82’s in the 1R and ECC83’s and 12BH7’s in the 5R to power these amps and the Infinite Shape Feature really lets you dial in your own personal sound. There are a whole slew of small tube driven practice amps on the market right now, but none of them allow for the control that Blackstar gives you on the HT-1 and 5R. The versatility of these little guys really make them a great choice for practice or the studio. Here’s one of their demo videos so you can get a better idea of what they sound like.
HT Studio 20
OK, now that’s out of the way lets take a look at this HT Studio 20. The slightly more powerful HT Studio 20 and the HT Club 40 are from the same HT family as the 1R and the 5R but pack a little more power for the stage and studio. Both are outfitted with 2 ECC83’s and 2 EL34’s, a single 12” speaker, Digital Reverb, an Effects Loop and their patent pending ISF tone control.
The first thing I noticed when I pulled the HT Studio 20 out of the box was no stand-by switch. Not a deal breaker, but it would be nice to have one. Anyways, once I got it out and fired up, one thing was very obvious right from the start. This amp is built to break all tonal boundaries without being the “every sound of every guitar player that ever lived already inside” amp. The controls are not overly complicated, but between the Tone Control, EQ, overdrive channel and the ISF feature you can credibly go after any tone you want. These amps are not just for Jazz cats or only for metal heads. Either could get the tone they are looking for with relative ease.
The clean channel is naturally pretty bright. It definitely favors the UK sound, but the tone control on the clean channel is very smooth and doesn’t really “mud” up your tone at all as you roll off the highs. The Infinite Shape Feature also allows you to fatten up your tone a bit. If the knob is turned all the way counter clockwise, it’s a little brighter and “Marshall” sounding. As you move clockwise towards the right, the tone shifts more towards a warmer American sounding amp. Please take all this with a grain of salt, as we all know, warm, bright, dark, chimey are all words used to describe characteristics of tone and are all very subjective.
As with all tube driven pieces of gear as they “heat up” they tend to sound better. The HT Studio 20 is no different. Once I had it on for a bit and really started to push it, it really started to wake up. The clean channel became much more responsive to the way you attack of the strings allowing you to play very dynamically without sacrificing clarity or tone.
When you flip over to the overdrive channel with either the included foot switch or the on board switch on the face plate, a whole other tone spectrum is at your finger tips. You can literally go from some lite Rolling Stones sounding crunch all the way to the most viscous metal distortion you have ever heard.
One thing I did notice, with the 20 watt “Studio” is that it obviously doesn’t have the headroom that you may need at loud volumes if you are going for a really clean sound, if that’s the case, just jump up to the 40 watt “Club” version. It should be just what you’re looking for. Check out this video too, it will give you a better idea of their capabilities.
Overall these are pretty cool amps. If you’re looking for an affordable all tube driven amp that doesn’t pigeon hole you to a certain “tone,” but also doesn’t loose all its authenticity with digital gimmicks and blinking lights you might want to try Blackstar. Please don’t be shy to leave us a comment and thanks for checking out my first blog post. I hope to have more in the future.