$379.99 MSRP, $299.99 street
Blackstar Amplification has come into the market only recently, but already this UK-based amp and effects manufacturer with impeccable design cred and R&D pedigree is being taken very seriously by tone aficionados throughout the world. Their high-end Artisan and Series One amps are used by established artists as diverse as Metallica’s James Hetfield, Gus G (Firewind, Ozzy Osbourne), Rascal Flatts’ Joe Don Rooney, and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. Recently, their best-selling amp to date, the affordable HT-5 combo ($369 street), won a prestigious MIPA award for Best Combo Amp at the 2011 Musikmesse Show. This is an amp company to be reckoned with.
The HT-1R (the “R” is for reverb) is based on the HT-5, just in a smaller footprint and with a reduced control set. From the front, the HT-1R looks like a scaled-down version of the 5, with the virtually identical black cabinet and grille cloth, gold piping, and the bold, white block lettering bearing the amp maker’s name. Instead of a 12" speaker of its big brother, the HT-1R sports an 8" custom-designed midrange woofer.
The HT-1 is about 12"x12" (and about 7" deep), so it almost looks like a square-ish lunchbox head—you have to look twice to realize it’s packing an 8" speaker, making it a true, self-contained combo. The amp features two channels, clean and overdrive, the latter of which is invoked via a pushbutton. The other front panel controls consist of just four knobs: Gain, Volume, EQ/ISF (Infinite Shape Feature), and Reverb. There’s a single 1/4" input, plus two additional 1/4" jacks for Emulated Output & Headphones and MP3/Line Input (See Fig. 1). I like that Blackstar went with a 1/4" jack here, rather than the more consumer-oriented 1/8" mini. It means you can use the HT-1R to accept other preamp outputs, from sources other than a guitar (such as a keyboard, drum machine, or vocal processor). A power switch and indicator LED complete the top panel’s control scheme.
Fig. 1. The control panel of the Blackstar HT-1R.
On the back is not only the expected AC power cord port, but also a pleasant surprise—for an amp in this price range, anyway—an extension speaker jack that accepts any cabinet with an impedance of 4–16 ohms. This is quite handy in a recording amp, as it allows the performer to keep the control panel close by (say, in the control room or in front of a computer) while the speaker of choice is placed in another location for optimal acoustics and miking. As is customary, plugging in the extension speaker disables the onboard speaker. The overall feel of the amp is rugged and well built. It’s got a nice padded handle, quality hardware that includes the matte-black corner guards, and four sturdy rubber feet. This amp might be used for largely indoor use (the rehearsal and recording studio), but it is gig-worthy and will travel well.
The HT-1R sports a tube-driven signal path, with one ECC83 (12AX7) and one ECC82 (12AU7). Missing from that recipe, of course, is the familiar power tubes of EL34/84 or 6L6 and their variants (EL84, 6V6). But these tubes don’t have to produce output levels that necessitate those high-current models. These tubes sound every bit as classic and authentic in the lower-power stages as their larger brethren.
One of the HT-1R’s key features is its single EQ control, which features Blackstar’s Infinite Shape Feature (ISF), introduced previously on the HT-5. Blackstar founder and designer Ian Robinson explains ISF as follows: “Tone control circuits in amps made by Marshall, Fender, and Peavey are basically the same. Different component values produce the characteristics of their respective tone stack frequency responses. ISF delivers exactly the same response of all those amps, plus all the infinite positions between them. So instead of having to choose a Fender tone stack or a Marshall tone stack, the guitarist playing a Blackstar amp can find a sound at any point in the tonal continuum to get exactly the sound they want. The circuitry that allows this is very simple, but also very clever. That’s what comes from spending 12-hour days for two and-a-half years in a shed, doing technical research!”
Whatever the result was of the wood-shedding on the part of the designers, ISF works. Because there are no other EQ controls, ISF acts as a sort of EQ shortcut knob. I found the reduction of the EQ stage down to a single knob liberating: It enabled me to focus on my guitar and effects tone once I got the amp in the sweet spot. I was recording much more quickly with the excellent grab-n-go tone of ISF than if I’d have to monkey with the amp controls more. This approach would only be viable if the tones that unfolded during the ISF knob’s travel yielded the results they did. I was almost afraid to touch the knob after I discovered a nice Deluxe-meets-Bassman sound around 11:00, but I was reassured by the time I got to the straight-up 12:00 position with a nice Vox-y grit.
The tone not only travels across the Atlantic in the space of a 270-degree knob rotation, it does so seamlessly. You really can’t tell where the USA leaves off and the UK begins, but 9:00 is definitely a bright and glassy Fender sound, while the 3:00 position yields the crunchier, midrange-rich snarl typical of Marshalls. Between the two is where the magic happens. You can dial in your own sound that is neither fish nor fowl, but uniquely your own. Wherever your ears let you release the ISF knob, it’s eminently a musical and useful tone.
One highlight of the channel switching is the smoothness between the clean and overdrive states. When the clean channel is maxed out with respect to Gain, and then dialed back once the Overdrive switch is engaged—it’s very hard to tell what the difference is. You hear it, but you don’t get the feeling that your sidestepping through some IC chip: the progression is much more organic.
The sound quality on the emulated output is excellent. While you don’t have the versatility you would with a mic in front of the speaker (after all, you can choose different mics and move the mics around), you do get a great overall sound. One excellent use for the HT-1R I found was to combine a miked sound with the emulated out. At first, you can’t really tell which is which—a testament to the qualities Blackstar has imbued the output signal with. There’s a real feeling of air in the output. Whether they achieved that through EQ, phase placement, or the aforementioned shed-bred voodoo, the electronically emulated sound makes a viable complement to the miked sound. As a bonus the excellent Reverb sound becomes stereo if you employ a TRS Y-cord, plugging the split ends into separate mixer channels. Nice!
As this amp is to be used for recording, and will presumably be close at hand, no footswitch function is provided to switch channels. You must physically use your hand to press the Overdrive switch. But because the controls are top-mounted (as opposed to being accessed from the front), this makes quick channel-switching operations awkward. I recognize that adding a footswitch jack would have increased Blackstar’s costs, but it was the one feature I kept wishing for during my practice and recording uses. A great use for the HT-1R is as the “world’s best amp sim,” as this is how you’d use it in a recording setup: plugging the emulated output straight into your computer’s DAW. Doing so allows you to record with a true amp, and benefit from the dynamics and sensitivity that only interaction with an all-tube amp can bring.
The HT-1R is the perfect for practice and recording. It could even be pressed into gigging service, assuming you have a fairly sophisticated monitoring system. But at an output rating of one watt, most users will be playing through the HT-1R for its authentic tube sound at low volume levels. That still leaves a lot of situations for the amp to fill, and it must be emphasized that it’s extremely loud for its size and nominal rating. The ISF works amazingly simply yet well. It’s even intuitive—America is on the left and England is on the right, as if you were looking at a map! Forget the complicated setup and routing rigmarole you go through with VST plug-ins. Get the HT-1R, plug in your guitar, and play—with or without the speaker—as nature intended. It’s an awesome way to experience true tube tone for under $300, for personal playing or recording.