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February 4, 2009

Blackstar HT-5 Combo: First Impressions

Okay, here we go... the first impressions of my brand-spanking new Blackstar HT-5 Combo! As I mentioned in my previous post I have some stuff going on that's held up the full review. I'm hoping to find time to do some sound samples and so on, but for now you get the stuff I wrote immediately after opening the box for the first time...

First off, to put this review in context, I should probably say what I wanted out of a new amp. Although I've 'played' (a relative term... 'owned' would be more accurate) guitars since early adulthood, I only really got serious about improving my skills after August 2004... more specifically after I was given a Les Paul copy (made by Stellar) for by 35th birthday. Prior to that I'd actually given up six-string axe-slinging for quite some time, so receiving a gift-wrapped instrument was quite the surprise! If you're interested in the back-story you can find the real skinny on my bio page, here.

Right, those of you who can't stomach long-winded incoherent waffle, it's probably best to scroll down to where you see "And so onto the actual review"! Trust me, if you don't you'll have to restock your medicine cabinet with Pepto-Bismol before we're done...

To match the Stellar Les Paul, I ran out and bought a 15W Orange Crush practice amp. It cost around £80 as far as I recall. 100% solid state. Made a noise... not really up to much but at that price, I didn't expect anything great.

As I improved, I realised that I needed something a bit meatier, so I gave the Orange the ol' heave-ho and bought myself a used Marshall Valvestate VS100R off eBay. I think it set me back £150. It was soooo much better than the 15W Crush. And soooo much louder! I'd already shoe-horned new pickups into the Stellar... Seymour Duncan Pearly Gates humbuckers... and the combination of super-hot pups and that amp was enough to strip paint off the walls.

When switching the amp on you'd hear a noticable click, then a pop... wait a few seconds... slight hum coming on... followed by an almighty THUMP as Oscar the cat hit the flap at full tilt, uncharacteristically headed 'out' into the dangerous, mysterious Garden-Land.

Poor thing. Cats have such delicate hearing.

As time went on, the Marshall developed more and more of a hum, then a whine, then, a few weeks ago, it started to drop out on volume from time to time. I changed the pre-amp valve, which cured the whine and helped with the hum, but even so I figured it was time to retire the old war horse. I got to lookin' for a new amp.

Yes... yes... I was tempted to go all 'aspirational' and match my (now real) Les Paul with an amp of a similar stature. The name 'Mesa Boogie' came up in conversation with Santa many, many times in the run up to Christmas. So much, so, that Tim even wrote his own little "Mesa Boogie" song & dance routine, borrowing heavily from "Jungle Boogie" by Kool & the Gang. I now cannot even think about MB amplification without seeing that particular two-step shuffle in my mind.

Already having Red Dog, a real Les Paul, in my arsenal I'd decided to ditch transistor amps/hybrids and go 'All Valve'. I wanted to kick it Old Skool.

But therein lay a major problem. I wanted the Old Skool sound, but at neighbour friendly volume levels. How do you achieve that without using a transistor for the power-amp? Even a regular 5W valve amp will blow the roof off before it starts to hit the desired levels of screamy crunchy-crunch.

I'm pretty sure it was Furtheron of "Guitars & Life" blog who first pointed me towards Blackstars. Needless to say, my nose was full of Mesa Boogie Lone Star Specials at the credit-crunch price of £1750 when he mentioned them and I never really took the time to check out the Blackstar combo.

Then I saw a review in a magazine... then another... and another. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about the new HT-5 amps! I started to pay attention.

Bored yet? I know I am! Cutting to the chase, I wanted 'that' valve sound at 'reasonable' (as opposed to 'unreasonable') volumes and whilst I didn't mind the idea of splashing the cash too much, why pay over the odds for a quality amp if you can get something perfectly decent at a decent price, eh?

And so onto the actual review!

Right then. First Impressions? It's black and fairly hefty for its size, weighing in at around 15kg, according to the box (which could have come with carrying handles, thank you very much my 'package design' friends at Blackstar). Aesthetically, I'd say it's understated. It definitely has something of a retro-vibe about it, though the 'Hi, I'm Arial' logo font kinda gives it away that Blackstar are new kids on the block.

It feels really sturdy. The corner protectors aren't 'Marshall' thick, but when you reach around and grope at the back of the cabinet you'll find pretty quickly that this isn't made from flimsy materials. Chunky, tolex-wrapped 15mm ply.

Look closer and things start getting cooler. The knobs are silver and chunky and the leather(ish) handle has some neat looking anchors. All the controls are top-mounted. You're not going to mistake this puppy for a Marshall... which I'm sure was the intention of the ex-Marshall engineers who founded Blackstar. All the fit and finish is exemplary. It looks like a £1000 bit of kit. Turning the thing around the first thing you notice (or you don't notice!) is that the sockets for external wiring are recessed and out of sight. Nothing sticks out. Onstage, rooting around for the right hole to stick a cable in might be problematic, but at home it means that the rear end is kept clean and tidy. Ooh-er, missus.

Oh, and there's a velcro strap for stowing your cable when on the go.

Mustn't forget that the amp comes with a really sturdy footswitch for flipping between clean and overdrive channels. Free... comes with... not extra!

So, black/silver... a bit bland on first glance but then shows quality details on further inspection. Nice. Classy.

It's also soooo much smaller than my old VS100R. Okay, so it's only got a 10" Celestion rather than the old Marshall's 12", but by locating the controls on top and towards the rear you free up the whole front face for the speaker. Compact.

I'm starting to get the impression that these boys thought the design through. Still, mustn't be swayed by streamlined packaging if it compromises sound... it's obviously a closed cabinet. Some people like that, some people don't.

What options do we have on the top panel, eh? Well, on clean we get... volume. Well, that's a good start. On the overdrive channel you get GAIN and... volume. Okay. Well, that's the basics covered. Ah, next to those you have Bass/Mid/Treble EQ which work on both channels. So, that's something of a limitation when switching between channels, but this is a budget amp, after all!

Then you get the mystical ISF knob! Infinite Shape Feature... okeydokey... what does that do? Well, according to the manual (yes, yes, I read the manual) if you twist it one way you get more UK (Marshally) vibe and if you twist it the other you head west to the US of A (Mesa Boogie, Mesa Boogie). Is this a gimmick? Maybe. Supposedly it was originally meant to be a temporary widget that the techs used when developing the amp for fine-tuning the sound, but they enjoyed fiddling with it so much they simply left it on. Think of it as a fine-tune control for the EQ.

That covers the knobs. There's no fat here and there's no reverb. Personally, I like that. I think reverb sucks ass. Yes, yes, I had assumed that it would come with reverb, but now that it doesn't I'M GLAD! Seriously, even on my old amps I never turned the reverb on. I want echoes? I'll play in a bigger room!

Switches? The usual valve-style on/off and standby switches. Very nicely done, too. Again, simple and classy.

Input/Output? A place to plug in your lead (obviously) and a headphone socket which doubles as an emulated line out... which can simulate what you'd hear from either a 1x12 cabinet or a 4x12 cabinet. Okay, so here's where we're finding a bit of additional techno-trickery which is a bit anti-valve-ist, but hey, I'm sure it'll come in handy when recording...

Going round the back again, you get an FX loop, plug-ins for additional cabs... erm... footswitch plug in. All good stuff. Nothing missing here.

So, all the basic controls you need with the only real frills being the emulated line out and that weird little pan-galactic ISF knob.

Now, we're getting to the point where we plug it in... all cables connected, flip the on/off switch, wait 30 seconds and take it off standby...


Damn it. I got a duff one! No... no I didn't. It's silent because there's no hum and no hiss. It's perfectly noise-free, even plugged into the wall-socket that used to make the VS100R grumble like a bitch. Cool!

So, it works, it's quiet. Now to test it out, I suppose!

...and that's where I got to with the review before life intervened.

A bit of a cliff-hanger, eh?

The good news is that I've played with it now on a range of settings, both clean and overdrive and I have to say that this is the best amp I've ever played through. I love it. It sounds clear, open and spacey. I liked the sound of the Valvestate, but this baby is like crystal compared with the Marshall being a fogged-up window. Immensely cool. Every home should have one!

So, if you're out there wondering what 5W valve amp to buy for home/studio use then I'm here to tell you that this little fella's going to do you proud. Run out and test-drive a Blackstar TODAY!


Istvanski said...

Great review, Ken - I'm tempted to try their 100 watt head after your praise. Didn't know that Blackstar was run by ex-Marshall employees. It gives this new brand some kudos.

Furtheron said...

Great review - don't say it's that good, I'm losing my job here I can't justify that! :-)

@Isvanski - I've played through the 100W briefly at the London Music Show. IT IS LOOOOOUUUUUDDDDDDD. No master vol - trust me unless you play Wembley look at the 30w - I played that too with a Rob Williams custom Les Paul... I thought I'd gone to heaven - it even made me sound good. I had to hand back the £4K guitar and be lead away carefully by my son as I gibbered about selling anything to buy the combination... :-)

Anonymous said...

Good initial review. I just got my HT-5S (the stack) last Friday. The sound is great like you said. Its worth comparing the combo to the stack that is 2x10. I have the 2x10 and feel it has a little more depth to the sound. I agree that every home should have one of these.

Istvanski said...

Too late. I've gone and bought the Line 6 Valve Spider.
There's three types of 'loud'.

1. Loud
2. Very Loud
3. Fucking Loud

Mine is number 3.

Anonymous said...

Well... where's the real review? I'm just kidding...
So, is it worth?

Steve said...

Really cool amp. The Blackstar HT5 is def the best sounding amp in this price range!

Anonymous said...

I agree with your review, and can build on it a bit.

It's a great piece of gear and I did a little gig with my Blackstar HT5 head last night. I live in Singapore so the standard thing is that most venues have their own amps. I don't like that because you're always messing with new gear and trying to figure out a sound.

So I just take the head along, and in this case ran it through a Marshall 4X12 bottom that was at the venue. What a great sound! Because it's only 5 watts, I can just crank the master volumes to ten, set the eq for the room and forget it. It sounds like a overcranked big amp, but without the hearing damage. I'm frankly delighted with how the thing performed in public, and would recommend it for anyone who's not playing huge rooms, and wants an authentic early 70s crunch sound.