Saturday, September 20, 2014

Blackstar HT-5R 1x12 Combo Guitar Amplifier Review


Guitarists are in a really sweet spot right now, as there are oodles of really good small tube amplifiers on the market, and they will not have to break the bank (or their backs) to pick one up. One I tried out recently is the very nice Blackstar HT-5R.

Blackstar amplifiers was founded ten years ago in Northampton, England by four friends. Two of these folks were former Marshall research and development employees, Ian Robinson and Bruce Keir, and they have used their experience to create a full line of gnarly tube amp and some really excellent pedals.

Though they are known for their high-power offerings, the HT-5R is also a neat piece of work, and it is an excellent small gig or practice amplifier. It is pretty small (18x14x9 inches), but it still manages to pack a 12-inch speaker, a Blackbird 50 made by Celestion. The speaker is good for 50 watts at 16 ohms. The whole combo is not too heavy, coming in at around 27 pounds, but it still has a sturdy feel. This is an open-back amp, of course…

It is a good-looking amp too, with a black and chrome theme that will probably not look dumb in 10 years. I do not care for the size and look of the logo on the front, but it would probably come off without too much trouble. It seems really well put together with heavy plywood and good corner protection and the tubes are recessed to help prevent damage. The HT-5R that I played had a couple of lump spots on the Tolex and the piping did not seem to fit well around the front mesh, but then again this is not a super-expensive amp.

This is a 5-watt tube unit, but it makes its power differently than the rest of the herd of cool little amps that have been coming out over the past decade. This Blackstar uses a 12BH7 dual triode valve in a push-pull output stage to get the characteristics of a 100W output stage, making it sound like a lot bigger amp even at lower volume levels. These guys are pretty clever!

Using the HT-5R is not difficult as it is not exactly a knob farm, even though it is a two-channel amp. The controls are on the top panel, and include volume and tone for the clean channel, gain and volume for the overdrive channel, a three band EQ (labeled “Equalisation” for you Anglophiles) with an ISF knob, a reverb knob and switches for standby and power. Bless Blackstar for putting the volume switch somewhere easy to find. A footswitch is included for the channel switching, or the overdrive switch on the control panel can be used.

Around back is the IEC power cable socket, 3 speaker outputs, a switchable emulated output (also good for headphones), the footswitch socket, an effects loop and a ¼-inch input for MP3/AUX sources. These are located so that they face down and cannot be seen when the amp is standing up normally, making them a total pain to use in low-light situations. The orientation of these features is probably the thing I like least about the HT-5R.

A few of these features need a little further explanation. The ISF (Infinite Shape Feature) knob is a supplement to the EQ knobs and it changes the tonal characteristics. Turned fully to the left, when maxed out it tightens the bottom end and boost, and when maxed out it has the British thunder to it. There is some kind of variable logic in-between. The switchable emulated output is for the headphones or mixer and it replicates the sound of a 4x12 closed back or a 1x12 open back cabinet. This is a stereo out so you can get the full effect of the reverb (the “R” in HT-5R).

I tried out this Blackstar amp with my Tele, Strat and Les Paul and came away impressed -- it was able to get most any tone I was looking for without a ton of knob fiddling. I am sure that this was in part because I was using the right tools for the job and not trying to make a strat sound like a Les Paul, or vice versa. I could get a very respectable clean, as well as a nasty bark when overdriving. It would do a respectable Pink Floyd, GNR or Dan Fogelberg.

The ISF knob really does work as advertised, though I lost patience with trying to make the in-between settings work for me. For someone like me they would have been better off putting a switch on it instead of a knob. Maybe a three-way switch so I could turn it off, too. It does make me wonder what the HT-5R would sound like with no ISF and a sweepable mid instead.

The digital reverb is probably amongst the best on-board units I have heard. It is perfectly usable the way that it is, though it should be noted that it is for both channels, and it is not foot switchable (the footswitch only controls channel switching).

I tried out the emulation switch and liked how it sounded though my phones. This would be a nice feature for recording, though it may be a moot point for on-stage work, as you are going to need a bigger amp if you are at the size of a gig that would require a sound guy.

Which comes down the final point: power. All-in-all, this is a 5-watt amp, and it is going to find almost all of its use for practice and very small gigs. It is loud enough to make the neighbors made, but probably not enough to make them call the cops.

Keeping all of this in mind, the Blackstar HT-5R is a durable amp that sounds good, and it is not very expensive for what you get. It has a list price of $629 and a street price of $499 (including a footswitch), which is not too bad at all. It would certainly be near the top of my list if I was looking for a new amp in this size range.


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