UK-based Blackstar Amplification has been making big, loud waves with their recent entry into the US market. For a small company, their product line is fairly diverse—products range from their hand-crafted Artisan Series, the big and bold Series One amplifiers and their highly popular (at least in Europe) and somewhat pricey HT tube pedals to their affordable, but feature-rich, HT Venue series combo amps. Of the Venue series, Blackstar sent us the HT Club 40 for review. Powered by two ECC83 and two EL34 tubes, it is, by appearances and a glance at the data sheet, your standard mid-range valve combo minus the digital doodads amp makers tend to stuff into products at this price point. Plug in your guitar and tweak a few knobs, and you quickly realize that the Blackstar HT Club 40 is much, much more.
The amp feels and looks rugged and road-ready. The black Tolex is tight and thick for road use; the external hardware is likewise rugged, giving the amp a somewhat vintage look. A 12" Celestion lies under the black and white grille. On the back side you'll find the usual compliment of jacks, including an FX Loop with a +4/-10 dbv switch, speaker-emulated output, and three powered speaker outs: 16 Ohm for the internal Celestion or an external 16 Ohm cab, and two additional powered outs that can be used with a single 8 Ohm cab (without the internal speaker), two 16 Ohm cabs, or one external 16 Ohm cab along with the internal 16 Ohm speaker. There is also a footswitch jack and included two-button footswitch. The amp also worked fine with my standard two-channel footswitch—one switch managed the amp's two channels, the other, reverb on/off.
The back panel also has a Light/Dark switch for the amp's digital reverb, which, in my mind, is the right place for such a feature. The Light/Dark switch turns on or off the reverb's high frequency damping, and a single knob on the front panel controls the reverb amount. The speaker portion of the amp is essentially a sealed cabinet, giving the amp lots of focus and spank, and a tightly controlled bottom-end that may border on too tight at lower volumes. Still, I would much rather carry my footswitch and power cable in my gig bag then deal with the flabbiness that can occur with open backs at low and medium output levels.
In the throes of sweaty onstage inspiration, the last thing I want to do is count knobs or worse, study the front panel of a complicated combo before tweaking something that I feel needs it. Blackstar's front panel seems to be built by guitar players with a similar mindset. (The company was founded by former Marshall R&D alum Ian Robinson and Bruce Keir, along with a handful of their colleagues.) And controlling the Blackstar is somewhat reminiscent of controlling classic Marshalls as opposed to today's fancier ones. The HT Club 40's standard amp layout—clean channel, followed by the high-gain/distortion channel, followed by EQ then master out controls is improved by a sensible use of spacing between sections and crystal-clear white-on-black labeling.
Clean and … Not So Clean
The clean channel has two knobs—volume and tone, and a switch called Voice. The Voice switch is the key to both knobs, switching the clean channel from "Boutique" meaning pure Class A, to "Modern" which is Class A/B. In Boutique Mode, the volume can introduce a dose of overdrive reminiscent of classic Vox amps and approaching the threshold of a classic HiWatt. With the Voice switch in, the sparkly high-end definition of a Class A/B amp is obvious and pristine at any Channel 1 or Master Volume level. The Tone knob controls brightness and has a wide range. To my taste, the amp and my guitars sounded best from 12 o' clock to 9 o'clock.
The next set of knobs is Channel 2's gain and volume controls. While I was impressed with Channel 1's versatility, Channel 2 (overdrive) is what made me covet this amp and come up with excuses as to why I can't send it back to my editors. The distortion is nothing less than gorgeous, colorful, aggressive and equal parts punchy and creamy. To my ears, the distortion sits somewhere between classic Marshall and Mesa/Boogie, and can be managed very effectively using the ISF knob, and, to a lesser degree, Channel 2's Voice switch.
Creamy distortion has become a mainstay tone beyond Heavy and Nu Metal genres, but it often lacks enough punch and definition to cut through a rock band's live mix. Many guitarists attack this problem by turning up (the solution to, and cause of, most live guitar tone issues), which pushes them out of the house PA and can often destroy a good live mix. The HT Club 40's ISF (Infinite Shape Feature) knob lets you dial back in some crunch and bite so instead of an either/or choice of creamy metal distortion or classic hard rock distortion, you can achieve a hybrid of the two. So at virtually any volume and gain level, you are guaranteed clarity and punch. This is where the amp truly shines, and probably why Blackstar's artist roster leans towards heavy metal, punk, and hard rock acts, though not exclusively so.
Blackstar succinctly describes the ISF knob as a tonal shift from American to UK characteristics, or anywhere in between. It works in conjunction with the treble, middle and bass EQ knobs. The relationship between the EQ knobs and the ISF knob means there are nearly endless tone settings and so many sweet spots it may be hard to park on just one (the upside to a simple UI is also its downside—unless you plan on twiddling knobs during your gig, you will just have to pick your tone and try and forget all the other good ones lurking closely by). But it also means every guitarist who owns this amp can have his or her own signature sound that is of very high quality.