Inspiration often comes at inconvenient times—especially if you’re a guitarist. Sleeping children and neighbors may not enjoy that new riff nearly as much as you do at 4 a.m.—and certainly not at volumes that help you capture the essence of a really powerful riff.
The answer, of course, is to go small. But it’s not easy to find a practice amp that can approximate those tonal sweet spots you get from big amp.
Leave it to Blackstar, who know a thing or two about big, loud amps to stuff so much bigness in their 1-watt ultraportable powerhouse, the HT-1R Combo. In spite of its petite dimensions, it goes from clean to crunch to a dirty you can really feel in a package small enough to make it all seem impossible.
The HT-1R, which is essentially the HT-1 plus reverb (there’s also an HT-1RH head), is a closed-back combo that houses an 8-inch speaker and a two-channel tube circuit that uses an ECC83 and an ECC82 to push that deceptively potent single watt. The amp’s controls are very simple—just four knobs for Gain, Volume, ISF and Reverb. There’s also an Overdrive button as well as an emulated speaker output that you can route directly to a board or digital audio interface and an MP3/Line Input for jamming along to the tunes of your choice.
Clad in black with compact, squarish 12.1"x12"x6.8" dimensions, the HT-1R is about as unsuspecting an amp as there is. It feels solid and sturdy for its size. Knobs are tight and turn smoothly, and jacks and switches snap like high quality pieces. Perhaps my only gripe about the control layouts is that the overdrive channel button would benefit from a status light.
Petite with Punch
For a practice amp, the HT-1R is extremely versatile. It can go from a warm Fender-style sound to the edgy clarity and gain of a distorted Marshall, and many points in between. For players spoiled by amp/cabinet modeling and tons of built-in effects, the HT-1R may seem sparse or limited. But it’s a small amp with big character that still enables you to tinker effectively with natural amp compression and a wide gain range.
I checked out the HT-1R with a Dean Vendetta 3 with stock Dean humbuckers. And the real wonder of this 1-watt Blackstar is that it pumps out the crunch and demonstrates the break-up characteristics of a much more powerful amp at levels that border on inaudible. It sounds like a big amp being pushed to where it should be, not a little amp being pushed too far. But cranking the gain and volume also filled my 25-by-20 practice room with ease.
The clean channel suffers just a little from the extremely low wattage. There’s not much headroom and Blackstar recommends max volume and about 30 percent gain for the best clean tones. Any additional volume requires increasing the gain, which dirties the clean tone pretty quickly.
The real wonder of this 1-watt Blackstar is that it pumps out the crunch and demonstrates the break-up characteristics of a much more powerful amp at levels that border on inaudible.
The amp’s most interesting aspect is Blackstar’s Infinite Shape Feature, or ISF, which takes the place of a traditional 2- or 3-band equalizer. Instead the ISF uses a single knob to shape the tone in a range from a USA-style tone to UK sound—which to my ears sounded like going from 1980s Metallica to 1970s Black Sabbath. I found the most defined and modern distortion settings with full gain and the ISF about 30 percent from a maximum USA setting. Past that (or more British) the high gain gets comparatively muddy. But, taking off some of the gain massaged the tone into a smoother and throatier Sabbath chug. It’s a cool feature for times when you want to work fast to find a basic voice. But while the ISF knob created a wide variety of tones, there were several instances where I wanted more EQ control over specific frequency ranges. The reverb proved to be a capable tone-shaping tool too—softening some of the higher-gain settings and making them more manageable.
One cool thing about any small amp, but the Blackstar in particular, is that you can work with positioning it around a room really easily. Raising the amp closer to ear level made a world of difference. And placing the amp up off the ground and closer to ear level gives you the clearest audio picture of how convincingly this amp can capture the character of much larger units. Moving too far away or playing with a loud band means losing a lot of that perspective. The sound from the emulated speaker output, meanwhile, was fantastic—eliminating the worry about speaker location in recording situations.
The HT-1R is a powerful little combo perfect for solo practice (especially in tight spaces) It’s also a great recording amp—getting rich cranked-amp tones at late-night volumes and rich clean tones at even lower levels. You can also access a plethora of tones with minimal amount of knob twisting using the ISF feature. Though in some instances you’ll probably be left wanting for more expansive and specific EQ control. At its essence though the HT-1R is an overachiever—the amp equivalent of that little poodle that bares its teeth at Rottweilers. And if you want to get heavy in tight spaces, it’s a great way to go
you need an extremely portable amp that sounds huge at very low volumes or need a practice amp with tone that’s good enough for can also use for direct recording.
you want more EQ control or need something with more volume for the jam sessions.