Blackstar St. James 50 EL34 Combo Review
A 50-watt tube combo that weighs just 24 pounds.
Light! Powerful. Wide range of sounds.
Channel one can sound flat without pedals.
Blackstar St. James 50 EL34 Combo
Whether or not the push toward lightweight amplifiers is a lasting trend (and why wouldn’t it be?), the quest for less tonnage is definitely yielding interesting amps. Fender’s recent digital simulacrums of the Deluxe and Twin demonstrated that light weight and vintage-correct style can co-exist. Blackstar, too, has made “lighten the load” its modus operandi for the new St. James series. But rather than using digital means to drop pounds, Blackstar stuck with tube amp architecture. That leads us to the St. James 50 EL34 reviewed here: a proper 50-watt, 1x12" tube combo that, remarkably, weighs just 24 pounds.
Blackstar calls the St. James—which comes in 6L6 or EL34 and combo or head/cabinet versions—“the lightest 50-watt amps on earth.” They’re hardly bare bones, though. The St. James 50 offers two differently voiced footswitchable channels, onboard power reduction (50 watts to 2 watts), a digital cab-modeling DI output, digital reverb, an effects loop, a USB connection, and more. And that distant roar? It’s the sound of 10,000 guitarists’ aching backs delivering a standing ovation.
The St. James’ two channels give the amp a strong transatlantic personality. With a single volume control as well as bass, middle, and treble controls (shared by both channels), channel one aims for glassy, slightly scooped American clean tones. Channel two features gain II and volume II (a channel-specific master volume) and the shared EQ section. It’s built for British-style tones, which, in this case, range from Vox-y chime to stack-style roar. Toggle switches on the top panel provide channel switching and a boost for channel two (a footswitch is also included for both functions).
That distant roar? It’s the sound of 10,000 guitarists’ aching backs delivering a standing ovation.
Because the St. James is built around a top-rear-mounted chassis, many connections are situated on the underside of the chassis. But Blackstar thoughtfully provides arrows to the essential connections, so you don’t have to lie on the floor to find them. Connections include USB audio-out for direct recording and loading Cab Rig presets (via the included editing software); a footswitch jack; an effects loop send and return and level switch, a 3-way Cab Rig preset switch; a line out/headphone jack; and a balanced output (a reactive load inside enables silent recording when desired). There are also two 8-ohm speaker outs and a single 16-ohm out.
Inside the semi-closed-back 20" x 18.25" x 10.25" cabinet, which is made from light candlenut plywood, you’ll find a St. James-exclusive, super-light, ferrite Celestion Zephyr 12" speaker. Both cabinet and speaker contribute significantly to reducing weight. The retro-modern, fawn-colored cabinet, incidentally, does a nice job of stylishly communicating its Anglo/American split personality.
In addition to two EL34 output tubes that generate the back-end power, the Blackstar includes two 12AX7s in the preamp. Tube nuts will know that this isn’t enough to generate an old-school, all-tube front end, so clearly some elements of the circuit have taken a solid-state detour. That said, this complement allows for tube gain stages in the most critical positions, and aids the weight-reduction effort by requiring less electrical power, filtering, and other hardware.
The St. James 50 EL34 is powerful. It covers a lot of ground, too. Generally speaking, channel one aims for a black-panel Fender baseline but reads more as a blank slate. That means it excels in tandem with pedals, yet can also feel short on gain coloration. After all, a little breakup and compression is usually part of the formula for most classic ’60s clean machines. A simple OD can rectify this though. A Wampler Tumnus Deluxe, Way Huge Red Llama, and TS10 Tube Screamer all brought out the best of the St. James’ tamer side. Kick one of those on, or chain a couple together, and there are toothsome bluesy leads and thumping rhythms aplenty.
Channel two goes from clean-with-grit to medium gain with the drive beyond 2 o’clock. It also kicks out juicy, classic-rock lead tones when pushed with the boost. It’s important to note that the boost level is preset and elicits a volume jump that varies according to drive II and volume II settings. Sometimes it’s a major leap, but it’s great for getting more sting out of channel two.
There are a few characteristics shared by both channels. The amp tends to bark in the upper midrange, almost regardless of EQ settings. It can also be pretty biting in the treble zone. Both conditions seem as much a function of the speaker as the amp itself and could mellow as the speaker is broken in. On the upside, the treble-forward profile and volume on tap mean you won’t worry about cutting through a dense stage mix. Both channels sound surprisingly beefy in the 2-watt mode, too. The digital reverb, meanwhile, is atmospheric and lends a nice sense of space, though there are no super-surfy spring sounds.
Blackstar’s St. James 50 EL34 1x12 Combo offers potency, useful extras, and a nice array of sounds in a very light package that will make many backs very happy. It’s priced competitively with mid-power offerings from other big guitar-amp manufacturers. It’s also incredibly practical, demonstrating that tube power still has a place at the featherweight amplifier table.
Blackstar St. James (EL34) Demo | First Look
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