Blackstar HT-5R Amp Review

Featuring a very cool stereo digital reverb, the amp uses a single ECC83 tube to produce 5 watts of output power.

Audio recorded with a Gibson Les Paul

Back in the mid-2000s, Marshall R&D employees Ian Robinson and Bruce Keir founded Blackstar Amplification as a vehicle for their own design notions. Since then, the company has enjoyed an admirable run of success. Thanks to a line that ranges from the HT stompbox series to Artisan series handwired amps and the thunderous Series One amps, Blackstar quickly found fans among everyday guitarists and marquee players like Ozzy Osbourne axeman Gus G., Neal Schon, and such Britpop and New Wave stalwarts as Echo and the Bunnymen’s Will Sergeant, Ocean Colour Scene, and Paul Weller sidekick Steve Craddock.

Though the company’s highest-profile amps to date have primarily been mid- to high-power amps with a distinctly British flavor, Blackstar has more recently ventured into small-amp territory to give low-watt-loving studio artists and bedroom players access to Blackstar tones. The HT-5R combo is among the newest of these smaller offerings. Featuring a very cool stereo digital reverb, the amp uses a single ECC83 tube to produce 5 watts of output power.

Compact But Capable
The HT-5R’s main controls are mounted on the top panel. Its two channels, which are selectable via the footswitch or the overdrive switch on the control panel, give you the ability to conjure everything from snappy cleans to churning growls. The Clean channel has just one Tone knob that gives you everything from mellow warm tones to a brighter sparkle when cranked in the clockwise direction.

The Overdrive channel has a Gain and Volume knob. The latter acts as a master volume, adjusting the overall output of the amplifier. The Gain knob increases the crunch of the overdrive, which is capable of everything from near-breakup to a wild, hairy distortion. The Overdrive channel has an expanded EQ with Bass, Middle, and Treble knobs. There’s also Blackstar’s signature ISF (Infinite Shape Feature) control, which is also found on select HT pedals and on most Blackstar amps. ISF lets you blend characteristics typical of American and English amplifiers. A counterclockwise turn emphasizes American-flavored rock tones—bass-heavy with exaggerated mids. A clockwise turn summons a more Brit-hued jangle. The reverb, meanwhile, ranges from the subtlest color to dramatic washes.

The rear panel of the HT-5R is home to some unexpected surprises. Aside from an Effects Loop, Blackstar includes a Cabinet Select feature, which can toggle between the 12" Blackbird 50 speaker in the amp’s open-back cabinet, or an emulattion of a 4x12 closed-back cabinet. Engaging the 4x12 gives a tighter response to the output, which does sound remarkably close to the character of a larger cabinet, albeit on a much smaller scale.

You’ll also find a 1/4" MP3/Line Input that allows you to hook up a portable audio device (CD player, iPod, etc.) to jam along with. The Emulated Output & Headphone jack is another blessing for bedroom enthusiasts. This output will give you the sonic qualities of a guitar cabinet at noiseless levels—perfect for recording or practice without rousing the neighbors.

With its handsome black vinyl and chrome knobs, the Blackstar HT-5R will be comfortable at both black-tie events and roadhouse saloons. Weighing in at 27 pounds and burnished with some hefty corner brackets, this little beast looks and feels rugged. But the sturdiness is more than skin deep—the ECC83 and 12BH7 tubes, as well as the rear panel controls, are all well recessed and secure from jostling onstage or in transit. You get the feeling that a lot of experienced players had a hand in designing this amp.

Multiple Personalities
I gave the Blackstar HT-5R a workout with my Fender Stratocaster, and started out on the more aggressive end of the amp’s tonal spectrum. After dialing up some medium-high gain, adding a slight boost to the Treble and ISF controls, and engaging the 4x12 cabinet emulation, I was treated to a whiplash tone with a nasty bite that was more than a little reminiscent of an early Marshall. The meaty tube crunch remained true and intact, even at lower volume levels, thanks in no small part to the push-pull design Blackstar implemented for the power section. And even the quietest levels, my Strat’s single-coils breathed with life I sometimes don’t hear from much larger heads.

Turning off the 4x12 cabinet emulation guided the tone into a rich and darker zone. A counterclockwise tweak of the ISF knob and drop in the gain yielded the smoky sounds of Americana and Chess-style electric blues. There’s real weight to the low end that doesn’t suffer from the amp’s small size, and the very responsive EQ knobs are more than capable of adding midrange heft and genuinely cutting trebles when you need them.

With a Les Paul in hand, the Overdrive channel off, and the Volume knob cranked to maximum, the channel exhibited a sweet combination of break-up and bark. The darker humbuckers sounded a bit loose and rubbery with the amp’s Tone knob set lower, but higher settings brought out the Gibson’s capacity for beautiful and crisp harmonics.

The Blackstar’s reverb is responsive and lends a lot of flexibility to this amp. It has a wide arc and a basic character that is brighter than, say, a classic Fender reverb. But it’s not at all harsh or “digital.” At the highest settings, there’s a slightly aggressive slapback quality in the echo that may be too much for anyone other than experimentalists or surf and psychobilly pickers. But in general, the reverb is perfectly suited to the entire range of the amp’s voices.

The Verdict
The Blackstar HT-5R is a uniquely crafted amplifier that’s at home onstage, in studios of every type and—provided you don’t work with an aspiring Led Zeppelin rhythm section—the practice space, as well. With a responsive EQ, a wide range of clean-to-high-gain voices, and a booming reverb, this little black box is well suited for recording artists and bedroom pickers who are looking for more refinement and warmth than you get from a budget practice amp. At about $450, this little guy may be more than the average picker can justify for an amp that probably isn’t powerful enough for many gigging situations. But for home pickers who consider tone paramount, this little Blackstar does a lot for the price.
Buy if...
you’re looking for genuine valve tone in a small package.
Skip if...
you need super-sharp cleans at higher volume or the horsepower to gig with a rock combo.

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