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Blackstar HT-5R Amp Review

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.

Street $450 - Blackstar Amplification -