The English builder’s affordable mid-wattage star gets leaner, meaner, and more versatile.
Dynamic, wide-range tones. Useful tone-sculpting features.
No standby switch, no reverb toggle on footswitch.
$549 street [head], $379 street [HT-212VOC Cabinet]
Ease of Use:
For Blackstar’s new and much-revised HT20 series, the English amp builder pulled off an impressive trick: adding more features in a slimmer, lighter amp. Available as a head or compact combo, the MkII can deliver clean tones, vintage overdrive, and high-gain sounds that flirt with the textures of modern metal. With Blackstar’s Infinite Shape Feature (ISF), American and British-style voicings, and great clean-to-filthy range, you can summon wildly varied sounds with the touch of a button or twist of a knob. And while it’s a more-than-capable stage amp, apartment players will love its bevy of recording options and 20-to-2-watt power scaling. It’s a versatile amp, to say the least.
Shedding Weight, Beefing Up Tones
Blackstar made significant changes to the HT20’s circuit archirecture, most notably by using EL84s instead of EL34s in the power section. Blackstar also added a master volume and mid control to the overdrive channel’s dedicated EQ section. Other facets of the design remain the same. It’s still a two-channel, clean/overdrive design. Blackstar also retained its ISF control, which works in conjunction with the EQ to generate British, American, or blended voices depending on where you set it. Still more tone-sculpting options are available via the voice button, which switches between “classic” and “modern” overdrive voices.
While the clean channel doesn’t have the advantage of the overdrive channel’s 3-band EQ, the single tone knob has good range. And though it also lacks the overdrive channel’s ISF control, the clean channel’s voice button gives you the option to shift clean tones between a bassier/darker Fender- or a crisp, toppier Vox-like foundation. Both clean and overdrive channels utilize the master volume and share the digital reverb. And for late-night players, the dynamic power reduction attenuation switch will drop the output from 20 watts to 2 watts with the press of a button.
On the back panel there’s a USB audio jack that can be connected directly to a computer for stereo output with speaker emulation. The DI output can be used to connect directly to an audio interface or mixing console. Additional features include an MP3/line-in and an effects loop with a dB boost/cut switch. The icing on the cake is the included footswitch that allows you to switch between the clean and overdrive channels, as well as their respective voice options.
All the Frills
The HT-20R MkII is available as a combo and as the head reviewed here. If you opt for the head configuration, you can also select from two cabinets: the 2x12 HT-212VOC that accompanied our review head or the 1x12 HT-112OC. This cab sports two 12" Celestion Seventy 80s in vertical orientation. It also has a detachable backplate that allows you top run the rig as a closed-back cabinet for punchier bass or as a semi-open-back to provide a wider midrange and more diffuse tone dispersal. I started off with the back closed for a tighter bottom end, the clean channel, and a Gibson Les Paul. With the tone knob around 1 o’clock and the “British” voicing on, the Blackstar has a bright, crisp attack that remains clean up until about noon on the volume. Past that point, you start to hear traces of overdrive grit. Meanwhile, the “American” voice gives you more headroom before you hit overdrive. The clean channel isn’t a dead ringer for the average Fender-type amp. The EL84s are a bit brighter and more mid-range-y than the 6L6s and 6V6s found in most Fenders. But it has many pleasing and versatile tone characteristics—and not least are the many well-balanced sounds where clean and gritty meet. My favorite sounds came when I set the volume around 1 o’clock and used the footswitch to toggle between voicings, using the cutting British tone for dirt and the cleaner American voice for rhythm.
On the overdrive channel, the extra EQ power and the ISF helps carve tones, from classic overdrive to scorching distortion. Selecting the modern OD voice, pulling back the mids, setting the ISF around 1 o’clock, and kicking the gain up to 3 o’clock generates killer, scooped thrash-metal tones. Humbuckers are your friend at these settings, and while single-coils work well for certain applications, higher gain settings will find you fighting white noise and feedback. I prefered the classic voice for my Stratocaster, which opened up the picking dynamics. Opening the back of the cabinet as well enhanced these tones—and dynamics—further. And with the gain around noon, the single-coils still generate plenty of grit to wrangle Stones-style filth from the amp. Gentle guitar volume attenuation cleans tones up without sounding thin. Effects pedals work great in both channels, and the effects loop is a huge help when using time-based effects in high-gain situations.
My only real gripe is the lack of a standby switch and the somewhat limited reverb, which can only be adjusted for mix level. The lack of a standby is a minor quibble (though, arguably, it could affect tube lifespan). The reverb can be more problematic. Higher gain settings don’t pair very well with the effect, at least for most conventional uses, and there is no option to switch it on with the footswitch. Given how many possibilities there are to switch between radically different tones, it would be nice to switch the reverb in and out more easily too.
The plethora of options on the MkII are practical and forward thinking. There’s plenty of flexibility for the bedroom recording artist and, with many switchable voice options, that flexibility translates to the stage as well. The power reduction is excellent for practice and recording situations, and running full power will suit clubs and bigger venues with proper sound reinforcement. If you love options and flexibility, the Blackstar HT-20R MkII is an outstanding performer at this price.