Blackstar HT-Studio 20 Combo Amplifier Review
Standard Retail Price: $499.99
Typical Used Price: $275 to $400
Features: 2 channels; 20 watts; one 12" Celestion speaker; powered by two ECC83 tubes and two EL34 tubes; digital reverb; footswitch; Blackstar's proprietary ISF technology.
Controls: Master Volume and Reverb are global controls. Clean channel: Volume, Tone. Overdrive channel: Volume, Gain, and an EQ section with knos for Bass, Middle, Treble and ISF.
Famous Users: Richard Patrick (Filter); Steve Jones (Sex Pistols); Barry Burns (Mogwai)
Further Information: BlackstarAmps.com
Captain Beefheart, in his 10 Commandments for Guitar Players, once wrote, "Old delta blues players referred to amplifiers as the 'devil box.' And they were right." The good Captain continued, "You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you're bringing over from the other side. Electricity attracts demons and devils. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub."
This about sums up Blackstar's 20-watt HT-Studio amp. It's easy to see why a turn-of-the-century bluesman might have been downright spooked by this particular devil box: it's capable of producing a lot of different voices, but the thing it really does best is LET IT RIP!
I was in the market for a relatively inexpensive tube amplifier to use with my band primarily on live stages. We play both original music and covers, usually on separate nights, so I needed an amp that would keep up with a really diverse set of material ranging from pop-rock to hard rock to dance pop. After perusing the wares on exhibit at my local music retail shop, the owner suggested I give the little HT-20 a shot. Not only was it great, he pointed out, but he had some flexibility on the price. (I won't tell you what I paid for it new, but it was not far off from some of the used prices I've seen subsequently.)
I wasn't really familiar with Blackstar at the time, outside of their ads in guitar mags featuring Gus G, so I really thought of them as metal amps. But a glance at the handsome cabinet and I realized i could probably get along with this amp. In terms of cosmetics, the HT-20 looks like a clean, modern update that incorporates elements of classic British amp design. It's got a Marshall-esque white plastic logo plate, and white piping surrounding the dark-gray grillcloth a la Hiwatt. The control panel is logically laid out, and although it's a little on the heavy side for a 20-watt combo, the leather handle is among the sturdiest and best-padded I've seen on any amplifier.
So I plugged it in and fired it up.
Ease of Use
Some amplifier manufacturers are getting really good at packing a vast array of features into their products. And while this was largely window dressing for about a decade, today many of these features are very usable. However, the upshot of all the built-in technology is that many amps require a thorough reading of a Bible-sized manual to gain an understanding of the basic manual operation of your new gear.
This is where the HT-Studio 20 succeeds among its peers: Blackstar has hit a great balance between putting in enough features to appeal to guitarists who need versatility, while keeping the user interface clean and simple.
The control panel is very straightforward, with each channel on its own side. The Clean Channel controls are limited to Volume and Tone knobs. At first, I thought this would be very limiting, but after a little over a year with this amp, I can say that a well-voiced clean channel like this one really doesn't seem to need any additional options. I set the Volume where I want it based on the environment I'm in, and then I turn the Tone knob left to roll off the high end and increase the bass frequencies, or turn it to the right to dial in some more treble while taming the bass. It's that easy.
The Overdrive Channel is a little more complex, with its own Gain, Volume and EQ section. The HT-20 has a LOT of gain on tap, by the way--more than I will ever use. In this way, I can see why metal guys dig Blackstar's gear. However, I find that I'm able to keep that dial below 12 o'clock and summon everything from classic rock crunch to modern rock grind. Anything above that just seems egregious to me, but if you're looking for more, the Studio 20 has it.
Another interesting feature of the Overdrive Channel is its independent EQ section. While it has separate knobs for Bass, Middle and Treble frequencies, the HT-20 also makes use of Blackstar's proprietary Infinite Shape Feature (or ISF). According to the manual, turning this knob to the left gives the player access to more "American"-sounding drive tones inspired by a prominent California-based manufacturer of high-gain amplifiers. Conversely, turning the ISF knob to the right gives the drive sound a more British character, and since Blackstar was founded by former Marshall employees, my guess is that these tones were at least in part derived from said UK-based amplification giant.
The digital reverb is easy to dial in, and the Master Volume knob allows you to drive the tubes harder, bringing a thicker, more saturated tone. There's also a Channel switch on the front panel that toggles between Clean and Overdrive, but conveniently, Blackstar has included a single-button footswitch with a nice long cable that provides for clean, instantaneous channel switching.
The back panel is also very well laid out, with three speaker output options, an input for the footswitch, a balanced output with speaker simulation (super convenient for recording a direct signal without miking up the cabinet), and Send and Return jacks for an effects loop. These are accompanied by a Level button, which allows you to boost the input slightly for those pedals that may have a weaker signal.
As stated above, I love the voicing of the Clean Channel--so much so that at this point, I rarely use the Overdrive Channel because the way it interacts with my dirt pedals is, well, even better than the real thing. That's not totally accurate; it's just that the Overdrive Channel is designed for higher-gain applications than I tend to use. But the Clean Channel is a real prize-winner as far as I'm concerned. It's bright and rich-sounding, with tons of headroom on tap. And it's very, very loud! I think you'd have to crank the HT-20's Clean side to near-deafening volumes to get it to the point where tube saturation really starts to be noticeable.
I do like the Overdrive Channel in the context of some of the heavier covers my band performs. Plugging in a guitar with humbuckers and pushing the Gain knob to about 11 o'clock gets a really cool modern rock sound somewhere between the Foo Fighters and Three Doors Down. Toggling between channels with the footswitch is instantaneous, which is great--I've played through other amps where there's the most minute "gap" in sound as the amp goes from one channel to the next, and it never fails to throw me off. The HT-20 is mercifully free of any such glitches.
Both channels throw out harmonically rich, complex sounds and the stock Celestion speaker seems fairly well-chosen for the HT-20. I've read feedback from some users who have swapped out the stock speaker for a custom selection. They indicate that using something like a Jensen C12N or a Celestion Vintage 30 really opens up the amp's sound, but I can't speak to that.
The digital reverb may be the weak link in the chain, but as with drive sounds, I rely on a pedal for my ambiance. But my limited experience with the built-in 'verb basically seems to suggest that it's difficult to find a sweet spot on the dial. Basically, you've either got too much or too little; I have yet to find a happy medium where I'm adding texture without taking away from the quality of the dry portion of the signal.
I've found that I prefer the ISF knob either set in between the USA and UK ends of the spectrum (which gives a sound not unlike a Vox AC-15 with, obviously, more gain) or all the way on the British side. The American voicing has a tighter low end, but there's something about the way the mids and highs interact on the UK settings that really agrees with my playing style.
Now, one thing to bear in mind with regard to the ISF is that the effect is very, very subtle when you first start playing the amp. I expected to hear a tremendous difference between the two, and initially I experienced almost none. This, again, is the genius of Blackstar: the amp really does have its own character that shines through, whilst giving you tonal flexibility. In fact, as I continued to work with the amp over the next few months, I noticed that the ISF knob is incredibly useful for sculpting very useful tones that sit completely differently in a full mix. That's right--you're more apt to experience the ISF in the context of a full band than when you're just jamming alone. How'd they do that?!
The Blackstar HT-Studio 20 combo is an excellent choice for a working musician seeking a portable, versatile, relatively inexpensive workhorse of a tube amp. I'm not sure that these will ever attain the hallowed status of something like a Vox AC-15 or a Fender '65 Deluxe Reverb or any other famous mid-to-low wattage amp, but in terms of practical use, I would say that the HT-20 definitely holds its own against the modern incarnations of either the Vox or the Fender.
If you have the chance to test-drive one of these bad boys, I would strongly suggest you do so! Humbuckers or single-coils--this amp loves every guitar I've plugged into it and it plays well with effects, too. While not a flawless design, I definitely consider Blackstar's 20-watt beast a keeper.