In the age of amp emulators and impulse responses, it seems most guitar players are shrinking their rigs. Not so with the new Blackstar St. James series, which is here to prove you can still get full-size valve-amp tone without regular visits to the chiropractor.
These four units – two combos and two heads – claim to be the lightest 50W valve amps on the planet. Well, we certainly had few complaints about the EL34 combo… and now it’s the 6L6-powered head’s turn. What’s more, to prove that speaker cabinets can also be lighter than you might have thought possible, a matching St. James 212VOC cab (£499) has come along for the ride.
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Like the combo we reviewed in May, the 6L6 head features plenty of smart features and connectivity options beyond the headline appeal of weighing less than 7kg. And make no mistake, it still uses valves in the preamp as well as the output stage – the weight-saving comes as a result of replacing the output transformer with a switching mode power supply, abetted by some clever DSP and op-amp circuitry.
This means you can easily carry it in one hand, which is admittedly hardly an astonishing feat for a head alone, but then we come to the cab. Thanks to some canny magnet design, the St. James 212VOC – home to a vertically-mounted pair of 12-inch special-design Celestion Zephyr speakers – weighs in at a meagre 12.8kg. For comparison, that’s barely half the weight of the average modern Marshall 2×12. So you can arrive at your next gig with head in one hand and cab in the other, no doubt to the shock and awe of the other guitarists on the bill.
With everything plugged in, we get cracking on the full 50W power setting for maximum face-melting force. Channel 1 is an American clean tone, complete with the mid-scoop that will be familiar to any fan of black-panel Fender combos. It is, however, significantly more bass-heavy than most amps of that type, with a sense of low-end girth underpinning all our arpeggiated musings. Dialling in some of the onboard reverb we find the decay is very quick even on higher settings, which some players will appreciate – though others may find themselves wishing for a little more.
Switching to channel 2, we now get a classic British lead voice with the slightly tighter feel of a more modern amp. It’s got a lot of punch in the low end just like channel 1, and certainly lends itself well to classic riffing and sultry solos. Engaging the boost switch gives us a snappier, much more contemporary sound, with plenty of drive on tap that will take you all the way from hard rock to straight-up chugging.
One of the best things about the St. James series is the ‘cab rig output’ section on the back panel. This ingenious bit of design means you can use the head sans cabinet, whether you’re recording at home or in the studio, or taking it to a show where you’re happy to rely on stage monitors. There are three switchable settings that can be tailored using Blackstar’s Architect software, allowing you to custom-spec your dream virtual cabinet setup.
The pairing of the Blackstar St. James 6L6 Head and its 212VOC cab really is a triumph of modern amplifier design, offering heavyweight tones in a lightweight package that doesn’t require a two-person lift. Maybe real amps do have a future after all.
- PRICE £999 (inc dual footswitch for channel and boost)
- DESCRIPTION Two-channel valve head, made in China
- POWER RATING 50W
- VALVES 2x ECC83, 2x 6L6
- CONTROL PANEL Guitar input, channel 1 volume, channel selector switch, channel 2 gain, channel 2 boost switch, channel 2 volume, bass, middle, treble, reverb, 2W/Sag/50W power switch, master volume, standby and power switches
- REAR PANEL USB audio output, footswitch input, effects loop level switch and send/return sockets, cab rig output switch, lineout/headphones and balanced XLR outputs, 3x speaker outputs (1x8ohm, 2x16ohm, 1x16ohm)
- DIMENSIONS 402 x 222 x 214mm
- WEIGHT 6.7kg/14.7lb
- CONTACT blackstaramps.com