You may have noticed that pocket-sized amp simulators are slowly and steadily taking over the world – and when you consider how heavy real amplifiers are, that’s hardly a surprise. But the fightback starts now with Blackstar’s new St. James series: full-fat valve guitar heads and combos without the crippling weight.
Proudly proclaiming themselves ‘the lightest 50W valve guitar amps on Earth’, these two combos and two heads – each available in either EL34 or 6L6 versions – up the innovation stakes further with clever attenuation and software-assisted silent recording tech to make them just as studio-friendly as any pedalboard pretender.
Today we’re reviewing the EL34 combo… and from the moment the courier drops off our review sample, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more to this concept than just marketing spiel. Taking it out of the box is easily managed with one hand on the amp and the other on your phone – perfect for that unboxing reel you’ve been planning.
Dressed in a distinguished-looking cream and grey textured finish, with a fresh take on the classic Blackstar logo that lights up when you power it on, there’s more than a hint of the American boutique builder Morgan in this aesthetic. It’s an unusual-looking cabinet finished with white piping and dark grey grille cloth, and one that will stand out on stage among the swathes of traditional black boxes.
The specially designed Celestion Zephyr speaker is based on the trusty Vintage 30, only it’s been on one of those newfangled keto diets – helping the plywood-bodied St. James 50 Combo to weigh in at a dainty 12.8kg. Unboxing videos aside, this means you can rock up to the show with your amp in one hand and guitar in the other. Say goodbye to those lower-back-breaking load-ins.
Despite the extreme diet, this amp retains all the features of a classic valve combo, with two ECC83 preamp tubes, two channels and a built-in reverb circuit. It’s only on the back panel that we see there’s more going on here than vintage floor-shaking specs: as well as a USB audio output, there’s a ‘cab rig output’ section.
This is Blackstar’s digital speaker simulator, working in tandem with a reactive load to let you record in silence without losing all that breakup and warmth from the EL34 output stage. And if you just want to be quiet rather than silent, there’s also a power-scaling option for shrinking 50W down to 2W.
You can control exactly what comes out of the digital outputs using Blackstar’s Architect PC/Mac software. This offers innumerable combinations of cab sizes, microphone types and room settings, plus a built-in EQ giving you plenty of ways to tweak your sound for recording – or even sending direct to the sound engineer during a live show. You can load three presets into the amp, a toggle switch allowing you to flip between them.
With all the EQ controls set to halfway we’re greeted with a classic 60s black-panel tone on channel 1. It’s a bright tonality that’s balanced with solidity in the low end and there’s bags of clean headroom available. Just as advertised, it’s a great pedal platform.
Driving the front of the amp with the classic Rat and Tube Screamer pairing is a glorious affair, and it deals equally well with various fuzzes, octave pedals and time-based effects, eating up the lightest touches of harmonics and the hardest pick attack we’ve got. And it’s loud enough to compete with even the most heavy-handed of drummers, comfortably delivering enough volume to outmuscle a bright snare while maintaining a linear feel across the frequency range.
Switching to channel 2 we get that much-loved British class-A sound of the 60s, going all the way from clean to mild drive. It’s a pure AC30 Top Boost tone, full of the chime and liveliness associated with those legendary amps. An additional boost option on this channel lets you push the preamp harder, taking you well into classic rock territory with luscious and creamy overdrive.
With so many amp fans buying attenuators to tame their tubes, it’s no surprise to see assorted manufacturers now including them as standard. Blackstar has taken a slightly different route to the more popular resistor-based ‘power soak’ approach, opting to control the internal voltages of the power stage instead. This limits the output power but doesn’t affect its tone-shaping capabilities, giving you cranked amp sounds at much lower levels.
One power setting gives you the full 50W capability, while another takes it down to 2W for use at home or when the engineer tells you to turn down for the fifth time. Nestled in between these we have a ‘Sag’ option, replicating the dynamic compression that’s a feature of some great valve amps: the initial transient is squished down before the note ‘blooms’ back in. It’s a unique sound that gives a nice vintage character to the amp’s tone.
Moving round to explore those smart features on the back of the amplifier, we quickly find that the connectivity here is rather awkwardly placed on the underside of the rear panel. If you’re in a pinch on a quick changeover at an all-day festival, or you want to change your virtual cab while recording, you may find yourself cursing its unwieldy position as you lean over the front of the amp and attempt to read upside-down.
This panel does, however, give you some amazing options for home recording sessions. Plug the XLR output into your interface, set the power switch to 1 and the standby switch to 0, and you’ll get all that tube power via a digital speaker simulation, bypassing the built-in Celestion. All of the St. James 50’s sweet tonal character is faithfully translated straight into your DAW, for tube amp tone ‘in the box’.
The Blackstar St. James 50 EL34 Combo shows innovative thinking at its absolute best. Blackstar has taken the time-tested valve combo formula and turned it on its head, all without risking alienating the traditionalists. Thanks to its ultra-light weight and diverse functionality, this could end up being the ultimate pedal platform for the regularly-gigging guitarist.
- PRICE £1,099 (inc dual footswitch for channel and boost)
- DESCRIPTION Two-channel 1×12” valve combo, made in China
- POWER RATING 50W
- VALVES 2x ECC83, 2x EL34
- 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)
- SPEAKER 1x 12” Celestion Zephyr
- DIMENSIONS 535 x 462 x 259mm
- WEIGHT 12.8kg/28.2lb
- CONTACT blackstaramps.com