The clever new Blackstar is a do-it-all home practice amp, crammed with hi-tech bells and whistles – and yet it costs no more than a pretty average phone. Review by Richard Purvis
Description: 40W (20W + 20W) stereo modelling combo with digital FX, two 6″ speakers. Made in China
Contact: Blackstar Amplification – 01604 817817 – www.blackstaramps.com
Are you serious? A 40W combo that’s so light it swings from a fabric strap rather than a handle? And it costs about as much as two Barry Manilow tickets, plus maybe a kebab on the way home… and it’s a Blackstar? Well, the company may be famed for its pure-toned valve amps, but you’ve probably guessed by now that this isn’t one of them. It’s a practice amp with onboard FX and digital tweakability – the biggest of a three-model series, the others weighing in at 10W and 20W – and 40 solid-state watts are nothing like as loud as the tube-powered equivalent so this shouldn’t be too overpowering for anyone’s bedroom.
Inside are a stereo pair of six-inch ‘full-range’ speakers designed to reproduce the whole spectrum rather than just the mid-focused frequencies of a normal guitar cab. This is important, because the ID:Core’s line-in socket is a key part of the package: you can plug your smartphone or MP3 player in here and play along to records at proper hi-fi quality. There’s also a speaker-emulated DI output that doubles as a headphone socket for jamming along without waking the hamster, and USB for editing and sharing presets via
a free piece of Mac/PC software called Blackstar Insider.
Your starting point for using this amp, whether or not you insist on opening up your tonal options with Insider’s three-band EQ, is an array of six core voices on a rotary switch: two clean, two crunchy, and two rocky. Add Gain and Volume controls, plus Blackstar’s ISF control for transatlantic tone-shaping, and that’s quite a palette before you’ve even got to the FX section (which we will do). One preset can be stored for each of the six voice settings, simply by holding down the Manual button, or you can press that button once to ignore the presets and go into – predictably enough – manual mode.
Those presets will include the FX, and you can have up to three running at a time: one reverb, one delay and one modulation. Select which type you want to activate or adjust, and all the editing is done on a single rotary control split into four sections – there are four effects of each type – plus a Tap tempo button and Level knob. It’s not ideal but it’s efficient, and again you have the option of much more flexible and detailed manipulation using Insider. The reverbs and delays, by the way, make use of a feature called Super Wide Stereo that promises a uniquely panoramic soundstage. Hardly seems likely from such a teeny box, does it?
A word about construction: as you might expect from the price, we’re not dealing with artisan craftsmanship. If you unscrew and lift out the top panel you’ll find that the ‘chassis’ is basically… well, the top panel, with one PCB slung just below it, while in the space below you’ll see two little speakers and a lot of particleboard. Basic stuff, but you won’t be touring North America with this. It’s a pity the corner protectors don’t fit a little more snugly, though.
The mains adapter plugs into a stompbox-style socket on the back board and our ID:Core powers up discreetly, though there’s a certain amount of noise even with everything at zero. ‘Clean Warm’ looks like a good place to start. It seems quiet for a 40W amp, solid-state or not, but pushing the Volume close to maximum fills the room with a sound that’s Haribo-sweet, if lightweight. There’s a little bit of grittiness if you crank the Gain, and the ISF control takes you from very Fender-ish tones at one end to a more woody Marshall-like midrange at the other. Changing to ‘Clean Bright’ brings no less bottom end but way more sparkle, like an exaggerated version of engaging the Bright switch on a blackface Fender.
Both Crunch voices are impressive. This can be a hard trick for little amps, but Blackstar seems to have mapped out the whole ‘neither clean nor distorted’ zone without any trouble. The full-on overdriven sounds are just as clear and crisp, with some factory-set gating to push down the buzzy noisefloor between squalling freak-outs, and here’s where you might start thinking about backing off the Volume, depending on the size of the room you’re in. That’s not to say it’s a genuinely giggable amp, however – unless your idea of gigging is playing Burt Bacharach tunes in a near-deserted winebar at 3am.
Now then, the FX. First, the Super Wide Stereo reverbs and delays are great. The ID:Core creates a sound-field that seems impossible from such a compact source, and at certain angles you’ll swear the sound is coming from behind you. The modulations are more than respectable – choose between phaser, flanger, chorus and tremolo – and you can control wobble speed with the Tap button. There’s also a tuner, accessed by pressing Manual and Tap buttons together, which uses the FX section’s red/green LEDs as a display.
Tags: Amplifiers, Blackstar, Home, Reviews
These tidy tones sound even better through a good set of headphones. Could it be that a touch of flattering compression has been applied to this output? The smoothness and slightly clicky attack suggest so, and you can see why this might have been thought a handy way of helping the guitar sit in a mix – for either DI demo recording or headphone jamming with records. Speaking of which, the hi-fi quality for MP3 tracks coming out of either speakers or headphones is excellent.
There’s a great tradition of plonking an amp between the speakers of the stereo and strumming along with your heroes, and it’s a tradition that clever new amps like the ID:Core are fast rendering obsolete. Navigating it takes no time, and you’ll have plenty of fun even if you never uncoil the USB cable. More EQ and FX controls on the amp itself would be welcome, but that might compromise its intuitive simplicity and distract from the main idea, which is to create an ultra-portable product with decent tones at an alarmingly low price.