REVIEW: Blackstar Series One 50

Blackstar offers some pretty innovative designs in its rapidly expanding catalog. The Series One 50 is a 50 watt head is designed to deliver fully rocktastic Class A-style tones at all volume levels thanks to a very clever power reduction feature. But before we get to that, let’s look at the rest of the goodies.

The Series One 50’s tube quiver includes one ECC82, three ECC83s and a pair of EL34s. There are four channels: Bright Clean, Warm Clean, Crunch and Super Crunch. The two clean channels share Gain and Volume controls, as do the two overdrive channels. Next we have Bass, Middle, Treble and Blackstar’s famous ISF (Infinite Shape Feature) tone voicing control, a master section with Resonance, Presence and Volume, and the DPR (Dynamic Power Reduction) knob. When the amp arrived, most of the preamp tubes were cracked and the amp was unusable. I assume this is something that happened in transit, and after the local distributor supplied some replacement tubes, the amp fired up without a problem, so whatever wiped out the tubes wasn’t enough to kill them amp. The amp feels a little bit plasticy and it sorta smells funny, but obviously the construction seems pretty tough.

The tubes took a wallop but the amp lived to tell the tale.

Around the back you’ll find a series effects loop (with a level switch for matching it to pedals or rack units), an emulated output with 1/4″ and XLR options; a pair of speaker outputs with selectable impedance; a footswitch jack, and MIDI In and Thru. The Series One 50 includes MIDI switching capability for channel selection, so you can integrate this amp with a rack-mounted MIDI-capable effects rig for hassle-free all-in-one channel/effects switching.

I tested the Series One 50 with a Blackstar 2X12 closed-back cabinet loaded with Celestion custom-designed Neo 12″ speakers. The tones are a little thicker and more dynamic than the various Blackstar combo amps I’ve played in the past (this is the first head I’ve tried, although I’ve plugged the combos into my 4X12 too), with a big direct attack and a lot of dimension. The ISF knob seems to have less of an influence on the overall tone, but it appears to display more sweet spots where definite strong – but different – tones are encountered, compared to the various combos where the control feels like it’s evenly sweeping from one extreme to another. The furthermost right setting (UK) still sounds boxy in a Satriani kind of way like the combos, and a turn all the way to the left (USA) has a trebly bite, but as you move the control from left to right you’ll find specific points that just feel right.

Each of the clean channels seems to really come into its own when the gain control is all the way up. On the Bright Clean channel this adds just enough of a gritty edge to country and blues tones, with a bit of sparkle and ring rather than the twang and pluck of lower gain settings. On the Warm Clean channel you’re in total AC/DC territory (or maybe George Lynch – notice how his rhythm tones are always much less distorted than you think they are?). This Warm Clean sound is good enough to sell this amp on its own. It covers all your vintage rock sounds, and it really loves to be paired up with a Les Paul type guitar on either the bridge or neck pickup.

The first overdrive channel is a good all-round option which interacts intimately with the guitar’s volume control to deliver everything from warm clean sounds to a rhythm roar to a lead scream. This is where you’ll find old-school Van Halen-type tones, if not in actual sound then at least in dynamic responsiveness. I hit this channel hard with my Ibanez RG550MXX (in roadflare red, of course) and was in 80s hard rock heaven.

The DPR system reduces the output stage’s power from the maximum 50 watts all the way down to 10% or 5 watts and anyhwere in between. This is intended as a feature to make the amp more situation-friendly – from bedroom to garage to stage – but you can also use it to help sculpt your tone. Higher power settings sound a little fuller and thicker, while lower ones are a little thinner and more compressed. You can use this to your advantage by balancing the DPR and master volumes to hit just the right vibe for whatever sound you’re going for. Nice.

The one thing this amp is really missing is any kind of built-in ambient effect, such as reverb or delay. I guess it doesn’t really need one, since if you’re a serious-enough player you’d prefer to use outboard effects such a stompboxes or rack units for these effects, but it’s still nice to have at least reverb built in for emergencies or those times when you just don’t feel like wiring up your entire rig every time you want to blast out the riff to ‘Through The Never’ for 15 minutes after work.

The Series One 50 is a hugely versatile amp, and that’s before you even consider the MIDI capability. Although Blackstar hasn’t been making amps for very long in the grand scheme of things, they seem to have already populated their catalog with amplifiers that can fill very specific tonal niches while still sounding like – well, sounding like Blackstar amps.

LINK: Blackstar

[geo-in country=”Australia” note=””]This is an expanded version of a review I originally wrote for Mixdown magazine.[/geo-in]