Price paid: $ 399.99
Purchased from: Manchester Music Mill
Sound — 9
Full disclosure: my main instrument is a MIM Fender 70s RI Stratocaster, and I play rock with alternative and pop leanings (no heavy stuff). The HT-20's clean sound is VERY clean, with a lot of headroom for a 20-watt amp. In my band, which gigs out playing both originals and covers, I've only had occasion to bring the volume up over the halfway point on one occasion, and at that point I can confidently say the HT-20 was not even close to breaking up. This could be considered both a positive and a negative thing, depending on whether or not you like a little grit in your first channel. I personally have mixed feelings about that, as I like to play right on the edge of breakup so that when I dig in with the pick, the amp responds with a bit of snarl; however, I will say that the clean channel on this amp sounds great, and I haven't really found myself missing that edge when playing live. The clean channel seemed really bright to me, almost Fender-y which is by no means a bad thing but I generally prefer a chimy Vox-type of sound with a little less snap to it. I was unable to turn the tone knob past the 9:00 point without the treble being physically uncomfortable for all in the room. However, I realized about two months into ownership that this could be caused by my Strat's bridge pickup, so in a sense the Blackstar prompted one of the better guitar-related moves I've ever made: swapping out the shrill stock bridge pup for a DiMarzio FS-1. This cut down the ice-picky high end, and the guitar sounds infinitely better through all of my other gear and amps now, too (although I still don't turn the tone knob past 12:00, but that's just personal preference at this point). The dirty channel is REALLY flexible as well. The three EQ knobs give you lots of tone-shaping options and I've spent a lot of time tweaking them as they're highly reactive. I would suggest anyone who isn't sure about the amp's sound invest the effort into getting to know their way around these controls. The gain knob is a real quandary; I saw another review that described the amount of nastiness that is on tap here as "a classic case of enough rope to hang yourself with," and that's exactly true. I'm reasonably sure you could play some form of metal with the HT-20. Since I don't, I often find that keeping the gain knob below the 11:00 setting yields everything from great, potent classic-rock overdrive to hotter modern rock sounds. Anything above that just sounds like too much, to my ears. I guess it's nice to have that flexibility. As stated above, the real trick here is the ISF knob. Now, I'm not sure I totally buy into the whole "American sound vs. British sound" that Blackstar is touting, as less-experienced players will probably not notice a world of difference between either end of the feature's spectrum. That said, it's a very subtle control which, when tweaked, really allows you to take that last step in sculpting your sound and getting it RIGHT where you want it. I don't know if I'd call it revolutionary technology, but damn if it ain't really useful! Finally, the digital reverb is okay; I don't use it much, personally, but it's got a pleasant enough sound. It's not overly extreme even at the highest setting, and while it doesn't sound like a spring tank or anything, adding a touch can take your sound from maybe a little thin to very lush indeed, even through the single Celestion speaker.
Overall Impression — 9
All in all, I would recommend the HT-20 Studio to any rock guitarist looking for an amp with the versatility to cover a lot of ground, while still retaining its own special something. It's nice to have an amplifier that can conjure sounds reminiscent of yesteryear but with enough flexibility to execute my own visions, especially considering I play both covers and originals. I haven't played every other amp in the HT-20's price range and power class, but I would strongly suggest you check one out if you're in the market for a 15 to 20-watt amp in the $400 to $600 range!
Reliability & Durability — 8
So this is an odd area: the HT-20 I now own is my second one. The first one was with me for less than a month. I had to return it because the volume kept cutting out on me for no real reason at all. The store where I purchased the amp has a terrific repair shop (one of the best in New England) so the owner had them look the amp over at no cost to me, since it was still under warranty; the techs found some shoddy soldering work somewhere in the chassis and they re-did it. Everything was great for a day or two, but then it was back to its old ways and I had to wash my hands with it. However, I was enjoying the sounds so much when it WAS working that I hesitantly agreed to accept an exchange for another new HT-20. Despite the above experience, I'm glad I did because my current amplifier is VERY sturdy. It's worked night after night for rehearsals and gigs and never given me ANY problems. So while I'm docking two points for the first experience, my guess is that it was something of a fluke as the second HT-20 seems so well assembled that I can only assume the first was a fluke.
Features — 9
I purchased this Blackstar HT-20 Studio 1x12 combo about six months ago and delayed writing a review of it until I'd spent some time with it. There's nothing worse than an evaluation from someone who got a new piece of gear the day before; they're so overwhelmed with excitement that they immediately ascribe the piece a five-star/10-out-of-10 rating but one has to wonder if theirs is an accurate opinion. By this point, I've gotten to know the amplifier in its stock configuration and I must say, it is truly impressive. This is a 20-watt combo with a single 12" Celestion speaker. It's powered by two ECC83 and two EL34 tubes. There are two channels, clean and drive, which can be changed via the included single-button footswitch (note: the cable on the stomper is a fixed length, but it's a pretty generous amount of rope). Each channel has its own volume and EQ knobs, and the dirty channel has a gain control. The downside of this configuration: the clean channel only has one control, labeled Tone, which makes for a somewhat limited amount of manipulation. The upside: the dirty channel has a 3-band EQ with High, Mid and Low knobs, which allows many more options in terms of sculpting the sound. There's also a built-in digital reverb with its own control, as well as a master volume knob. The real secret weapon with the HT-20, however, is the Infinite Shape Feature (ISF) knob. When dialed all the way to the left, one gets a more "American" sound with a tight bottom-end, a glassy high end and a sort of scooped-mids feel. With this knob turned all the way to the right, the character of the sound is more "British" with a looser bottom end, clangier, softer highs and a more pronounced midrange.