A decade into its existence, the British amplifier company Blackstar has already garnered major praise for its ability to blend compelling and usable tube-generated tones with impressive versatility and affordable price points. Given that premise, the new HT Venue Series MkII aims to play to the company’s strengths, and the example on review this issue, the HT Club 40 MkII 1x12 Combo, looks to be the sharpshooter of the bunch for its eminently utilitarian size/features ratio.
Like all amps in the range, the HT Club 40 MkII uses EL34 output tubes—a pair, in this case, generating 40 watts, with a switchable 4-watt power-reduction mode for home and studio use. There are two ECC83 preamp tubes (Brit-speak for 12AX7), which are reconfigurable for two gain stages in the Clean channel (gain, EQ), and two cascading gain stages in the Overdrive channel. In addition to the OD channel’s secret weapon—Blackstar’s patented ISF control (Infinite Shape Feature), which dials the lead voicing progressively between American and British—each channel also has two core voices: High Damping and Low Damping on the Clean (think “glassy and tight” vs. “warm and resonant”); Medium Damping and Low Damping on the Overdrive (“classic OD” vs. “modern lead”). The two-button footswitch included allows easy on-the-fly selection of all four, while the optional five-button unit also provides a Boost mode for each channel, and reverb on/off. The latter effect comes courtesy of a digital unit, with a traditional control for reverb depth, plus a Dark/Light voicing switch.
In addition to the effects loop with Level switch and speaker outs for 8Ω and 16Ω, the amp includes a speaker-emulated DI out via either XLR or TRS, with a switch to select between 1x12 and 4x12 cab voicings. To top that, the MkII Series also now includes USB audio out, for tracking up to four channels of various configured signals straight into your computer. The semi-open-back cabinet houses a 12” Celestion Seventy/80 speaker. A look inside the chassis reveals a circuit built on a sturdy, double-sided PCB with through-plated holes, and the preamp-tube filaments are DC powered for low noise.
Tested with a Les Paul and a Stratocaster, my immediate impression of the HT Club 40 MkII was how easy it would be to take this amp to most any gig and get the job done, no fuss no muss. Blackstar tells us they have completely redesigned the Clean channel for the MkII, and I don’t doubt it. Each voice is extremely usable, and the gain runs from glassy twang to meaty pre-crunch. The OD was the most fun, though, and while the ISF is extremely useful, I preferred it rolled toward British most of the time—maybe that’s just me, but the EL34s seem to breathe best in that voicing. That being said, with OD on its higher-gain voice and ISF toward American, there are some extreme Boogie-like tones here, for sure. Either way, from delectable leads and power-chord crunch set to Classic, or scorching thrash-and-burn set to Modern, it’s a doozy of a channel, and tons of fun. The reverb sounded great at all settings, and the 4-watt mode yielded great results. One note: switching between Overdrive voices brings a big volume jump when Modern is engaged, which makes it a little less usable live in some cases. Even so, for all it offers, and the excellent core sounds at all turns, at this very reasonable price, the HT Club 40 MkII Combo earns an Editors’ Pick Award.
MODEL HT Club 40 MKII Combo
PRICE $699 street
CHANNELS 2 (with two gain levels in Lead)
CONTROLS Clean channel: Volume, Bass, Treble, Mode switch; Overdrive channel: Gain, Volume, Mode switch, Bass, Middle, Treble, ISF; Reverb, Master, 40/4-watt power switch
POWER 40 watts, switchable to 4 watts
TUBES Two ECC83 (12AX7) preamp tubes, two EL34 output tubes
EXTRAS Two-button footswitch (included, 5-button available), outputs for 8Ω and 16Ω cabinets, speaker emulated DI out via both TRS and XLR, effects loop Send and Return with Level switch, digital reverb with Dark/Light switch
SPEAKER 12" Celestion Seventy/80
WEIGHT 52 lbs
KUDOS A versatile and good-sounding tube combo that offers a big performance at an impressively low price.
CONCERNS Some volume jump is experienced when switching between voices on OD channel.