Skip to main content

Lightweight but heavy on features: are Blackstar's new St James heads and combos the holy grail of contemporary valve amps?

Blackstar
(Image credit: Blackstar )

Blackstar are on a roll; wrapping up last year with the introduction of its Cab Rig technology with the Depart 10 preamp pedals, the Brits have turned their attention back to valve amps. And we think these are its greatest statement in the market yet; welcome the St James 50-watt EL34 and 6L6 heads and combos.

New logo, boutique style and the lightest amps Blackstar have ever made. Scrub that, these are the lightest 50-watt calve amps anyone has made, according to the company. And we've reviewed them (opens in new tab) – they're light. The St James 50H head: is 6kg / 13.2lbs, 50 1x12 combo 11kg / 24lbs and St James 212 vertical 2x12 cabinet: 13.5kg / 29.8lb.

To achieve it without compromise tone and build quality, 36 months of R&D saw the company work with Celestion on an exclusive speaker; the 70 Watt, 12” Zephyr. 

It's a fraction of the weight of the company's Vintage 30 but uses a traditional ferrite magnet to deliver its forebear's rich tone and presence. Blackstar chose to go even further in its quest to lighten the load though… 

Blackstar St James

(Image credit: Blackstar )

The company used candlenut wood for sturdy and acoustically pleasing cabs; and then it managed to reduce the mass and weight of the power transformer with a patent pending design. Blackstar’s Chief Engineer, Paul Stevens, says this was achieved “by employing specific interleaving of the transformer’s windings, careful choice of lamination material, and other geometric considerations.” 

And fear not world travellers, it still offers SMPS (Switched-Mode Power Supply) technology with universal voltage compatibility. But the weight is only part of the story here.

Blackstar

(Image credit: Blackstar)

With the fawn EL34 head and combo being touted as the lower gain pedal platform, and the black 6L6 model weighing in as the high gain dealer, Blackstar is hoping there will be something for everyone here. Both feature a clean channel inspired by the classic US amps of the mid '60s (translation: the best of Fender).

The second channel is where things differ; the EL34 model offers a British crunch affair with footswitchable boost, but easily covers blues, indie and some classic rock, especially when you factor in the +10db foot-switchable frontend boost. It's full of clarity and punch and becomes a real beast with the right overdrive pedal, as we found out in our review

Blackstar St James

(Image credit: Blackstar)

The 6L6 St James then picks up with British hard and classic rock flavours with the first of two voices for its second channel; the second takes you to modern heavy gain via power-stage damping for a tight low end and juggernaut gain.

Versatility is a key here; alongside the full 50-watt output, both amps feature 2-watt modes for driving the power amp at more house-friendly volumes, alongside the SAG setting to "give notes a very satisfying, dynamic power-amp compression, which is most noticeable when the strings are picked hard". But there's more…

Blackstar

(Image credit: Blackstar)

These are the first Blackstar amps to feature Cab Rig; Blackstar's editable DSP speaker simulator system to replicate the tone and feel of mic'd valve amp for direct recording and live monitoring. With algorithms to simulate cabs, speaker, mics and rooms, it widens the horizons of an already impressive set of valve amps. 

You can store three Cab Rig presets on the amps with the designated output. Don't want to use it? You don't need to but it's there and ready as an excellent alternative when mic'ing the speaker isn't practical or even possible. 

We get the sense Blackstar has spent the lockdown working very hard on making a statement that less weight can actually mean more features in a valve amp with the right design and engineering minds involved, and the St James models distill the Brits' expertise and drive to innovate.

ST. JAMES 50 EL34H and 6L6 heads € 1,199 / £999 / $1,199.99 each
ST. JAMES 50 EL34 and 6L6 combos €1,299 / £ 1,099 / $1,299.99 each
ST. JAMES 212VOC fawn and black cabs €599 / £499 / $ 749.99 each

More info at Blackstar (opens in new tab)

Check out our review of the Blackstar St James EL34 and 6L6.

Rob Laing
Rob Laing

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar. I've currently set aside any pipe dreams of getting anywhere with my own songs and I am enjoying playing covers in function bands.