For any manufacturer, replacing or updating the most popular item in your catalogue is a brave decision and for every success story there are many failures.
The temptation to try fixing something that isn’t broken must be huge. However, Blackstar Amplification has never been the kind of company to rest on its laurels and so after nearly three years of intense research and development, we’re taking our first look at the replacement for Blackstar’s best-selling HT Venue series, the all-new HT Venue Mark II, with a focus on the Stage 100 Head.
The revisions are far from superficial; every aspect of the HT Venue design has been painstakingly explored, from the cabinet and logo dimensions to a completely redesigned in-house digital reverb. Although the new amps look reassuringly familiar, there are many improvements, some more obvious than others.
The head is smartly presented in the new HT Venue livery of textured black vinyl with a silver on black grill cloth, separated by a subtle silver piping detail. One thing that hasn’t been changed though, is the well-known letterbox format with its front-facing control panel. Anyone familiar with the old HT Venue will feel instantly at home with the new visuals.
Under the hood, the Venue is still a hybrid design, using solid state technology mixed with valves in the preamp, combined with a punchy EL34-powered output stage. The electronics live on a high quality through-plated printed circuit board, which has been laid out in an elegantly economic way that will help minimise noise.
The quality and attention to detail matches or exceeds products costing double or even triple the price, and exists right down to design level; for example, the standby mode biases the power valves to ‘off ’, rather than simply cutting the plate voltage, to eliminate something called ‘cathode poisoning’, which can happen if a valve amp is left in standby mode for long periods of time.
The Stage 100 Head benefits from a large feature set, with separate Clean, OD1 and OD2 channels making for six voices, which are all footswitchable. There are separate gain and volume controls for all three channels, with the Overdrive EQ section shared by OD1 and OD2, and an enhanced master section that includes controls for presence and resonance as well as volume and reverb level.
Overall, this new Venue is a stylish, good-looking amp that will suit any backline, while being restrained and subtle enough to blend into venues that aren’t so gear-friendly. There’s substance to go with the style too, with robust construction and high-quality electronics that will cope with any gig schedule.
We tried the head out with our Duncan Alnico-loaded Strat and a PAF-equipped Les Paul Standard. It fires up quietly and smoothly, with practically zero hum and hiss, indicating a well-sorted circuit.
The Stage 100 has two rich and responsive overdrive channels that go from classic, slightly compressed tones to modern sounds on the alternative channel voices, which are looser and more open with reduced power amp damping.
Being able to footswitch the voices makes the new Venues much more flexible, and clever logic inside means the amps remember the voice setting when you change channels. The optional FS-14 five-button controller adds extra functionality for selecting Clean, OD1 and OD2 channels, a global boost and reverb on/off.
You can select the alternative voice for each channel by tapping the channel select footswitch twice, with the LED indicators changing colour to remind you which is selected. The Venues can also be put into a remote switching mode, making them compatible with multi-effects with that function.
The new in-house Blackstar digital reverb is superb, adding a sweet shimmer to highs in plate mode, or a warm earthy halo in room mode that’s perfect for jazz and fusion.
Likewise, the reworked EQs are even better than before, with plenty of range and no nasty peaks, making it easy to dial in any guitar for optimum tone, especially on the overdrive channels. The effortless punch of the Stage 100’s four EL34s is ideal for big stages, especially with a 4x12.
This new, improved HT Venue MkII amp has certainly passed our test with flying colours. Blackstar’s no-nonsense approach with logically-arranged controls that work and do what they say they do is still there, enhanced with increased flexibility and superb tones that rival boutique designs costing two or even three times the price.
The new power reduction feature makes it just as useful in the studio, while the speaker-emulated line out on XLR is great for live work and dispenses with mic positioning that can make or break your stage tone. USB compatibility is another useful option that many home recordists will appreciate, with simultaneous stereo, preamp and dry guitar outputs and a stereo line input.
But the icing on the cake is the superb Blackstar-designed digital reverb, with two voices that rival top-dollar studio products and sound superb with all guitar-types. There’s no doubt Blackstar’s tone wizards have excelled themselves here, and with carefully-calculated pricing we won’t be surprised to see this new HT Venue range dominate the ultra-competitive mid-price valve amp market for a some time to come.