While smaller amp manufacturers can afford to specialise in digital, analogue solid-state or valve, the big-volume guys need a stake in all three to be truly successful; now Hughes & Kettner has distilled its considerable all-round experience into a new amp that might replace all of the above.
The Black Spirit 200 is a compact, digitally-controlled analog amplifier, producing its sounds from something H&K call the Black Spirit Bionic Tone Generator, and delivering them via a whopping 200-watt power stage that can be tamed to 20 watts or even 2 watts for offstage use.
The list of features is impressively long: four channels called Clean, Crunch, Lead and Ultra with fully-programmable gain volume and EQ knobs and a boost, on-board digital effects, programmable effects loop and Red Box cabinet emulation, Bluetooth connectivity for audio streaming and real-time control from a mobile app, plus MIDI with phantom power to drive a floorboard with no need for separate mains adaptors.
The Black Spirit also offers a ‘Sag’ feature that replicates the squashed dynamics of coveted vintage valve amplifiers, together with presence and resonance controls, an aux in and a headphones socket.
That’s a lot of functionality and Hughes & Kettner has done an excellent job of creating a head that looks smart and sexy, while keeping it easy to access and use all of those features.
Hassle-free creation of great tones positively adds to the creative process, with extended manual-reading an optional extra. Based on the same format as the award-winning TubeMeister series, Black Spirit’s tough steel chassis houses an immaculate, high-quality PCB design that’s built to last, yet weighs in at slightly less than 4 kilos. The human interface is via H&K’s trademark blue backlit Perspex control panel, which looks cool as well as being highly practical on dimly lit stages.
We tried out the Black Spirit using a variety of single-coil and humbucking guitars and we were seriously impressed with the amp’s organic, rich tone and touch-sensitive dynamic response; while there aren’t any valves inside it, you’d never know, especially when the amp is cranked up and cooking with a band.
There’s volume to spare for live use, while the low-wattage settings are great for practise and home use. The Red Box cabinet simulator is one of H&K’s most well-known products and the Black Spirit features the latest AE+ version, which delivers highly authentic ready-to-rock sounds direct to recording desks, computers, PAs or in-ears.
The Black Spirit’s sounds don’t disappoint, closely mirroring those of the amazing, valve- driven GrandMeister Deluxe 40. The clean channel is possibly even better to our ears, with more headroom and sparkle to the highs and a snappier bass response. The Crunch, Lead and Ultra channels offer gain, more gain and insane gain, covering everything from blues and classic rock to modern metal and thrash with ease.
The acid test with this kind of amp is to bypass all the effects, which often reveals rather lacklustre core tones, however, the Black Spirit 200 sails through this with ease. The basic sounds are excellent, with the Sag control adding a valve-like dynamic response and realism.
Things just get better as the onboard digital effects are added; the Black Spirit 200 offers spaced-out delays, lush modulations and impressively realistic reverbs, which can all be selected and controlled from the front panel, or fine-tuned from the Bluetooth app in real time.
The Black Spirit 200 head is a brilliant addition to the H&K catalogue, offering the sonic depth you’d expect from valves with none of the usual drawbacks. It’s a great choice for those ‘grab and go’ gigs, when you’re not sure what kind of backline to expect, while the tones have enough authority to satisfy any player, from bedroom hero to pro artist.
The floor controller and carry bag are both indispensable, however, Hughes & Kettner have kept them as optional extras, costing £185 and £37 respectively. Still, we think the Black Spirit offers good value for money.