NEW Blackstar St. James Review: The 1st LIGHTWEIGHT Tube Amp?

Blackstar St. James

The new Blackstar St. James claims to be the lightest tube amp combo on the market, and it comes in two different combos! Today we check their claims, and take it for a spin!

The Blackstar St. James: Making Gigs Easier?

I remember being maybe 18 or 19 and getting my first “real” tube amp. I was excited about the idea of having a tube amp, like the pros. Plus I was playing gigs pretty regularly, and my solid state amps was not keeping up at all. So I got a Marshall Tube head ( I don’t remember the model) and your usual 4×12 cabinet. This is what the pros use right?

I was not prepared for my rig to take up my entire car, first of all. But also lugging a half-stack around is not fun at all. I mean, we are talking about carrying around almost a hundred pounds worth of amplification around, and that can be seriously taxing. Especially when you arrive at a venue and they say that “The main stage is right up those stairs!”.

I eventually started to rely on tube amp combos, and when Blackstar released the HT40 model, I thought I had found pretty much the perfect amp for me. It was your usual 12” combo amp, that was perfect for just about any sized gig. I changed a lot about my rig over the years, but that Blackstar amp was the constant. It was the backbone of my sound, whether I was playing in a Blues Rock band, or my weird Math-Metal endeavors. But even that combo amp was still heavy.

Blackstar is one of those companies that do awesome amps that range from cheap, solid state amps to all tube monsters that the pros use. I feel like Blackstar has done a little bit of everything at this point, and the Blackstar St. James is the natural progression for the company. It interweaves a little bit of modern technology with classic tube amp features. It was only a matter of time before a company like Blackstar combined all kinds of technology with all tube designs.

The new Blackstar St. James amplifier series seems to be the answer for gigging guitarists that want a tube amp, but hate lugging the heavy things around. Some guitarists already circumvent this problem by using lunchbox amps, or they plug direct with something like the Line 6 Helix. Either way, guitar players seem fed up with lugging gear around, and I don’t blame them.

So we got the chance to check out the Blackstar St. James combo series, they also happen to come in a head/cab package if that is more your speed. But I still think that a combo is really all you need. Most venues will mic your amp, and the ones that don’t probably wouldn’t appreciate 100 tube watts cranked up. But the real question is going to be how they sound, and the difference between the two models.

So today we dive into the two new Blackstar St. James combo amps, and talk about their sound and weight!

Blackstar St. James: Features and Specs

Blackstar St. James Combos

The Blackstar St. James combos come in two different variations that are made for different applications. Both are pretty much the same in every way, until you get to the tubes that are used. The EL34 is obviously made for great clean tones, and British-style crunch. Then we have the 6L6 version that is geared more towards heavy, high-gain tones. Blackstar usually tries to cover all of these tones in one amp.

But I think this is a better approach, since focusing on one sound usually yields better results. Trying to do everything all at once can often mean everything is just okay, without being exceptional in any one area. This is a big turn for Blackstar, and I am super excited to go try out these amps! But first, let’s look at the features:

Blackstar St. James Combo Features

  • Ultra-lightweight 50-watt combo
  • 2 x ECC83, 2 x 6L6 OR EL34 Tubes
  • Two Channels and Channel II boost (Foot switch controlled)
  • 50W / 5W / Sag power reduction options
  • Studio quality digital reverb and effects loop
  • USB audio output with Cab Rig advanced DSP cabinet simulator
  • Exclusive 1×12″ Celestion G12Z-70 ‘Zephyr’ 8-ohm custom-designed, lightweight speaker
  • Included footswitch

The more traditional sounding Blackstar St. James comes in a very interesting pseudo-tweed aesthetic, while the more “Metal” version comes in the usual black Tolex style covering. They may look a lot alike, but under the hood is what counts. Both amps have a “specialty” when it comes to tone. Both have the same lightweight construction, and claim to be the lightest tube amps on the market. Does Blackstar deliver on that promise?

How Lightweight IS The Blackstar St. James Combo?

Both amps weighed in right at 26lbs, give or take when we put them on the scale. This is by far the most lightweight tube amp I have ever picked up. For a comparison, my BOSS Katana 100 watt combo weighs 32lbs, and I regard THAT as being a lightweight amp!

I figured we could go ahead and get that subject out of the way, since it is the main selling point. The Blackstar St. James Combo is by far one of the lightest amps I have ever encountered. I even went around our affiliate store and picked up some similar 12” combo amps. They were all at least TWICE as heavy as the St. James! While this is the “selling point” for these amps, they have way more to offer!

UPDATE 9/19/2022: Blackstar has added yet ANOTHER St. James Combo to the roster! The new amp shares all of the features that this article covers, but it is a 2×12 combo amp instead! It runs in stereo, and it weighs only 17kg or 37 pounds! Check Blackstar Official for more details.

Blackstar St. James: Going Over The Other Features…

Blackstar St. James Combo amp top

Now that we have the obvious “gimmick” out of the way, we can focus on all of the other cool things this amp does. Maybe calling the lightweight thing a “gimmick” is a little harsh, but it seems like the way Blackstar has decided to promote it. So yes, it is super lightweight for a tube amp combo. I am sure there are purists out there that will not agree with the composite/plywood construction. I honestly think it has no bearing on the sound.

The wood that is used is a “Candlenut Plywood”. Now for the record, I never really buy into guitar myths about wood, whether we are talking abut guitars themselves or speaker cabinets. I believe that the speaker of the amp, and the guitar pickups are going to be the main source of your sound. This being an open back cabinet does have an effect on the sound. I feel like you get better bass response out of an open back cabinet, but that is just my preference.

So if you do a little research, it turns out that Candlenut Plywood composite should be pretty good for making a speaker cabinet. The more interesting part is the new lightweight speaker that Blackstar and Celestion designed. These are based on the classic “Vintage 30” Celestion, but the magnet is ferrite as opposed to neodymium. This cuts down on some of the weight, while still giving you a speaker sound that guitar players are familiar with.

That being said, both models feel very solid in construction despite being so light. The Blackstar St. James feels very high quality. The control panel is on top, and uses traditional switches for on/off and standby functions. The mini-switches feel pretty solid too, and should be fine when traveling. The big plastic knobs are taller than the switches, so if it were to take a tumble, the switches would be safe from harm.

That said, the switches also do some really cool stuff. You have your usual power switch and standby, but the mini-toggle is where things get interesting. These control the power and you can take the power down to 2 watts for home use. But in the middle, you have a “sag” feature that gives you another tonal option that works at any volume. The other mini switches control the channels and boost options. This is a lot of tonal control, and these can also be controlled by the footswitch.

You of course also have master volumes, channel volume, and a three band EQ section. At first, i thought it was strange that the famous ISF knob was missing. The Blackstar St. James is one of the first Blackstar amps I have seen that lack this feature. But it makes sense that the ISF knob is gone, since both models are focused on one type of sound. These are not “do it all” designs like most Blackstar amps.

The FX Loop and all of the input/output functions are on the back like any other amp. But the decision to make them plug in from the bottom is a little weird. there is plenty of space for your cables to be inserted, but the angle is a little strange. I honestly don’t think I have ever seen this design in amp before. You see inputs/outputs like this all the time on televisions, going in from the bottom.

The weird angle starts to make sense when we take a look at the back of the amp, since it saves valuable space. You have a ton of options back there, starting with the dedicated FX Loop. So many people use lopper pedals these days, that having an FX Loop is almost a necessity. You also have a regular headphone output jack, and various speaker outputs in case you want to add a cabinet. But that negates the whole idea of a compact, lightweight tube amp!

Blackstar St. James rear panel

But all of those things are pretty standard on any combo amp these days. Things get really interesting when we take a look at the USB feature. So many musicians record at home these days, going direct. You also see more musicians having a ‘silent stage”, which means everything runs direct into the front of the house, and the musicians wear ear monitors. The Blackstar St. James has some serious options to fit this new trend!

You have several options at your disposal for recording or having a silent stage gig. The balanced XLR port is a great way to record, and the sound can be combined with an IR loader if you want. This gives you limitless potential for tailoring your tone once you have it hooked up to Cab Rig. If you want the Blackstar St. James to output your sound as you hear it, without Cab Rig, the XLR output is a great option as well.

But what is the Cab Rig output? This is a built-in reactive load speaker emulator that uses the Cab Rig software to create your output. You can do a deep dive with this, and really dial in a great tone for live use, or quiet home studio sessions. Cab Rig is an added bonus since you already have the other outputs. The Blackstar St. James can even run TWO cabinet emulations at once if you dive into the software!

So the Blackstar St. James is built well, lives up to the “super-lightweight” promise, and combines vintage amplifier stereotypes with modern design. You have a “real” tube amp combo that just so happens to also have some great output options. Fifty watts is going to be more than enough for just about any gig. So how does it sound?

Blackstar St. James 50 6L6 50W 1×12 Combo

Vintage meets modern with this classic high gain monster! The intuitive two channel set-up delivers high-quality cleans and overdrives. An inductive load is built into each St. James 50 6L6 amp, allowing you to run the valves flat out without having a speaker connected. Capture incredible tones via USB/XLR D.I. out or headphones thanks to the Plus Cab Rig, an innovative DSP speaker simulator.

Blackstar St. James: Sounds

Blackstar St. James

I will go ahead and spoil this whole thing for you by saying both amps are awesome, and sound exactly how you think they would sound…mostly. I honestly like them both! Both of the Blackstar St. James combos delivered some serious tones, and the only time I used any pedals was to test out the FX Loop. The rest of the time, I plugged directly into the amp. I used my Schecter Nick Johnston to test these out, since it is a versatile HSS.

The Blackstar St. James has a lot of technology built into it, and that usually would turn me off when it comes to a “classic” tube amp. I either prefer a pure tube amp, or a modeling amp like the BOSS Katana. Mixing the two seemed like a bad idea to me, but I am happy to report that it works. You don’t have to use any of the gadgetry on this amp. You can just plug in and play as it is. But the features are there if you want to dive into that, or you need it for live/studio use.

Both amps have the same design for the footswitch that is included. You can swap between channels, as well as activate the boost on each. They both also have access to Cab Rig, and they can run any of the 30+ cabinets that Blackstar has to offer. You can also choose a “blend” of two different cabinets. The blend is NOT stereo, it is just a blend of two different types of cabinets. I was a little overwhelmed with how many cabinet options you have, so I kept it on the classic 1×12 open back solo, with no room mic.

The attenuator works great on both of the amps. I played mostly with the amp set on the 50 watt feature, but on the 2 watt mode both amps still sounded awesome, just quieter. So with all of that stuff out of the way, I think I can finally talk about how these amps sound! I’m ready to play!

Let’s plug in!

Blackstar St. James EL34 Version: The best way I could describe the sound of this amp is a Fender Blues Jr. on STEROIDS. The clean channel does that big, open clean tone that we all know and love. I found that the open back cab gives you a ton of low end, even with all of the EQ set to noon. The digital reverb sounds great, and you can get some brilliant single coil chime out of the clean channel. The is a ton of headroom too, if you want to use some pedals.

The first channel is perfect for single coils, and while it may have some Fender characteristics it also sounds a little like my Peavey Classic 30. It does a mixture of both, having the chime of a Fender clean and the midrange scoop of the Peavey. If you throw in some reverb, you get a “classic” sound that is more versatile than the classic amps it is trying to sound like.

The second channel does a great British crunch sound that leans more towards a VOX than a Marshall in my opinion. This is because the Blackstar St. James seems to love some midrange. You can scoop it out if you want, but even with the dial at noon, it sounds saturated and mid-focused. This sounds great when you turn on the boost for solos. The neck position single coil sounded like pure butter on channel two with the boost on. Depending on EQ, you can do Guns N Roses, or Queen with this channel.

The Blackstar St. James EL34 gets really tight when you turn on the “sag” feature, with either channel. This gives it an almost compressed sound that’s perfect for Funk and Jazz. This works on both channels to great effect. All in all, the Blackstar St. James El34 is a great option for Blues players, or anyone that wants a versatile clean tone. You could eek out some serious heavy tones too, but you’ll need some pedals for that kind of high gain.

Blackstar St. James 6L6 Version: I was expecting the 6L6 model to be an all-out “Metal” type of amp, and lean more towards my HT40. It was a big surprise to find that this amp is NOT that at all. The Blackstar St. James 6L6 can definitely get heavy, but I would never call this strictly a “Metal” amp. This is closer to a hot-rodded Marshall to my ears.

The clean channel is nice and full, and you can get a ton of low end out of it. This is definitely a more modern clean tone, so it sounds a little dry without any effects running. But that tight, dry sound is perfect for Rock players. It can still do some pretty clean chime with single coils, but it is much more treble-focused than the other model. This is a perfect platform for modulation pedals like reverb and delay.

For the gain channel I switched over to humbuckers, and I was surprised that this is not the Peavey 5150 tone I was expecting. This is a much more organic sounding high gain. The bass is super tight, so you can chug all you want. But this is much more like a Marshall high gain, than something modern. That being said, I did try out a 7 string guitar. It works, but this is not a “modern” high gain amp by any means. It just doesn’t have that kind of focus.

The boost function only reinforces my opinion, where it boosts the midrange. I was expecting the “Tube Screamer in front of a Peavey” type of boost, but it wasn’t that at all. The “sag” option tightens up everything nicely, but we are still closer to vintage Mesa Boogie territory. That being said, I am not complaining in the slightest! You can scoop the midrange out, and get that Pantera sound, but it is still a little wooly. I like it, a lot!

I am glad that the Blackstar St. James 6L6 defied and subverted my expectations. We have so many amps and amp sims that already do that “super modern” distortion sound. This is much more open, and wild than what I was expecting. This will be a welcome surprise for anyone wanting a more vintage high gain tone that reminds me of the 80’s. If you are looking for something totally different from the run-of-the-mill high gain sounds, this is for you.

Blackstar St. James: Wrapping Up

Blackstar St. James

Well, this has been quite the journey today! The Blackstar St. James completely subverted my expectations and reminded me that looks can be deceiving. While the EL34 version was pretty much exactly what I thought it would be, the 6L6 version was a total surprise. Both have a great clean channel that reminds me of the best Fender amps. But the second channel on both amps was a pleasant surprise.

So if you are looking for something a little different when you are crafting your own personal tone, the Blackstar St. James is a great option. You have a whole lot of tonal options here that you wouldn’t expect out of either amp. Between the two, both have something to offer just about any player. You have plenty of options with the EQ and sag, but then you have a whole different level with the built-in technology.

Tube purists will probably feel a little left out with these amps, but these are not really made for those people. These amps are almost a hybrid of tube tone, with great tech features built in for the modern gigging guitarist. People that want some great tube tone, with modern input/output options are going to love this amp. They also happen to look really classy, in my opinion!

So if you are looking for something truly different and unique, but you don’t have the boutique amp budget, the Blackstar St. James might be right up your alley. There are so many tones for just about any kind of guitarists between the two amps. There is something for just about everyone, and perfect for people that need lots of options for tones.

Blackstar St. James 50 EL34 50W 1×12 Combo

With the St. James 50 EL34 50W 1×12 guitar combo amp, Blackstar delivers an advanced and innovative 50-watt valve amp. Vintage meets modern and the intuitive two channel set-up delivers high-quality cleans and overdrives. An inductive load is built into each St. James 50 EL34 amp, allowing you to run the valves flat out without having a speaker connected. Capture incredible tones via USB/XLR D.I. out or headphones thanks to Plus Cab Rig, a next-generation DSP speaker simulator.

Blackstar St. James 50 6L6 50W 1×12 Combo

Vintage meets modern with this classic high gain monster! The intuitive two channel set-up delivers high-quality cleans and overdrives. An inductive load is built into each St. James 50 6L6 amp, allowing you to run the valves flat out without having a speaker connected. Capture incredible tones via USB/XLR D.I. out or headphones thanks to the Plus Cab Rig, an innovative DSP speaker simulator.

Does the Blackstar St. James have a direct out?

It does, and it is supported by Blackstar Cab Rig IR loader You can even combine two speaker cab IRs into one sound, as well as add room mics and change mic positions. There are over 30 IRs to choose from.

Does the Blackstar St. James come with the footswitch?

It comes with a two button footswitch that switches channels, as well as activates the boost function for solos.

How much does the Blackstar St. James combo weigh?

It weighs in at just 26lbs! This is lighter than most solid state combos.

Absolute Beginner? No problem.

Learn how to 10x your guitar playing, use all the latest gear, and record like a professional – all from the comfort of your bedroom!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest