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Bill Yellow

Blackstar U500 combo

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Note: This is my initial review - I have only had the amp for a couple of weeks.

Not yet tested at full band sound levels.

 

So, I was looking for a fairly lightweight 2x10 combo with at least 500W power, able to hold it's own in a 5-piece rock band. (Upgrading from a 1x12 120W combo.)

The main competitor at this price/performance point is the Fender Rumble 500, with the Ampeg BA-210 and the Ashdown RM-C210T amongst the others to consider. However, the Blackstar is the only one that gives you the full 500W RMS through the built-in speakers. All it's competitors give around 300W into the internal 8 ohm load, needing an additional 8 ohm cab to give the advertised power. I have no basis to say whether that means the Blackstar is louder or in any way better - but it's good not to have that sneaky suspicion that I need an extra cab to get the most from my amp!

And to be honest, price was a big factor for me. Whilst at the time of writing, the U500 was selling at £679 on most UK sites, Andertons had it priced at £499 (lower than the 200W 1x15 for some reason) - and they had a voucher code in August that made the final price £419. So, I was saving £250, and for that price should really be comparing it with something much smaller.

Anyway on to the review...

Headline: This is a tidy, portable, true 500W digital combo with some useful preset EQ shapes. It makes for a fine, clean, pedal platform.

The U500 has an understated vinyl covered cabinet, not unlike the fender rumble, with a blackface cloth grill. Which I prefer to a rattly metal front (although those can be more practical). The control panel sits along the back of the top, behind the single soft handle. There are ins, outs and ventilation grilles at the rear, along with some fiddly little knobs and buttons (of which more in a moment). It weighs 22kg, which is the same as my old 1x12 - although it is of course a bigger box. There are a pair of Eminence Opus 10" speakers in there, so nice to know it's not just some general purpose tat - no horn, though, if horns are your thing.

I am really enjoying it, and hope to report later in this thread how it fares in the real world.

But I need to air a few criticisms...

So the knobbery is not very consistent in my opinion. Some things are set on big knobs (calm down, Matron!), some on teeny-tiny fragile-feeling metal toggle switches, and some on little twiddlesticks or pushbuttons on the back. Why are the 3 preamp voicings set on a teeny-tiny switch but the 3 power amp voicings on a big knob? Why is the 'drive' blend on a big knob but the other effects blends on twiddlesticks at the back? Why did I put quote marks around the word 'drive'?

I will tell you.

But first, about the voicings. These seem to be not fancy modelling things that respond to every nuance of your playing, but are pretty much preset EQ shapes that even affect what the EQ knobs themselves do. So there are 9 shapes overall. I settled on Classic/6550 which kind of made it sound like there really was a horn in the cab, but still had good depth. Other settings seems to give more of a big bottom. Which will suit those who like more of a big bottom. Or clean. That's another one. Some people like clean.

The leftmost knob is Gain. Play the loudest thing you can, with the loudest pedal effect you can (sub-octave is a good choice), and turn this down until the red clipping light never comes on. And I mean never. Because this is Digital clipping, and as soon as that lamp comes on, you won't get a gentle warmth; you will get a sudden, immediate bit-blasting of your signal. OK, but keep below this and you can do pretend analogue all day. There's plenty of headroom in the amp.

The next knob is called 'drive'. It is not drive, it does not sound like drive. It does not behave like drive. Keep it at zero. What it does is it blends the sound of a jar of bees to your input signal. It does not dirty or warm the input signal itself - you can still hear your pristine input with the bees added on top, but somehow disconnected. You can toggle a little switch to choose between calm bees, edgy bees or downright angry bees. And why not, if they're trapped in a jar? But it is clean sound blended with bees, not the clean sound itself modified. Keep it at zero and use the drive, distortion or fuzz pedals of your choice. This amp seems to be quite happy with pedals in front.

What else can I mention. There's compression on a big knob and a teeny switch. There are chorus and suboctave effects, but not both at once, selected with a lil'switch. These cannot be tweaked, other than to mix in the amount of the effect using the tiny twiddlesticks at the rear. And that will not be possible during an actual gig. The chorus is probably useable, and the Blackstar does this thing where if you are using headphones, the chorus comes through in stereo. It's a way of making you want to practice at home more because you sound so amazing and mega and swirly. The suboctave, however, is in entirely the wrong place in the signal chain, and the tracking is unusably bad. I have had Southern Rail trains arrive before the suboctave kicks in with the note I'm playing. Again, thankfully the amp works well with octave pedals in front.

Final gripe. There's a flimsy little footswitch to turn off the 'drive' and chorus/octave effect. Note that I said turn off. Every time you power the amp on, these digital doodaddies are on by default (if you have not tuned them off at the panel). And there are no lights on the footswitch, so the only way to know for sure the built-in effects are off is to disable them or not use the footswitch.

So, Blackstar, nice amp. But take the bells and whistles off. Please.

 

 

 

 

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Another fun fact: Plugging headphones in for practice does not mute the main speakers. So I'm there noodling away to myself, wearing big closed-back headphones and thinking what a nice full sound it was.

And I couldn't hear the neighbours knocking on the wall for me to turn it down.

Note to self: Always turn the main volume to zero before putting headphones on.

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I met Paul Stevens at the LBGS a few years ago - just after he took over as CEO at Blackstar.

After his time at Trace Elliot and his frustration from the lack of commitment by the new US owners to develop a new TE bass amp he was keen to develop some quality bass equipment under the Blackstar banner. 

I'm sure that they'll be keen to take on board your comments when they beta test this.

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Interesting review, thanks. 

I also got a U500 recently for use at a studio last weekend. I didn’t really need it in the end but had a chance to give it a try. 

I agree with the comments about the controls, though I tend to have everything flat and found the best sound by using ‘Flat’ and ‘Linear’ options. I didn’t touch the effects or drive options. 

I think it sounded really nice like that - very loud and full sounding with a really throaty bass sound, not at all ‘boxy’

It’s not a bad one handed lift but probably a bit heavy to move very far, I found it easier to carry like a box instead 📦 

The main reason I got one was for the price, the power, and because I really wanted a big combo with a built in compressor. I was delighted to find the compressor in this amp works really well, in a superb ‘limiting’ style, not at all squashy and breathy like some I could mention. 

I’m sure I’ll get round to trying some other voicings and some of the effects in due course but with everything flat it’s a great piece of kit, I think. 

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Apologies if a lot of my review was on minor points. Mainly because I am still using it at home at miniscule volumes. I couldn't find much online from the Blacsktar chaps about what went into this gear, apart from the marketing spuff.

The 'classic' preamp voice plus the '6550' main amp voice, plus a bit of compression really does give me the sound I'm looking for. It is quite possibly an SVT sort of sound, I wouldn't know. And maybe there is a bit of clever modelling going on to give me that.

Like I said, at some stage I will test alongside 2 driven guitars and a drummer who constantly says he can't hear the bass. If I can get to the rehearsal studio, I can compare it with their 4x10 rig. So, more to come hopefully.

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I really enjoyed the review 👍🏼 

For the price I think it’s a good amp, it’s nice to have the extras even if they don’t get used - and the preamp voices and drive modes are fun to try. The 6550 definitely has some similarities to my experiences with the real thing, certainly at the bass end of the spectrum. There was an upper mid honk that I wanted to adjust but didn’t have time. 

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