Blackstar Amplification Artisan 100 half stack
Blackstar Amplification, blackstaramps.co.uk
Artisan 100 head, $1,699.00; Artisan 4x12, $699.00
Originally printed in Guitar World, December 2008
Blackstar's 100-watt Artisan 100 merges American and British ideals
into a dream amp for the vintage purist who wants a variety of truly
outstanding clean and crunch tones at a ridiculously reasonable price.
Guitarists spend big bucks on certain vintage amps because their construction style and components yield tones that are difficult and sometimes impossible to replicate today. When these sounds are imitated, it’s usually by boutique amp merchants who are hand-building instruments at prices compensatory to the long hours and expensive parts that make up such a machine.
That’s changing. Master British amplifier designers Bruce Keir and Ian Robinson have united with a few of their peers to form Blackstar Amplification. Their goal is to build versatile hand-wired amps that meet or exceed the loftiest vintage standards, and yet can be purchased at prices lower than you would pay for the average production amp.
Manufactured in Korea, Blackstar’s all-tube Artisan Series amps are variations on classic themes with a few twists that you won’t find in their vintage muses. This month, I tested the “Plexi”-inspired titan of the series: the Artisan 100 head and matching 4x12 cabinet.
The Artisan looks very much like a boutique Plexi and, not surprisingly, it aims to recreate the classic Plexi tone. Yet, it also has a few key features and design points that make it far more versatile.
The most obvious addition to the Plexi payout is Blackstar’s four-position voice control. Typically, controls of this type are little more than a selection of resistor/capacitor networks, which alter how many highs and lows pass through a portion of the preamp. Blackstar’s voice control is far more advanced, affecting preamp gain, power amp gain, equalization and speaker damping. Mode one is low gain and high damping, much like a Bassman, while mode two is a little brighter, with low gain and high damping, like a Twin amp; mode three ups the gain and reduces the damping for an early Plexi-type sound, while mode four pumps the gain even higher and lets the speaker rumble more, like a later model Plexi.
The Artisan 100 has two channels, each with its own volume pots and two input jacks: one for high sensitivity or low sensitivity. The channels share controls for bass, middle, treble and presence. There’s no footswitch, so you have to plug into the appropriate jack to access the channel and desired level of input gain. Channel one is based on a crunchy 1959 Plexi, and channel two is more akin to a sparkling American Twin-style amp.
Dynamics and touch-sensitive responses are phenomenal through this Artisan, thanks to its hand-wired tagboard construction and massive overspecified power capacitors. Incidentally, I’ve not seen better construction or wiring on any amp, no matter where it’s made. If you want to get really wild, the two channels can be jumped and blended with a cable connected between two channel jacks. The 100 watts of power are derived from four EL34s and pushed through a very special custom output transformer. Other features include two speaker outputs, oxblood vinyl covering, finger-jointed cabs, gold piping and heavy black cane cloth. The matching Artisan stereo 4x12 is loaded with Celestion Vintage 30s.
Anyone who thinks that an EL34 based amp can’t produce deep lows and sky-high clean headroom has yet to hear Blackstar’s Artisan 100. It’s one loud amp, and there is no loss of articulation or dynamics, even at ear bleeding volume extremes. Both channels brought incredibly lively clean and moderately overdriven tones into my sound room, reminding me of why so many guitarists think of a modified Plexi as the ultimate amp for any style of music.
As advertised, the voice control let me change the whole character of the amp, without altering the core tone. I particularly enjoyed discovering the infinite degrees of crunch possible through the Artisan 100, which ranged from a delicate bite to a malicious bone-crushing chomp that echoes with frightening authority. Control over the intensity of this head-cutter was always in my hands or at the guitar’s volume knob.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Blackstar's 100-watt Artisan 100 merges American and British ideals into a dream amp for the vintage purist who wants a variety of truly outstanding clean and crunch tones at a ridiculously reasonable price. The build quality of this hand-wired Korean-made beauty is as equal to any of the world’s top amps and the stadium rocking performance harkens back to the great amps of yesteryear.
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