Hands-On Review:Blackheart Engineering Little Giant 5
The small amp with big tone
By Ryan Conrad
Musician’s Friend Staff Writer
For years the low-wattage tube guitar amp was the unsung hero of killer guitar tone. In concert you’d see your favorite guitar slinger stride across the stage crankin’ out killer riffs in front of a row of 100-watt stacks. Little did you know that the outrageous guitar sounds you fell in love with from the album came screaming out of small, Class A amps with names like Harmony, Kalamazoo, Skylark, Princeton, Silvertone, and Alamo. You’d shell out the shekels for a stack thinking it was the source of the sounds you loved so much and fail miserably in your attempts to sound like your guitar hero.
At that point many guitarists turned to stompboxes to get the desired level of distortion, a notion which gave birth to a whole legion of gear junkies in search of the ultimate pedal fix. But a few intrepid souls never gave up the dream and slowly but surely, the history of these small guitar amps was excavated from the ruins of old interviews and guitar-shop lore. Then the Internet happened and small amps went from being one of guitardom’s best-kept secrets to being front-page news. In fact, right now on the Musician’s Friend website you can take your pick from among an assortment of more than 50 small, all-tube, Class A combos and heads in a range of prices from economical to extravagant. Suffice to say, the small tube amp is back in a big way.
Back in black
Into this fray wades Blackheart Engineering, a new name with big muscle behind it in the form of Loud Technologies and Crate Amplifiers. The brand was started by noted amp designer Pyotr Belov and tube amp fanatic Kevin Van Pamel of Loud Technologies. Together, they have dedicated Blackheart Engineering to achieving two things: rippin’ guitar tone and forever mangling the number of dollars that separates budget from boutique. Sounds pretty good to me.
Blackheart Engineering also appears to be very dedicated to the small tube amp, as its inaugural offering—the Little Giant—definitely fits in that category. The Little Giant is a single-ended, Class A amp that features a single 12AX7 and a single EL84 in its all-tube circuits. It will be available as a head (Little Giant 5), mini stackBH112 cab), or combo (Little Giant 5-112). I got the mini stack to check out for this review. (paired with the
Right off the bat, the Little Giant 5 stack makes a splash with its sexy styling. It manages to pull off a pretty sophisticated mix of tattoo-parlor cool and an edgy nouveau vibe while still appealing visually to players across all genres of music. Heavy-duty black vinyl and black hardware are offset by white piping and a sweet black-and-white grille cloth. The logo is—what else?—a black heart surrounded by roses with the single word “Blackheart” unfurled on a scroll across it. An oversized jewel light lets you know it’s powered up and ready to play. I could easily see the Little Giant in the music rooms of roots-loving country and blues pickers as well as power-chord punching rockers. Jazz? That might be a stretch, unless you’re playing in a new groove outfit in the vein of Charlie Hunter or Galactic.
More than skin deep
It would be easy to assume the Little Giant is just another small guitar amp, but that assumption would be a colossal mistake. This amplifier is much more than just a tiny, pretty face. That was obvious the first time I viewed the control panel, with its three-band EQ and 5W/3W, pentode/triode switch, promising more flexibility than a yoga convention. But it’s on the inside of the stylish exterior where Pyotr gets serious about building the Little Giant as closely to boutique-quality specifications as it gets.
The process starts with 18mm thick, 15-ply birch construction for the head and speaker cabinet. Inside the head cabinet goes a 16-gauge, folded and spot-welded steel chassis stout enough to stop bullets. Securely fastened inside that strongbox is a custom-designed, thick, double-sided, red circuit board with heavy-duty two-ounce copper traces for a premium electronic foundation. This makes the Little Giant extremely reliable and roadworthy, but also enables it to handle mods and upgrades without trouble. Speaking of modifications, aftermarket manufacturers Mojo Musical Supply and Mercury Magnetics are already working on custom upgrade kits for the Little Giant to put it even closer to custom-shop amp quality. If that weren’t enough encouragement to experiment, Blackheart also includes a tap on the power transformer to install a tube rectifier should you prefer the vintage sag of a GZ34, 5Y3, or 5V4 to the modern zip of the stock solid-state unit. In the stock circuit the 12AX7 and EL84 are both powered by a DC-current filament for extra-quiet operation.
Inside the matching speaker cabinet goes a very special speaker that Pyotr worked with Eminence to develop just for the BH112 cab and the Little Giant 5 Head. Rated at 16 ohms, the closed-back cab feels durable and rugged. The 12" Eminence speaker it’s loaded with is extremely faithful to the tonality of the head, but adds a slight upper-midrange embellishment for an accent I’ll call “British Light” voicing. Incidentally, Blackheart says the combo version will feature an open-back cab and a different Eminence speaker designed to bring out the American side of the Little Giant.
Tone to the bone
True to its name, I quickly found the Little Giant delivered tone much bigger than its diminutive size. It displays all the classic qualities that cause so many guitarists to profess their love for small amps. It has a very immediate, direct feel and responds extremely well to your input, yelling when you smack it hard and purring when you’re nice. Leave the volume low and you can get a range of clean tones, spin the volume up and you get overdrive and distortion way better than any preamp, processor, or dirt box. Even better, these tones are available at levels that won’t rupture your eardrum.
Its versatility quickly moves the Little Giant out of classic small tube amp territory and closer to realms occupied by amps with more zeroes at the end of their price tag. Flipping the pentode/triode operation switch to the three-watt side cuts the juice on tap in the power amp section for a softer gain response and more headroom at lower volumes. A nice benefit is that the triode setting also gives the Little Giant a second voice that’s darker and surprisingly meaty.
The feature that really blew me away, though, was the tone stack. Kind of funny, isn’t it? When was the last time you heard someone get jazzed over the EQ? Pyotr went all-out and gave the Little Giant a three-band EQ unlike any I’ve ever encountered on an amp this small. The values are set so the bass and midrange controls have less gain than the treble pot, and the range is a little wider than you’d expect, with the bass at 100Hz, the mids at 1khz, and the treble way up at 10kHz. The overall result is an extremely versatile tone stack that never lets you boost or cut the response into a sound that’s so muddy it is unusable, and gives you plenty of high-end and midrange boost to cut through the mix.
You really need to use your ears to dial in this amp. I have to confess I dove into it with too many small-amp preconceptions and had trouble dialing it in. But I took a step back and started to really listen instead of getting uptight about where the knobs pointed. Lots of really cool sounds quickly opened up under my fingers. Through many hours of fun experimentation, I discovered the Little Giant loves humbuckers of the full-size or mini variety, and got along very well with my Tele, as well. Its strengths seem to lie in crunchy tones with plenty of clarity and a little chime thrown in for good measure. That's not its limit, though, as the Little Giant proved just as capable of producing stellar clean tones and outrageous, saturated distortion as well.
So color my heart black—the Little Giant crushed me with its combo of colossal style and mammoth tone.
Features & Specs
Little Giant 5 Head:
- Single-ended Class A circuit
- All-tube signal path
- Single 12AX7/ECC83 dual-triode preamp tube
- Single EL84/6BQ5 pentode output tube
- Pentode/triode (5W/3W) power tube operation switch
- DC filament power supply for all tubes
- 3-band EQ
- 16-gauge (1.5 mm) steel chassis
- Double-sided custom-color circuit board
- 2 oz. copper circuit traces
- 15-ply, 18mm thick, void-free birch plywood construction
- 16 ohm, 2 - 8 ohm, and 2 - 4 ohm speaker outputs
BH112 cab Speaker Cab:
- 15-ply (18mm) thick, void free plywood construction
- 12" Blackheart model 1216B Eminence speaker
- 2 parallel speaker jacks
- 75W handling
- 16 ohms