Unbeknownst to some, I am an avid guitar player and I have been playing for around 15 years now. Over the years, I have seen the landscape when it comes to guitars, effects and amplifiers dramatically evolve.
These days, digital amps and effects are commonplace. Amp modelling is so good in fact, and you probably don’t realise many of your favourite artists are using guitar modelling software, VST plugins and digital amplifiers instead of traditional pedals and amplifiers in the studio and live performances.
Metallica famously made the switch to Axe-FX somewhere around 2013, the savings on not shipping heavy speaker cabinets and amplifier heads would be astronomical for them. The point I am making here is digital modelling has evolved to the point where it is not only good enough for home use but also touring and in the studio.
When the Positive Grid Spark Amp was first announced, it piqued my interest for a multitude of reasons. I already have a modeller, a Line 6 Pod HD500x multiprocessor, which I’ve learned to use and really hone my sounds over the past few years I have owned it.
The downside with my Pod is that it’s not exactly plug-and-play, it also doesn’t have a power switch, and it’s usually wired up for recording, not for picking up and playing. The Pod also does not have a speaker either, so I need to find my headphones (my kids have usually taken) and fidget about.
From an ease of use perspective, flick the switch and plug my guitar in the Spark amp really interested me. A practice amp that sounded good, I could easily travel with and had enough volume for most situations where you would want to use it.
The box comes with the amp, a power adapter and a USB lead: that’s it. Give it some power and turn it on. The first thing that stood out to me is the Spark looks like a real amplifier albeit a small one. It’s not overly heavy, but it has enough of a weighted feeling that makes it feel like a solid amplifier and construction-wise, it’s quite pleasant to look at.
While the Spark amp does not require the use of the accompanying smartphone app (it has dials for volume, tone, amps and more as you would expect), you definitely want to pair this thing via Bluetooth to your phone.
The process was super easy. I turned the amp on, opened up the app and it found the amp and paired with it. That is all there is to it. If you don’t want to bother with the app initially, you don’t have to set anything up except what sounds you want.
I think it is worth focusing on the accompanying Spark amp application that you install on your phone and use to interact with the amp. If you’re expecting an interface that offers the same level of customisation as the standalone Bias FX modelling software, taper your expectations now. Unlike the standalone software, you have a more limited selectio.
I love the simplistic interface on the app and it is incredibly responsive on my Galaxy Note 10+. Cycle through the different sounds categorised by genre and select one, it’s instantaneous as the amp switches over to your new chosen sound.
You are quite limited in terms of how many effects you have for your sounds, so you have limited options, and I couldn’t see the ability to choose and configure things you might be accustomed to in other digital modelling interfaces such as EQ for tuning the sound. You can still add a noise gate, a tube screamer, distortion and reverb pedals.
Just remember, this is being sold as a practice amp, not a studio amplifier and recording tool you can use to create endless sounds. It’s meant to be good enough you can use it when you need something to practice or as you will learn, use in different settings.
The one area where Positive Grid dropped the ball is the tuner. Many seasoned guitarists will have a standalone tuner or use their multi-effects processor (I use my HD500x tuner). You can’t tune down to different tunings, and it seems the tuner is primitive in that it assumes standard tuning, which seems strange for an amp that offers hi-gain amp models which would primarily be used for metal and more often than not, be in tunings lower than standard.
It’s not worth marking down points on this amp just because the tuner is lacking in tuning options. I would be interested in seeing if, in the future, they add this feature into the app as clearly the amp and app are connected, I would imagine it might be possible. Long story short, not a big deal.
Despite falling under the app heading, I thought this feature warranted a section of its own in this review. I am a happy paid user of a service called Chordify. Essentially, it analyses a YouTube video and does its best to give you the chords that it hears.
The Spark app has such a feature of its own called Auto Chords. What it will do is analyse a YouTube video or Spotify track and do its best to transpose the chords that it hears. It doesn’t work for all styles of music, technical tracks laden with solos and octave jumping (hello, Architects) will not be picked up, but rock music and other easier to analyse tracks are no problem.
It’s not perfect, but in my testing it worked really well and just as well as Chordify. While this will not be replacing my Chordify subscription anytime soon, it is nice to have it in app and auto chords can be a great way to try and learn a new song if you don’t know much about music theory or have yet to develop your listening ear.
Tonality & Volume
While 40 watts might not seem like a lot to some, it’s a lot for an amp of this size and for a practice amp. The reality is nobody has space soundproof enough where they can crank an amp to its full volume. If you’re using this in a bedroom or at a friends place while you work on new material, you’re only leveraging a fraction of the volume this thing has anyway.
As a test, despite living in suburbia, I did crank this amp to its highest volume (for research purposes) and I was surprised how loud it was. You could easily use this amp for busking or small performances. If you wanted to use it for larger performances, you could mic it up and run it into a PA system no problem (you wouldn’t be cranking it all the way up in a setting like this anyway).
There is nothing stopping you from using this as a live amp. I will be taking this with me to family gatherings where we often break out the guitars and everyone gets drunk and starts singing along. It’s loud enough for small gatherings and busking, but I wouldn’t play live with it (unless all of my equipment broke and it was a last-resort).
Now, in terms of tonality, I found some of the sounds I played around with a little hit and miss. There are some great clean tones, some awesome gritty rock/blues tones, but when it comes to hi-gain territory, things get interesting.
I primarily play a lot of down-tuned metal, deathcore, djent style music. Playing the heavier amp models and sounds, I found the sound to be very bass-heavy through the speaker and using headphones kind of solved the problem. Look, it’s a lot to ask for an amp of this size to be able to go toe-to-toe with the bigger amps (especially tube ones).
Oddly enough, I did discover that some of the sound selections go through what I would call a “burn in” phase where once you choose a sound, if you wait a few seconds, the bass levels seem to come down. I don’t know if this is a bug or maybe just my ears adjusting to the sound change, but it was noticeable to me.
I don’t know if it is possible, but I do believe that Positive Grid needs to add in EQ to this amp. Yes, it’s a practice amp and shouldn’t replace a real pedal or rack-mount effects system, but an EQ is essential for some. The average player will skip over such a feature and I just realised maybe I am missing the point here.
You’re not going to get crystal clear tones for hi-gain amps on this amp and I think it is something to be aware of as I have seen some complaints about this. When you’re sold endless opportunities, it’s only natural your mind begins to wander and common sense goes out of the window a little bit.
Dig around on ToneCloud, as there are some great sounds other guitarists have created. I have found some solid rock and metal tones on there, and even a hidden gem of a Polyphia tone for the sound on the track G.O.A.T which is clean and pure in its tone.
As long as you remember the Spark Amp is not intended to replace a real amplifier nor is it meant to be a 1:1 hardware version of the Bias FX modelling software, you will be pleasantly surprised how great this little practice amp is. Since owning it, I have found myself playing the guitar a lot more than I usually would because it’s so accessible and just currently lives under my desk.
If you’re buying this because you’re a beginner or thinking of buying it for someone else starting out, this is a fantastic learning and practice amp. Arguably, for its price, it is in a league of its own. If you’re an experienced guitarist who has owned real amps and dabbled in other modelling software and hardware, the Spark amp might feel limiting to you.
You can find the Spark Amp on Amazon for a reasonable price here and lightning-fast shipping as always.