It would be ideal if each guitarist could have a music room dedicated to their instruments. For many of us, that’s not realistic, and guitars and amps have to be moved or stored in a location that isn’t convenient. That’s why, among other reasons, it makes sense to have a small practice amp so you don’t have to lug around a cabinet amp. Positive Grid’s Spark Mini is compact, battery-powered, and has built-in effects. It’s exactly the speaker most guitarists are looking for.
The Spark Mini retails for just over $200, which is expensive for a guitar amp this size. But its wide-ranging characteristics could soften that blow. The amp is loud and maintains its sound quality even at maximum volume. It connects wirelessly to your mobile app and you can use many effects or save them to hardware presets. Plus, if you’re worried you won’t use it enough to justify its price, it can also double as a regular Bluetooth speaker for listening to music.
- Many guitar effects are available through the mobile app
- Strong for its compact size
- Firmware updates for the amp are a pain
- Independent music volume controls
Shop on Spark.
A practice amp for beginners and beyond
I was immediately drawn to the Spark Mini because it doesn’t intimidate. That’s mostly due to its small size, but its controls are minimal and easy to understand without being skimpy. The amp has a good number of features, but they are all easy to understand.
Its build quality feels durable. The handle stands out for going beyond what was necessary. At the bottom is a velvety soft material that feels great to hold and is easy on the eyes. Battery life is around 8 hours playing at low to medium volume. It will fluctuate depending on how you use it, but I have found that it lasts for many hours.
Much of the value of buying a Spark Mini is in its mobile app connectivity, but out of the box, you can use your presets right out of the box and get to work. The first thing I did was turn up the volume. There are no numbers on the unit, but I assumed it was 11. The amp sounds much louder than it seems capable of.
The Spark Mini isn’t designed to be played, but it almost feels like it could be hung if need be in a pinch in an indoor cafe – that’s the volume level we’re talking about. If you’re using the Mini as a Bluetooth speaker, keep in mind that the volume level on the device streaming the music and the level on the amplifier are independent of each other.
This is an amp made for practice, and the features back it up. There’s a headphone jack for silent strumming. There is also a tuner and metronome function. Delving into the mobile app exposes many other helpful ways to stay involved in honing your craft.
I’ve joked in the past that I don’t practice playing the bass as much as I should because it’s not a great sounding instrument on its own. Well, any hint of truth to that joke was extinguished by the Spark mobile app with its automated jam sessions.
Smart Jam is a feature that will listen to you play a few bars of music and then create a drum track in various styles for you to play. It also provides the chords on the screen. Quick Jam are ready-made instrument tracks, also in various styles. I love these features and was amazed at the quality and utility they offer.
Scrolling down the music section of the app will reveal curated YouTube videos of all kinds of songs to learn or play. I thought the Tabbed Songs section was especially clever: the app displayed large chord guides to the beat of the music.
The effects section and the music section make a lot of sense and are well executed. However, the features don’t stop there. There is a video section to record yourself playing. I really don’t see how it warrants a prominent spot in the app and differs from simply using the camera app on your phone.
Interestingly, there is also a microphone icon that can be found in the bottom right corner on most screens in the app. It serves as your own dedicated voice assistant. Touching it begins to listen to your command. What can you tell him? As of now, he lists three things he’s good at, including “Playing the Drums” and “Playing a Backing Track”.
It seems that this feature is included because someone thought the app was too complicated to access those features quickly, but the introduction of another icon with very limited functionality seems more egregious in my opinion. Coming out of those three commands, I asked it to “play a song” and it did a search for “song”. Personally, I’d get rid of video recording and streamline the interface around effects and practice music.
The effects are all customizable. The ability to tweak the sound to get the style you want is right at your fingertips. However, if you don’t want to mess around, there are plenty of pre-made effects that can be downloaded.
As solid as the software side of the equation is for the Spark Mini, there was one critical downside that I stumbled upon: upgrading the amp. The Spark mobile app gets new features from App Store updates, but the amp itself can also get new abilities. But I think that updating the firmware or the built-in software in the amplifier is too complicated.
Updating the Spark Mini requires connecting it with a cable to a Windows or Mac computer because Positive Grid’s firmware update software is only made for those two platforms, a requirement that led me to say, out loud, “Really? ?” when i realized that. However, there are many people who use Chromebooks or iPads as their primary machines that are unable to run computer software. Also, even if you have the right computer, like me, it might not work.
I restarted my computer, tried different USB-C cables and unplugged and plugged the cable many times. Nothing worked. None of this should matter though, because a wireless speaker that can update the guitar effects on the amp via its mobile app should be able to do everything wirelessly from the mobile app. Fortunately, I’m pretty sure this is something that could change in the future. I just hope it does.
Should you buy the Spark Mini?
The Spark Mini is a great portable practice amp. It works best for guitarists, electric and acoustic, but can also work for bass players. I really like its extensibility through its mobile app and its ability to add and change effects pretty much on the fly. It’s definitely not cheap, but overall I think it provides a lot of value, including the Bluetooth speaker function for music.
The clutter of the mobile app interface and having to change the volume on your phone and speaker when you use it to play music are minimal inconveniences overall. My biggest complaint relates to the need to connect the amp to a computer and go through a cumbersome process to update it. That might be a more important consideration for some people without a traditional computer, but again, it might not be a deal breaker.
If having an always-accessible amp that’s ready to go when you are will encourage you to play music more often, then it’s money well spent.
Buy it at Spark for $229.
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