Looking for a Positive Grid Spark Amp review? Sure you are. Although guitar amps sit pretty low on the normy public’s shopping list, the new Spark Amp guitar amplifier from Positive Grid has been creating as much of a buzz as a new Apple product. At the time of writing, the Positive Grid Spark Amp has bagged an incredible 77,423 pre orders and that figure looks like it’s only going to increase in the coming weeks.
Positive Grid is best known for its exceptional BIAS guitar amplifier and effects modelling software and that very same tone engine is hidden under the bonnet of this remarkable small-bodied practice amp which, to all intents and purposes, looks and behaves like any standard guitar amp. In fact, there’s nothing on the amp’s fascia to hint that it does anything else other than serve as a little practice amp with knobs for volume, tone control, reverb, delay and seven prefigured guitar sound styles. But download the accompanying iOS or Android app, sync it via Bluetooth and it’s like opening the wardrobe to Narnia.
If you’re a pro, you’ll find much to love about this amp and if you’re a complete amateur, it may just change your life. As brilliant little music-making tools go it's up there with the Roli Songmaker Kit beat creator and the Izotope Spire Studio 8-track recorder. I'm a pretty seasoned musician, and I think a lot of us can only regret that brilliant devices such as these weren't available when we started out!
So, without beating about the bush, let’s take a look at the hardware in closer detail and dig beneath the surface to the nuts and bolts of what this amp is really all about.
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Positive Grid Spark Amp review: hardware design and features
The Spark Amp has a power rating of 40 watts so it can go plenty loud enough to handle a low-key band rehearsal or a busking session. It would be nice if it had a rechargeable battery in it for extra portability but it doesn’t, so that’s that.
For an amp that costs less than $225, the build quality and finish is astoundingly good. Clad in black faux snake skin with gold trim and speckled front grill, the Spark Amp looks just like a classic amp from the ‘60s; indeed, its design is most reminiscent of the world-conquering Vox AC30. In a nutshell it looks fantastic. The craftsmanship of the cabinet is exemplary across the board – the taut tactile covering fits like a glove, the trim is superbly amalgamated and the control knobs feel smooth, sturdy and durable. If anything, the whole thing looks and feels over engineered, so hats off to the cabinet designers and factory fitters for doing such a sterling job.
Measuring 35x18x19cm (or 13.78 x 7.08 x 7.48 inches for our American friends) and weighing in at a very manageable 5.2 kg (11.46 lbs), the Spark is a perfect size for table top and travel use. Its 40 watt Class D amplifier punches way above its weight while its two four-inch custom designed speakers deliver crisp clarity and rich bottom end grunt, in full stereo if necessary.
Heading to the top of the amp you’ll find the usual raft of controls, including three for tone, three for volume and another three to control modulation, delay and reverb. Over to the left is an amp-modelling selector for acoustic and bass guitars plus presets for five basic amp sounds: clean, glassy, crunch, hi-gain and metal. Simply fiddle with the gain and master volume knobs to adjust for various levels of distortion. The hardware is topped off with a tuner and mini headphone output with its own separate volume control.
On the surface, then, there’s nothing specifically groundbreaking about this amp. In fact, you would most likely be very happy just using it without any prior knowledge of what it’s actually capable of doing.
And by capable I mean doing everything but make the tea.
Positive Grid Spark Amp review: Spark app
So, you’ve set up the amp, plugged in your guitar and fiddled with the controls and you’re happy with it. It sounds great, it’s loud, easily controlled and does what a guitar amp’s supposed to do.
But then you reach for your phone or tablet, launch the Spark app (iOS and Android) and sync it to the amp and, holy mother of pearl, you’ve suddenly left planet Earth as you know it and entered a whole new kingdom of guitar wizardry.
To help quell your curiosity, I’ll cut straight to the chase and tell you in bullet points what this thing can do. You ready?
•Fingertip access to thousands of amp sounds and effects, including amp emulations of your hero guitarists
•Play along to a variety of pre-set music genres while following the scrolling tablature
•Play along to a rhythmic backing of your own 8-bar chord sequence
•Tell the app to analyse the chords of your favourite song from Spotify and Apple Music and then play along to the tablature
•Use the amp as a digital music interface for your Mac or PC
Has that got the juices flowing? Let’s break it down a little more then.
Positive Grid Spark Amp review: Amp models and effects
Using the Spark app opens up a whole world of fun. There are 30 different amp models, five compressors, nine overdrives, ten modulation pedals (including some lovely tremolo effects), six delays and nine reverbs. You can mix and match them anyway you like, make numerous adjustments on each effect and save your favourite presets to the amp itself or Positive Grid's ToneCloud service.
Fancy emulating the guitar sounds of Dave Gilmour’s 'Shine on You Crazy Diamond’, Slash’s ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ or Hendrix’s ‘Little Wing’? Simple, just tap the ToneCloud icon at the top of the screen and search for an iconic sound style of your choice.
Positive Grid Spark Amp review: Play along functions
This is where the cleverness ramps up considerably. Ostensibly designed for beginners, the Spark Amp’s ‘Smart Jam’ section provides a raft of backing tracks in different genres to jam along with. Simply plug in your guitar, choose a sound and select a genre – pop, rock, blues, funk or any amount of pre-recorded backing tracks – and jam along, following the scrolling on-screen tablature. You can also change the tempo of each and even transpose the chords to a key that is easier for you to play.
Alternatively, select Auto Chords, choose a favourite song from Spotify or Apple Music and the app will analyse the song’s chords before playing it back through the amp’s speaker with full scrolling tablature. This feature blew me away since we all like to play other people’s material from time to time and, although any competent musician can work out the chords for themselves or look them up on Google, having an app work them out for you is a major plus. It’s not 100% correct all the time, mind, because some songs have strange inversions in their chord sequences, causing the app to extract some incorrect chords. Some popular songs have already been checked and verified by Positive Grid but there are millions that haven’t.
As an experiment I chose Bon Iver’s glorious ‘Hey Ma’ and was surprised it managed to analyse any of the chords at all. I’d say it got about 60% of the song correct – and that’s a big tick in my opinion given the complexity of the song’s soundscape.
Aside from playing to other people’s songs and backing tracks, you can also play along to your own chords sequences. Just tap the plus sign, play an 8-bar sequence of your own and the app will analyse it before playing it back with full bass and drums backing. Now, it has to be said that this particular feature isn’t anywhere near as accomplished as the similarly-styled Digitech Trio+ guitar pedal. Where the Digitech follows your chords in realtime before playing back an amazingly coherent backing track with fluid drums and melodic bass lines, this one is very clunky and simplistic. In fact, if you were thinking of buying this amp for this feature alone I’d recommend getting the Trio+ instead. But, hey, maybe Positive Grid will rectify this issue in a future software or firmware update.
Positive Grid Spark Amp review: Hook it up to your Mac or PC
The Spark Amp ships with PreSonus Studio One Prime recording software so you can plug the amp into your Mac or PC via USB and use it as a digital music interface for your workstation. To be honest, this element just adds extra complexity and isn’t, in my mind, a particularly groundbreaking selling point. Still, nice to know it can easily be done should the need arise.
Positive Grid Spark Amp review: Glitches and issues
I only experienced two issues with the system during the test. On at least three occasions while I was stabbing at the screen to change an amp model before the iPhone’s processor had time to carry out the previous procedure, the amp suddenly emitted the most horrendously loud high-pitched feed-back howl that no amount of knob twiddling seemed to rectify. In fact, the only way I was able to stop the racket was by turning off the amp. This is not what you want to happen when playing quietly while everyone else is in bed, but I’m sure it’s rectifiable with an update of sorts.
Another small but valid complaint is the lack of clarity on how to update the amp’s firmware. The wording on Positive Grid’s website is like the instructions for splitting the atom and, for a writer who likes stuff that is Steve Job’s simple, this was a frustrating Microsoft-type moment. I got there in the end by using Google.
Positive Grid Spark Amp review: Verdict
As a practice, rehearsal and songwriting tool for pros, the Spark Amp delivers in spades – it sounds great and the wealth of amp sound options opens the door to all kinds of experimentation. As an amplifier for beginners just starting out on guitar it’s a brilliant digital accompaniment that really does help teach the basics in a fun and informative way.
Given the exemplary build and sound quality of the hardware and the surfeit of the app’s amazing features, a price of just $250 seems almost too good to be true. In fact, its price is right in the ‘I can afford that’ range for both beginners and pros alike and for that reason alone the Spark Amp comes highly recommended.
• Pre-order the Spark Amp now from Positive Grid (shipping to the UK)