It would be ideal if every guitarist could have a music room dedicated to their instruments. For a lot of us, that isn’t realistic, and guitars and amps need to be moved around or stored in a place that isn’t convenient. That’s why, among other reasons, it makes sense to have a small practice amp so you don’t need to lug around a cabinet amp. The Spark Mini from Positive Grid is compact, powered by a battery and has built-in effects. It’s exactly the speaker most guitar players are looking for.
The Spark Mini retails just over $200, which is expensive for a guitar amp of this size. But its wide-ranging features might soften that blow. The amp is loud and holds its sound quality even at top volume. It connects wirelessly to its mobile app and can use lots of effects or save them to hardware presets. Plus, if you’re worried that you might not use it enough to justify its price, it can also double as a regular Bluetooth speaker to listen to music.
- Plenty of guitar effects are available via mobile app
- Loud for its compact size
- Firmware updates for the amp are a pain
- Independent music volume controls
Buy at Spark.
A Practice Amp for Beginners and Beyond
Right away, I was drawn to the Spark Mini because it’s unintimidating. That’s mostly due to its small size, but its controls are minimal and easy to understand without being sparse. The amp has a good amount of features, but they’re all easy to figure out.
Its build quality feels durable. The handle stands out as going above and beyond what was necessary. On the underside is a soft velvet-like material that feels great to hold and is pleasant on the eyes. The battery life is rated for around 8 hours playing at low to medium volume. It will fluctuate depending on how you use it, but I found it to last plenty of hours.
A lot of the value of buying a Spark Mini is for its mobile app connectivity, but out of the box you can use its presets right away and get down to business. The first thing I did was turn up the volume. There are no numbers on the unit, but I assumed it went to 11. The amp gets much louder than it looks capable of.
The Spark Mini isn’t meant to gig with, but it almost sounds like it could hang if it was needed in a pinch at an indoor café—that’s the volume level we’re talking about. If you do use the Mini as a Bluetooth speaker, be aware that the volume level on the device streaming the music and the amp are independent of each other.
This is an amp made for practicing, and its features back that up. There’s a headphone jack to strum in silence. There’s also a tuner and metronome function. Digging deeper into the mobile app exposes a lot of other useful ways to keep engaged in honing your craft.
I’ve joked in the past that I don’t practice playing bass as much as I should because it’s not an instrument that sounds great by itself. Well, any hints of truth that joke did have are 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 along with. It provides the chords on the screen, too. Quick Jam is ready-made instrument tracks, also in various styles. I love these features and was surprised by the quality and usefulness they provide.
Scrolling down further in the app’s music section will reveal curated YouTube videos of all kinds of songs to learn or play along with. I thought the section of Tabbed Songs was especially clever: The app displayed big chord guides in time with the music.
The effects section and the music section both make a lot of sense and are well executed. The features don’t stop there, however. There’s a video section to record yourself playing. I don’t really see how it justifies a prominent place in the app and differentiates itself from simply using the camera app on your phone.
Interestingly, there’s also a microphone icon that hovers in the bottom right corner on most screens of the app. It serves as its own dedicated voice assistant. Tapping it starts it listening for your command. What can you say to it? As of now, it lists three things it’s good at, including “Play drums” and “Play a backing track.”
It seems like this feature is included because someone thought the app was too complicated to get to those features quickly, but introducing another icon with very limited functionality seems more egregious in my opinion. Stepping outside of those three commands, I asked it to “Play a song,” and it did a search for “song.” Personally, I’d ditch the video recording and streamline the interface around the effects and practice music.
The effects are all customizable. The ability to tweak the sound to get the style you want is at your fingers. If you don’t want to spend the time, however, there is an abundance of premade effects that can be downloaded.
As solid as the software side of the equation is for the Spark Mini, there was one critical downside I stumbled upon—updating the amp. The Spark mobile app gets new features from App Store updates, but the amp itself can gain new abilities, as well. But, I think updating the firmware, or embedded software, on the amp is much too complicated.
Updating the Spark Mini requires connecting it with a cable to a Windows or Mac computer because Positive Grid’s Firmware Updater software is only made for those two platforms—a requirement that prompted me to say, audibly, “Seriously?” when I realized that. There are plenty of people who use Chromebooks or iPads as their main machines, however, who can’t run the computer software. Plus even if you do have the appropriate computer, as I do, it still might not work.
I restarted my computer, I tried different USB-C cables, and I unplugged and replugged the cable a lot of 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. Luckily, 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 really great portable practice amp. It works best for guitarists, electric and acoustic, but it can also work for bassists. I really like its extensibility via its mobile app and its being able to add and change effects pretty much on the fly. It definitely isn’t inexpensive, but overall I think it does provide a lot of value—including doubling as a Bluetooth speaker for music.
The clutteredness of the mobile app interface and having to change the volume on your phone and the speaker when using it to play music are minimal inconveniences on the whole. My biggest gripe relates to needing to plug the amp into a computer and go through a cumbersome process to update it. That could be a bigger 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 whenever you are will encourage you to play music more often, then this will be money well spent.
Buy at Spark for $229.
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