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This article was originally published in issue #30
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With the miniaturisation of amps in full swing right now, the fashion seems to be for the production of ever smaller and smaller designs. Inherent in this quest is the battle between portability and tonal quality as the smaller the amplifier and speaker, the less frequency range can be accurately produced. The latest amplifier from Blackstar, the Fly 3, seeks to solve some of these issues by producing an innovative three Watt mini amp that is both great sounding and supremely portable.
The Blackstar Fly 3 is so small that it will comfortably fit on your knee or in your overhead luggage with room to spare, thanks to the tiny 3” built in speaker. Built from plastic for decent durability at a good price, Blackstar has packed a full two channel design complete with a digital 'tape delay' effect into this diminutive design, along with an emulated headphone/line out and aux in for and mp3 player connection. The small closed chassis design is tuned to maximise the frequency response and output giving a tone as close to a normal sized combo as possible from this 3” speaker.
Controls are simple to use, with four dials comprising Gain, Volume, EQ and Delay Time, along with a smaller Delay Level control. The only other controls are a channel push-switch and a Power button. The unit is powered by six (yes six!) AA batteries and Blackstar doesn’t state a predicted usage time per battery charge. For those needing more reliable (let alone cheaper) power source, a separate DC power supply can be purchased, although this is a relatively pricey option given the price of the Fly 3 itself. There has been a market trend recently for companies to produce small amplifiers that double as computer, tablet, phone or hi-fi speakers and the Fly is no exception. The speaker is full range and can be paired with a matching Fly 103 extension speaker (sold separately) for true stereo guitar tones, or monitoring your Aux Input or computer audio.
The build quality of the Fly is pretty impressive, given that it’s an all plastic affair and feels very solid. All of the controls are smooth and accurate in their operation and feel built to last rather than being toy like. This is certainly designed as a serious practice tool rather than a novelty item.
Plugging in, the Fly is immediately an impressive performer with a far more generous sound than the size would lead you to believe. Whilst obviously not having the low end grunt of a larger combo amp, there is an impressive amount of bottom end and the high frequencies are punchy but not harsh, as long as the speaker isn’t pointed at your ears. The clean tone is nicely dynamic and responsive, breaking up in a very pleasing manner towards the upper gain levels and there is enough clean headroom on offer for a moderately loud practice session, but this isn’t a three Watt tube amp, so don’t expect to practice with a drummer on hand!
Moving over to the OD channel presents a range of tones from light crunch all the way up to almost metal tones, without any muddiness or fuzziness to speak of. At all gain settings the tone remains tight and pleasing without any harshness and retains the dynamic response of the cleaner tones. The feel is really pleasing to play with a lovely squishiness that is fun to play and reacts well to volume changes - this certainly feels and responds like a tube amp.
The ISF (Infinite Shape Feature) is Blackstar’s one knob EQ system and features on all of their amplifiers, usually in combination with a normal EQ suite. In this case Blackstar's engineers have cleverly EQ’d the basic tone of the amp extremely well and the lone ISF control just adds sweetness to the EQ curve, shaping the basic Low, Mid and High frequencies to give a more American tone at one side and more British at the other. This is very effective at shaping the tone and keeps the control panel as simple and compact as possible.
The included Tape Delay is a lovely addition too, with an analogue characteristic erring on the darker side of the tonal spectrum, thus blending in with the existing tone even at higher level settings. This is a very welcome addition to the design as most guitar players want at least a little bit of ambiance in their sound and the Fly offers a great sounding delay in an already impressive sounding package. To complete the package the emulated out offers great headphone tones and can even be used as a compact recording package with two great sounding and feeling channels.
The full range speaker sounds equally impressive for music playback via the Aux in and would be even better with the stereo pair in operation. For the asking price the Fly represents superb value for money and great tone in a very compact package. It’s unlikely to fit in your gig bag but given the small size Blackstar seem to have hit the perfect compromise between amp size and tone. This could be the perfect portable practice, busking amplifier and I am sure they will shift a lot of these for the holiday season!