Blackstar Fly 3: The Perfect Practice Amp

I first heard the name Blackstar in a childhood cartoon on CBS. John Blackstar ran around in a loin-cloth and leather booths wielding a glowing sword like He-Man. I hated He-Man and kids who played with him, but I could relate to Blackstar. He was a minority and an astronaut, and had a hot astronaut girlfriend, unlike homosexual He-man who never managed to get it on with Teela. (Then again she was pretty butch.)

Maybe that’s one reason I like Blackstar  amps. Reeves Gabriels’ endorsement is another,  but most of all their amps have great features and sound right. Their HT-1R amp almost replaced my Little Lanilei 1/4-watt amp, but the new Blackstar Fly 3 is really the perfect practice solution for me.

 The Fly3 is a battery powered amp made of plastic, but what sets apart from similar offerings from Marshall, Fender, Vox and anyone with access to a factory in China is the optional Fly 103 satellite speaker. This isn’t just a powered extension speaker — it’s the other half of a stereo pair. This helps the sound of the amp fill the room, and makes the guitar sound a lot better. It also means you can use the amp as PC monitor speakers!

As an amp, the Fly sounds are surprisingly natural. Cleans are warm and clear, overdrive sounds really like a low-gain tube amp, and it cleans up with volume adjustments I wasn’t sure if it’s digital or solid-state, but it sounds good enough for what it is that I don’t care.  The gain and volume controls compensate for each other nicely. Finding the right balance of treble, bass and mids with the ISF control takes a bit of finesse to find the sweet spot. You’d expect an amp called “fly” to have thin buzzy distortion, but this is NOT the case. The highest gain settings are not as satisfying, but the amp takes pedals without issue so that doesn’t matter. Having  digital “tape delay” instead of reverb may also seem unusual, but for me it’s a perfect since I love delay, and am picky about reverbs. Unfortunately the delay does not seem to make use of the stereo speakers to create more ambience.

As PC speakers, they are plenty loud, and definitely a huge improvement over built-in laptop speakers. My roommate was impressed enough to want a pair until he realized it was one of my guitar amps. However I’m a bit spoiled by my my Fostex PM -03 monitors. Compared to those, the Fly sounds but harsh and 2-dimensional, but that comparison is really unfair because the Fostex monitors are 15 watts through a crossover network driving a pair of tiny tweeters. At least the Fly3/103 does not reveal the artifacts in MP3s.

Most of the time I use  AC power supply, but occasionally I forget to plug it back in. Fortunately, battery life from four AAs  is excellent. I’ve left it on overnight, and it played strong the next day for hours. The power supply seems overpriced at $30. You’d probably spend that much batteries in a year. I found a used 6.5V power supply for an old digital camera for $10, cut off the plug, and replaced it with one the right size.

Ironically, the one I got used actual sounds like there is a fly or mosquito trapped inside the plastic cabinet. Maybe it flew in trough the port hole?  Taking it apart to check inside was a scary operation because it’s made of plastic. Pots are mounted on the board, and secured to the panel with nuts. A single screw hidden behind the logo slowed me down initially. Inside, the guts are A LOT of SMT components, so little or no chance of modding.

Unfortunately I never found the source of the tiny buzz, but I like the amp enough that I bought another one for a different room in my apartment.

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