Electric guitar amps are one of the few pieces of technology that haven’t been completely overhauled since their first refinements in the 1950s and ‘60s. Plenty of accessories and optional additions have cropped up since then, but the amps themselves still contain the same basic construction and the same basic operating instructions: plug in and rock out.
But as well as this traditional technology has served us, it’s not without flaws. Are you wearing out your cables faster than Van Halen switched lead singers? Do you have to concentrate more on not tripping over your wires than on your actual music when you play a gig? Are you ready for technology to start working for you? Bluetooth is here to smooth out all the kinks so you can forget about inputs and start concentrating solely on your outputs.
Although everybody who’s used a smartphone is probably familiar with the term, few people can tell you exactly what Bluetooth is and how it works. Fortunately, we’re obsessive about gear at this site, so we’ll break it down for you in the exact ways that will help you bring out the best in your guitar performance.
When two electronic devices need to communicate – like an electric guitar and an amplifier – they have to be calibrated to make sure they’re in agreement on what physical connection they want to make and what standard of transfer speed they want to use.
Traditional communications between devices depend largely on cords and cables, which pose a lot of downsides, most of which stem from the physical manifestation of the connection. A tangible connection can come unhooked easily through environmental accidents or failures as simple as an unfortunately timed step. It also presents its own hazards in the form of wear and tear that can erode the quality of the connection over time.
Wireless connections have sprung up as solutions to a lot of these problems, but they come with their own shortfalls. For instance, infrared led the way in wireless connections but was limited to “insight” range – in other words, to communicate, infrared devices have to be pointed right at each other for the entirety of the exchange. Think about the remote control you have for your TV.
It’s a huge improvement over having to change the channel on the actual television, and even over the old-school connected remotes. But it won’t work unless you aim the clicker at exactly the right point on the set. Just as limiting, infrared does not translate between more than one device, so your remote works with your TV and only your TV.
Bluetooth improves on both wires and the first attempts at going without them. It uses radio frequency to sync with nearby devices on a set of low-frequency waves that have been set aside for scientific, industrial, and medical devices according to an international agreement. So wherever you go, your Bluetooth amplifier will work all over the world, and you don’t have to worry about it being interrupted by anybody else’s sweet tunes.
When one Bluetooth enabled device, like your cell phone, gets in range of another, they automatically communicate. The first time they encounter each other, you’ll have to configure their settings to confirm that yes, you do want them to connect in the future, but once that’s done they’ll establish a personal network called a PAN that they’ll jump on every time they come within range of each other.
Once they’re linked, the devices will both make use of a technique called spread-spectrum frequency hopping, which means they randomly but in a tandem jump from frequency to frequency to make sure they’re always on a clear one to ensure a continuous, uninterrupted signal.
That network is unique to the devices that have synced up – if you have more than two Bluetooth devices in one range of a signal, the one that has not been synced into the original network will be ignored and won’t automatically turn on unless it becomes part of the network. That’s how you can have multiple Bluetooth devices in your living room, like a cordless phone, a Bluetooth speaker, your laptop, a headset, without them all acting on the same signal. It’s great everyday magic that lets you get more mobility out of your devices without having to be a tech genius.
One major caveat to using Bluetooth with your guitar amplifiers is that it’s going to act more like a speaker you can play along with than a true amplifier. That’s because Bluetooth technology has a lag of about 10 milliseconds from input to output, and while that’s not going to be an issue while broadcasting things, you’ll immediately recognize that as something you don’t want in your live stage shows.
If you keep that in mind, using Bluetooth with your guitar amp is easy when you have the right equipment. Just like other devices, you’ll have a Bluetooth indicator on your amp that will automatically say howdy to your tablet or smartphone. Just let your device greet it back, and you’re good to go.
You can use Bluetooth to play with background music, play music during a break interval without needing to bother the sound guy, use it to connect to your guitar itself when you have a Bluetooth adapter for that, or adjust your amp settings from (relatively) afar. It’s great for practicing or backing yourself solo or getting fancy with your footwork, but beware that the sound profile needed from a device that broadcasts a full spectrum of music will be different than that of specifically and only your instrument, so your mileage may vary in different scenarios.
We can’t emphasize enough how many times we’ve almost broken either our necks or our guitar’s because we’ve got eleventy million cords plugged into our setup and our feet manage to find at least one to trip over. Especially in a practice space or anywhere you’re inclined to experiment with your new gear, less cords make for happier guitar players, period, so Bluetooth amps make for a great way to subtract some of that stress from your music.
A Bluetooth amplifier’s greatest strength is giving you a way to play along with music from the same source you use to broadcast your own notes. You can sync any playlist you have on your phone, tablet, laptop, whatever, and jam along with it like you’re there in the middle of your favorite album. And anyone who’s been in a band knows how hard it can be to get everyone together for enough practices to get awesome; with Bluetooth, you can have jam sessions on your individual schedules as much as you want.
Plus, if you’re a solo artist who needs backup every now and then, you can use a Bluetooth amp to broadcast that during the songs you need it and let it chill when you don’t, and a group of any number of musicians can use it for interval music during breaks between sets. Although the speaker function doesn’t directly translate to exactly what you’ll hear from a regular stereo, it cuts down on a lot of logistical issues found in traditional backing music methods.
When you connect non-musical equipment to your Bluetooth enabled amplifier, you really see the magic of wireless connections get to work.
Controls you can load onto your tablet, smartphone, or laptop give you full access to your amp’s volume and tone controls, letting you adjust from afar as needed and giving you more fine tuning options than the knobs on the amp itself. Some Bluetooth amps even come with presets based on sounds of famous artists, from Jimi Hendrix to Cannibal Corpse. With that kind of range, you won’t want to go back to your regular controls.
Bluetooth is awesome at keeping other devices from interfering with the signal it establishes. Its frequency-hopping abilities keep it from accidentally running into other broadcasts and keeps others from running over it, so it’s great for a situation where a lot of interference seems possible.
If you’ve got all your gear in one room, or if you live with other people who have wireless devices, or if you just don’t want to accidentally blast your eardrums with a YouTube video instead of your meticulously practiced shredding, a Bluetooth amp is great. Not even a wall can break it, and unlike wifi devices, it doesn’t depend on an outside source of connection, just its own network.
Anything that depends on wireless connection can run the risk of being hacked, but unlike a wifi connection that’s open to anyone who knows the key, Bluetooth connections are based in devices and won’t connect with anything except what they’ve configured with. And since you won’t be sending your banking or medical information from your axe, you can feel safe sending your music through Bluetooth.
One thing that’s both a drawback and a plus of Bluetooth is its relatively weak power output. It’s definitely strong enough for the devices that use its workable range, though, and the 1 milliwatt of power it uses gives you peace of mind that you’re not jacking up your amp’s juice to ridiculous heights to take advantage of Bluetooth. It uses so little power you won’t see a difference in your power bill or the output of your amp, which is great news for all of us who already have five or six or a million different effects sprouting from our board. Bluetooth helps you lessen your footprint without making you sacrifice quality.
Call us very pleasantly surprised that you can’t tell a Bluetooth enabled amp from the price alone. They start at the equivalent of mid-level solid workhorses, about $250 – $300, and of course, you can head into the stratosphere if you’d like, but at that point, you’re paying for amp quality, not Bluetooth additions.
You can also get Bluetooth pieces that you add to your current amplifier and guitar starting at about $25, so any way you want to try it, Bluetooth will keep you in your budget.
Because it depends on radio signals, Bluetooth doesn’t have as far a reach as some of the more long-ranging traditional connections. You can get guitar cables that seem like they wrap around the world twice, but Bluetooth maxes out after about 32 feet.
But you’ll recognize that as plentiful for a practice range and adequate for a lot of performance play, especially considering the singularity of that signal once it’s connected. It’s something to keep in mind, though, especially if you tend to wander while you play and you have a lot of space to do that.
As we’ve mentioned, Bluetooth enabled amps are not able to broadcast guitar playing in the traditional way for the most part. There are ways to do so, but they require getting more equipment than just the Bluetooth enabled amp. You don’t have to break the bank with any of this – a bundle could cost less than a regular amp on the high end of the middle price range – but it is a little bit more complicated and a little bit more expensive than using a Bluetooth enabled amp on its own.
Guitar amps are specifically meant to enhance the tones of that instrument. That’s their job, but if you use your Bluetooth amp as a speaker for music from other sources, it won’t capture the full range of sound because it’s outside your amp’s jurisdiction. That actually makes it great for practicing since you’ll be able to hear yourself as much more detailed than whatever backing track you’re using.
No-name and legacy guitar brands alike are putting out Bluetooth enabled amps all along with the price and quality spectrum, so if you have a favorite type already, check them out to see if they’ve gotten onboard. Here are a few we personally love:
Bluetooth amplifiers are ushering in a new era of hybrid music equipment and personal stereo systems that will seamlessly blend your entertainment and your creativity. Enjoy the fruits of technology!
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