I vividly remember my dad telling me about Wi-Fi when I was a kid. He promised that when I made it to high school, I’d be able to print my essays from a laptop—no cables required. It sounded like science fiction, but by the time I had my awkward ninth-grade growth spurt, I was regularly doing just that.
It’s funny to think about how much easier wireless technology has made printing, listening to music, and even watching our favorite movies, but how it hasn’t quite made its way down to average musicians and their instruments. Sure, you’ll see Paul McCartney with a wireless pack attached to his violin bass, but your local indie band is almost certainly still plugging in their Telecasters with a cable, just like Leo Fender did in 1952.
It doesn’t make sense that, for most people, amps, cables, and the basic guitar rig are nearly the same after 70 years. That’s where the Yamaha THR30 II, and a new variety of all-in-one amps called “desktop” amps, come in. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and a built-in battery merge with onboard effects and a built-in audio interface to essentially do anything a musician needs at any time.
At $500, it’s cheaper than what you’ll pay for many traditional amps that do much less, and it sounds fantastic. In a decade’s time, it’s easy to imagine that many touring bands will have abandoned their heavy setups for something like this. If I had a kid who was learning music, I’d tell them that by high school, cables could be a thing of the past.
Easy Like Sunday Morning
Yamaha’s THR II models are a series of amps that come with Line 6’s awesome wireless tech on board. Plug a small aftermarket dongle ($50) into your guitar, turn on the boombox-sized, battery-powered guitar amp, and you can shred your favorite Jimmy Hendrix licks anywhere.
THR II amps come in three varieties, the 30-watt THR30 II I’m testing and smaller 10-watt THR10 II and THR10 II Wireless versions. I’d only consider the two amps with built-in batteries (the THR30 II and THR10 Wireless) because that’s really where the magic of these little amps comes into focus.
There are no cables, no stomp boxes, not even a tuner required—it’s got all that built in. It’s designed to answer all your musical questions with a yes. Want to record? It’s got a USB output, so you can just plug it straight into a laptop. Want to play along with a song on your phone? You can use it as a Bluetooth speaker while also using it as a guitar amp.
You barely even need to remember a power cable. The dongle is charged by plugging it into the amp’s quarter-inch jack, so you never need to worry about batteries, and the amp itself will last about five hours at medium volume before you need to plug it back into the wall.
I have hundreds of feet of guitar cable at my house. I now resent every inch. It helps that the Yamaha looks cool too, like a retro-future lunchbox. The big metal handle on top makes it super easy to grab and go, and it’s made of sturdy metal that feels like it can take a beating.
No Strings Attached
Ease of use is such a win here that it’s hard to move past it, but sound quality remains the most important thing to most musicians. We’re a stubborn bunch, and if a piece of newfangled gear can’t re-create the sounds we’ve grown to love, we just won’t use it, no matter what.
Somehow, in two generations of tinkering, the brains at Yamaha have figured out how to make the THR amps sound like the real thing. You have three emulated circuits—Modern, Boutique, and Classic—to choose from. Each offers its own musical flavor, but all sound like actual guitar amps.
The controls work just like “normal” amps too. You’ve got basic gain and master volume controls, as well as bass, mid, and treble EQ knobs on top of the amp, so you can easily dial in your basic tone without using Yamaha’s free companion app. Put it in Classic with a touch of drive, roll off some mids, and you’ve got a pretty convincing Fender Blackface sound.
God bless speedy modern chips and digital signal processing; everything works with zero audible latency. The engineers also included a number of very usable preset amp settings for each amp style. You can select between Clean, Crunch, Lead, Hi Gain, and Special on each style, and there’s even Bass, Aco (acoustic), and Flat (for keyboards) settings if you’re plugging in something other than an electric guitar.
The one control section I’m not a huge fan of is the effects knob, which is to the right of the EQ controls. It’s not that the built-in Tremolo, Phaser, Flanger, and Chorus effects sound bad by any means, it’s just that a single, segmented knob doesn’t quite get you 100 percent to where you want in terms of tones. For that, you’ll want to dial them in with the app, where you get multiple, more granular controls.
The knob that handles delays and reverbs comes closer to the sounds I want out of the box, but I like dialing them in more precisely via the app. Once you do, it’s easy to save any sound you like to one of five onboard preset slots. Amazing.
After about an hour of tinkering, I had all five slots filled with very usable sounds, the vast majority of which came close to what I’m usually getting from about $2,000 in pedals and amps. I don’t say that lightly: This thing sounds great, and I typically play a prototype 1963 Fender Bassman I drove five hours round trip to buy. I was particularly impressed with how convincingly warm the digital overdrive was in the Crunch setting; it gets frighteningly close to the real thing.
Take It Anywhere
I recently took a few days off for a socially distanced beach trip with my girlfriend. Instead of bringing a mic, my pedals, and a small amp as I usually would, I just brought the THR30 II.
Not only did I play more guitar than normal (setup time is a jam killer!), I also recorded a few tracks using the USB connectivity. I like to think and walk, and I found it especially awesome to be able to wander around in a 30-foot radius while still playing my guitar. It’s even got line outs, so the next time I hit the stage I can save the sound guy some mics.
When we had dinner outside on the patio on a rare sunny Oregon coast evening, I paired my phone and started playing some Khruangbin through the THR30 II, as though it was simply a Bluetooth speaker. After dinner, I was jamming again.
As far as I’m concerned, the emulation, portable speaker design, and relatively low cost of the THR II line is so good, there’s no reason to lug around the heavy gear anymore. Cables suck. Using the Yamaha is like using the first laptop that was actually decent. I’m not sure I’ll ever bring my tube amp out of the basement again. Save that stuff for the studio and weekends of jamming; the THR II is close enough—and drastically more convenient—live.