A Box of Sparklers
My introduction to the wares of Sparkler Audio (website) was through the 2017 and 2018 Capital Audiofest shows. There, I’d made note of Sparker’s quirky Spiral compact disc player, which had been featured in both the Charney Audio and VK Music rooms. Given that I had really enjoyed the sound in these rooms at both shows, I was determined to put Sparker Audio on my “to do” radar. That little CD player just kept tugging at me, as I had been considering getting a disc spinner after listening extensively to computer audio for a good ten years running. On a recent visit to Our Esteemed Editor, I discovered that Robin Wyatt of Robyatt Audio had sent over a box full of Sparklers. It didn’t take long before I was able to distract Scot (I might have tipped over a loudspeaker) and run off with it. Bwahahaha!
The Back Story
Sparkler Audio isn’t exactly a household name here in the US, even amongst the most die-hard audiophiles. It’s a relatively new company, founded back in 2013 by Mr. Kazutoshi Tsukahara, a former design engineer for Japan’s 47 Laboratories. That Sparkler’s design philosophies closely mirror those of 47 Laboratories is no coincidence, and that’s a good thing. Specifically, the emphasis is on tonal purity achieved using minimal parts count, low power transistors, and short signal path. Simpler is better: it’s a way of thinking in the audio community that I’ve become somewhat interested in exploring lately.
As of now, Sparker has only one North American distributor: Victor Kung’s VK Audio out of Canada. However, there are a growing number of audio enthusiasts here in the US that have taken note: Brian Charney (Charney Audio) and Robin Wyatt (Robyatt Audio) to name a couple. I know these guys, and they are both golden-eared. Something special and different was at hand here, and I was ready to jump in head-first.
Box of Goodies
Opening up the box of Sparkler gear was like stumbling onto a treasure trove. Inside, I eagerly dug out a miniature integrated amp, disc player, DAC, phono stage, and a tiny AM/FM tuner. My first thought upon seeing this assortment of diminutive hand-built components was something like “Aint it darlin’.” Yes, I’m Southern.
As an audio reviewer, I sometimes tire of the endless stream of “me-too” components. It’s often hard to differentiate between similar amps that cost about the same and follow similar design principles. I truly enjoy the opportunity to evaluate fresh and new approaches to perfectionist audio playback, and that’s exactly what I had here spread out before me.
One look will tell any enthusiast that there’s something uniquely different going on here. I’ve mentioned the small sizes of these components. What I haven’t mentioned is their almost delicate look: a lovely combination of thin stainless steel chassis, clear acrylic, and rice paper! Front panels are adorned with positively tiny switches and knobs. The real treat is firing these guys up at night. The acrylic panels, backed with colored rice paper, are back-lit, giving each component the appearance of a Japanese paper lantern. I absolutely love this cozy effect: it’s right up there with tube glow and McIntosh blue.
What to do, what to do?
I immediately set each component up somewhere to let it run in for eventual evaluation and personal enjoyment. About this time, I also noticed that Sparkler Audio updated its website. With some chagrin, I saw that many of the components I had were seemingly discontinued or replaced by more updated models. The disc player and phono stage were up-to-date, but that was about it. I got in touch with distributor Victor Kung, who arranged to have a currently available integrated amplifier, the model S502 Ether, sent to me. I then decided to limit the specifics of my review to this amplifier and the model S503 Spiral compact disc player, both working together as a system.
So let’s take each component individually before we discuss the system, shall we?
Sparkler S503 Spiral Disc Player ($1700)
The Sparkler Audio Spiral player is that disc spinner that first introduced me to Sparkler Audio back in 2017 at Capital Audio Fest. Not only did it look cool, it sounded quite nice. It’s got a quirky and lovable look. Maybe a bit old-fashioned inside and out, the Spiral is a top-loader with a Phillips TDA 1543 non-oversampling DAC chip at its heart. This is the same antique converter chip that is used in my Border Patrol SE DAC (a personal favorite, reviewed here). You are free to love it or hate it; I like it, which may explain some of my affinity for the Spiral.
Another aspect of the Spiral that I sort of enjoy is the protocol needed to make it work, a protocol that would make the English royals wince, and one approaching vinyl playback territory. First, the disc must be loaded onto the spindle. Next, there’s a magnet placed over the spindle to hold the whole affair in place. Now, the acrylic dust cover should be carefully replaced to minimize vibration. Not done yet …. The disc information must be “loaded” prior to hitting play. I learned this the hard way by just hitting play. Bad move. The sound that came out was garbled and nasty. Alright, once the disc has been properly initialized, then it can be played. After playing the first few discs, I had it all figured out, and now it is just a part of the Zen-like routine one must accept to fully engage in the Sparkler “experience.”
The Sparkler Audio Spiral can also be used as a stand-alone digital transport. It is equipped with dual RCA digital outputs, meaning that it can be employed as a true dual mono digital source. It’s also equipped with a nicely designed and high-quality remote control that I have found far preferable to engaging the tiny switches on the front panel of the player.
Sparkler S502 Ether Integrated Amplifier ($1100)
The Sparkler Audio Ether amplifier is physically small and only puts out seven watts per channel. It offers on the front panel an on/off switch, input selector, volume knob, and finally, a mute switch. There are three inputs on the rear panel, all gold-plated RCA jacks. About a third of the length of the amp is actually heat sinking, which gets only warm to the touch during use. Besides the decorative acrylic top, with its layer of underlying rice paper, the whole affair is quite spartan (and Lilliputian) by normal American standards.
Of some interest is that the Sparkler Audio Ether can be fitted with two inputs that sense current signals rather than the more common voltage signal transmission. It is claimed that current signaling provides a more direct and unfettered sound, leading to greater listener involvement. This option is designated as the “i” version, and it’s the one I chose. I’d had experience with this concept before, when I reviewed the Bakoon AMP-41 integrated amp (reviewed here). This amplifier disarmed me with its immediacy and speed, so I hoped to get a taste of those attributes with my own “i” version of the Sparker amplifier.
At Victor Kung’s suggestion, I also opted for the banana plug attachment adaptor, which allows greater versatility in speaker cable attachment.
OK, now for the system…
My evaluation was based on a simple system comprising of the Sparkler Audio Spiral disc player running signal (in current mode) directly to the Ether integrated amplifier. This amp in turn powered speakers of my choice. The speakers most used during the evaluation were Zu Audio Omen II Dirty Weekend floor-standers and Amphion Argon 3S stand-mounted speakers (reviewed here). Interconnects were TelWire, while speaker cables were from Sparkler Audio. As an aside, one of the first things I normally do with most audio gear is to chuck the stock power cord and replace it with something more audiophile approved. In the case of the Sparkler gear, I opted to run with the supplied cords. These were simple, very flexible, and two-pronged. Considering the quirkiness of the Sparkler stuff, my gut instincts told me that using their “house cords” might be the best course of action.
Given the diminutive power output of the Sparkler Audio Ether amp, I felt that speaker sensitivity might become an issue. I shouldn’t have worried too much, as Sparkler Audio’s own speakers are rated at a fairly low 86 dB. Both speakers I used are higher in efficiency, so I figured I’d be safe. I was. I got plenty of volume (reasonable levels here…) from the Ether driving both the Zu and Amphion speakers.
And the sound?
Played together as a system, the Sparkler Audio Spiral disc player and Ether integrated amp gave a fast, up-front, and very clear sound. My first impression was that the combo sounded a tad lean, but upon much longer time spent listening, I now think of the sound as totally open and unfettered.
Neither piece of gear editorialized; both seemed wonderfully honest to whatever was recorded onto the disc. In fact, this little system was quite good at finding colorations in speakers downstream, as I’ll elaborate on a bit later.
The speed and openness of the Sparkler Audio combo was somewhat surreal at first. It took me some time to get used to it, but once I did, I felt the sound to be very satisfying and rewarding. Perhaps the current signaling between components contributed to the quick, open sound, as I was quite readily reminded of the sense of immediacy I heard from the similar Bakoon amplifier I recently reviewed.
In spite of the speediness of the system, I felt that the timbral accuracy was spot-on. Naturally rendered notes had a certain “rightness” about them that sounded like real tones from actual instruments. It’s difficult to really explain what I mean here, but basically I feel that lots of modern digital processors and amplifiers attempt to “massage” the sound to make it sound more pleasant to the audiophile ear. I didn’t get that impression from the Sparkler disc player or amp; I felt that they were just straight-up conveying what was encoded on the compact disc. I’m not saying that the reproduction lacked tonal warmth, but what warmth that was there was natural as opposed to additive.
Performance with various speakers
Most of my time spent listening to the Sparkler Spiral player and Ether amp was with either Zu Audio’s Omen Dirty Weekenders or Amphion’s Argon 3S monitors. Both speakers performed well with the Sparkler gear and could be driven to solidly satisfying listening levels. However, when listening to the Zu speakers, I sometimes heard a hint of coloration in the mid-band. A good example was when listening to the Norris Turney Quartet”s album “Big Sweet ‘n’ Blue” (cd, Mapleshade Productions), I heard a distinctly nasal or honky coloration to Turney’s saxophone that I know is not on the recording. Replacing the Zu speakers with the Amphion Argons, the coloration went away, leaving the saxophone with a natural, uncolored tone. I really enjoy the Omen Dirty Weekend speakers and normally find them relatively un-colored while offering the coherent and dynamic characteristics of a single-driver speaker. This was the first time that I found them to be somewhat on the sonically ugly side. Was the sonic truthfulness of the Sparkler duo shedding some light on heretofore hidden flaws in the bargain Zu speakers?
Moving on to the Amphion Argon 3S stand-mount speakers, I got a more neutral and pleasing tonal palette. I consider the Argons to be on the “truthful” side of the spectrum, and they mated superbly to the like-minded Sparkler Audio gear.
All of my favorite genres of music were rendered with graceful ease. Small jazz ensemble, solo instrumental, and vocal recordings were late-night favorites; anything from Todd Garfinkle’s MA Recordings label proved an excellent example. Among others, I greatly enjoyed Dusan Bogdanovic’s album “In the Midst of Winds,” featuring the duet guitar playing of Bogdanovic and Sharon Wayne (compact disc, MA Recordings). When I play this disc, I like to listen for the harmonic complexities of the guitars, as well as the attack of fingers against strings. The Sparkler Audio Spiral player and Ether amplifier, together playing into the Amphion speakers, let me hear into this recording as I have rarely heard it before; I was thrilled by the density of tone of the guitars, as well as by the poignancy of the playing. The simplicity of the Sparkler Audio gear seems to facilitate the removal of the fetters normally clouding recorded music, thus letting the listener get that much closer to the performers and the performance.
Due to the power limitations of the Ether amp, I was somewhat shy about playing orchestral music with the Sparkler duo. Near the end of my review, I happened upon an eclectic clutch of mainly orchestral discs that I really wanted to check out. One after another, these were loaded onto the Sparkler Audio Spiral player and played start to finish. I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised at how well the Sparkler/Amphion system conveyed the emotion of the performances, as well as the impact of the orchestra. I just didn’t expect to be so aurally satisfied by a mere seven watts of solid-state power. Mind you, I wasn’t shaking the walls here with timpani thwacks, but rather playing at reasonable night-time levels. Even so, I was impressed at the gravity and balance of the orchestral forces, with low strings, brass, and percussion taking their rightful places in the instrumental lineup.
Another unexpected consequence of this review has been my re-discovery of the sonic virtues of the “lowly” compact disc. It was easy to forget about hi-resolution streaming files when I listened to my music through the Sparkler Spiral player. The timing, texture, and detail offered by this unit using the old Phillips TDA 1543 converter chip are mind-blowing.
Given the performance and the price of these special products, we’re nominating them both for our coveted Julia Award, the exclusive value-oriented category of our Editors’ Choice Awards. And yes, I bought both a Spiral and an Ether, decorated with some fashionable plum-colored rice paper.
Any serious listener who is interested in breaking away from the pack (or simply trying out something totally new and different), and at a more-than-reasonable asking price to boot, would do well to hang their hat on some Sparkler gear.
I have, and I’m glad I did.