I’ll admit it—I’ve always wanted one of those cool-looking CD players that’s little more than a small box and a compact disc hub poking out of the top, maybe a couple of buttons and a minimalist LCD display on the front and little else. Most audiophiles know a CD player doesn’t have to be much larger than the transport, and there’s a slightly subliminal motif at play where the ability to play CDs is no longer a priority on the equipment rack, but most of us with sizable CD collections still want to play them with at least a modicum of style. That’s why the Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade” CD Player popped up on my radar.
It’s a far more complex tale than that. My interest in Sparkler Audio was first ignited by John Richardson’s review of the Sparkler Audio Spiral CD player back in November of 2017, back before I joined the PTA team. I was flipping through the archives and found this attractive little box that played CDs and, according to John, did it quite well.
Jump forward to the RMAF 2018, when I stumbled into a room that featured lots of Japanese tube amplifiers, mostly in kit form, along with some of the Sparkler Audio gear that John discussed in his review. This was the VK Music room, of course, founded by Victor Kung in Canada. Victor is the North American distributor for Japanese brands such as Sparkler Audio, Elekit and Sunvalley, and he shows with other brands such as AER single-driver speakers from Germany.
I sat and listened to this exotic system in an almost near-field listening position, sandwiched in between these two massive acrylic horns and leaning in, and it was like wearing the biggest and bestest headphone-based system in the world. This was a memorable listening session that lived in the overlap of speakers and headphones, an almost spherical world where I heard a level of detail that I can still recall instantly in my head to this day.
I gave Victor my card, forgot to follow up with him, and that sketchy Herbert Reichert guy moved in and suddenly started reviewing gear from Sunvalley and Elekit for Stereophile. He scooped me, and at first I was kicking myself in the pants for letting that happen. Then I thought well, that means Victor is offering review samples, and I should follow up once more. Then Grover Neville met up with Victor at T.H.E. Show in Long Beach last May, had pretty much the same reaction as I did, and now here I am with this little CD player called the Sparkler Audio S515u that has created one more compelling option for audiophiles like me who still want to play CDs.
I’ve been exploring CD players over the last few tears, ostensibly coming up with a long-term solution to my unexpectedly large compact disc collection if anything happens to my beloved yet long-in-the-tooth Unison Research CDE CD player. I’ve reviewed big, expensive one-box players, inexpensive yet feature-filled CD players and even separate transports and DACs. I’ve also toyed with the idea of ripping everything to a music server. But there’s a coolness factor here I can’t deny. Call the Sparkler Audio S-515u option the “cute conversation piece of a CD player that is affordable but still sounds utterly fantastic, like a well-kept secret.”
Inside the Sparkler Audio S-515u “Ballade”
The Sparkler Audio S515 “Ballade” comes in two versions. The S515t is transport only, while the S515u includes a DAC based on the 16-bit non-oversampling Philips TDA1543 chip. You can also buy an additional adapter so that the DAC can be used independently of the transport. In addition, the outboard power supply is also an option. Obviously, Victor sent me the S515U with the power supply, which retails for a total of $1,995.
Digital outputs for the Sparkler Audio s515U include S/PDIF coaxial with an isolated ground, and the more esoteric Inter-IC Sound (I2S) synchronized digital audio interface with yet another isolated ground. To configure external digital inputs, those optional adapters allow you to mate the DAC via COAX, USB or optical connections.
The actual S515 unit is as minimalist as it is small. Most of the functions are controlled by remote. The remote itself is nicely finished in stainless steel to match the casework of the Ballade, but you can tell that the functions are labeled on a simple piece of stock paper and covered with an acrylic sheet. That’s okay—fancy remote controls don’t impress me much. But I’ll tell you this—for some reason, I was impressed with the smooth quick action of the remote. Remote controls for CD players have been historically temperamental, in my opinion. There’s nothing worse than pushing a button twice because nothing happened the first time. The Sparkler Audio s515u operated cleanly, quickly, and deliberately. It was special, or else I wouldn’t have noticed it at all.
All of this adds up to a rather simple CD player, one that yields no real surprises from a technology standpoint. But Sparkler Audio, just like Elekit and Sunvalley, is a company that chooses its path according to what sounds the best. The Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade” is a lean, mean, CD-playing machine, focused on sounding as good as it possibly can. In fact, Mr. Tsukahara makes each Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade” by hand.
There is a downside to the Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade”, and it’s the same downside as any other high-end audio product that’s unusually small and/or light. It weighs 1.8 kg, with another 1.1 kg for the external power supply. At first, I used a big Cardas Audio Clear Beyond power cord on the Sparkler and the poor little thing kept getting dragged off my Fern & Roby equipment rack. Every time I touched the Sparkler Audio S515u—replaced a CD, closed the lid, whatever—both the player and the power supply would shift ever slightly into a diagonal position where it instantly triggered whatever grain of OCD still resides in my noggin.
Eventually I found a power cord that was a little daintier, and I placed the Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade” on the IsoAcoustics Zazen2 isolation platform which has a slightly more grippy surface than the bare wood of my shelves. I did think about something like Blu-Tac for the small rubber feet on the bottom of the Ballade. I also thought about being less of a clumsy oaf around my system.
The lid of the player brings up another need for delicacy—it tends to slam down on the top surface of the Sparkler Audio u-515 if you don’t guide it gently toward its resting position. You can leave the lid up while it plays, but I kept thinking of all the dust that could quietly drift into the open laser assembly. (There is a knurled knob in the Ballade’s lid that allows you to keep everything locked in place.) Once again, you’ll have to get used to the idea that you’re using a very light CD player than can slide around if you look at it wrong. I totally got used to it over time.
Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade” Sound
From the first CD I played, I dug the sound of the Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade.” There’s something about this hobby that forces you to think about isolating source components with intricate suspensions or military-grade chasses, so looking at a CD player that weighs just a couple of pounds make you wonder if the sound is going to be equally lightweight. I think you know what I’m going to say next—that the Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade” didn’t sound lightweight at all, that it sounded like a big, heavy 50-pound DAC/transport.
Well, it does.
But there’s a big difference between me telling you that, and me going through set-up and marveling at this tiny piece of equipment and plugging everything in and then pressing play and it sounded much like every other CD player in its price range, maybe higher. That realization, quite frankly, made me laugh out loud. Look at that gadget! When I saw the li’l feller I didn’t think much of it, but just look at it go!
From that first CD, which happened to be the stunning New Dreams from Barry Coates, Jimmy Haslip and Jerry Kalaf, I knew that the Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade” was far more than a small and convenient way to play CDs without giving up too much space on my rack. I instantly heard strong gains in detail, as well as lightning-quick transients, and my first reaction was “This certainly doesn’t sound like an affordable CD player. This is surprisingly close to what you get with bigger, badder and heavier digital playback gear.
New Dreams is certainly that, a dreamy and hypnotic jazz trio buoyed by a sensational yet low-key performance from drummer Kalaf, who just made a grand entrance on my Great Drummer radar screen. It’s relatively easy to make a ride cymbal sound good, but there is that last bit of detail that reveals more complex tones coming off the metal. I easily heard the sonic difference between the drumstick and the cymbal, I heard the bounce, and I heard the ringing decay as it shot around the room.
Another CD that spent considerable time spinning on the Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade” was Vincent Belanger’s Pure Cello, the signed copy I received while visiting the Audio Note room at the 2022 Pacific Audio Fest where I listened to Vincent play live, and then listened to the recording. The cello is one of my favorite musical instruments because there is so much of the timbre within the tone, so much wood and string and sweat. The Ballade reminded me of the differences I heard between the actual Belanger and Audio Note’s retrieval of Belanger, which were small yet distinctive and sometimes unnoticed by CD players that cost far more than the Ballade.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that threshold where real and recorded collide, and how my brain reacts to those cues. The Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade” pulled me deeper into that argument by showing me so much of the spirit of Belanger’s cello, not to mention the sheer physicality of his performing style. (He’s not noisy like Glenn Gould or Keith Jarrett, but I can hear how his breathing is connected to the bow as it moves across the strings.) As I listened, I clearly recalled Belanger’s live performance and how the room was energized in a way that no hi-fi system could replicate, which is the provenance of that sonic threshold between the live and the reproduced.
I don’t approach that frontier very often while listening to CD players, but I did with this diminutive gem. As I mentioned, the Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade” is clearly about providing a worthwhile music performance and not about all the nifty ways you can integrate it into your computer-based audio system. As I spent more time with the Ballade, I discovered that I need that from a CD player and nothing else. In fact, I’ve always felt that way, and the Sparkler reminded me in a direct yet elegant manner.
The last few CD players I’ve reviewed had a distinct purpose—to provide me with an option for listening to CDs in the future, or not playing them at all and ripping everything to a server. With the Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade,” it was about none of those things. It was about having something that looks really cool, so cool that people will want to be your friend when they see it because it’s just so cool.
So, it is crazy cool. It also sounds amazing. Finally, it costs just $1,995.
That’s an interesting price point, because there aren’t a lot of new CD players for that kind of money in 2022. Like many market segments in high-end audio, there’s a lot of practical and functional mid-fi stuff that will get the job done for you as long as you want to hold onto your compact discs. There are still expensive, state of the art players with outstanding modern DACs and a transport that features the latest advances in noise suppression and isolation. You know, the kind that weigh 50 pounds or more and cost well into the five-figure range.
Then you have the Sparkler Audio S515u “Ballade,” which is the best of both worlds. It’s not so expensive that you’ll talk yourself out of buying it when your existing CD player loses its laser assembly and becomes a 50-pound paperweight. More importantly, it sounds so musical and right, and it does it with panache and style. I could totally see myself in one of these babies, and never worry again about how I’m going to listen to CDs twenty years from now.
Highly recommended. Thanks, Victor, for finally letting me enjoy the VK Music sound in depth!