05 April, 2016

Sparkler S303, 47 Lab 4718, Raos MC Mono

Letter from NYC (48) 2014 (4): Epic: Taming the Shrews; Two, not One!
My Reference Station III Updated/Big Re-shuffle
Talk Mono: Raos MC Mono, Part II
Review: 47 Lab 4718 Shigaraki Phonoamp, Part III
Review: Sparkler 303 CD Player, Part III
Review: Gotham DGS-1 Cable

Note: see also my Vibrapod review.

The Big Re-Shuffle (I) Although I am freer this time, I think I have spent way too much time on my Reference System III. This is because I have decided to re-configure and locate my first MC Mono Cartridge there. Getting it right was a journey. Compounding the problem, I also decided to run-in my Sparkler S-306 and 47 lab . As you shall see, that took quite a while. Now things have settled quite a bit and I'd like to chronicle it.

Re-Configuring System III This is the oddest system that I have, as it uses a buffer amp ahead of a super high-gain vintage preamp. Of course, with the extra electronics in the chain, I try for the utmost transparency that I can get. For detailed description of the contribution of the buffer amp and preamp, see system's previous incarnation. I get up early, and this is actually the system I listen to pre-dawn. After the upheaval, this is the current line-up:

Digital: Sparkler S306 CDP
Turntable 1: Thorens TD-309/Denon DL-103AL
Turntable 2: Pioneer PL-10/Raos MC Mono
Phonoamp 1: AQVOX 2CIMkII
Phonoamp 2: 47 lab 4718 Shigaraki
Buffer Amp: Elekit TU-8500
Preamp: Langevin 102
Amp: Lepai 2020A+ or Wavac MD-811
Loudpseakers: Almarro M1A/Dayton B652 or YL 4-way horns

Review: 47 Lab Shigaraki Phonoamp, Part III
Review: Raos MC Mono, Part II

47 lab 4718 in Prior Shootouts I had logged only very few hours on this phono amp prior to trying out the present combo. Part I has basic info and review links, and my initial experience with the Denon DL-103; Part II with the similar Denon DL-A100.

4718 + Raos For the present combo, my considerable initial reservations were detailed in Rao's review, Part I, but things slowly improved, especially after a change to turntable. I had problems with the initially peaky upper midrange presentation, but I also liked the 47 Shigaraki's utmost directness. I tried various phono amps. As described, some were not compatible in terms of hum, and all of them did not have the jump factor of the 47 Lab. So the review of these two cannot be separated. Jump factor is not everything, but counts for more in a mono playback, even for classical music - you'd want the instruments to sound bigger and have more slam. The Proceedings:
  • Interconnects For quite a while, the unbroken-in 47 4718 Shigaraki's peakiness made me moan and grieve. Swapping interconnects helped. Both the Canare L-2T2S and Belden 8451 were able to tie me over this period. Their slight softness at the frequency extremes and slightly restrained dynamics helped. Since 47 Lab's own cables are (very simple non-shielded single-run) solid core designs, I later swapped in a pair of DIY 2-conductor (simple twisted) solid core Sumitomo (one of my faves), to great effect. It is staying in for now. Compared to twisted cables, solid cores can be richer in the midrange if only because they are so often a bit soft at the frequency extremes, and the 47 Lab benefits from that. Hence, I recommend use of solid core cables with 47 Lab products. I have actually gotten hold of some bare 47 Lab cables. In HK I made a pair (without its proprietary and expensive connectors) and it worked well with the Shigaraki CDP. I shall make some more in NYC to use (report later).
  • Tweaks Again, a single Vibrapod (review here) placed below the Shigaraki phono module (less so two placed below its power supply) helped smooth out the sound to a considerable extent (a piece of wood helped too). However, after further run-in and a change of turntable, I removed it and to my surprise the sound became better. The single Vibrapod smoothed things out but smeared things a little; without it the sound is more incisive and rhythmically exacting. Note here that 47 lab thinks its ceramic has the best resonant properties; but I'd recommend a little damping during the break in period.
  • Pioneer PL-50 Substituted As part of reconfiguration, I switched the Raos to the Pioneer PL-50. I was quite taken in by the Sonic Sea Change from the previous AT-PL120. The PL-50 is less impactful, but more nuanced in rhythm and texture, thereby ameliorating to a great extent the initial rawness of the Raos. If the AT-PL120/47 Lab combo is Yang + Yang, too much of a good thing, whereas the PL-50/47 Lab combo is Yin + Yang, more balanced. While the AT-PL120 delivered the Curzon/Van Beinum Brahms (Decca) with more drive and sheer piano sound, the Pioneer revealed more subtleties in the strings and woodwinds, and was less harsh during the heaven-storming climaxes, a good trade-off. Once again, I am impressed by the Pioneer, much like its nearly identical sibling, the PL-12D, simple and surprisingly good.
Review: Sparkler S303 CD Player, Part III
I haven't listened much to this CD Player. For my initial impressions, see Part I and Part II. After moving it to this station, I began running it in. In many ways, the sonic presentation, as least initially, is not that different from the 47 lab 4718, rhythmic and lean, no surprise since the two companies are closely related. With run-in however, the rough edges gradually smoothed out (I use AC; should be better with DC, as North American distributor vkmusic recommends). Some Notes:

  • Support While I may like the looks of the small legs, I don't think they are good ergonomically or sonically. The CDP is so light that just pressing a button would cause it to slide and shift. One would think when the CD is spinning, there must be at least some lateral movements too small for the eyes to detect. I hear sonic improvements when the vibrapods are placed underneath, firmer and richer. Even two small slabs of wood (in the front and back) bring out a more stable sound.
  • Interconnects Like the 47 Lab 4718, a smoother interconnect is preferred. I tried various. Lacking another solid core, both the milder Belden 8451 and Gotham DGS-1 did very well. But with run-in, I was able to use one of my long-term reference, the Gotham GAC4/1. See below for more on the cables
  • Sound With run-in and some care in set up, the S303 finally shines! The music is mid-row perspective, with good ambience cues (a property shared by Philips 16-bit chips). Most impressive is the rhythmic savvy, which also makes one sit up and take notice of the phrasing of the musicians. The bass is clean and tuneful, with good finish (a property of non-oversampling). Although treble/upper midrange are not particularly sweet and have bite when appropriate, they are truthful. Masekela's Hope sounds mecurial, brimming with shimmering details (as it should), whereas most systems I have heard concentrate on brute force on the last cut (sigh). The S303 passes my test of replaying the Bach Violin Concerti on period instruments (Kuijken/La Petit Bande, Pro-Arte), which it did not initially. Sokolov's piano (DG), Van Morrison Moondance (Warner) were all well rendered. Compared to the better CD players, the sound can still occasionally be just a little tight (I am using horns!) when the going gets rough (like when Van Morrison belts it out). Here, I discovered something about my two Gotham cables: the reference GAC4/1 can handle more dynamics than the DGS-1, but the DGS-1 is surprisingly even more nuanced with rhythm and tonal shades. With the GAC4/1, the Sparkler's sound moves a little closer to regular players, whereas the DGS-1 accentuates its strengths, except in the most complex passages.
  • 47 Lab 4718 Shigaraki Phonoamp (MC) Since I have been listening to a lot of mono LPs lately, using mostly this phono amp, I think the unit is finally close to run-in, and it's time to give it a fair assessment. Shortcomings For sure, there are several: No thrills, no features for any adjustment, and not even MMit takes time to run-in (the quoted reviews did not mention this); it is very particular about the associated gear, be it interconnects or the turntable; given that I have a tube system, I think it will not do as well in brighter systems (usually ss, but sometimes tube too). Strengths As with most 47 Lab and Sparkler products, the sound is honest and direct, which doesn't necessarily mean in-your-face. Directness is about the unadorned musical communication; rhythm and pace are superb, undeniably exciting. Maybe it should not be your only phono amp (especially if you listen to big orchestral stuff), but one of several. Think, how many phonoamps has its own sonic stamp (which, ironically, the absolutist may not even want)? For me, it is perfect for my mono setup. Although I haven't reported on stereo playback, it does them well too, opening up with run-in and able to handle large-scaled music reasonably well.
  • Sparkler S303 CD Player Again, I am close to running it in, and my impressions are much more favourable. Its strengths are much the same as those of the S306 DAC (reviewed here). I cannot do a comparison, but I do keep to my view that the S306 is a little sweeter. However, the S303 has perhaps even more rhythmic flair. The transport section certainly makes a difference. Compared to my reference digital products (like my Sonic Frontier SFD-IImkII) the Sparklers come out short if I play large scaled orchestral music, but they bring freshness to almost everything else! Good stuff!
  • Direct Drive vs Belt Drive Again, the experience shows the tendency of direct drives (especially less ones) towards leanness. Match cartridges with care. But the bass drive is certainly impressive!
  • My System I am happy with it. Given the presence of a buffer amp and long interconnects it is till very transparent.
  • Gotham DGS-1 The surprise here is that the humble DGS-1 went head-to-head with the venerated GAC4/1, each with virtues of its own. A sleeper! Gotham is discontinuing it and it is available for a very reasonable price at Gotham USA. Grab some if you are the type that always puts musicality first over hifi virtues.


  1. I've read the new S303A model has a stainless steel chassis. Wonder if this mitigates the issue of the player sliding around on its feet at the slightest touch? This is the same problem with the flatfish, where even cables would lift it off the playing surface...very frustrating. Btw, have you compared it to the shigaraki 4716 CDP?

  2. Hi, the pic on their website certainly looks like stainless steel, but I doubt it is much heavier. I also note the feet are slightly different.

    I don't use stiff cables, so do not have the lifting problem. The 47 Lab cables are very thin so they never thought of this problem. As for sliding it can be easily cured. An anti-slip mat underneath (like those used in cars) I'd think would do too. Maybe put some weight on top of the Flatfish?

    I cannot compare with the Shigaraki, as they are separated by continents! I am pretty certain the Shigaraki is sweeter, but has less of the rhythm and resolution of the Sparkler.

  3. Hello,

    I noticed in your "coming attractions" sidebar that you are planning a review of the 47 Treasure series preamp/amp. Any chance you can acquire the matching 0647 CD player as well?

    1. Ah....Erhhhh....I ran into trouble with the preamp, and haven't finished the amp, so...

      No, the CDP is long gone and available only on the second hand market. It looks great, but the current Sparkler CDP is better value if you want that kind of thing.

  4. Great post again!
    Love my S303 to death! Bargain of the decade~ Agree every word you said!

    My only complain is the remote battery run out so fast and is a pain to find and replace require removing the screws every time....

    1. Ha! My remote was dead on arrival, and I haven't even tended to that. I hope it is just the battery....

    2. Haha, I do miss that limited remote ability...
      BTW, I rest my S303 on Ceraball and seems to improve the overall performance slightly. It's a pain and swing too easily due to the lightness of the unit to rest on Roller and I gave up on it!

  5. Hi Dr. John, I think it is a typo in your post listing your current line-up with "Digital: Sparkler S306 CDP".

    I believe mine is a newer version (It look like the one in the last photo of the product page: http://sparkler-audio.com/products_S303.html), is also very light in weight, pressing button will easily make it slide a bit. You can see from the picture that the legs are just screw riser which look flimsier than the original version. I later use Tiglon M1 spike cup to stablize it, which also improve the sound a bit.

    With little use, the battery of my remote ran out in six months, which is pretty quick.

    Do you cover the CD player with cloth or something else when it is not in use? Or just leave a CD on it?