20 June, 2018

Sparkler S306 DAC, RELStrata III for Quad ESL-2812, TAD TD-3401

TAD TD-3401, Part III: with Full Wavac System
The Amazing Sparkler S306 DAC, Part III: 
Sparkler S306 vs 47 Labs Shigaraki
Subwoofer for Quad 2812
Talk CAS: Cheapo Bluetooth Device vs. Meridian Explorer
Talk CAS: Tidal, Youtube, Radio Garden

The better half of this article comprise further reports on TAD TD-3401 and Sparkler S306 DAC. However, I also tie up some loose ends here.

TAD TD-3401, Part III: with Full Wavac System
On Sunday I re-visited Sang to spend more time with the TAD-TD-3401. This is basically a brief report that is the continuation of the last report (Part II) below (or here). On this day we tested out the full Wavac system by using the Wavac PR-X2 preamp in lieu of the Verdier Control B. The sound, as expected, was crisper than using the Control B. The piano sound was just awesome.

On this day (after much begging and cajoling) my taskmaster icefox finally agreed to come to listen again to my current systems. I was just about to leave Sang's place when icefox arrived in Yuen Long earlier than expected, and I asked him to join us at Sang's place. icefox was impressed by the performance, and harbored the same opinion that the 3401 is superior to the 2401/2402.

Regarding the Wavac, icefox still wished that it could be a tad cooler and thought the piano a little too clanging. For me, it was the opposite. More than most audiophiles, I am very particular about the leading edge, and have always thought the Wavac to be better on this front. However, since the TAD TD-3401 is a faster and more precise transducer than the Tannoy Canterbury, the resultant sound could sometimes be a little sharp. It is a small price I am willing to pay (especially since we get more details with the Wavac) but I can totally understand the other camp. So we were all consistent in our preferences.

Very soon, To Sir and then Mila joined us too. To Sir has a self-assembled big TAD System (which I have never heard) and is obviously a TAD expert. Both he and Mila were delighted with the 3401.

Now we go back a day or two...

Top Shelf: Note Sparkler S306 under 47 Labs Shigaraki DAC, behind Shigaraki Transport.

This is my third write-up of the Sparkler S306 DAC. For basic info please read Part I, where the Weiss Minerva proved utterly inept in its face. In Part II, the S306 went head to head with NOS AMC without shaming itself.

Sparkler S306 DAC
As mentioned in the links, ever since I bought it, I have used my S306 (serial Number 2) exclusively in my Yamaha NS-1000 system. Just could not bear removing it. Yesterday, however, with a little extra time on my hand, I decided to implement it in my Kondo system (pic above):

Transport: 47 Labs Shigaraki (Belden 1694)
DACs: 47 Labs Shigaraki vs Sparkler S306 (Gotham DGS-1 and 2111)
Preamp: Audio Note (original; Japan) M7
Amp: Kondo Ongaku
Loudspeakers: TAD TSM-2201
Subwoofer: JBL 12" paper cone 

Just one recording for illustration shall suffice. In the EMI (Warner) Oistrakh box is a performance of Schubert's Piano Trio No. 1 (with his long-term partners Oborin and Knushsevitsky). This 1958 recording is good but not exceptional in sound. In fact, with the 47 Labs Shigaraki DAC, in this Kondo system there was some harshness in the upper midrange, particularly with the Gotham 2111.

I was dumbfounded when I swapped in the Sparkler. It is very hard to describe the tonal differences, but the bit of hardness is gone with the S306, despite its being obviously more airy in the treble and elsewhere a little leaner than the Shigaraki. What is easier to describe is the utterly sinuous quality of the Sparkler. While the 47 Labs delivered a musical performance, with the Sparkler it is at another level: there is more resolution; the leading edge is sharper; the three instruments are more separated and easier heard; Oistrakh's playing is more sinuous and the cellist more mellifluous. The whole performance sparkled (pun intended) with an utterly disarming rhythm and pace.

This is not the first time Sparkler astounded me in its grab of musical intent. I have not reported this before, but in my Yamaha system, I once played the Andris Nelsons recording of Shostakovich 10th (DG) and felt something amiss: there was a brooding and threatening atmosphere that went missing (compared to my first hearing the CD in the same system). I checked and, lo and behold, the DAC was not connected and it was the Sony Blu-ray player's analogue section I was hearing. Now, as I reported in Part I, the Sony is no slouch, but it just did not deliver the charged atmosphere the way Sparkler could.

And so, despite the use of its matching transport, the 47 Labs Shigaraki DAC was displaced by the Sparkler S306 in the Kondo system.

The 47 Labs Shigaraki continues to serve in the system below as the DAC for the Sony DVP-PR50P, and it improved upon the Arcam rDAC and Sony's own analogue output.

Time Out: World Cup
After playing the imitable Celibidache's Brahms Symphonies, it was time for some food. Once again I opted for 肥姐 蠔餅 (Fat Lady's Oyster Omelette) which I wrote about last time. This time a plain red went well too with the dish.

On this day it was Germany vs Mexico; the latter's quick and precise counter-strikes were really impressive. In a way, Germany played like a bad DAC - no finesse; whereas Mexico was like the Sparkler, microdynamically alert,with tensile strength, exceptional leading edge, PRaT.

Time Out: Subwoofer (REL Strata III) for the Quad ESL-2812
As you know, the Quad ESL crowd is a special breed. They swear by their ESL and are in general very reluctant to add a subwoofer. So, I am proud to say that after listening to my 47 Labs 4737 augmented by subwoofer (here) both Quad ESL-2812 owners WSS (whose system was last reported here) and JL were persuaded to give it a try. They lugged my down-firing REL Strata III from icefox's cavernous place (he used it to augment his Tannoy) to WSS's small den.

REL STRATA III Subwoofer, Black, Mint Condition!The REL Strata III was an old product, but one of the more expensive offerings. It was generally very well received at the time and you can find quite a bit of info on the internet (pic borrowed from canuckaudiomart).

The afternoon I was there, with the low-level input we tried crossing over from 69 Hz to 95Hz. All worked quite well. The volume is indented. We started with 3 small clicks, but eventually went down to just one click. If you touch the woofer unit, it was barely vibrating. This very small bass augmentation however had the eminently audible effect of improving upon the liveliness of the presentation. The ESL always been too polite for me. It is good for a few instruments, but when the orchestra comes in, it is always underwhelming. The subwoofer improves upon this most important aspect. The effect of the subwoofer here is a bit different from what I get with my own systems - with the ESL one picks up the gain in presence more than bass extension. I am not sure whether that is due to the ESL or this REL. The important thing is, used judiciously, it is definitely a plus for the Quad ESL-2812, though I think other subwoofers may be worth trying too.

Back to the icefox crowd.

Click pic to enlarge. The black Bluetooth Device next to the Meridian Explorer.

The Bluetooth Crowd and the Generic Cable
Back to the icefox crowd. They spent a few hours in Yuen Long, but the program didn't exactly unfold the way I had wanted it to. After two hours with 15" woofers, I am sure anything else is an anti-climax. It would have been better the other way around. :-) Nonetheless, I don't think the sound at my place disappointed them unduly.

This is also the Bluetooth Crowd. Many of them use Tidal Streaming through their Cellphones. Arranged in advance, icefox brought his el cheapo Bluetooth device (from Taobao, less than USD 50; the black thing). Despite its small size, I think it has the latest technology. We connected it to the Kondo M7 with icefox's generic RCA cable, and the sound was quite acceptable, better with some cuts than others. icefox also played some youtube, which to my ear sounds even better. We then did some brief comparisons.

Tidal (Cellphone) vs Macbook Pro My Macbook Pro is very basic, unadulterated iTunes (no "mandatory" Amarra) playing lossless AIFF files. Through Bluetooth, the Macbook has a warmer and more detailed sound.

Meridian Explorer (USB) vs Bluetooth We then played my Macbook AIFF files through Bluetooth and also through USB (my favorite Unitek) connected to the Meridian Explorer. The USB connection is again warmer and more detailed. It better be, as I actually hold the Meridian Explorer in high regard (here). Actually, from memory I also think the sound through the wireless dongle of my Arcam rDAC is better than the Bluetooth.

Image result for Radio gardenInternet Radio Through my Macbook icefox also played his favorite Italian Radio Emiglio Romagna, but not through the official site, instead using Radio Garden. I can attest it was very good and the programming of much baroque music was to my liking. I also like the fun way one navigates in Radio Garden. Give it a try!

Belden 8451 vs Generic Cable We then compared the two 1/4" to RCA cables. My go-to 1/4" to RCA cable, which I use with my Meridian Explorer and Fiio X-1, is a DIY one is made from Belden 8451 (info) with Amphenol connectors. The sound was at once more controlled and detailed, but the crowd pointed out correctly that it was also a little tighter than the generic one.

For a while, there has been a little bit of a phenomenon going on with those around icefox (that means a lot of people). People give generic cables (some from Apliu Street) serious tries and devote much time to comparison, just like, e.g., one would compare Audioquest with Kimber. In general, these are pragmatic people who rightly eschew expensive cables. Many also use cables of vintage origins (WE or not). Many of these people own expensive systems (such as the two WE systems recently featured).

I don't have any problems with this. However, from the vantage point of a professional cable user, I do think one can achieve just as much, and more, playing around with professional cables and other things. Take an example, at our WE/Altec 604 friend Vincent's home, I didn't report it, but we did compare my DGS-1 with his favorite generic cable. To me, the DGS-1 was just more nuanced and had more finesse (I gave him a pair). Similarly, while the generic cable that came with my Thorens TD-309 was surprisingly good, it was surpassed by Gotham cable. Note too these about generic cables: 1) they vary greatly in quality; the ones that come with your USB devices, TVs, TV boxes etc are usually not too good; 2) they are usually smoother, less dynamic and extended at the frequency extremes, which I'd venture is why some audiophiles use them, but imho this is more of like patch-up works on flawed systems.

Nonetheless, the exercise with the Bluetooth device was highly entertaining and downright fun! How often can you say that about audio? As CAS is just peripheral to me, I can entirely see the point of doing things on the cheap, and the quality was pretty good! BTW, like me, icefox thinks usually the expensive, complicated, technical and "serious" CAS systems sound terrible. YMMV.


  1. Could the sonical differences between the shigaraki and the sparkler dac be (at least partially)caused by the fact that the sparkler dac does preserve the absolute polarity whereas the shigaraki (passive I/V conversion) does not?Im quite sensitive in this respect and I often use the polarity button in my Jplay software to compensate the inversion of polarity in many modern recordings.

    1. Interesting, and indeed phase inversion is often audible, so it may be a factor. On the other hand, the significant difference in resolution and rhythm most likely is also caused by other design factor, I think.

  2. Love your blog, which combines my favorite things – music and food. We lived in NYC and HK for many years so it’s great to have that connection too. I’m interested in your thoughts on my system:

    I recently put together a home office setup: Harbeth P3ESR speakers with a 75 watt Belles Aria integrated amp. I listen to early bebop jazz and Baroque classical music, mostly small groups, not orchestras or big bands. Lots of Venice Classic Radio. I don’t use subscription services; my personal music is ripped lossless to my iMac and played through iTunes to a Dragonfly Red DAC to the Belles. No fancy connectors – just thick speaker wire from Home Depot. My office is about 16x13 feet.

    I thought it sounded great. However, I recently dug out an old Toshiba DVD player (SD-4100) and tried it with no DAC. It sounds better than the ripped files through my computer! Now part of this might be the sound level, as the DVD player comes through louder and with more treble than my computer audio. But there also seems to be more detail and soundstage. So my computer audio system could be improved, and the DFR DAC looks to be the weakest link.

    I’m really intrigued by your Sparkler reviews. In buying new components, I value visual aesthetics almost as much as the audio. The Harbeths look great, and the Belles are basically a bespoke piece of audio equipment. The current Sparkler S504 seems also to be handmade, although it has kind of a high-school-science-project-runner-up vibe.

    Any thoughts on the Sparkler S504 in this system? Or any other DAC’s? The Schiit Bifrost Multibit seems another obvious choice but looks klunky. I’d like to keep the cost below $1,000.

    Also do you know if it’s possible to use the Sparkler S507 as a DAC for the computer files? Or is it only for CD playing?

    Any other tweaks worth investigating?

    Thanks in advance for any thoughts!

    1. Thx for your kind comments. The food bits are just incidental, though these days I do deliberately include a bit because yet another reader said he likes them. This reminds me of the excellent classical pianist Alessio Bax, who also writes about food and who some know and think of as just a food blogger.

      Back to DAC. Yes, I do think Sparkler is worthy of serious consideration. I can think of nothing I prefer. I haven't heard the newer S504 but I'd think it would be as good as, if not better than, my S306.

      As for the S507, I am sure it is excellent, but I am with you that a DAC in your case would be better than a dedicated CD player, which is the S507. One confusing thing is that the pic of the back of the S507 has a USB input. I am not sure what that is. My older S303 does not have an extra input. Perhaps you can ask the dealer.

      One interesting thing is that, as one can infer from my experience on Sparkler digitals, the transport definitely has its own sound. A Sparkler DAC mated to a DVD transport will likely have a richer sound than the incisive Sparkler CD player. Haven't heard the current models though. You likely need a DAC more than a disc spinner and you save a lot of money.

      One thing to think about: A Sparkler DAC has only one input. If you get one with USB, you cannot try it out in your home system (which I personally would want to as I think Sparkler is that good). For me, coaxial input is a surer way to go. Of course you'd then have to add a USB to coaxial convertor (most are small and do not need external power), which is not too expensive (something like a M2Tech should be a good one).

      Another thought is to use a DAC that accepts multiple inputs, like the excellent Micromega MyDAC, which I have also written about.

      BTW, I'd upgrade the cables to cheap professional cables. Makes a big difference.

      As the topic is close to heart, perhaps u can email me.