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Sparkos Labs SS3601 Discrete Op-Amps

Rating:
5/5,
  1. ls13coco
    This is an upgrade (SS3601 and SS3602)
    Written by ls13coco
    Published Mar 4, 2017
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Clarity, detail, black background, transparency, slight increase in power
    Cons - Slightly too large to use the X7 cover, not the cheapest upgrade in the world (if you go for all 4 op-amps)
    First, a little about me. Skip this if you want to get right to the meat and potatos.
    I've only really been getting into audio since August 2016, with my purchase of the Sennheisher HD 598 paired with my (at the time) Asus ROG Phoebus sound card.
    My eyes were opened to just how good sound could.. sound.
    I've always had an interest in audio, being a guitarist and gamer, but this being said - I am not a well experienced audiophile, but I am a hobbyist with a bit of an obsession.
    Also, thank you Andrew Sparks! He was an absolute pleasure to deal with, would reply quickly and answer any questions I had. I will note that I received a slight dicount for this purchase, as it was of 2X single and 2x dual op-amps.

    Gear used 

    Creative Soundblaster X7 (which these op-amps are in), 2x Sparkos SS3601 single op-amps, 2x Sparkos SS3602 dual op-amps,  Hifiman HE400i, AKG K712 Pro, Fidelio X2, Little Dot 1+ (with Mullard M8100 tubes and original X7 dual op-amp), Klipsch RP-160M bookshelf speakers.
     
    Impressions
    The Creative X7 was already a completely satisfactory amp/dac, in which I could find no faults. I was debating buying another amp/dac such as the JDS Element, but decided first after reading some reviews that I would squeeze the most that I can out of the X7.
    Well, I'm glad I did. The differences aren't going to be like going from on-board to the X7, or like going from the HD 598 to the HE400i. However, the sound didn't improve in one area - it was improved all around, in a seemingly even way. Sound became louder, more transparent, details were a touch easier to pick up on (some new details in songs were brought to light), I could turn up my volume higher with the X2 before I would hear the noise floor and overall it helped for gaming, as imaging seemed to pick up a touch of accuracy.
    I've been leaving the X7 exclusively in high-gain mode, I don't have the ears to notice an improvement apparently, as some say there is a fuller sound to high gain, but any of my headphones are powered easily though they are all sub-100ohm.
    I received my Klipsch speakers only a week before the Sparkos op-amps, and I broke them in with pink noise and media for around 50 hours. Switching the op-amps was noticable with the speakers, as well as while using the LD1+ tube amp and X7 only as a DAC.
    I have not used any other op-amps to compare to aside from the stock ones.
     My overall impressions are that if you like the Creative X7, and you want as much as you can get out of it - this is worth it. It's like the stock op-amps had the X7 at 85%, while this upgrade brought it up to 100.
     

     
      20170208_192226.jpg
     
    20170127_164324.jpg

    I ended up making little feet after this photo, so the X7 now sits higher

    20170127_164331.jpg
  2. Yethal
    An excellent, non-invasive upgrade
    Written by Yethal
    Published Jun 30, 2016
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Detail retrieval, transparency, clarity, size (when compared to other discrete op-amps), price (compared to other discrete op-amps)
    Cons - size (compared to regular op-amps), price (compared to regular op-amps)
    This review was copy pasted from the Sound Blaster X7 thread with minor edits to make it appeal to broader audience.
     
    Intro
    First of all, I would really like to thank Andrew Sparks, the man behind Sparkos Labs. Mr Sparks is a really nice and helpful guy who didn't seem to be bothered by thousands of my emails and always replied to them as fast and polite as possible which is much appreciated. I'd also like to thank another Head-Fi member @Jusiz who gave me the idea to try these in the first place.
     
    Disclaimer
    I bought these op-amps with my own money and aside from 20$ price drop I did not receive any kind of compensation (even implied) for this review.
     
    Preamble
    Operational amplifiers, or op-amps are integrated circuits used in audio amplifiers to perform various functions related to audio amplification process. Unless Your name is NwAvGuy you know that op-amps do not sound all the same and that they can be replaced in order to tweak the sound signature of an amplifier. This is called op-amp rolling and allows the user to customize the sound signature of an amp to their preferences.
     ​
    Initial Thoughts
    As I've recently found out, the above definition doesn't really apply to the SS3601. Installing them is not a "tweak" and a resulting difference is not a matter of preferences. What we're dealing with here is a linear sound quality improvement across the board. All audio frequencies receive the same treatment of increased clarity/transparency alongside an increase in overall power output.
     
     
    There is this often repeated audiophile cliche that a better piece of equipment can reveal details in the recording that were previously unaudible or that a veil is lifted from a song. Sounds like something straight out of Stuff That Never Happens Land, for me at least. But over the course of my tests I did actually notice details I've never noticed before.
    In Leonard Cohen's Slow a stopwatch can be heard in the background throughout the entire song. I heard it for the first time yesterday even though Popular Albums is one of my all-time favorites and I listen to it practically every day. How come I've never noticed that before?
    So are all other audio reviewers telling the truth when they say that <whatever> device uncovered a new layer of music for them? Frankly, I have no idea but I can still hear the stopwatch. And I definitely couldn't hear it two days ago.
     ​
    Treble, Mids and Bass
    I'm going to skip the usual description of how different audio frequencies are affected by the SS3601. As I've mentioned, the improvement is linear across the entire spectrum. If You really feel the need to read the usual elongated blabbery, you can generate one by yourself using the Audiophile Cliche Generator available here.
     
    Gain
    [EDIT]: I asked mr Sparks about it and it seems that it's not possible for opamp to output more power. They sound as if they did though.
     
    Sparkos Labs' op-amps have more power than the stock ones. This leads to two things:
    1. X7 gets noticeably louder regardless of the gain setting. On stock op-amps I usually set the X7 to 26% volume in High Gain mode for comfortable listening volume (with HD598). After replacing the op-amps the X7 is loud enough at 14% volume in High Gain.
    2. Every now and then I thought that a particular song, or a part, sounded great, but would've been even better if the X7 could output more power. Well, that doesn't happen anymore. While none of the headphones I own are particularly hard to drive, all of them benefit from the replacement.
     
    Few months ago I've noticed that headphones sound different when the X7 is set to High Gain. After some discussion in the  Sound Blaster X7 thread we came to the conclusion that it's certainly possible for some headphones to change their sound signature in High Gain. Both my HD598 and COP were significantly fuller and more dynamic with the X7 in high gain mode so I started listening to music in high gain exclusively as for 99% of my music it just sounded better. However one album (Lateralus by Tool) was absolutely unlistenable after enabling high gain. The guitars were so bright that they caused actual pain (not an exaggeration) after a longer listening session. Moreover, Lateralus was the only album that exhibited such excessive brightness. Ultimately problem was solved by switching the X7 to low gain whenever I wanted to listen to Tool. I doubt the issue was exclusive to this one album, however I was unable to reproduce it using any other material.
     
    After switching over to the SS3601 I did some comparison between both modes. Mids are still more pleasant in high gain, however the aforementioned brightness is gone so that's a plus. Overall I recommend keeping the device in High Gain mode permanently unless You're going to use IEMs.
     
    Drinking game idea: Read this post and have a shot every time "high gain" is mentioned.
     
    Conclusion
    Sparkos Labs SS3601 are a simple, yet significant upgrade over the stock X7 and I really can't recommend them enough. They require zero technical knowledge and no soldering skills to install but prove to be a clearly audible and measurable improvement in sound quality.
     
    SS3601 vs Burson Audio and Dexxa op-amps
    I haven't heard the Burson Audio op-amps or the Dexxa ones so I can't compare the sound quality of the SS3601 to these products. What I can compare however is their size. The SS3601 are significantly smaller than both Burson and Dexxa and would be a much better fit for devices with space constraints.
     ​
    Test platform:
    1. Sound Blaster X7 in Direct Mode
    2. Foobar2000 in WASAPI mode
    3. PC running Windows 10 interchangeably with Windows 7 running as a virtual machine inside Qubes OS
      Lohb and Jusiz like this.
    1. ls13coco
      Did you replace one pair, or two?
      ls13coco, Dec 30, 2016