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Sparkos Labs SS3601 Discrete Op-Amps

Rating:
5/5,
  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. Wiljen
    SparkOS Labs SS3601/3602 Discrete Op-amps
    Written by Wiljen
    Published Apr 26, 2019
    5.0/5,
    Pros - Razor sharp details and dynamics to die for, combines the best qualities of the other models I have tried to date.
    Cons - Too large to fit into some portable models and get case re-installed, Slightly bright (may bother the treble sensitive), More costly than some alternatives.
    Discrete_Opamp_array (002).jpg


    Disclaimer: I purchased the SparkOS Opamps at a reduced rate after speaking with Andrew about doing a comparison of the SparkOS vs the Burson v5i and V6 Classic and Vivid as well as several solid state Op-amps in my collection. If you have an interest in purchasing these, I suggest you give Andrew a shout on Facebook or head to their website here.

    If you are new to the Op-amp rolling, you may wish to ready my Intro to Op-Amps post for some background before diving into the details here.


    Unboxing / Packaging:

    Packaging is rather unspectacular and for an internal component, really doesn’t warrant a lot of discussion. Each Op-amp came in its own static bag to protect it and all were well packed which in my way of thinking is infinitely more critical than a pretty box. The upside was from time of order to time of arrival was less than a week and within 2 days of placing the order (Which I did in a somewhat unorthodox way as I spoke with Andrew and sent paypal but never made a formal order on the website) I had tracking info in hand. Customer service before the sale was fantastic, I have not had occasion to test the after sales support but would expect it to be equally good.

    sparkos-ss360x-bags1.JPG


    Design/Build:

    Both the SS3601 and SS3602 versions share a similar construction so when discussing build we will cover the common elements first and then look at what differentiates the models. Both use a PCB of roughly 1/2 inch square with all circuitry on the upper surface and pins to fit a DIP-8 socket on the under side. The Circuitry is a 3 stage design with a differential input, a gain stage, and the output stage. A dual pole compensation mechanism is used and all phases are biased into class A at normal operational levels. Where the SS360x models differ from a lot of other opamps, is in the details. No Zener diodes are present in the gain stage and bias voltage is provided instead by shunt references (this is claimed to give lower impedence and lower noise). Current limiting of the gain stage is handled by diode clamping instead of the more common feedback loop to improve stability during clipping (With any luck we wont need this feature).

    Probably the most interesting part of the design of the SS360x is the compensation mechanism. I discussed ringing and oscillation in my recent intro to op-amps post and both are often problems when switching from a pedestrian op-amp with a low slew rate to a more exotic with a much higher slew rate. Since the feedback circuitry on the board around the op-amp is usually involved in these processes, it is not possible for an op-amp to address 100% of the changes needed to prevent these failings. In a perfect world, if changing op-amps, we would look at the circuitry in the feedback mechanism and determine what changes were needed to it to address optimization of the new op-amp. Rarely is that feasible as these components are often surface mount and tiny leaving no room or mechanism to update or change them.

    This is where the compensation mechanism built into the SS360x series comes into play. To provide both the much higher slew rate of the new op-amp and avoid the pitfalls usually associated with dramatic changes in speed, a dual pole compensation mechanism is used. This makes the SS360x much more tolerant of changes in capacitive loading and also to high feedback resistance at the inputs. Normally in order to minimize the chance of ringing or oscillation, either slew rate, bandwidth, or gain is lowered as a decrease in any of these reduces the likelyhood of ringing or overshoot. Unfortunately, decreasing any of these is counterproductive to our desires so a compensation mechanism that works to improve stability without decreasing any of the 3 is a very welcome improvement. This also goes a long way to explain why it is that SparkOS labs advertises the SS360x as a nearly universal swap as its internal compensation negates the need for slew rate, voltage, and gain matching between old and new op-amps as is often required if dealing with non-compensated designs (nearly all IC op-amps are non-compensated designs).

    While the SS3601 uses a single PCB, the SS3602 stacks two modified SS3601 boards to create the double op-amp and stands taller than the single as a result. Pin-outs for both chips follow the standard Dip-8 patterns and SparkOS even offers a DIP to SIOC option for locations where it is needed if you have the attendant skill to do the soldering. I’m best leaving that to the professionals as I have found out by having to pay others to fix my attempts.

    For those interested in all of the technical details, SparkOS labs has a 18 page datasheet available in PDF format here.

    sparkos-SS3601-bottom.jpg sparkos-ss3601-bottom2.JPG sparkos-SS3601-top.jpg sparkos-SS3602_bottom.jpg sparkos-SS3602_top.jpg sparkos-SS3602-adapter.JPG sparkos-ss3602-side-2.JPG


    Sound:

    For purposes of these tests, I started out with a Burson Swing and Fun DAC and amplifier. These were wired to use USB input to the Swing from my laptop, the DAC (fixed voltage) RCA outputs of the Swing to the RCA inputs on the Fun, and the Hifiman He560, Sennheiser 800, and Campfire Cascade (with Cloth pads) used for all listening sessions. Sound notes are written in reference to replacing all the Ne5532 and 5534 op-amps in both devices with the appropriate SS360x op-amp in its place. For that reason, I have not included the base model Op-amps in the comparison section as it would duplicate the sound discussion.

    sparkos-mounted-2.JPG

    Bass:

    Bass depth was improved slightly to my ear, but detail was improved substantially. I found the SparkOS to have a more crisp, clean sound while the Ne553x sounded more rounded off and smoothed over by comparison. I also found the SparkOS to be more dynamic than the Ne553x with really thunderous passages being closer to real than with the stock models. This was particularly true of things like cannon fire in tchaikovsky’s 1812, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (second movement), Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, Shostakovich No. 5 (finale), or the booming Timpani Duet.

    Mids:

    The same trends carry through to the mids where again details are sharpened and dynamics are a bit expanded compared to the stock op-amps. Strings in particular have a more natural tone and vocals are actually slightly behind where they are with the Ne553x and more in-line with the rest of the signature(I don’t see this as a bad thing). I do think the SparkOS tends to lift the lower mids slightly (or the 553x is slightly recessed in comparison) which may account for the noted improvements in strings and acoustic guitars.

    Treble:

    Treble really shines on the SS360x and is the best I have heard to date out of the Swing/Fun combination. Treble seems effortless and infinite with no discernible roll-off. The attack of snares is spot on without cymbals taking on a metallic or click like sound (tough balance to get both right). Here again the attack and display speed of the SS360x is on full display and where other op-amps at time my seem more flowing, the SS360x does a great job at revealing what is there good or bad. This means at times the treble sounds crisp, clean, and natural and at times it sounds harsh, and quite strident depending on the recording. Recordings with sibilance sound sibilant, recordings that don’t have it inherently don’t show it when using the SS360x.

    Soundstage / Imaging:

    Ok, so this one is the hardest to write, can we really expect soundstage to change as a result of swapping one tiny part in the overall or are we now hearing the result of some other component and blaming it on the op-amp? To really get this down, I used the same headphone (He560) and ran the test using the same passages (Cowboy Junkies – I’m so Lonesome, and Keith Richards – Runnin too Deep) repeatedly while switching only the op-amps between runs. (SWMBO is happy to have her dining room table back now that I have put the covers back on the Burson twins). The outcome is yes, I do think you can hear differences in both stage and imaging depending on what op-amp is in use. The SS360x improved the imaging due to its precision and yielded better instrument separation which either improved the stage size or made it seem larger due to the cleaner divide between parts. I also enjoyed the improved layering provided by the SS360x as again I think the precision made it easier to hear all the parts individually rather than the amalgam produced by the Ne553x.

    Comparisons:

    vs Muses02

    The v5i semi-discrete op-amp in the walnut did have one immediately noteworthy difference. It is louder at the same setting compared to any of the IC designs. This throws another wrinkle into the testing as we all know a louder sample is usually perceived as a more detailed sample. I did my best to volume match the samples so I could judge fairly. At the end of my testing, I found that it really depended on genre as to which Op-amp I preferred. The stock 2134 was closer to neutral and was technically very good. The muses brought a touch more musical presentation and was less clinical sounding than the 2134. Vocals are farther forward on the Muses which makes it an excellent choice for music where the primary element is vocals (I dig me some Pentatonix). The v5i brought a bit more energy to the presentation but seemed to be less neutral in doing so. Sub-bass is forward of midbass and upper mids and lower treble are the other focal point making for a more lively if slightly less technically correct presentation. If the muses shines with Vocals, the v5i is made for electric guitars. The place where the v5i was truly fantastic was on classic rock where it brought you into the concert and made you feel like you are sitting on the front row. Soundstage was a bit wider on the Muses but depth was about equal and extension was a split decision. At the low end, the v5i did a better job but on the other end of the spectrum the Muses had more air and sparkle to its presentation. I could live with either the v5i or the Muses, but in my case the fit inside of portable amps and the genre’s I prefer again left me in a split decision. Ultimately, I left the Muses in the Walnut F1, and put the V5i in the Zishan DSD. When paired together, I get the best of both worlds.

    vs Burson v5i

    The v5i is a clear winner vs the 553x series but a solid step behind the SS360x in most aspects. I found the details better, the attack faster, and the bass to have more mass to it using the SS360x when compared to the v5i. I did think the v5i had a bit of bass thump that the SS360x did not as the SS360x came across a bit brighter by comparison.

    vs Burson V6 Classic

    The V6 classic was a bit slower on the attack than the SS360x which gave it a bit smoothed over sound compared to the SS360x. Details are better on the SS360x while Bass may have had slightly better slam on the Classics. Classics are a bit warmer while SS360x is a bit brighter presentation. Noise floor is lower on SS360x as testing with Magaosi K5 from the fun yielded no audible noise without moving the volume dial past the 35% mark for SS360x and 20% for classics.

    vs Burson V6 Vivid

    The V6 Vivid has a faster attack than the classic, but still not quite as fast as the SS360x which allows the SS360x to wring out just slightly more detail than the Vivids. One other very noteworthy difference is the Vivid has a strong attack, but loses a bit on the decay so sustain is better on the SS360x. Overall, the Vivid trades a little detail and texture for attack speed compared to the classic while the SS360x seems to manage to capture both that attack speed and the details.



    Thoughts / Conclusion:

    Right off the bat, I will have to say there are no losers here. The Swing/Fun with the base model op-amps are both very solid products and thoroughly enjoyable without any modifications. Moving up to the Muses02, Burson V5i or V6 versions, or the SparkOS SS360x are all steps forward and all have something going for them. For those who need to converse space, the v5i or Muses02 will win out as the Muses is an IC and the v5i is only slightly larger than an IC. The Muses02 has been a favorite of mine and the only drawback is having to use dual to single adapters as there is no single op-amp counterpart for the 02. The V6c has good detail and texture but lacks a bit in attack speed, the V6v takes the opposite approach and pushes attack speed but loses a bit of detail and timbre in the process. Then we come to the subject of this post, the SS360x. These offer fantastic attack speed, great detail and timbre, and bring a lot of the best features of all of the others into a single product. If there is a downside to be mentioned, the SS360x is brighter than some of the other offerings (especially Muses02/v6c). Those with a particular treble sensitivity may prefer the V6c. Those wanting to wring out absolutely every last detail will want the SS360x. I repeatedly used words like sharp edged, clean, and clear in my notes while writing this. If you have a dac or amp with sockets for the op-amps you may want to audition the SS360x before you upgrade to another product, you may find the swap improves your existing amp or dac enough that you decide to keep it. For me, I find the Swing/Fun combined with the SS3601/3602 combination gives me as good as sound as I have heard to date from my He560, Senn HD800, and Cascades. I may need a more resolving headphone in order to know if another op-amp could do any better.

    Pros: Razor sharp details and dynamics to die for, combines the best qualities of the other models I have tried to date.

    Cons: too large to fit into some portable models and get case re-installed, Slightly bright (may bother the treble sensitive), More costly than some alternatives.

    images

    1. sparkos-mounted-1.JPG
  4. mikaelmark
    Comparison between NE5534/Burson V6/SparkoS SS3601
    Written by mikaelmark
    Published Jun 16, 2019
    5.0/5,
    A few days ago, I did a comparison for JRC NE5534, Burson V6 Vivid Classic and a Sparko SS3602 installed in a Burson Fun headphone amp, every A/B-test were done with a DIY stereo switch for instantly swapping between the simultaneously powered amps and compairing with my own DIY assembled LBC amp with a V6 Vivid and Sparko discrete voltage regulators SS7815 and SS1117-15, that will replace the original LM317 and LM337. Those discrete voltage regs will really give the amp a steady and clean power voltage with very low noisefloor and a black background.

    Before the test, every OpAmp were burned in with pink/white noise and sinus waves for several hours. The test were made with a pair of Sennheiser HD 800 connected with the DIY A/B-switch to both amps simultaneously powered and listening to some CD´s, for example Ani DiFranco and Laura Pausini from 2006 - playing in my Arcam CD192 CD-player. Here are my verdict:


    The standard NE5534 was dull sounding with some treble roll off and not as clear and open as all the other OpAmps.

    The difference between Burson V6 Vivid and Classic was the smallest between all tested and not as big as many people stated, that the Vivid should be more open with a bigger sound stage and the Classic should be warmer and closer To me, it was almost not hearable.

    The Sparkos SS3602 had more treble and sparkle to the sound and maybe the sound was also more open than all the other tested.

    When compairing the Burson Fun with my DIY amp with SS7815 and SS1117-15, the later had a noticeable more open sound, and i believe much of that is due to the discretes.

    You will not be disappointed with any of this discretes, and also the discrete voltage regulators will improve the sound to a completely different level!

    I´m aware there are at least one more discrete in the market; the NewClassD (confusingly working in Class A, and that I intend to review shortly). The SS3601 and SS3602 will cost about 10$ more than V6, and I think this small difference are fair if you like the sound from the SparkoS!
    Whatever of the discrete OpAmps you choose, it will give you big step upwards for the sound, and I believe it´s mostly equipment synergy and personal tastes that will make you decide who will be your next buy, and all them gonna make you satisfied!

    Finally, I really want to thank Andrew at SparkoS, as he equipped me with the discretes and made this test possible!

    SAM_0265.JPG