Below is my mini review of the Sparkos Labs Aries. Since there is no showcase page for this amp I posted it here. Enjoy!
INTRO and BUILD
First, I want to thank Andrew at Sparkos Labs for letting me take part in the Aries tour. Upon first listen I knew this amp was going to be special. Before I jump into the sound, I would like to share a few details about the unit. The unit I’m reviewing is the fully loaded version of the Aries. There are two pairs of RCA inputs, one pair XLR inputs, and one set of RCA and XLR preamp outputs on the rear of the unit.
(Taken from the Aries Website)
On the front of the Aries there is one front panel input, one headphone output, large balance and volume knobs, and a touch screen display.
(Taken from the Aries Website)
To turn the Aries on, hit the lower right hand corner of the unit. That’s where the power button is located. Yes, it’s integrated into the touch screen. Key features of Aries amp like input selection and gain are handled through the touch screen display with customizable screen colors. Simply hit the “settings” icon in the lower left corner of the unit to bring up a sub menu system. Once selected here are the options:
The options are pretty self-explanatory. The Input
button lets you select RCA1, RCA2, XLR or Front. The Swap Controls
button gives you the option to swap the large knobs on the front. In “normal mode” the balance control is on the left and the volume control is on the right. Hitting the reverse button swaps the two. Mute
is well… mute. It kills the volume. Selecting the Gain
button brings up 4 options. There are three gain settings and a Clipping Detection
button. Low gain adds (+10dB), medium gain adds (+20dB), and high gain adds (+30dB). The clipping detection button is unique as a selection. Most amps have this type of protection built in. The Aries lets you turn it on/off and it works. More on this later...
SPECS and INTERNALS
The volume controller is a 64-step relay switched attenuator with 0.1% tolerance thin film resistors. To eliminate the clicking sound of normal relays, the Aries uses a Reed relay switched stepped attenuator. The volume controller is smooth and quiet. The volume increases/decreases by 1dB per step and it will automatically mute with the volume is all the way down.
A few specs about the Aries are:
- 0.5 Watts RMS into 300 ohms, 2.8 Watts RMS into 32 ohms
- < 0.1 Ohm Output Impedance
- High Damping Factor
- 16 - 300 Ohm Headphone Impedance
- 355mA Peak, 14V Peak Output Capability
- 2Hz - 350 KHz -3dB Bandwidth
- 120V/240V 50Hz / 60 Hz AC Power Capability
- Dimensions: Width 12.5" Height 4.0" Depth 12.5"
The Aries is very well built. The aluminum housing feels great in hand. The unit itself is hefty. The Aries is made up of what I think are some of the finest op-amps I’ve heard. There are two pairs of SS2590 pro level discrete op-amps making up the input and outputs stages. The SS3601’s and SS3602’s discrete op-amps handle the XLR inputs and drive the preamp stage. There are no capacitors in the signal path. Potential harmful DC offsets are handled by a DC servo. The power supply is regulated by a pair of Sparkos Labs discrete voltage regulators, and the toroidal power transformer is shielded with Mu Metal for extremely low magnetic field pick up and hum.
(Taken from the Aries Website)
Now that the background information is out of the way, let’s talk about how the Aries sounds. My chain is an iPad Pro with a Core Power Technologies USBe Perfect to the Chord Hugo M-Scaler feeding a Chord DAVE. RCA out into a Schiit Lokius then RCA out to the Aries. Since I was currently using my Pioneer SE-Master 1’s they’ll be first up on the Aries.
The SE-Master 1’s love clean power. The Aries delivers just that. Listening to Steel Pulse’s “No Satan Side”, the SE-Master 1’s sound is open and spacious. I can hear the finest details in the music. Cymbals and chimes have excellent reverb and echo. The bass is rhythmic with very good layering. Instrument separation and imaging is also praiseworthy. Every musician seems to be occupying their own space in the recording. The sound is crisp, snappy and dynamic. The spatial cues seem to be all around me and not boxed in. The Aries has nice depth and width to its soundstage.
The sound out of the Aries is very balanced. No frequency seems to standout. The bass has nice impact and punch while sounding deep. There’s no boomy or boxy bass here. The midrange is sultry and nuanced. Vocals sound clear and upfront where they should be. The treble has very good brilliance to it without sounding sibilant.
To me, the Aries just sounds right. It’s transparent enough to play nicely with my DAVE and this is a very hard feat to do. I’ve sold some very good amps because the drop off is sound quality going from listening to the DAVE direct to using the DAVE as a DAC feeding an external amp is too great.
Next up are my T+A Solitaire P’s. They require a little more power than my SE-Master 1’s. I increased the gain from low to medium. Wow, do these headphones sound musical. The bass is very articulate, fast and impactful. The midrange is natural, involving, and full bodied with just enough forwardness in the presentation to make listening very enjoyable. P.R.A.T. is off the charts laudable with Solitaire P’s and Aries. Listening to Dire Straits “Sultans of Swing” is a toe tapping experience.
Up next are the Elites. The first thing that jumps out at me is the sound of the pairing is not as magical as it is on the Solitaire P’s. The midrange seems to be sitting back from the rest of the sound. It is not as forward sounding as I like my music. I’m not sure how much of this is the headphone or amp. The synergy is not quite there.
Bass is big and lively. No EQ is needed here. I did attempt to balance out the midrange with the rest of the sound using EQ. Even with that I’m not sure I like this pairing.
One comparison I wanted to make is to pit the Aries against the Soloist 3X GT. I also have a Trafomatic Head 2, but didn’t really listen to it during my short time with the Aries. My Soloist is equipped with Burson’s own V6 Vivids, Sparkos Labs SS2590 Pro and Sonic Imagery Labs 994Enh-Ticha op-amps. One of each per channel. The Soloist 3X GT is fed by an RME ADI-2 DAC.
From a sound stand point, the Aries and Soloist 3X GT are more similar than different. The biggest difference is in design philosophy. The Soloist 3X GT is fully balanced in a dual mono symmetrical configuration. It has more power output, 8 watts (XLR) / 4 watts (SE) into 32 Ohms. Compared to 2.8 Watts RMS into 32 ohms of the Aries. As a result, the Soloist 3X GT sounds airier, more spacious, a bit more resolute, and transparent with better macro and micro dynamics than the Aries.
I have to add that the Burson does benefit from the upgraded op-amps. Transients are little bit snappier and the clarity is improved throughout the frequency spectrum. With that said, the Aires is right there in performance. The bass on both is tight, well defined, and offers plenty of punch. The Burson can be made to play bass deeper and downright thunderous depending on op-amp configuration. The midrange on both is clear, nuanced, and textured. Both amps have nice weight to their sound. I give a slight edge to the Soloist 3X GT for sounding fuller with more body.
The treble on both is top notch. They’re extended with no glare or fatiguing sound. Neither have a clinical sound. They are both precise and have nice leading edges to the notes. I love this type of aggression on my amps. They both make music come alive and sound realistic.
Both amps deliver the goods. The Soloist 3X GT edges ahead for me because it has more drive, it’s more flexible in its tuning with customizable op-amps, has slightly better detail retrieval, and comes with a balanced output. The balance output is not a knock on the Aries by any means. Its single ended output may just be the best I’ve ever heard on an amp. It’s very true to the source.
One issue I encountered with the Aries is it clipped on me. The unit went from medium gain back down to low gain when I was pushing it with the Solitaire P’s. I’m not sure what happened. The input voltage is only 3 volts out of the DAVE. I was only at -5 dB on the volume dial. The good news is that it only happened once. Needless to say, the active clipping software works!
The Sparkos Aries sounds amazing. The bass is very good without the need for EQ. It's the most surprising aspect about the amp along with how spacious it sounds. The sound is lively, dynamic, and fast. My only quibble is its only a single ended amp. Majority of my headphones are equipped with balanced cables. So, I had to dig out my adapter. It’s no major concern, but it may be a minor inconvenience for some. For those looking for quality amplification, the Sparkos Aries should be right at the top of your list. It competes with some of the best solid-state amps that I’ve heard or owned.
The price does put in the mix with some really great sounding amps, including my Burson Soloist 3X GT and Flux Labs Volot. For a first amp, the Sparkos Labs Aries left me quite impressed. Awesome job Andrew!