The sound analysis of SP3k was done using Aroma Jewel and Oriolus Traillii, playing a selection of test tracks, such as Agnes Obel “The curse”, Sandro Cavazza “So much better” (Avicii remix), C-Bool “Never go away”, Ed Sheeran “Shape of you”, Alan Walker “Darkside”, Galantis “Hunter”, Iggy Azalea “Black widow”, Indila “Boite en argent”, Dua Lipa “Love again”, Counting Crows “Big yellow taxi”, David Elias “Vision of her”, and Michael Jackson “Dirty Diana”. I had about 100hrs of burn in time before I started analyzing SP3k.
I prefer to describe the DAP sound based on the comparison to other DAPs and pair ups with different IEMs/headphones since the DAP by itself doesn’t have a “sound”. What we hear is how it sounds through connected IEMs/headphones or the difference in sound relative to source comparison using the same pair of IEMs/headphones. This is my subjective opinion, describing how I hear it while analyzing the sound of SP3k, and you will get a bigger picture about this DAP’s sound in the follow up sections of Comparison and Pair up.
I usually start my sound description by mentioning sound signature and tonality, but here the first thing that came to mind was the Soundstage and the Black Background. While I consider the soundstage expansion to be a technical property of IEMs/headphones, the sound source plays a very important part in driving it. For sure, the soundstage expansion could be limited by the technical performance of IEM, but with many I tried in pair up with SP3k, the soundstage was very expanded, surrounding you with a sound while also putting you right in front of the performer, right at the front seat. Imaging reached 3D holographic level with a very precise placement of every element of the song in space.
The black background was another technical property that made SP3k stand out. There is a number of flagship DAPs with a black background I acknowledged in the past. But the only way to appreciate this is by comparing one DAP to another while listening to less busy tracks where you are not hit with layered wall of instruments. Especially when dealing with instrumental or acoustic tracks where you can analyze the transient response of on/off note transition with details popping out of blackness, and with more clarity and sharper retrieval of details. That is exactly what I found while listening to SP3k. Of course, this is just a perception of how I hear things, but this DAP did stand out with a deep black background.
Overall, I found SP3k to have a very neutral reference sound signature with a natural tonality, yielding a pure clean sound without any coloring, highly resolving, and with an excellent retrieval of details on micro-detail level without actually sounding analytical or dry. Often, a solid-state output can give you a clean dry sound, but not in this case. The sound is still very clean and detailed, but it is not dry. The level of clarity is high, enabling listener to pick up every little nuance in sound and vocals, like noticing a singer’s sharp intake of breath before delivering a line or some other subtle background noises captured during the recording session. Furthermore, the sound dynamics is quite expanded, accurately delivering the transient response of both micro and macro dynamics.
4.4mm/2.5mm vs 3.5mm – When comparing balanced versus single ended outputs, the sound tonality is identical. The only difference I hear is in soundstage expansion where 4.4mm output is noticeably wider, while, as expected, 4.4mm and 2.5mm are the same. And another obvious difference is SE being less powerful, requiring me about 10 more clicks to match the volume of BAL output.
Crossfeed – While examining the effect of Crossfeed functionality, when enabled, I hear a change in soundstage width and imaging with left/right channels blending in. As a result, I don’t hear that 3D holographic effect anymore, and instead the sound has a more intimate natural space. It will be up to a person preference, depending on what you like. But personally, I preferred Crossfeed to be disabled since I like my soundstage as open and holographic as possible.
Digital Audio Remaster (DAR) – Testing with DAR upsampling into PCM had a noticeable effect on technical performance of the sound where I’m hearing the improvements in the sound dynamics, layering, and separation. As a matter of fact, I left it on “permanently”, and noticed more improvements when dealing with some lower res mp3 (320kbps) tracks. I even questioned myself if this is a placebo effect, but I can hear it in a blind test as well.
In every comparison I used Aroma Jewel and Oriolus Traillii, volume matched while listening to the same test tracks between DAPs. Also, in this comparison I mostly focusing on the difference in sound as I hear it.
SP3k vs SP2k – Both have a similar holographic imaging with 3D positioning of instruments and vocals in space, but there is a difference in how the soundstage is presented between these two DAPs. SP2k has a wide soundstage, but its presentation is in front of you. SP3k soundstage surrounds you, goes even wider and wraps around you, making you feel like you are right in the middle of the “sound” instead of the “sound” being in front of you.
SP3k background is blacker relative to SP2k, even when I use 3.5mm/2.5mm adapter w/SP2k. You have to listen very closely, focusing on macro and micro dynamics of the tracks to hear the difference and appreciate the improvement. It is not night and day, and you do need a good pair of resolving IEMs/headphones to spot the difference, but it is there. And it becomes more apparent when you enable DAR on SP3k which to my ears improves the vertical dynamics.
Relative to a difference in tonality, they are not too far off, but I do hear SP3k with a little fuller body sound in lower mids, giving the sound more musicality in mid frequencies. But I still think that you will find a bigger difference in technical performance between these two DAPs rather than tonality.
Other obvious changes are addition of 4.4mm (no need for adapter anymore), a lot faster processor with improved next gen GUI, double-tap to wake the screen, Crossfeed, DAR, and LDAC support.
SP3k vs SP2kT (SS) – soundstage and imaging is the first thing I notice when switching between the DAPs, and it is clear in this comparison that SP3k sound spreads wider to the left/right and its imaging has a more 3D effect in how the sounds are placed in space. Tonality of SP2kT is warmer with a sound being a little denser in a comparison to more neutral transparent tonality of SP3k where I hear no coloring of the sound. Technical performance also differs with SP3k having a blacker background and improved definition of layering and separation of the sounds which makes SP2kT sound a bit denser in comparison. SP2kT tonality can get even warmer when you switch to Hybrid and Tube modes, while SP3k stays pure, natural, and relatively transparent.
SP2kT design stepped it up with addition of 4.4mm output, double-tap to wake and LDAC support, but it still uses older and slower processor which is noticeable in the speed of interface.
Other DAP comparisons.
SP3k vs Cayin N8ii (SS) – the soundstage expansion and imaging are nearly identical between these two DAPs. I went back’n’forth many times to confirm it. When it comes to the sound tonality and technical performance, they are not too far off either. I did have to set N8ii to P+ to boost output voltage in order to match SP3k sound characteristics. After that, tonality was very similar, though SP3k has just a touch more body in mids, making its sound a little smoother and more neutral. I also noticed that relative to Jewel IEMs, N8ii had a bit more sub-bass rumble, while SP3k had a faster and punchier impact of mid-bass. I also do hear SP3k to have a bit darker background with notes popping out of the darkness with a slightly faster transient response, but N8ii is not too far off either.
SP3k vs iBasso DX300 MAX SS – the soundstage expansion and imaging here are nearly a perfect match, with both wrapping around you, including a 3D holographic imaging effect of how the sounds are positioned in space. Tonality is where I hear the biggest difference since DX300 MAX SS has a brighter and more revealing tonality while SP3k is more neutral and reference in quality. In comparison, SP3k has a fuller body natural sound, but their technical performance is quite similar. Another thing to keep in mind, DX300 MAX SS is transportable and quite heavy. SP3k also on a heavier side, but not as heavy as MAX and slimmer in thickness.
SP3k vs Sony WM1ZM2 – the imaging between these two daps is similar but I find the soundstage expansion to be a little wider in SP3k. Tonality is a little smoother in WM1ZM2 while more neutral with SP3k, but the gap is not that big. I did notice M2 to have a little stronger mid-bass punch. Also, SP3k sound has a blacker background. When it comes to operation, even so M2 is Android 11 based, its slower processor makes the operation not as fast as SP3k. Also, SP3k has a more powerful output when it comes to driving full size headphones.
SP3k vs Lotoo PAW Gold LPGT – SP3k soundstage spreads wider, and its imaging has a more holographic placement of the sounds. Tonality wise, they are not too far off either. Both have a neutral reference tonality, perhaps with LPGT being just a little smoother in comparison. One thing that was noticeable is SP3k having a blacker background with a sharper transient of notes, while LPGT background doesn’t have the same black-hole purity. Also, you have to keep in mind that LPGT is audio playback only device while SP3k also supports apps and does streaming.