This is a link for the Sparks, if you’re interested enough to part with some cash for them. Subjective Reviews was sent a pair in return for our unique take on all matters audio. In this case, ShenzhenAudio, a major supplier of portable audio in China, have asked me to put Moondrop’s first ever TWS offering under the microscope. This one is good enough in quality (berylium), features (VDSF tuning) and price (£65.40) for you to read on further. If you have any interest in TWS, then a quality offering at less than half the price of some rivals is a definite attention grabber.
About the Sparks
What is TWS?
The Sparks are Moondrop’s first TWS offering. TWS stands for truly wireless. As opposed to wireless earbuds, which have a cord attached to each driver that hangs behind the neck, the TWS eliminates the need for a cord altogether. TWS are therefore far more discrete. There is no cable sound. Compared to wireless buds/iem’s, there are, however, some inevitable compromises in performance. This is because 1 earbud is sending a signal to the other. In essence, 1 earbud acts as a bluetooth transmitter and earbud and the other acts as a bluetooth receiver and earbud. You can imagine the micro electronics needed to fit all that into something which fits in your ear. Only the smallest bluetooth chips have been able to fit under the tiny hood. A chip has to perform the function of dac (processing your phone’s music) and amp (making it powerful enough to hear). It also has to be versatlie enough to cope with fluctuations in wireless signal strength without affecting the sound quality or volume, yet small enough to last for several hours between recharging. Something has to give. And what is to fall on the sword? The sound quality, of course. In these days of innovations and features first, the audio quality is usually the fall guy.
The codec, which converts the signal from your phone to one which is heard in your ears, is going to put huge demands on that fine balance between battery, performance and the space there is within the driver shell of just 1 earbud. Until now, the lossier SBC and AAC bluetooth audio codecs have been taking on sound responsibilities. That means there is a gap between the resolution possible in a wireless and it’s TWS rival. The Sparks are the first TWS I’ve tested that have succesfully bridged that gap. The Sparks are supporting the aptX adaptive codec. In a nutshell, the aptX codec is described as near CD quality, or almost lossless. Adaptive takes this a step further; delivering HD sound quality that 1 study claimed “was audibly equal to 24 96 tracks”
This statement is quite compelling. Just be aware that 420 kbits/s is the highest possible resolution for aptX adaptive. In real life situations you may be getting a far lower resolution; as low as 279 kbits/s, as the codec searches dynamically for a compromise between a stable connection and a high quality/ low latency output. More info can be found here
Alas, not all devices are able to support aptX adaptive. Astell & Kern,Sony, Samsung and Xiaomi are among some of the 1000 or so that do. For those that don’t, you’ll have to settle for aptX, also built into the Spark’s inventory.
The Sparks are the latest 5.2 bluetooth technology. Each new version aims to improve signal strength and quality whilst performing more efficiently. This means that by each change made by bluetooth we get a stronger, clearer performance and a longer lasting battery life. The Sparks have incorporated the best bluetooth codec with the best bluetooth version. Theoretically, that renders all TWS devices without these as obsolete. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. That’s why features can never explain what a device is actually like. At least with the Sparks we are off to a good start.
Only currently available for your Android phone, the Link is an app which interfaces with the Sparks. The most obvious applications for the Link at present seems to be a firmware update and an online guide. The firmware update has made my Sparks into version 1.1.7. The online guide is the same as supplied with the packaging. The app claims to allow the Sparks to be eq’d in 2 seperate ways. The 1st is anticipated to be the usual generic presets, such as club, theater, hall, acoustic, rock, pop etc. The 2nd sounds interesting… This is supposed to allow the Sparks owner to change the tuning of their TWS to mimic other earbuds, IEMs and headphones. The question is thus; can the Sparks become a wireless Final A8000? Or a mini version of the Focal Utopia’s? I’ll let your imagination run wild with what may or may not be offered in the future. For the present, the App is undergoing development. It was released in May, and these features aren’t there at the time of writing.
Berylium drivers in a £65 TWS? For those of you unfamiliar with this extremely rare material, it is used as the driver material for the Focal Utopia Headphones. If you have heard a set of Utopia’s, you will know how incredible they spound, irrespective of any preferences for a more intimate sound stage, they are 1 of the best headphones in the World. I have heard the Utopia’s many times. I have auditioned the Final A8000, and my findings are here.
I also happen to have the Believe, from KB Ear, another berylium IEM, but far more affordable than it’s predecessors. Was it truly made from pure berylium, at that price? Due to the controversy over the purity of the materials used for the driver, it is now sadly out of production, but you can have a taste here
Berylium is 1 of the strongest materials on Earth. It can be stretched to an incredibly thin layer. The thinner and stronger the material is the better the accuracy of the sound. Berylium is expensive. It is dangerous to work with as it is extremely toxic. It comes from relatively few factories. A way to get around the cost factor is to spray a fine coating onto your driver diaphragm. You retain some of the characteristics of the original but you enhance the performance with the berylium. This is what Moondrop has done with the Sparks. This is not something I’d expect to see in any TWS, and certainly all the more remarkable in a set of buds at this price level.
The USB-C charging box will give 48 hours of power to the Sparks. That is surely enough to satisfy the most demanding of users! Each charge gives the Sparks 8 hours of in ear use. The occasional overnight charge of the charging box and you have unlimited use of your TWS device. More on the charging cradle later.
The Sparks unboxed
The Sparks come supplied with the usual full colour box with the anime character logo of a rather attractive young lady on a broom, perhaps a derivative of Sailor Moon? The attention to detail is already evident, as expected from this company. A slide out box has a magnetic clasp holding everything down. Opening the box reveal the 2 buds and the cradle. A USB-C cable is included, as if we didn’t have 1 of them! But it’s a small one and shouldn’t take up too much space on your desk. Leaflets for warranty, safety, inspection, use and a download card for the Moondrop Link app are enclosed. The cradle has a leather case available for £5 extra. It protects the cradle from scratches. It looks lovely and is a no brainer as an enhancement to your overall Sparks experience. A list of specifications on the back is combined with the frequency curve of the buds.
VDSF – virtual diffuse sound field. What on earth is that?
The tuning is a particular characteristic of Moondrop. They use the VDSF curve for the default tuning of their in ears. This is like the Harman Response Curve but a little punchier. Tuning is a way to describe how a device reacts to different frequencies. This results in the descriptions you’ll come across, like U shaped or V shaped, bassy or mid centric. I try not to use such phrases, but the sound characteristics are a product of the quality of the product and the way in which it has been tuned.
You get 3 sets of tips, with the usual 3 sizes. I’m presuming the tips are natural sound, bassy sound and treble enhanced sound, in a small, mediim and large variety. Whether Moondrop should state what each tip does to the sound characteristic of the Sparks is a moot point. I’m assuming those that like a punchier sound would be immediately biased towards the bassier tips and wouldn’t give the others a proper listen, for instance. I found it a little frustrating as I’m always in a rush to get to the best performance that suits my preferences, naturally, because I do a lot of listening to a lot of stuff. It’s a good thing to try every tip and then try your own tips if you have another set of favourites. The tips make a big difference to the sound, so don’t expect the ones that are already on the Sparks to be the best sounding ones. They might not be for you.
The look and feel of the Sparks are noteworthy. Some real thought has gone into these mighty midgets. There is nothing blan about the swirly night sky with a Moon for bud 1 and a star for bud 2. The cradle has curves in all the right places, sits the Sparks firmly in place and can be accentuated with a form fitting leather box.
The Sparks have a lug sticking out of them. I suspect that is to get them under the flap of the top cartilege of the ear, known as the antihelux. The shells are bulky and they take some moving around in my smaller ears before they can stay in place. For walking and sitting, they can rest in place without any undue stress or strain. For running, or more vigarous workouts, that will not be enough. They have to be wedged in place. The only 2 grip points are the tip, into your ear canal entrance and the lug that sits in your cartilege. The tips do not protrude very far into the ear canal. The design of the TWS does not allow for a deep fit. You cannot rely on that for a decent anchor point unless you are exceptionally lucky with getting a tip to exactly match the diameter of your ear canals. The lug is long enough that it should fit easily under the thinnest of cartileges. I had to wedge the lug firmly into place to stand any chance of it staying at or near the sweet spot in my ear canal without coming loose. In a 45 minute run I had to readjust several times and there was a real chance of my left earbud making a bid for freedom, which no one wants. A more contour fitting driver shell with a higher degree of opportunities to tuck under the antihelux, antitragus and tragus (the lower bit of cartilege) would have have been much more beneficial and would have an added a touch of elegance to the appearance of these buds. Moondrop ; I wonder whether there is scope for a Sparkier Spark in the future? Blessing 2, why not Sparks 2?
The sound quality did display some of the characteristics of other berylium headphones and IEMs I’ve been lucky enough to hear. The tightness of the material perhaps gives an idea of how the sound will be. It is tight and accurate. The default sound of the Sparks was a little thin and dry sounding to my ears, having got through the 3 sets of tips supplied and arriving at my preference. I still don’t know for sure, but I suspect that I have put on the bassy tips. I have found a solution to this problem by installing a mini app called Morphet into my USB Audio Player Pro Android App. Morphet enables me to mimic other devices, such as the Sennheiser HE-6 or the AKG K-1000. Wait a minute…wasn’t this similar to what the Moondrop Link App says it will offer? I had a peek around and found the generic buds setting to add the depth and bass response I was looking for. The Berylium coating is arguably setting up for some good detail in the mid and high frequency ranges, making vocals slightly more forward and micro effects more visable than a listener is used to from set of sub £70 IEMs. And remember, these are TWS. No wires… Whatever your preference to your sound characteristics be it for a bassy sound or a detailed airy sound, the Sparks will benefit from eqing. Out of the box they sound too thin and edgy for rock and pop music, which is looking for that lower frequency response and some control of the peaks, where the synergy of multiple instruments competing with each other in the mix can get a little much. For classical music and jazz lovers, I supect that not much will need to be changed. I still preffered the generic buds setting for even these 2 genres, as I felt they offered a little warmth to the colder, more clinical presentation provided as standard.
The Sparks may lead to a flame. The Link app is in it’s infancy. If it delivers a set of options that can turn your TWS into another IEM, much like the Morphet that I use, then it will showcase the chameleon like qualities of Moondrop’s first foray into the TWS market. The price is right, the looks are good, the codecs and bluetooth versons are class leading. To cap it all, there is berylium added to the drivers. As always, nothing is perfect. The sound needs adjusting, the driver shells want to come out of my ears when under duress, and not every phone supports aptX adaptive. For those of you looking for a TWS device, this is one of the best I’ve come across so far. I’ve heard TWS 3 times this price, and they seem like yesterdays gear, the technology has already moved on so much further. The Moondrop Sparks could get even better yet.