Sunday, June 1, 2014

Review: Spark SF3 [1xCR123A EDC Flashlight]

The Zebralight SC52 has intrigued me for a while, but every time I went to order one, they seem to be out of stock. And after that I kept putting off buying one because I heard they were having quality problems. People swear buy them, so I've been meaning to buy one. Then Spark came out with their SF3 and SF5 versions, and even included a NW (neutral white) tint option. The BLF forums had a group buy with hkequiment offering 44 bucks a piece for the NW versions of these babies, so it was hard to pass up.

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight With Spyderco Dragonfly 2 and Smith & Wesson Self Defense Pen
Shown with Spyderco Dragonfly 2 and Smith & Wesson Self Defense Pen

Product Description


The Spark SF3 is a CR123A size flashlight with 4 modes, featuring the latest Cree XM-L2 LED emitter, a recessed electronic switch, and it even comes with two different reflectors: a textured orange peel type, and a "mule" reflector, which basically gives you the raw output of the LED.

And if you like your flashlights stylish, the SF3 features a carbon fiber ring with a cool 3D looking pattern. This is definitely a "give the people what they want" design, with a deep carry clip, tail cap lockout and compact size. Compact, powerful, stylish; what more could you ask for in a flashlight?

This model comes in both neutral white (NW) and cool whit (CW) tint variants.

Official Specs (From hkequipment)


  • Cree XM-L2 T5 Neutral White LED
  • Premium aluminum alloy machined and Carbon Fiber Sleeve with hard anodized finishing
  • 5 Modes operation with last mode memory:
  • Super 350lumens-0.8hr, Max 180lumens-1.8hrs
  • Med2 60lumens-6hrs, Med1 8lumens-30hrs, Low 1lumens-12days
  • Powered by 1x CR123A or 16340 battery
  • Working range 1.6v - 4.2v
  • Reverse polarity protection circuit
  • Electrically conductive aluminum body provides EMI/RFI shielding
  • Impact resistance SCHOTT ultra clear lens with 98% transparency
  • IPX-8 waterproof
  • Covertible Flood / Throw reflector kit
  • Size 70mm x 24mm
  • Weight 40g
From Left: NiteCore SRT3, Thrunite Neutron 1C, Sunwayman V11R, UltraFire RJ118, Nitecore Ex10, Spark SF3, SolarStorm SC03
From Left: NiteCore SRT3, Thrunite Neutron 1C, Sunwayman V11R, UltraFire RJ118, Nitecore Ex10, Spark SF3, SolarStorm SC03
Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight Product View 1

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight Product View 2

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight Product View 3

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight Product View 4
Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight Product View 5

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight Product View 6


Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight Product View 7
Shown with its bigger brother, the Spark SF5

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight Product View 8
Another view alongside the SF5
Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight Product Cap Removed

Initial Impressions


Being the nit picky guy that I am, the first thing I noticed was that the carbon fiber band had several little nicks in it toward the edges. And then I popped in an EagleTac 750 mAh 16340 cell and started to play with the modes. At that point it dawned on me that I was holding one of those gems that I knew would stand out in my collection.

I liked the user interface from the start, though I think I like the UI on the Olight S series a little better. The double click to turbo is cool, but I would've liked a shortcut to low as well. But it has a mode memory which I really like, so that's OK. Flashlights that make me go through turbo to get to moonlight don't often make a good impression with me, so whatever it takes to be able to turn on the light in a strange place like a campground and not blind everyone around me when I have to use the restroom.

A couple things really stood out from the get go, such as the terrific neutral tint and the feel of the electronic switch. Most "flashaholics" are snobs about tint, and this NW version does not disappoint. The feel of the switch is almost perfect, though it is inset enough to make it awkward for people with long fingernails to operate, like my wife. The upside to the switch being inset is that it doesn't tend to turn on in your pocket like the Olight S series, which it's raised switch. So it's kind of a trade-off and personally I prefer the inset switch of the SF3 by a small margin. So I guess it's a trade-off either way.

One thing I found out pretty quick is that the double-click to turbo function is hard on even the best batteries! It's very picky about cells. My AW cells trip the protection and power the light off after about half a minute. I have one EagleTac and one TrustFire flame cell that will go a couple minutes without tripping the protection. Other folks at the Budget Light Forum have noticed the same thing. I bought a Spark SF5 at the same time as this SF3, and the SF5 does not have the same problem on turbo with a 14500 cell, so that's something to think about. People I have talked to suggest IMR cells, which can take the higher current of this thing. The SF3 has a higher output on turbo than the larger SF5!

Overall, my first impression is that this thing is a badass beast and I need to find me some IMR cells if I want to run turbo.

Fit and Finish


Overall, good. There's a few nicks in the carbon fiber ring which are hard to see with the naked eye, but the camera picks up. There's also some irregularities on the insides of both reflectors, which do not affect the functionality of the light and the reflector has to be taken off to see them. The tail cap threads are a little gritty and need to be cleaned. That's about it for my gripes.

The rest of the unit is superb. The grey anodizing is uniform with no scratches, nicks or tool marks from production. The carbon fiber band looks beautiful but I wonder how it will hold up. Everything else ticks all the check boxes: the XML-L2 LED is perfectly centered and the snap-on clip holds on well to the body and has a solid feel to it. The reflector, product markings, rubber button, button ring--everything looks great.


Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Closeup Of Threads
Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Closeup Of SwitchSpark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Closeup Of Tail Cap


Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Closeup Of Textured ReflectorSpark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Closeup Of "Mule" Reflector

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Closeup Of Spark Logo
Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Closeup Of Emitter Star
looks like a modder's dream

Modes


This model has 5 modes: moonlight, low, medium, high and turbo, all accessed via an electronic switch near the head. A quick click will turn the light on and off, and holding down on the button will cycle through the modes, from lowest to highest. It also has mode memory and will remember the last mode you were in.

The photo below was taken at ISO 100 F/5.6 1/5 with AWB

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Animated Modes
Animated modes: Moonlight, Low, Medium, High and Turbo


PWM


The light has no detectable PWM and appears to be constant current on all modes. Some manufacturers use high frequency PWM to improve the tint, but here is proof that it's possible to have efficiency and good tint!  Constant current flashlights are a requirement for my emergency kits because they provide long run times with their efficient circuitry.

User Interface


The UI on this model is fairly typical for an electronic switch. A quick click turns the unit on and off. Keeping the button depressed when it's on cycles through the four modes fairly quickly, and when you turn the unit off, it will remember the last mode when you turn it back on.

Quick double clicks will put the unit in and out of turbo mode and will cycle between turbo and whatever mode it was in when you went into turbo. So if you double click when the unit is off, it will enter turbo mode, and another double-click will turn the unit off. If the unit was already on when you did the double-click, another double-click will put the unit back to the previous mode.

There is no shortcut to the lowest mode, and there is no hidden strobe, or other so-called "disco" modes. This is where they dropped the ball, and where Olight's S series really stands out, since it has both.

Note: If you plan on using turbo mode a lot, then you probably shouldn't be using protected 16340 cells in it since for whatever reason this unit (and has been reported by others) likes to trip the protection circuits on even the most expensive batteries if left on turbo for more than about half a minute. Other strange turbo-related behavior has been reported such as flickering.

Switch


The switch is the electronic variety. I like these types of switches because they are much more durable than a clicky type switch or even a twisty. An electronic switch can be cycled many more times than other types of switches. Even twisty type lights will wear the contact material off and eventually fail for good.

It's obvious that Spark put a lot of effort into this switch. First of all, it's recessed so it won't accidentally come on in your pocket like other types of flashlights with electronic switches. It also has a durable and stylish-looking polished metal retaining ring.

But best of all, the switch has an absolutely superb feel to it, better than any other light I own. Though it must be said that my wife hates the recessed switch because she has long nails and can't press it with the tips of her fingers as intended.

Beam


Textured: The reflector is a fairly typical for an "orange peel" style. It's a little on the shallow side, so don't be looking to this model a thrower to light up something far away. This is a closeup wall of light even without the mule reflector, though the texturing gives it a nice smooth beam.

Mule: The mule reflector is not even a reflector. It's just a chunk of metal to protect the LED. This type of 'reflector' has the LED just sitting there putting off a huge arc of light with no real beam pattern. The mule is ideal for very closeup work such as you would use a headlamp for.

Tint


I ordered the neutral white (NW) version of the SF3, and the tint is exactly as advertised. It's almost purely neutral, though I never mind when they error on the side of being a little warmer tint than advertised, such as its big brother the SF5 NW, which has a decidedly warm tint to it.

The photo below was taken at ISO 100 F/5.6 1/30th with AWB

Neutral Tint Comparison, From Left: Spark SF3 NW, Spark SF5 NW, Olight S15 Ti, L3 Illuminations L10-219
Neutral Tint Comparison, From Left: Spark SF3 NW, Spark SF5 NW, Olight S15 Ti, L3 Illuminations L10-219

Tail Stand


This model can tail stand, but it's a little precarious since the design only gives it a small surface area on the bottom. It's not nearly as stable as I would like it to be.

Tail Cap Lockout


This model has a tail cap lockout feature, where you can loosen the tail cap about a quarter turn and prevent the unit from powering on. Since the unit has a standby current that all flashlights with electronic switches have, the tail cap lockout will prevent the unit from draining the battery when you don't want it to.

Dual Reflectors


The SF3 comes with two different reflectors: a textured, "orange peel" reflector, and a so-called "mule" reflector which is just a shallow, metal plate with no reflective properties. The textured reflector gives the unit a smooth, floody beam, where the mule reflector puts out a solid wall of light, more suitable for a headlamp or lantern.

Not only is the extra reflector an interesting and cool touch, it also opens up possibilities for flashlight modders since the LED star is exposed without the reflector on and looks like it is very simple to replace for someone handy with that sort of thing.I haven't done any mods yet, but this might be a good candidate for my first attempt.

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Shown With Both Reflectors
Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight -Closeup of Both Reflectors

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Closeup of Textured Reflector: FrontSpark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Closeup of Textured Reflector: Back
Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Closeup of "Mule" Reflector: BackSpark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Closeup of "Mule" Reflector: Front

Clip


The clip is the snap-on, deep carry type. I didn't used to like this type of clip because of the tendency of some of them to come off easily in your pocket, leaving you with a missing clip or worse: a missing flashlight. But there are a few companies that do this type of clip right, and Spark is one of them.

The clip itself is solid and appears to be well-built. And like I would expect from most manufacturers, the quality of the clip is lower than the flashlight itself. There's just not a lot of companies that put as much effort into the clip as they do the product it's attached to.

So while not the perfect clip, it appears to be plenty sufficient, and hasn't come off yet in my pocket.

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Closeup of Snap-On Clip


Tail Cap Measurements


Measurements taken with an EagleTac 750 mAh 16340 battery. Note that there is a stand-by current of .106 mA, which some think excessive but I think is fine since the SF3 features a tail cap lockout.


ModeAmps
Turbo.95
High.55
Medium.20
Low.07
Standby.00106

Run Time Tests

All tests below run with an AW RCR123A 750 mAh li-ion cell.

ModeAmps
Turbo About 30 seconds before it trips protection circuit
High55 minutes exactly
Mediumtodo
Lowtodo


Usability


So far this has been great for every day carry. It's compact, light and powerful. It sits well in my pocket, and it's light enough to where it doesn't bug me if I'm wearing shorts or sweats. I like the user interface. Not quite as much as Olight's UI, but overall I like it for an EDC role. I wish it had the shortcut to moonlight like the Olight S series, but the shortcut to turbo is sufficient. If I can't have a shortcut to moonlight, then the mode memory is also sufficient. My goal with moonlight mode is to be able to turn the light on in a strange place and find my way to a restroom without waking up and/or blinding those around me. For a light to travel on the road or go camping with me, it must have that ability.

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - In My Hand 1

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - In My Hand 2

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - In My Hand 3

Conclusions


This thing is a beast. A well designed beast. The Spark SF3 and SF5 are just fantastic lights. I wish they would tune turbo done a smidgen on the SF3 but I might feel differently once I purchase some IMR cells. But everything else is brilliant. They probably have the best feeling switches of all my lights, and the included "mule" reflector and felt pouch are a nice touch.  So is the efficient, constant current circuit with no trace of PWM.

I've been mostly carrying the SF3 NW and SF5 NW since I got them, and I'm having a hard time deciding which one I like better. I'm also tempted to get the head lamp versions: the SG3 and SG5. I do not own the Zebralight versions of these lights, but I'd be skeptical that could be better than these state-of-the-art Spark versions. Especially considering I paid 43 bucks for the SF5 and 44 bucks for the SF3 with the group buy and the price war.

The carbon fiber ring looks cool and all, but it doesn't really do much for me. I haven't used the "mule" reflector much, but it's nice having that option. All in all, I think I got a great deal with the group buy for my 44 bucks. This model normally sells for 59 bucks. These two new lights hold their own in my collection, which includes titanium versions of the Olight S15 and the EagleTac D25A Clicky, and that's saying something. Spark is turning me into a fan boy, and now I find myself wanting to try out their head lamps as well.

Gallery



Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Box 1

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Box 2

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Box 3

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Box 4

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Unboxed

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Pouch
Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - Next To Ruler

Spark SF3 1xCR123A Flashlight - On Scale With EagleTac 750 mAh Li-Ion Cell
Weight includes the EagleTac 16340 li-ion cell in one of the top photos


2 comments:

  1. Great review... I just purchased the SF3, as I needed something ultra floody for around the campsite...
    I too was looking at the SG3, but opted for this one instead, as I own a Nitecore HB02 headband, meaning I have a headtorch and torch in one here... and I don't have to fork out for the additional reflector the SG3 would make me purchase.
    Thabks for your time and help!
    Can't wait for it to arrive now! :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sweet, I hope you enjoy it. The SF3 and SF5 are definitely underrated.

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