Saturday, July 19, 2014

Review: Spark SF5 NW [1xAA EDC Flashlight]

The Zebralight SC50 intrigued me from the day it came out. It seemed like the perfect EDC flashlight, but people were complaining that it turned on in their pockets. The consensus seemed to be that if you hadn't bought one yet, wait for the SC52 with the deeper switch. So I waited. When the SC52 was released, nobody could seem to keep them in stock, and when they did, people were complaining about horrible tint and quality control problems. I just kept putting it off and hesitating. And then Spark came out with the SF5, and I purchased the NW (neutral white) version. The early reviews said that this was the light that the SC52 should have been, so I eagerly awaited it to arrive from the slow boat from China. I ordered it from Wallbuys.

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Shown With Victorinox Executive, Spyderco Delica and RayBan Wayfarers
From Left: Jetbeam BA10, Thrunite T10S, Spark SF5, EagleTac D25A Ti, Olight S15 Ti, Fenix E12, L3 L10-219, Thrunite T10
From Left: Jetbeam BA10, Thrunite T10S, Spark SF5, EagleTac D25A Ti, Olight S15 Ti, Fenix E12, L3 L10-219, Thrunite T10

Product Description


This is a 1xAA flashlight with a neutral white version of the latest Cree XM-L2 LED emitter in it. Clearly modeled after Zebralight's SC52 series, it features a compact design with a recessed electronic switch. Spark adds its own touches with a carbon fiber ring and two reflectors, one being a non-reflective "mule" type. This light seems be aimed squarely at the flashlight enthusiast crowd; the so-called flashaholics.

Official Specs (From hkequipment.net)

  • 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 260lumens-0.9hr, Max 100lumens-2.8hrs
  • Med2 30lumens-9hrs, Med1 6lumens-32hrs, Low 1lumens-10days
  • Powered by 1x AA or 14500 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 90mm x 24mm
  • Weight 50g
Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight Product View 1

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight Product View 2

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight Product View 3
Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight Product View 4

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight Product View 5

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight Shown With Spark SF3

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Tail Cap SpringSpark SF5 1xAA Flashlight With Tail Cap Removed

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Closeup Of Tail CapSpark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Closeup Of Logo

First Impressions


I received the SF5 a couple days after the SF3, so I had a pretty good idea what to expect. Unboxing it and putting a 14500 cell in it, I was completely unprepared for the beautiful warm tint my sample had. It's probably inevitable that all flashlight collectors eventually focus on neutral and warm tints. If you use flashlights a lot, the warmer tints are much more pleasing to the eyes, and also much easier to distinguish different colors in the dark.

The tint on my sample is even warmer than the lights I have with a Nichia 219 in them. In fact, the SF5 NW is now the warmest tint light I own. And from reading posts on other sites, it seems like I am not alone in getting a sample with a tint this warm. If you are specifically looking for a neutral white tint, this model may not be for you.

The second thing I noticed is that unlike the SF3 with the too-high turbo mode that gives batteries grief, the SF5 seems to be tuned much better for turbo than its sibling the SF3.

Electronic Switch


This model features a recessed electronic switch, so it does not have any kind of mechanical action you would find on a "clicky" switch. This type of switch is potentially much more durable, but it comes with a small downside. These types of electronic switches constantly draw a little bit of power to be able to sense you pressing the switch. This is called a "parasitic drain" and is negligible on this model. But it is a deal breaker for some folks, so I'm mentioning it.

The feel of the switches of both my SF3 and SF5 are superb. The design of the recess and the feel of the switch together make using these lights a very ergonomic experience. I was never really into electronic switches before I got these two. I'm now a big fan of the way Spark did it.

One of the gripes I've always had with electronic switch lights is that some of them are hard to find the switch by feel in the dark. What I've done with my SF3 and SF5 is rotate the clip to the opposite side of the switch. Now in the dark I can miss it, and it's as intuitive as a clicky switch.

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Closeup Of Electronic Switch 1Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Closeup Of Electronic Switch 2



Modes


Just like the SF3, the SF5 has 5 modes: Moonlight, Low, Medium, High and Turbo. Curiously there are no hidden strobe or beacon modes. I don't really miss them, but I don't mind having them as long as they are tucked out of the way. Spark kept it simple and just excluded these special modes.

User Interface


Spark has come up with an interesting user interface for this series, which seems to borrow heavily from the Olight S series. A quick click turns the light on and off. Holding the button down cycles through the 4 modes. A quick double-click toggles the light between turbo and the last mode it was in.

The SF5 has mode memory just like the SF3. Holding the switch down with the light in any mode but moonlight will cycle it to that mode, and holding the switch down in moonlight will make it cycle the modes normally. It sounds complicated but it's actually intuitive.

Build Quality


This series is well built. From the quality of materials to the superb machining, Spark really knows what it's doing. It's above and beyond what I would normally consider good quality. It's almost like they are just showing off with the carbon fiber band, the steel bezel around the switch, the swap-able reflectors, the good quality snap-on clip, and so on. I'm starting to sound like a fan boy.

Fit and Finish


Overall, good. As with most products I review, just a couple minor imperfections can lower my overall impression of a review sample. This sample has some noticeable imperfections all the way around the carbon fiber ring and a few nicks on the body.

I'm also not a fan of the tail cap threads. They are a little better on my SF5 than my SF3, but they still make it a little bit awkward to screw on the tail cap. Not really a major gripe though.

But even with a couple minor gripes, it still hits the mark where it counts. The emitter is perfectly centered, which is a pet peeve of mine. The switch is mounted perfectly in the little steel bezel, and the carbon fiber band overall looks gorgeous.

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Closeup Of Threads


Clip


The SF5 features a snap-on type clip. It only comes up about a half inch to the tail, so I wouldn't call it a 'deep carry' clip, but it's deep-carry-ish. The quality of the clip is good, and it's nice and rigid. It carries well in my pocket and if anything, it's a little too tight, which is rare for this type of clip. Usually the snap-on type clips are way too loose. I didn't use to be a fan of this type of clip, but I like when it's done right.

Tail Stand


The light will tail stand if you are careful. The way the tail cap is designed only gives a small area for the light to stand, so it is a bit awkward. I'm not even sure I understand the design. They could have made the unit a
tiny big longer and given it a stable tail stand. But it's acceptable.

AA Battery Support


The circuit on the SF5 seems to be optimized for standard rechargeable Eneloop AA NiMH cells. 

Lithium-ion 14500 Support


The SF5 will take all button top 14500 cells that I have tested. It does not like the flat top cells, probably because of its reverse polarity protection.

Operation with a 14500 is perfect as far as I can tell. So many manufacturers cheap out and make a light that doesn't get its full functionality on a 14500, but this one does. As you can probably guess, all the modes will be brighter with a li-ion cell. Moonlight is a little brighter and turbo is much brighter. In fact, there's not much difference between high and turbo with a regular AA, but it's a noticeable difference with the 14500.

PWM


I could find no trace of PWM using the cell phone camera test. Looks like every mode is constant current. Nice. Some manufacturers use high frequency PWM to achieve a better tint but here's a model with perfect tint and a constant current circuit.

Tail Cap Readings


All readings in Amps. I measured the standby "parasitic drain" current at .0002 amps.


ModeEneloop AAOlight 14500
Moonlight.01.005
Low.05.02
Medium.20.09
High2.13.28
Turbo2.25.71

Tailcap Lockout


If you intend to store this flashlight for an extended period of time, or you just don't like the idea of the small amount of standby current when the unit is off, you can twist the tail cap about 1/8th of a turn counter-clockwise and it will power the unit off.

Beam


Spark SF5 1xAA Flashligh: Textured Reflector
Spark SF5 1xAA Flashligh: Mule Reflector



OP Reflector: My SF5 has a nice, smooth, floody beam, due to its textured "orange peel" reflector. Just looking at the light, I would think that it would have a tighter hot spot, but looking closer I can see that the reflector is more shallow than it looks, which explains the floody-ness. But for an EDC it's pretty much ideal. If you want to see across a big field on your farm, you will want a light with more throw.

Mule Reflector: This type of reflector is more of a housing than a reflector. With the Mule on, the light becomes pure flood with no beam to speak of. Some people prefer this style of light, and it does have some benefits for example using the light as a lantern.

Beam shots taken at ISO 100 f/5.6 1/15th second with AWB = Daylight
Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Animated Modes



Tint


The tint on my SF5 NW is noticeably warmer than any other light I own!  I can tell that Spark really has its ear to the ground and is definitely giving enthusiasts what they want. The Cree XM-L2 emitter isn't exactly known for having the best tint, so I'm curious how they got something this warm from Cree.

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Tint Comparison
Tint Comparison, From Left: Spark SF3, Olight S15 Ti, Thrunite T10S, L3 L10-219, Spark SF5


Usability


This is a very usable model. It carries well in my pocket and it's intuitive to pull out and find/engage the switch, unlike other electronic switch models where I fumble for the switch. I would have preferred a shortcut to low, but the double-click to turbo gets used quite a bit. My SF3 likes to cut out on turbo sometimes, even with the most expensive batteries. The SF5 has a much better (but less powerful) turbo mode. I can put it into turbo and use the light for 5-10 minutes without worrying about it.

The SF3 and SF5 have already become my most-used flashlights.

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: In Hand 1

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: In Hand 2


Conclusions


The SF5 is a superb model. I am glad I put off buying the Zebralight SC52 NW model. People were saying the NW model had a green-ish tint, where my SF5 has a phenomenal tint. I couldn't imagine Zebralight's version being any better than this, and I am glad I held out for the SF5. It's a little bigger than the Zebralight but that's OK.

Most of the time when I buy something, I'm hoping that it's as good as I expect it to be. This is one of those rare models that exceeds my expectations. Since the day I got them, the SF3 and SF5 have never been far from my side. And with my collection of flashlights, that's a bold statement.


Gallery


Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: In Box 1

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: In Box 2

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: In Box 4Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: In Box 3Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: In Box 5



Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Unboxed 1

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Unboxed 2

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Felt Pouch 1

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Felt Pouch 2
The felt bag on mine came filthy

Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Next To Ruler
Spark SF5 1xAA Flashlight: Next To SF3 and EagleTac 16340 Li-Ion Cell
BFFs




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