Philips has made up for this by including a sound enhancement feature - Fullsound - which is supposed to 'faithfully restore sonic details to compressed music.' Whether it does or not, it certainly beefs up the low end, widens the sound stage and adds some much needed body to the mid-range. The combined effect is that the sound through the bundled headphones is just about good enough for me to rock out to Soundgarden's mighty A-Sides compilation or chill out to the piano/bass/drums interplay of Bill Evans' classic Portrait in Jazz. It's hardly Hi-Fi, but it's listenable.
The effects of Fullsound change, however, as you move up to pricier 'phones. With cheap upgrade in-ear models, like Creative's bargain-tastic EP630s, there are still benefits, but switch up to more expensive in-ear models or over-the-ear favourites, and the enhancement starts to muffle detail rather than reveal it. And while you can switch Fullsound for a range of preset EQ settings or your own custom EQ, the effects can be a bit crude. Since when has Rock meant: 'set bass to stun and stuff the rest?' Left untouched, the sound from the GoGear Spark is perfectly decent, handling slick, well-engineered pop and commercial rock better than dense electronica or heavy rock, but it's a solid, not spectacular performer.
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the GoGear Spark still loses out to the Sansa Clip overall because the latter seems to have more headroom when you go beyond the bundled earbuds. The SA2940 can go louder than the SA2840, and the player's grasp of dynamics is improved partly as a result, but Sandisk's little champ still performs better.
Don't get me wrong; put the Spark through a pair of Grado SR60s and the sound is very likeable, but the clarity and dynamics aren't quite there. Listen to, say, Notion from Kings of Leon's Only by the Night and the chiming riff has less punch and the vocals less power. With Ralph Vaughan-Williams' The Lark Ascending - a piece that relies on contrasting tones and subtle swellings of volume - the Spark doesn't quite have the subtlety to scope.
This isn't a disaster. If you want a cheap, take-anywhere player that you'll use with some equally cheap, take-anywhere headphones, the Spark has a lot going for it. If you prize style, solid built quality, good battery life and a decent screen over value for money and sound quality, then the Spark is an excellent buy, However, if you're looking for a cheap, bargain-basement player to team with not-so-cheap headphones, then the Sansa Clip is still a much better bet. Damn; foiled again. The GoGear Spark might be a decent alternative to the Clip, but it's not quite the player to supersede it.
A convincing challenger for the Sansa Clip, and one that works hard to produce decent results from budget headphones. However, neither audio quality nor value is quite good enough to bring down Sandisk's bargain-basement champ.