PS Audio Sprout
PS Audio is an American company, specialising mainly in the production of the high-end power components and accessories. Especially its regenerating power stations enjoy good reputation. They convert energy from the wall socket to the DC, and then rebuild it as an ideal sine wave, thus creating a perfect electricity to supply the best audio devices, which are extremely sensitive to power quality, such as analogue and digital sources or preamplifiers. A few years ago a completely new series of components appeared in the catalogue - things like digital-to-analog converters and phono preamplifiers. Here the Americans focused on modern functionality and sound quality, so that this line has grown to five devices and two extra boards. Some time ago we saw an information about the planned launch of an integrated amplifier equipped with a full DAC, phono stage for MM cartridges, headphoneoutput and Bluetooth connectivity - all in an elegant, modern box and at an extremely attractive price.
The info has spread around the audio forums very quickly. The new amplifier was to cost even less than popular NuWave DAC converter. Moreover, instead of the announcement of starting the production, the company decided to test its idea on Kickstarter - a popular, online crowdfunding platform. If you don't know what it is, the idea is simple - someone adds a project they want to run and service users donate money for this purpose, of course if they like the project. PS Audio published the scheme of an amplifier and the list of its features, advertising it as a perfect heart of modern audio system. "Sprout asks only two questions - what kind of music you want to listen to, and how loud. We'll take care of the rest."And...? They succeeded! 897 people contributed to the launching of amplifier's production, providing over $400,000. In response, the company has published photos from the factory showing piles of boxes, containing 652 pieces of the Sprout. Apparently the experiment was successful, and American and European audio magazines have eulogized over Sprout. Naturally we also decided to find out what this unusual amp can do.
Design and functionality
Online birth and publicity which Sprout gained before the implementation of mass production is just the beginning of the story. Audiophiles were interested in something slightly different - the opportunity to buy a multifunction device, produced by the reputable company at a good price. In exchange for $800 we get not only a power amplifier delivering 50 watts per channel, but also a 24 bit/192 kHz asynchronous DAC, a phono stage suitable for MM cartridges, a headphone amplifier, and Bluetooth receiver which allows you to listen to music from your phone or tablet. Sprout also looks fantastic. How the manufacturer was able to put all these things at the price of an amplifier which doesn't have such features? Subsidy from the Kickstarter is probably one of the possible answers, but we won't go into the details right now. I think that the idea is terrific. It seems that Americans came both in functional and stylistic needs of young people, as well as the price range in which they can operate.
The first impression is excellent. The protective packaging alone deserves some attention. Instead of the standard polystyrene foam, the device is placed on a cardboard base and smartly pressed by a thick piece of foil. To release it, you should just remove the cardboard base and fold the sides, in order to loosen the foil. The build quality of the amplifier, in relation to price, should be considered as outstanding. The enclosure is almost entirely made of metal, except for the top panel, which is a piece of wood or plywood. The bottom plate is made of stainless steel. It's a pity that Sprout doesn't have higher feet or spikes, so that its base can be reflected in the glass shelves. However, the Americans went for a more secure solution - two long strips of soft rubber, so that the amplifier can safely stand on any surface and won't slide when we connect headphones for example.
The rear panel is covered with sockets to the last inch. Firstly, the presence of a standard, three-pin power socket pleased me. My guess is that the use of the plug-in power supply would reduce the size of the housing (which would reduce the cost of its production). But honestly, I hate those plastic power supplies which look like those from the old laptops, so I reached for the Cardas power cable, which for me is a much more attractive and audiophile solution. Speaker terminals are on the right side of the rear panel. In the pictures they look like those in other integrated amplifiers, but in reality they are not much bigger than the RCA jacks. Spade plugs aren't really suitable, so I would go for banana plugs. Optionally we can use bare wires. The latter solution is not very elegant, but if someone prefers, sockets have suitable holes for tightening the wire without insulation at the ends. The input section is the most important. Here we find one coaxial digital input, one USB type B, a pair of 3.5 mm jacks (input and output) and a pair of RCA jacks (R + L) with grounding screw of course, to connect the turntable. The Sprout was designed more as a device to your computer, turntable or game console, rather than to connect a CD player, tuner or some other external analogue source. It is hardly surprising - after all, relatively few people still listen to CDs or cassettes these days. Vinyl is different - not only does it offer a slightly different sound experience, but in the last few years it has become extremely fashionable.
Cons? The first and most obvious is the lack of a remote control. You can say that it's a desktop amplifier for people who spend hours in front of a computer, so they don't need a remote... Maybe so, but sometimes you can move away from the desktop and then even the smallest controller with two buttons could be useful. Even in the evening, when we can switch from PC to TV and move from a chair to the sofa. For Windows users installing the drivers can be a small inconvenience. However, playing via Bluetooth is a big advantage. We just have to switch the source of the amplifier, search Sprout on your phone or tablet, pair the device and it's done. We also get a very decent sound, even when we compare it to the USB port.
I know that at this point some people can suspect me of synesthetic tendencies, but in my life I listened to few amplifiers as small as Sprout, and - despite the effort of their designers - they offered the performance corresponding to their size. Shrunken, thin, flat and not very thrilling. In this case, things are completely different. Referring to the sound, from the first moment you can hear that Sprout has the ambition to deny its external appearance. It welcomed me with the solid, bass bump. At first it seemed as if a small, active subwoofer was hidden somewhere behind the speakers. I must admit that I was surprised by the scale of the sound, as well as by its dynamics and transparency - especially in the high frequencies. This amplifier surely is very spectacular.
After a few albums I realized that the designers deliberately tuned Sprout in such a way that under favourable circumstances it may even perform better than more expensive and purist models. I guess they could try to achieve completely linear and neutral sound, but instead they decided to predict, with which speakers and under what conditions Sprout will have to work. In my opinion, mostly young people who want to have everything in one box could be interested in Sprout. In other words, the target audience is a group of people who listen to music from the computer, arrange film screenings in the evenings, from time to time play music from a turntable or a smartphone, and all of this is organised in small room, where monitor speakers are more than enough. In such conditions Sprout can really work better than a more audiophile amplifier. Here the fun of listening counts above all, so the edges of the bandwidth are emphasized. Especially we can notice it in low frequencies. Additionally we get a surprising - for a device of this size - dynamics, as well as brilliant soundstage and transparency. In some ways, Sprout was designed to make up for the shortcomings of small speakers, which naturally can't produce a low bass. American amplifier can make the speakers grow. Among audiophiles it can cause various reactions, but I have a few friends using small and relatively inexpensive monitor speakers in their livingrooms, and I guarantee that if I came to them with Sprout one day, they would never give it back.
I must admit that I liked the punchy sound of this inconspicuous amp. If I was the owner of small speakers playing in a small room and if I wanted to taste a larger set for a small fee, Sprout would be like a dream come true. This amp is a perfect solution for the speakers giving light, subdued and less feisty sound. The best part is that this PS Audio's amplifier doesn't get confused by transparency, speed, sound temperature or soundstage. Here everything is in perfect order. Details are presented with diligence, mids are natural and with no signs of artifice, and the soundstage deserves high marks even when comparing Sprout to other amplifiers in this price range, which don't have so many features on board and don't look so trendy. To be honest, it reminds me of performance of the Rotel RA-02, which once I regarded as one of the best budget amplifiers ever. Sprout has a little less heat and a little more bass, but beside this everything fits.
Finally I did the headphone part of the test. I was expecting that the sound will be more or less the same, but Sprout surprised me again. It turned out that from the headphone output we get the sound of a completely different nature - natural, linear and reliable, although still dynamic and feisty. After the experience with the speakers it was hard for me to believe that, but I got the impression that with Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO the edges of the band are even slightly withdrawn. These headphones make the lows bold and the highs very light, but with Sprout I received a natural and well balanced sound. I observed the same effect with other headphones, so the conclusion is clear - PS Audio gives us two devices in one - a hi-fun amplifier for speakers and the linear, slightly studio-like headphone amplifier. As a gift we get also built-in DAC, phono stage and stylish body. And it's yours for $800... To put it mildly, this is a very fair offer.
Cons? As I said, the nature of Sprout can be troublesome with unsuitable speakers. Beware of sets offering an exaggerated performance. Americans say that this amp can play with any size speakers, but I recommend it especially to all those of you who would like to "enlarge" their speakers. I think that the designers meant that Sprout can handle any speakers from this price range (of course not some full-range electrostatic speakers for half a million dollars), and I agree with them. This tiny, cute box can do a lot.
Build quality and technical parameters
After removing the bottom plate unfortunately we can see very little, except perhaps the fact that - as expected - the interior is tightly filled with electronics. Most components are mounted on two PCBs, which we can only admire from the bottom, because each of them has been bolted to the top plate through the metal sleeves. From the manufacturer's website we will learn that the digital section is based on the Wolfson signal receiver and a 24 bit/192 kHz DAC. The headphone amplifier is based on discrete components, thus achieving very low output impedance - less than 0.3 Ω. Headphone output power reaches 1 W with a 16-Ω load and 200 mW at 300 Ω. To the speakers Sprout can send 32 W at 8 Ω and 50 W at 4 Ω.
Pylon Audio Sapphire 31, Equilibrium Tune 33 Light, Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO, Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear, Beyerdynamic T70, B&W P5, Enerr Tablette 6S, Enerr Symbol Hybrid, Cardas Clear M, Ostoja T1.
All-in-one devices are becoming more and more popular recently. I tested a few of them - Cyrus Lyric 09, Atoll SDA200 or Primare I32 with MM-30 module, and I know what they can do. Sprout is something similar, but it's four or five times cheaper. In one, chic box we get a great amplifier for small speakers which need the kick and the momentum, but we also get a neutral and audiophile headphone amplifier, DAC with wireless connectivity and a phono stage. It has everything music lovers need. For audiophiles it is an noteworthy, highly functional device, which can become the heart of a second hi-fi system. However, the price trumps all the other advantages od Sprout. Excellent value for money, and a really nice amp regardless of the cost.
Output power (speakers): 32 W/8 Ω, 50 W/4 Ω
Output power (headphones): 1 W/16 Ω, 200 mW/300 Ω
Output impedance (headphones): <0,3 Ω
DAC: 24 bit
Digital inputs: coaxial, USB B
Phono input: MM (RCA)
Cartridge output: 2 - 50 mV
THD: 0,03% (1 W, 50 Hz - 10 kHz)
S/N ratio: 102 dB (USB), >80 dB (phono)
Power consumption: 125 W maximum
Dimensions (H/W/D): 4,5/15,2/20,3 cm
Weight: 1,3 kg
Manufacturer: PS Audio