PS Audio Sprout integrated amplifier

I find small humans more beguiling than big people. My favorites are the two-footers—those little two-year-old boys with a kind of wobbly, bent-kneed stride that dips like a blues song every fourth step as they stagger ahead of their watchful parents. I like three-footers too—sprightly three-year-old girls who dress better than their moms and never need a lifestyle consultation. Whenever we see one of these cheerful, bouncing young'uns coming toward us on the sidewalk, I smile and my dog's tail wags. Their bright faces and excited voices make me think, You go, little sprouts! These miniature humans' special beauty is that they still possess their full force de vie.

But perhaps you haven't heard—another beguiling little Sprout is bouncing about. This one was crowdfunded by Kickstarter and developed by Scott McGowan, PS Audio's sales director and son of founder Paul McGowan. The Sprout plays the devil out of the blues, it keeps the beat like my dog's tail, and, like those diminutive young'uns, it doesn't need fashion advice or lifestyle consultants. This pint-sized, budget-priced integrated amplifier measures only 6" wide by 1.75" high by 8" deep and costs just $799 (footnote 1). It's small but feels hefty, and has "modern home" written all over its walnut-topped case of machined aluminum.

And that's only a teeny bit of the story . . .

The PS Connection
Paul McGowan and Stan Warren founded PS Audio in 1974. PSA has always reminded me of such legendary corporations as Dynaco and Hafler—estimable companies that built their brands by making high-end products even a starving artist could afford. Like Saul Marantz, whose first product was the legendary Model 1 Consolette preamp (1952), Paul McGowan and Stan Warren's first product was a phono-only preamp. This popular, low-priced model—which, not unlike the Sprout and the Consolette, came in an attractive case of wood and aluminum—was followed by an equally innovative line-level preamp, which could be switched between active (with 0dB gain) and passive operation, where the only device in the signal path was the volume-control potentiometer. These models were followed by another development à la Marantz's Consolette: a preamp whose mains transformer and power supply were housed separately, to isolate them from the more delicate signal-path components. Today, these engineering strategies are common; 40 years ago, they signaled "serious hi-fi."

PS Audio didn't get my full attention until around 1980, when they introduced their unique, shoebox-shaped, Model 2 amplifiers. To my young ears, they played music as well as the bigger, more expensive amps from SAE, Mark Levinson, and Phase Linear. Back then, I built Hafler's DH200 power amp and DH101 preamp from kits, but aspired to the slightly more expensive PS Audio separates. I knew they offered their own version of extraordinary value, while sounding more open, relaxed, and sophisticated than the Haflers' musical but fairly hard, transistory sound.

Scott McGowan seems to share my belief that high-end audio would be better served and more widely received if it focused more of its design energies on the audio newcomer. The notion that high-quality music reproduction and user-friendliness are mutually exclusive was specious even when it first appeared. Today, it's an inexcusable affront. I see no reason why the myriad inventions of our digital era can't make even the highest-quality music playback easier to use and more affordable. Why should I—or my girlfriend—need a breeder's guide and a master's degree in Integrated Digital Media just to hook up a DAC? All you high-end dealers who say you want to lure young iPod users into your showrooms need to offer products that are as easy to use and as sanely attractive as the iPods you mock.

It looks as if PS Audio has done exactly that with the Sprout. It's easy on the mind and easy on the eyes.

Description
The Sprout was designed and engineered in Boulder, CO but is manufactured in China. It contains a 50Wpc, class-D amplifier, a moving-magnet phono stage with passive RIAA, an asynchronous USB input with a 24-bit/192kHz Wolfson WM8524 DAC chip, a Bluetooth receiver (footnote 2), and a discrete headphone amplifier. On its front panel are: a ¼" headphone jack; an analog volume control with stepped attenuator that feels satisfyingly solid; and a simple selector to choose among its four inputs: Vinyl (its actual label; not Phono), Analog, Digital, and Bluetooth. I could teach a three-footer to operate this machine in less than two minutes.

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Digital
I removed from my system the Simaudio Moon Neo 340i integrated amp that I am currently reviewing: $4600 base price, plus $300 for the phono stage, plus $600 for the 24/192 DAC, total $5400. I replaced it with the Sprout: $799 including phono stage and 24/192 DAC. Instantly, I felt upset and discouraged. The Sprout sounded slow, recessed, kind of gobbledigookish.

That muddled sound disappeared in about 10 minutes. Without thinking, I found myself enjoying Smokey & Miho's eponymous EP, picked up at a concert in 2002 (CD, Afro Sambas 001). On this utterly charming recording, ex–Cibo Matto lead singer Miho Hatori and ex-Blasters singer-guitarist Smokey Hormel perform what can only be described as Getz and the Gilbertos, all high on postmodernism and MDMA. Think smart and seductively dreamy. Think "Girl from Ipanema" drained of most of its stylized Playboy-era sexuality and refilled with a kind of heady, disenchanted eroticism. The un-broken-in Sprout sounded a bit more smoky and soft than it should have, but with this disc, it also showed a remarkable playfulness that I couldn't remember experiencing with any but the best audio gear. I questioned myself. Was I really experiencing playfulness? I sat up and listened more intently. Yes, indeed, I was.

This playfulness caught me off guard. I can't describe it in terms of bass, midrange, tone color, or imaging, but the effect was unmistakable. At this point, the-unbroken-in Sprout was still kind of stygian, but it was playing this intoxicating CD in such a fun way that I relaxed and let myself get sucked in. I stopped thinking like a reviewer, put on Vol.2, Social Music, of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (6 CDs, Folkways FP 252), and lay down on the couch to bask in some mournful entreaties by Uncle Bunt Stephens and Rev. J.M. Gates.

As I listened to this fabled and highly influential album, the Sprout was puttin' me in a wonderfully righteous mood. The soulful, "apostolic" aspect of these tunes was coming right through. Via the Sprout, music had an unmistakably bouncy directness that caught me off-guard and disabled my audio-critic faculties. I welcomed this: I think user-friendly should mean more than "it looks nice," "fits the décor," and "is basically plug-and-play." User-friendly must also mean that the amplifier likes my speakers and all the different types of music I enjoy. The PS Audio Sprout and its Wolfson DAC chip were doing fine jobs of both.

Vinyl
Music played through the Sprout's Digital and Analog inputs consistently had a trace of darkness—not grayness or lack of color, but a slight, shadowy, yin effect somewhat like peering through the viewfinder of a film camera with the aperture stopped down. This happened pretty much equally with every speaker I tried. I found it enticing—it balanced the Sprout's playfulness with a grace note of seriousness. It wasn't heavy, just a partially obscuring dimness. I was curious to hear if this characteristic would remain when I played LPs via the Sprout's phono stage.

Having been an orphan and a starving artist, I've always had a soft spot for that 18th-century Venetian who composed music for abandoned children at the Conservatorio dell'Ospedale della Pietà and died in poverty: Sr. Antonio Vivaldi. I especially love Vivaldi's compositions when performed by the chamber orchestra I Musici di Roma. I used Soundsmith's Carmen moving-iron cartridge ($799) attached to the Pioneer PLX-1000 turntable ($799), connected to the Sprout ($799) via Auditorium 23 interconnects ($799/pair), to play Vivaldi's Flute Concerto in g, Op.10 No.2/RV 439, "La Notte" (1960 LP, Philips Hi-Fi Stereo 835005 AY).

This high-quality source equipment plus the spectacular LP showed me precisely what the hymnal-sized Sprout was capable of. Suddenly, its complementary yang side appeared. The space surrounding Gastone Tassinari's flute seemed properly lit and correctly scaled. Tone color was spot on. At this point, the Sprout was well broken in, and "La Notte" (The Night) was showing that its playfulness had evolved into something more akin to dancing or frolicking.

I keep alluding to this "bouncy young'uns" feeling because I kept noticing it, and because observing without feeling is not how I roll. For me, the best audio gear—of any price—promotes an immersive, time-melting sense of flow. How an audio component accomplishes the dynamics of musical flux and forward momentum is often its most defining characteristic. This appeared to be the case with the Sprout. With the Vivaldi LP, the Sprout demonstrated an ability to engage my attention and keep it locked on the space, character, and artistry of the music being played.

"Swing low . . . sweet Ca-dill-a-ac, comin' fo' to carry me home . . ." Bongos! Bongos! Cuban-style membranophones never fail to draw my attention to recorded tone character—you know, the sounds of human finger skin smacking dried animal skin? I love those sounds. With "Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac," from Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker's Diz 'N' Bird in Concert (LP, Roost LP 2234), the Sprout made the bongos sound tangibly present, realistically sized, and completely Afro-Cuban. Voices and room sounds were vivid and open. The bass was a little soft, but big and richly toned. The midrange was colorful and enjoyably textured. The highs felt slightly rolled off, but never objectionably so. A touch of darkness fluttered near the frequency extremes. "Old Cadillacs never die. The finance company just comes and takes them away."

Cable Issues
After playing a bunch of jazz and classical LPs using the oh-so-rich– and natural-sounding Auditorium 23 cables, I began to wonder if the shadowy sound I'd heard through the Sprout's digital and analog inputs had been tainted by my less-than-high-pedigree (RadioShack) USB and RCA 3.5mm miniplug interconnects. I swapped in some of AudioQuest's new Golden Gate interconnects ($69/pair) between my CD player and the Sprout and listened to a couple more Harry Smith CDs.



Footnote 1: The price dropped to $499 on September 18, 2015.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: See my February 2014 review of the Arcam rBlink for a discussion of Bluetooth technology.—John Atkinson

COMPANY INFO
PS Audio
4826 Sterling Drive
Boulder, CO 80301
(720) 406-8946
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
AllanMarcus's picture

Would be nice to read about a direct listening comparison between the D3020 and the Sprout. Feature wise, the Sprout has a phono (er, vinyl), input, but the D3020 has a remote (albeit a horrible one). The Sprout has real knobs, which sounds insignificant, but if you really want to see how bad a digital interface can be, try the D3020. Both seem to have power switches in inconvenient locations.

There seems to be a nice selection if high quality desktop amps out now. D3020, Sprout, Teac's AI series, CEntrace DAC Mini PX, Sony UDA-1, possibly the Cambridge Audio Minx Xi, and the Denon PMA-50. Anymore? Time for a shootout?

jmsent's picture

There will be a huge audible difference. Just look at the frequency response of this amp, and see the bumped up peak at 60 Hz and then a cliff like drop all the way down to 20 Hz. The NAD has an eq switch that gives you a similar curve, but in that case it's defeatable, and you can set it for nice, classic, flat frequency response. This amp looks to be designed for a particular speaker type, one with severely limited bass, like a desktop 2 way with a small woofer. Hook this to a speaker with true bass extension and flat response, and the results will be boomy upper bass and no lower bass. That's a deal breaker for me, but YMMV.

fetuso's picture

I've owned the D3020 for almost two months now and I am particularly sensitive to criticism of its remote and interface. The reason? Because such criticism actually kept me from buying this wonderful little amplifier for months, until I finally bought it because it was exactly what I was looking for. I've commented previously on his site and others about how these criticisms are overblown, but here I go gain. The remote is black on black, and yes it it hard to see the buttons. But the buttons are few and nicely spaced out. You'll have their locations memorized in no time and you'll have no need to even look at the remote. It also fits very nicely in the hand. Could NAD have added some white? Of course. But please don't let it stop you from buying this great amp. Same goes for the interface, which is really just the power button and input switch on the unit itself. I've never had an issue with these. In fairness, sometimes I have to press the power button a second time, but so what? We're talking maybe half a second to press it again. It is a bit quirky until you learn where it wants to be touched. My main point is that the D3020 is very user friendly and easy to live with. It also sounds great. Don't let these petty criticisms stop you from buying it if the features fit your needs.

AllanMarcus's picture

I like the d3020 too, but the UI is aweful. The remote is horrible. The touch sensitive buttons on the top are not intuitive. Long hold was a kludge to resolve the issue of accidental presses. The bass boost button hidden in the back is just a crazy place for it. It looses points for UI, but it has many redeeming features. Right now I don't think there is a better option out there, but many other models that compete at that size are coming on the market. I won't stop complaining, but I will disclaim the complait. There are two ways one interacts with an amp, the UI and the listening. How you weight the importance is personal, and clearly the listening is a much higher weight, but the UI is still important.

fetuso's picture

Sorry readers that a review about the Sprout has spawned comments about the D3020. I tried the bass button, didn't like it, so I don't care that it's on the back. The UI and remote are a bit quirky, yes, but not awful and horrible. To each his own I suppose. I Spend so little time with the interface that's it's not an issue. I turn it on and enjoy. What else is there to do with it? It's not like we're speaking to Martians with it.

I've said my piece.

AegisAvantGarde's picture

I own the D3020 and despite the bad remote it sounds incredible for $400. That said, the Sprout is now available for $500 in Amazon but I have not heard it. I want to buy the sprout for my office just because I do need the extra watts it offers for my office speakers, Martin Logan Motion LX16. Ill post here when I get it and can compare them head on. In principle, the Sprout is another price point (originally $800 while the D3020 was originally $500) Now both costing almost the same D3020 $400 and the Sprout $500 they are almost at the same price point and according to Amazon both are selling really well and both represent great examples of budget HiFi. In the end just get whatever sounds better for you. Auditioning is a must in all HiFi purchases, sound is also about taste, never forget that.

qazx23's picture

Thanks a lot