Hovland Sapphire power amplifier Page 3

Was the Hovland papering over significant differences? Perhaps, but the bottom line was that more recordings I own became more enjoyable through the Sapphire.

Only 40Wpc...?
When I asked Bob Hovland about the Sapphire's relatively low power, he insisted that the amp's impressive dynamics belie its rated output. I found that to be the case—at least with my Amati Homage (89dB efficient) and Avanti III (91dB) speakers. I never heard the Sapphire pull up short in the dynamics department, even with heavily orchestrated symphonic music.

Lately I've been pulling out more recent RCA LPs I've acquired over the years, including some "red dog" and "shaded dog" Dynagrooves that don't seem to have suffered from the usual Dynagroove compression and hollowness. One that I particularly enjoy features Jean Martinon and the Chicago Symphony performing Edgard Varèse's raucous, heavily percussive Arcana, and Frank Martin's more earthbound Concerto for Seven Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion, and String Orchestra (LSC-2914). The Sapphire sailed with ease through Arcana's explosive passages at high SPLs, delivering the full orchestral dynamic impact while rendering the more delicate cymbals, triangles, wood blocks, guiros (ribbed gourds), and other percussion instruments with satisfying clarity and focus.

I also pulled out many of the LPs I'd used to audition the Kora Cosmoses, including Luna Live (Arena Rock ARE 017-1), Miles Davis' Live at the Blackhawk (Columbia C2S 820, "six eye"), Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark (DCC Compact Classics LPZ 2044), and Junior Wells' Southside Blues Jam (Delmark DS-628). The Hovland boys have pulled off an impressive balancing act by adding needed weight to the picture without sinking it, or slowing the action by any appreciable degree. Yes, the Koras and my Musical Fidelity were airier and seemingly more extended and exciting on top, but the Sapphire exhibited greater image dimensionality, solidity, and weight while being light enough on its feet to keep the musical flow moving full speed ahead.

The Sapphire had one undeniable weakness that will bother some more than others. While it produced exquisitely three-dimensional images, its soundstaging depth was anything but 3D. The amp's ability to separate images depth-wise and to portray depth of field was limited. On the Tony Bennett and Miles Davis albums, the Weavers' Reunion at Carnegie Hall, Belafonte at Carnegie Hall (RCA's original or Classic's reissue, LSO-6006), and other recordings famous for soundstage depth, the Sapphire produced a foreshortened soundstage with fewer back-of-hall ambient cues. On Live at the Blackhawk, the Koras pushed Miles' horn dramatically forward; I could almost "see" him standing at the mike. The Sapphire's presentation was somewhat more solidly 3D, but farther back on the soundstage, and on a lateral line with the other instruments.

On Belafonte at Carnegie Hall the U-shaped panoramic picture of the hall's seating was greatly diminished. When Belafonte admonishes his musical director to "never turn your back on the audience," then has him deliver the chorus to "Matilda," the director's off-mike performance usually places him way back, behind Belafonte. Not so through the Sapphire. Judging from their close-together speaker setups at CES, I'm not sure the Hovland guys are as concerned about spatial presentation as they are about tonality and harmonics (though the HP-100 does a wonderful job of delineating space). I think most Stereophile readers would agree that if you can't make the music sound right, who cares about the space in which it occurs? While it may have limited recordings' senses of space, the Sapphire got the music right—its harmonic and textural presentations were world-class.

The Hovland Sapphire is an extremely accomplished, well-balanced hybrid amplifier designed by people who listen carefully and who have clearly achieved their musical goals for this amp. The few enjoyable months I spent with the Sapphire had me reevaluating my reference equipment and listening preferences.

I'm a "spatial" kind of guy, but I never missed—and would gladly give up—the portrayal of depth and ambience that the Sapphire fell somewhat short of delivering effectively, in order to get the image solidity, dimensionality, and weight it got so right. Couple that with a luxurious harmonic spread that avoided drowning in its own richness, transients and sibilants that were cleanly and naturally rendered, and solid, reasonably well-damped bass performance, and the Sapphire constituted an almost ideal music amplifier.

Will 40Wpc be enough for you? That depends more on speaker efficiency and room size than on the kind of music you listen to. Regardless of musical genre or how loud I played it, I never succeeded in pushing the Sapphire beyond its limits in my room.

When I replaced the Sapphire with my reference Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300, the space, depth, and air increased, and the bass became somewhat more solid and powerful (as only a solid-state amp can provide), but there was a definite loss of harmonic richness, image solidity, and weight. The Nu-Vista 300's midband was definitely leaner and less vivid, which caused strings and female vocals to lose some of the velvety magic I'd become accustomed to with the Sapphire.

How will a $7800, 40Wpc hybrid amplifier fare in today's audio marketplace? Given the Sapphire's undeniably compelling, almost seductive musical performance, its ability to sound far more powerful than its specs indicate, and its stunning looks, I'd say it will do quite well.

Of necessity, a reviewer's system can't be the same as one used for pure listening pleasure. There are distinctions between RCA's original pressing of Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" and Classic's reissue, and if a component can't reveal them, I can't use it as a reviewing reference, even if it delivers nothing less than months of "pure listening pleasure"—which is what the Sapphire gave me. If there's space on a recording, a reviewer needs to hear it. Also, since a tube amp's frequency response usually varies with the impedance of the loudspeaker it's driving, I don't see how a reviewer using a tube amp as a reference can give any loudspeaker an absolutely fair shake.

So as much as I loved the Sapphire, I'm sticking with Musical Fidelity's Nu-Vista 300 as my reference power amplifier. And as much as I love the Sonus Faber Amati Homages' overall musical presentation, they're not as suitable as a reviewer's reference as the more tonally neutral and revealing Audio Physic Avanti IIIs (which, with continued use, have warmed up considerably on the bottom). Ironically, the Nu-Vista/Amati and Sapphire/Avanti combos both sound more pleasing than what I'm left with as a reference rig: the Nu-Vista/Avanti. But the Nu-Vista/Avanti is more revealing, and thus more useful for reviewing.

That's how a product as good as the Hovland Sapphire can shake things up. While it's not as "spatial" as I'd like, the Sapphire is, like Hovland's HP-100, quite special, and well worth an audition.

1545A Pontius Avenue
Culver City, CA 90232
(209) 966-4377

Russell Dawkins's picture


John Atkinson's picture
Russell Dawkins wrote:

Thanks very much for the link. Some fascinating insights, both positive and negative. What I found particularly instructive was that none of the weird insider stuff was ever used by Hovland in its marketing of the HP-100.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile