PS Audio Sprout integrated amplifier Page 2

Guess what. No more smoke and f-stop shadow! In fact, with the AQ wire, the Sprout's Analog input was now more yang than its Vinyl input.

Continuing my investigations, I inserted AQ's Cinnamon USB link ($79) in the Sprout's USB digital input, and AQ's Big Sur interconnects ($109/pair) between the VPI Traveler turntable ($1500) with Ortofon 2M Black cartridge ($799) and the Sprout's Vinyl input—whereupon all of the Sprout's inputs began to sing in the same voice of April–May sunshine. The digital inputs' detail and soundstage accuracy were dramatically enhanced. Most impressive was the upgrade in the Sprout's already exceptional liveliness.

This newly enhanced liveliness had limitations. Playing a reissue of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream, with Peter Maag conducting the London Symphony Orchestra (CD, Decca/Classic Records CSCD 6001), I began to notice that the Sprout was running out of torque more quickly than I thought it should. This little devil has 50W, I kept thinking; that should be more than enough for any of my speakers. But it wasn't. With both big classical and demanding rock, I began to notice climaxes fading as they approached their peaks. I contacted PSA's marketing maven Bill Leebens and asked, "Is this amplifier really 50W?" He responded by sending me the Sprout's official specs: 50W into 4 ohms, 33W into 8 ohms.

Nevertheless, after the change to AudioQuest cables, I felt that the Sprout was finally performing as the McGowans expected it to, and as I'd hoped it would. Recording after recording, the Sprout now showed its cheerful and highly musical force de vie!

Bluetooth
According to Scott McGowan, the Sprout's Bluetooth circuit (footnote 3) "draws the S/PDIF signal from the Bluetooth dev board into [the] DAC." He claims that this method "[i]mproves the sound quality to levels which qualify for high-end status."

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For me, evaluating Bluetooth sound quality is one of the most vexing aspects of wearing my reviewer's hat. I use this wireless convenience only when evaluating audio products equipped with Bluetooth. This is why my listening room contains two separate systems: my main reference system with floorstanding speakers, which I use for reviewing and late-night dreaming; and a second, usually quite-good desktop system featuring wall-mounted Rogers LS3/5A or Totem Model One Signature speakers, a Schiit Asgard headphone amp, a Line Magnetics LM 502 CA DAC (or the DAC du jour), and whatever amplification I've just removed from the main system. For this second system I use a Mac mini as the source and listen primarily to Tidal streaming, my iTunes library, and high-resolution downloads from HDtracks. Many days, this is the only system I listen to.

For this review, I routinely switched between the Bluetoothed Sprout in the floorstanding system and my quality desktop rig, and you know what? I think Scottl McGowan may be right. To my ears, the Sprout's rendition of Bluetooth felt richer, more detailed, less hollow and vapid than any Bluetooth sound I've tried so far. It also seemed to overload less on uncompressed files. The many Eno and Aphex Twin tracks I played via Bluetooth were totally enjoyable.

Headphones
At the beginning of this review process, and again at the end, I used the Sprout in my desktop system, exclusively for headphone listening. At first I thought the Sprout's headphone output sounded more detailed than its speaker output. Listening now again, as I type this, it still sounds detailed but also seems a bit wiry and bass shy, with a tipped-up tonal balance that eliminates almost entirely that sunny playfulness I heard through speakers. Compared to my Schiit Asgard headphone amp, the Sprout sounds dry and lean. That smart, Asian-Brazilian sexiness has mostly vanished from Smokey & Miho.

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Conclusions
PS Audio's Sprout does not play tunes as if engineered to perform such audiophile tricks as ersatz detail, bass wallop, or exaggerated soundstaging. The Sprout's strengths can all be measured in more quotidian and human terms. The Sprout seems best suited to my favorite categories of listener: garden-variety music lovers and newly minted record collectors. What the remarkable little Sprout did was play all types of music in a fashion that I found 110% enjoyable. Well . . . maybe only 97%. But for $799, even 97% is amazing.

The Sprout falls partway between the 125Wpc Peachtree Audio nova125 ($1499; Stereophile's "Recommended Components," Class B), which plays with considerably more detail, sparkle, and punch—and the 30Wpc NAD D 3020 ($499; Class C), which was summarized in the October 2013 edition of "Recommended Components" thusly: "The sound from every input was warm, present, and naturally detailed; even low-quality MP3s streamed wirelessly via Bluetooth were engaging, said [Stephen Mejias]." Which is pretty close to how I would describe the Sprout's sound—except that I think it added a few extra intangibles: playfulness, boogie, and what I can call only "the Paul McGowan Factor." Yes, I know the Sprout is Scott's baby, but the senior McGowan has been around more blocks of high-end audio than this humble reporter. Paul must have auditioned the Sprout before it hit the street. If he hadn't thought the Sprout's musical virtues were obvious, or that the marketplace wouldn't easily recognize its exceptional value, I'm certain he would have encouraged his son to go back to the bench and make it better.

I have always felt that real art lays in hiding—in the transitions between contrasts like dark and light, near and far, beginning and end—and with the Sprout, I always enjoyed the way I felt when a song ended and the next one began. I took pleasure in how I would go from smiling satisfaction to eager anticipation. This important, user-friendly intangible eludes traditional audiophile analysis. Most of all, the Sprout specialized in the beguiling reproduction of every kind of music I sent through its four inputs. Recommended to style-conscious, value-seeking human beings of all ages, genders, and heights. You go, little Sprout!



Footnote 3: From an interview with John H. Darko in Digital Audio Review, June 30, 2014.
COMPANY INFO
PS Audio
4826 Sterling Drive
Boulder, CO 80301
(720) 406-8946
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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.

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