Sophia Electric 91-01 300B monoblock power amplifier Page 2

The 91-01 didn't do much to resuscitate the very compressed drums and electric bass on King Crimson's otherwise good-sounding Lizard (LP reissue, Discipline Global KCLP3), a trick I've heard managed by only a small number of amplifiers; yet the Sophias presented the music with enough drama and spatial aplomb that reed instruments, electric piano, and flute popped out of the mix of "Happy Family." (What a great record! I endure in kicking myself for not looking into this band's music the first time around.) The same observations could also be applied to Traffic's enjoyable rag-tag album Last Exit (LP, Island 7 90925-1), which repeats, in some numbers, the combination of compressed bass and drums with startlingly punchy keyboard flourishes (although the live numbers on side 2 do have a comparatively real and relatively uncompressed drum sound that the Sophias served well). And the 91-01 did a good job of communicating the force of Rick Danko's electric bass—especially when played in its upper registers—in "Revolution Blues," from Neil Young's On the Beach (LP, Reprise R2180), an album of which, thanks to Stephen Mejias and Michael Lavorgna, my once-lukewarm opinion has risen in recent months.

Regarding dynamics of a much subtler sort, the listener should keep in mind how lesser gear can compress the sense of textural relief within the sound of a single instrument, making voices and instruments sound flat and inorganic and uninteresting. Well-designed single-ended-triode amps tend to avoid such sins—and so it was with the Sophias, which did a stunning job with the recent and very well-conceived Nick Drake tribute Requiem for a Pink Moon, by singer and lutenist Joel Frederiksen and his Ensemble Phoenix Munich (CD, Harmonia Mundi HMC 902111). With the song "Come heavy sleep," by John Dowland (1563–1626), the Sophias gave an explicit yet richly lovely portrayal of the difference between the voices of Frederiksen and tenor Timothy Leigh Evans. The Sophias also reproduced that number with a convincing sense of space around and between the voices, giving a very nice sense of the performers' positions relative to their microphones. This is a typically brilliant Harmonia Mundi recording, and the Sophia amplifiers honored it.

Incidentally, it was with Requiem for a Pink Moon that I performed a brief comparison of the Sophias' stock output tubes with my own long-held pair of latter-day Western Electric 300Bs, manufactured in 1998. I vastly preferred the Sophia tubes, for their greater richness, scale, texture, and color. The comparison wasn't even close.

Timbrally, the Sophia's sound leaned a bit toward the darker, more syrupy side, but not unpleasantly so. The violin in the second movement of Beethoven's Piano Trio 7, Op.97, "Archduke," performed by the Beaux Arts Trio (LP, Philips 6747 142), wanted a bit more sparkle and natural bite in order to be differentiated from the cello, but the cello's rich color and texture made up for it—and its pizzicato notes early in the first movement were of the sort I could feel as well as hear. Similarly, in the 1960 recording by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears of the former's Nocturne (LP, Decca SXL 2189), the somewhat distantly recorded strings of the London Symphony were well textured, and the Sophia amps captured Pears's exquisite tone and vibrato, and allowed the tenor's voice a good sense of presence and wholeness on the imaginary stage. Yet the solo bassoon in the second song, "The Kraken," lacked sparkle and spatial presence, as did the harp in "The Wanderings of Cain."

A few comparisons: My own Fi 421A single-ended amplifier offered greater openness, and was clearer all around. The Fi sounded a little bigger, too, at moments such as the piano's entrance in Nick Drake's own recording of "Pink Moon," from the album of that title (LP, Island/Universal Music 1745697). The Sophias, however, sounded punchier, with greater timbral richness—truthfully or not, as the indeterminable case may be. Both the Fi and my Shindo Corton-Charlemagnes—which, for themselves, were considerably more textured and had a more nuanced sense of touch—were less "ringy" in the bass and lower mids. This quality was apparent to me only in direct comparison, especially with double bass and, remarkably or not, tenor saxophone. The Sophias sounded compelling and commanding with a recent reissue of Glenn Gould's recording of Beethoven's Piano Concerto 4 with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic (LP, Columbia Masterworks/Impex MS 6262); yet when I swapped in the Shindos, the record was more musically convincing—owing, I think, to the increase in natural detail.

Finally, the Sophia 91-01s served my mono LPs especially well, their color, physicality, and presence meshing well with those same qualities in the recordings. I wasn't surprised to be impressed by the Sophias' way with the magnificent reissue, by the Electric Recording Company, of Johanna Martzy's recording of J.S. Bach's Sonata 2 for Solo Violin in a, BWV 1003 (LP, EMI/ERC 33CX 1287). But I was delighted to hear how well the 300B amps got along with In Memoriam 1908–1954, RCA's surprisingly (footnote 2) well-mastered 1955 disc of early recordings by Django Reinhardt (LP, RCA LPM-1100). And the manner with which the Sophia amps communicated the force of Thelonious Monk's playing throughout Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie's great album Bird and Diz (LP, Verve/Clef MGV-8006) had me smiling for hours.

"Richness, immediacy, and just enough punch. Very slight lack of sparkle and mid-treble openness on some records, strangely too much texture on others. Consistently enjoyable, engaging, and fun. Paint smell hasn't gone away yet." Thus read the last lines of my listening notes: as good a place as any to begin my ending.

Why spend more? Well, there's still more to be had—for more money, of course—and, if your system and/or your listening style demand more openness, the Sophia Electric 91-01 300Bs might not be for you. Then again, for those who crave richness, color, and presence above all else, the 91-01s are hard to beat for the price.

A very good-sounding amplifier: not the best built, and not the rarest or most exotic, but a solidly musical, sumptuously colorful amp that's loaded with the sort of performance for which the classic 300B tube is rightly known. Recommended.

Follow-Up, from January 2014
My review of Sophia Electric's 91-01 300B monoblock power amplifier was published in the December 2013 issue of Stereophile, based on my auditioning of serial nos. 002224 and 002225. On October 8, I received from John Atkinson the pair of Sophia 91-01 300Bs he'd most recently measured: serial nos. 002248 and 002249. That evening, I installed them in my system, gave them a bit of warm-up time, and had a listen.

Like Patty and Cathy Lane, Esther and Pauline Friedman, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, and Patty and Selma Bouvier, the two sets of Sophia amplifiers were exactly alike in almost every way: They sounded identically rich, present, tactile, and musical. And apart from the slightly different switch and socket layouts noted by JA, they looked alike. Remarkably, both pairs even smelled alike (of warm paint).

The only difference worth noting: My listening confirmed JA's observation that, unlike the original review pair, this new pair of Sophia 91-01 300Bs inverted absolute signal polarity. That isn't a flaw, of course, but the prospective customer is advised to try connecting them both ways (red for red and red for black); the installation that provides the greater sense of presence will be the right one.—Art Dudley

Footnote 2: Though I'd seen this record for sale before, I'd been scared away by the front-cover promise of "ENHANCED SOUND." But when my friend Sasha Matson brought over his recently acquired copy, it went to the top of my must-own list.—Art Dudley
Sophia Electric
1952 Gallows Road, Suite 214
Vienna, VA 22182
(703) 992-8546

wtrp's picture

Enjoyable reading for sure.  I'm glad that you compared the entry level Sophia's to a mid-upper model range of the Shindo corton-charlemagne.  That's like say a huge price difference from Sophia's $5k/pair to Shindo's $10k+.  

If the only difference in the end is only a slight "sparkle" here and there or more "natural" here and there then I'm not sure if which has the best bang for the buck? Instead of repeatedly smelling the amplifier, a better test would be to do a blind listening session held by a third party to see if you can still smell the amplifiers from 7-10 feet away and pick out which amp Sophia or Shindo is running.  For the majority of audiophiles out there, in the end is this:  are you listening to the music at an emotional level or simply listening to the eye candy equipment?