Sugden A21ai Series 2 integrated amplifier Page 2

In bluegrass-guitar circles, we speak of a select few people as tone players: musicians such as David Grier, Russ Barenberg—and, above all, Tony Rice—who are better than most at pulling rich, complex tone from their instruments. In that vein, the A21ai must surely be considered a tone amp—which is rare in my experience of solid-state products. It reproduced André Gertler's fiddle in the Berg Violin Concerto (LP, Columbia 33C 1030) with superb depth of color and texture, as it did the very nice ride-tom and floor-tom sound from drummer Shawn Pelton throughout Richie Havens's Nobody Left to Crown (CD, Verve Forecast B0011631-02). Well-recorded pianos had wonderful purr, and saxophones, whether in jazz or 20th-century orchestral music, were downright chewy, in the manner of the finest cabernets. (I listened to Prokofiev's Lt. Kije Suite more than once, just to enjoy that aspect of the sound.)

Coupled with that characteristic was the manner in which the A21ai drew my attention more to some aspects of the music-making than others. Going back to the Gertler recording of the Berg Concerto: I found myself noticing how the brass instruments—especially the trombones—repeated the wide-interval note patterns played by the solo violin earlier in the piece. And listening to the great, emotionally charged performance of November 30, 1952 of Beethoven's Symphony 9 by Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Vienna Philharmonic (LP, Fonit Cetra FE 33), I simply couldn't pull my ears away from what was going on in the cellos and string basses, even when something ostensibly more "interesting" was going on elsewhere.

Those qualities also seemed associated with the A21ai's very satisfying spatial performance: Recordings of virtually every type took on considerable substance, and had a generally very good sense of scale (again, forgive me for adding "for solid-state").

Substantial though it was, however, the Sugden's soundfield was not the sort in which I could hear into or around the instruments on an imaginary stage: Even warmed up, even with the cables it best liked, the A21ai sounded persistently thick, lacking in "air" and openness. Heard through the Sugden, and compared with my Quad, Fi, and Shindo amps, the xylophone in Scene II of Sir Adrian Boult and the London Symphony's recording of Vaughan Williams's Job (LP, EMI ASD 2673) lacked presence, seeming a good deal less separate from the other instruments. When I listened through the A21ai to another Boult recording, this time with the London Philharmonic, the densely scored main theme of Humphrey Searle's Symphony 1 (LP, Decca/Speakers Corner SXL 2232), which follows that work's comparatively spare and broadly paced introduction, wasn't as sonically explicit as I wanted it to be. Yet, again, the A21ai focused on other things, drawing my attention to the sweetness of the strings, and bringing welcome substance to the sounds of all the instrument groups.

It would not be unfair to suggest that, with stereo recordings, the Sugden A21ai's performance retained some of the characteristics of very good mono playback. That in itself may explain why I didn't find that aspect of its performance particularly frustrating—although it's equally fair to observe that others certainly will.

Even at their best, bass detail and drive were never among the A21ai's strengths. In "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb," from Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (LP, Merge MRG295), the lines of eighth notes played on the electric bass were rather flat and lacking in drama, snap, and timbral distinctiveness through the Sugden. The same was true of the nice bass-and-drum figure that opens that album's "Don't You Evah"—in addition to which, the audaciously loud guitar chords that comprise that track's instrumental solo weren't quite as audacious as through my usual electronics.

The Sugden A21ai Series 2 integrated amplifier has a distinctive, overarching strength and a similarly apparent shortcoming: Its warm, sweet, well-textured, downright chunky sound honors certain instruments and styles of music, while its top end is rather thick, opaque, and lacking in "air" compared with most other contemporary perfectionist amplifiers. No two ways about it: You'll admire it or you won't. This amp has a point of view, and it doesn't try to please everyone.

So much for listener matching; even at its best, the Sugden A21ai will require careful system matching as well. Avoid CD players that are themselves lacking in air (I thoroughly admire Naim's CD players, at every price point in their line, but I can't help thinking they'd be poor matches for the Sugden), and tonearms and cartridges that aren't sufficiently extended in the treble. Avoid thick- or dark-sounding speakers in favor of lighter, more open designs (eg, those from Triangle, Mission, Epos, and perhaps even ProAc and Audio Physic). And avoid flammable curtains (just kidding).

Considered as a piece of hardware, the Sugden represents good value for money. That's a far sight truer when one considers its provenance—in which context the Sugden ceases to be a mere thing and takes on much the same value represented by any handmade audio component in this day and age. If not quite an heirloom amplifier in the sense of a Shindo or an Audio Note—two other class-A choices that also eschew audiophile universality in favor of a distinct musical point of view—the Sugden A21ai Series 2 is a solidly designed, solidly built thing that makes recorded music sound wonderful in its own way. Recommended, but for special tastes and systems.

J.E. Sugden & Co., Ltd.
US distributor: Stanalog, Inc.
PO Box 671
Hagaman, NY 12086
(518) 843-3070