Sharp SM-SX100 digital integrated amplifier

Why would a sharp mind offer a $15,000 integrated digital amplifier to a reviewer who has been characterized in the audio press as the "self-proclaimed Analog Messiah" and a "hyper-Luddite"? That's the first question a self-centered reviewer asks himself. Yours might be: "A $15,000 integrated amplifier from...Sharp?"

Yes. The company that failed to crack the upscale video-monitor market a few years ago with its Optonica line (but now is very successful with expensive SharpVision LCD home-theater projectors) has hopped on the last train to Krellsville with this gorgeous, revolutionary, but unlikely product aimed, aimed at...well, at whom is Sharp aiming the SM-SX100? And what kind of gold does a mass-market company think it can mine from the specialty-audio killing fields?

New technology is always fun to cover. What really got me going here was the 1-bit/2.82MHz sampling rate of the SM-SX100's A/D converter and the 2.82MHz Direct Stream Digital input for SACD playback. The A/D converter is, in effect, a DSD encoder, and I thought it would be interesting to hear how vinyl sounded sampled—as an analog master tape would be for an SACD reissue. Sharp offered to lend me a prototype of their DX-SX 1 SACD player equipped with an SACD bitstream output jack, so I'd get to hear DSD about as direct and pure as possible: off the disc and amplified as a 2.82MHz digital-domain bitstream.

It's unlikely that Sharp embarked on the high-tech, high-cost SM-SX100 project because it coveted a power seat at the high-end audio table. After all, to make a profit, a company the size of Sharp must feed at the mass-market trough. So what's behind this sexy-looking, beautifully built, upscale product?

Clearly, the 100Wpc SM-SX100 is a promotional tool. It makes an "image statement" about what Sharp is capable of producing, and showcases an exciting new amplifier technology. You can bet that Sharp plans to use this technology in less expensive future products—and, more important, license it to others. Still, the vibe I picked up from the Sharpies indicates that the SM-SX100 is a real-world product, and that Sharp would be happy to sell a boatload of 'em to well-heeled early adopters.

Maybe I got to review the SM-SX100 because I live just down the road from Sharp. Whatever the reason, I was thrilled to get it, though the 12' cable run between the amplifier and preamp/sources in my setup makes reviewing an integrated amp awkward.