Sharp's New 1-Bit Audio Products

Sharp Electronics has come a long way from the household appliances and modest home entertainment products it has long been famous for. (The company's name derives from its first product, a retracting pencil.) Sharp is making a serious, prolonged push into upscale audio and video, as evidenced by the array of new models on display at a dealer and media conference held in late August at the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines, a hotel/golf resort north of San Diego.

Approximately 25 journalists—Michael Fremer and I were the Stereophile contingent—were treated to an up-close-and-personal introduction to all of Sharp's latest offerings, including a couple of prototypes not yet in production. Among the new plasma-screen and LCD televisions, computer monitors, microwave ovens, vacuum cleaners, air purifiers, and personal digital assistants on display in the Hilton were several products of interest to audiophiles—in particular, the SM-SX200, the proposed successor to the SM-SX100, the $15,000 1-bit integrated amplifier that Fremer raved about in the July 2000 issue.

The SM-SX200 looks very much like its predecessor, with approximately the same dimensions and characteristic inverted-pyramid wings, but is finished in charcoal gray rather than polished aluminum. Its 2.82MHz sampling rate makes it the ideal mate to an SACD player with a direct bitstream output. A brief demo with a pair of powered mini-monitors, whose make I failed to note, sounded very open and spacious. Sharp's director of digital devices, Mark Knox, said his company has yet to decide about how the SX200 will be priced and marketed.

Probably of more interest to most music lovers was a demo of a small digital receiver, the SD-EX111, also a 1-bit design, with a sampling rate of 5.6MHz and power output of about 50Wpc. A simple, clean, rectangular box with only a small alpha-numeric display to interrupt its expanse of polished aluminum, the SD-EX111 sounded great driving a pair of German-made stand-mounted Elac mini-monitors. At only $499 retail, the 111 might be the ultimate desktop audio system when combined with a nice pair of small speakers. Unfortunately, it doesn't accept a DSD input, but Knox assured us that the next generation would.

Sharp also had several other small-room 1-bit audio systems on display in La Jolla, including the SD-EX100 and SD-EX101, both similar to the 111 but with speakers included. Single-bit amplifiers not only offer the sonic benefits of an extremely high sampling rate, but require only about 25% of the electrical energy to produce the same output levels as analog amps, Knox told us. Heatsink requirements decline proportionally, too, allowing designers to create high-performance products in far smaller packages. That 1-bit technology is also at the heart of Sharp's SD-AT50, a super-slim surround sound system that will retail for about $800 when it hits the streets in October.

Although audiophiles of the "bigger is better" school may look askance at such minimalist products, there is no questioning the canniness of Sharp's design and marketing philosophy. Millions of style-conscious movie-and-music lovers live in compact quarters that simply can't accommodate large components. The fact that they don't have room for big gear is no reason to assume that they don't have room for great performance.