Despite being an audiophile for 15 years, I have never been known as a tube-guy. Other guys at SoundStage! are tube guys -- take Marc Mickelson, for example. Almost everything he has has tubes. Marc even has the Tubed Interconnect from Audio Magic! And then there's John Upton. John compiled a six-part interview with Upscale Audio's Kevin Deal that detailed everything everyone needs to know about New Old Stock tubes (or NOS as those in the know say). Tubes, it seems, can be almost life consuming, but some swear by them.
However, appealing as they are, tubes were just never a natural progression in my audiophile life. The tube stories I'd heard seemed almost painful...or at least downright annoying. Too finicky I always figured. I've always wanted my audio equipment to run with a flick of the switch. Waiting for my solid state amp to warm up to a suitable operating temperature seems trouble enough. Besides, tubes wear out too and it can be expensive to replace them. There are lots of reasons to hate tubes based only on practicality. However, as much as I tried to stay away from their lure, as I tried and traded solid state amp after solid state amp in an endless quest to find that elusive musicality thing, I began to wonder if those tube-guys knew something that I didn't.
I did dip my toes in the tube waters when I bought a Sonic Frontiers SFL-1 preamplifier a few years back. While it could hardly be called a tube unit, it has only one tube, it sounded very good, particularly for the price. It never gave me any trouble either. I changed the tube once after three years and that was only because my local dealer said, "Try a Mullard. It sounds better." He was right, it did. My tube future began to glow more brightly. I voyeuristically pursued tube amp and preamp pleasure with gusto through various dealers and friends, but I never actually bought any tube gear until a short time ago when the all-tube Blue Circle BC-3 preamplifier graced my equipment rack. Still not a tube guy, but a notch closer.
So, when the opportunity to evaluate some equipment from Sonic Frontiers came along, I couldn't resist. After all, in only a short number of years Sonic Frontiers has sprung forth as one of the tube electronics leaders in this industry. If there was ever tube gear to help make me a real tube guy, the Sonic Frontiers gear should be it. Furthermore, since Sonic Frontiers has dedicated their company to tube-based designs, they are doing their best to make their tube products user-friendly. They believe tubes can be for everyone -- even flick-of-the-switch guys like me.
The Tubes of Today
Sonic Frontiers has three divisions. The Parts Connection is their one-stop shop for all the high-quality parts an audio do-it-yourselfer needs. As you can imagine, DIY is not my bag. I'm the kind of guy who likes to order food in restaurants, have mechanics tune up my car and have the neighbor's kids shovel snow off the walk. I like to see things when they're done.
The company's upscale fully manufactured products are sold under the Sonic Frontiers brand name. These include the new Power series amplifiers and the Line series preamplifiers. Digital products round out the lineup. However, when it came to choosing which products to evaluate for SoundStage!, I chose Anthem. Anthem is Sonic Frontiers's entry level brand that includes the CD 1 CD player, the Pre 1 preamplifier with phono stage, Pre 1L linestage preamplifier, the Integrated 1 integrated amplifier and the Amp 1 stereo amplifier. The goal of the Anthem series is to be the "best within boundaries," meaning that each piece is not necessarily a giant killer ready to trounce all the competitors at a fraction of the price. Instead, they're all meant to be strong performers designed to meet a price point appropriate for budget-conscious audio enthusiasts. Sonic Frontiers uses a Toyota/Lexus analogy to describe the relationship between the Anthem and the Sonic Frontiers product lines. So why did I want to try Anthem first? Because, frankly, I feel that there are probably many potential tube enthusiasts, like myself, who would like to try a system full of tubes, but in an inexpensive way.
If audio equipment were clothing, the $1195 USD Anthem Amp 1 would seem a few seasons behind. Single-ended tube amps are the vogue of today. Seductive as they sound, single-ended designs are not without their critics, and those critics include the fellows at Sonic Frontiers. From my own perspective, I've heard some little, low-priced singled-ended amps that sounded very good. I almost bought one. But I've also heard many complaints that some of these same amps don't seem even close to as powerful as their specs indicate. Match them up with too tough of a speaker load and you will be looking for trouble.
Instead, when designing the Amp 1 the Sonic Frontiers engineers focused on designing an amplifier that would provide reliable performance and great sound for a wide range of potential users -- that means enough power to drive most people's speakers sufficiently. The Amp 1 is a push-pull design employing four EL34s, a single 12AX7, and two 12AU7s with a "moderate amount of overall feedback" that produces 40 watts per channel. Nothing too exotic really and it may not appeal to those looking for the esoteric -- their loss. Sonic Frontiers says that the Amp 1 will deliver its rated power from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, both channels driven simultaneously, with less than 1% THD. Conservative is what they say the rating is and power peaks of about 55 watts are easily achievable. Furthermore, it won't act as some kind of variable tone control into your speakers.
John Stewart, one of the persons involved with the design of the Amp 1, said that the Amp 1 could be altered minimally to swing almost double the power, although the life-expectancy of the tubes would be extremely low, not a pleasant idea. As is, Sonic Frontiers say that owners can expect about two to three thousand hours from the power tubes. This, they translate, into two to three audiophile years of use. The input driver tubes are expected to last four to five years minimum. As of today, re-tubing the entire unit will set you back only $125 USD at full retail.
While 40 watts may not seem like tremendous power to those of us brought up on solid state (and it isn't), realistically, it is more than enough power to drive most average speakers to high levels. By average I mean something in the high 80 dB efficiency range with an impedance that doesn't drop much below 4 ohms. I used the Amp 1 to drive the small but power-hungry Merlin TSM loudspeakers (a fairly easy 6-8-ohm load but with lowish 86 dB sensitivity). The Amp 1 proved to be a gutsy little performer and it didn't sound stressed at any time.
With tube amps, correct impedance matching with your speakers is important. A welcome feature on the Amp 1 is the extra set of speaker binding posts on the back of the amplifier (there are six instead of four). If your speakers are closer to a 4 ohm nominal load, attach the negative speaker lead to the "common" posts and the positive lead to the bottom set of connectors. If the speakers are closer to 8 ohms, use the same "common" posts, but attach the positive leads to the top posts. For a 16-ohm setting, an internal adjustment must be made and then the 4-ohm tap can be used.
The $995 USD Pre 1L is the less expensive brother to the $1495 USD Pre 1. The Pre 1L does not have the external power supply nor the phono stage of the more expensive Pre 1. At first I suspected these to be the only differences, but they weren't. The Pre 1 is actually a completely different design from the ground up and uses some trickle down technology from the Line 3. At its heart, it uses four 6922 tubes. The operating manual indicates that ECC88/6DJ8s or E188CC/7308s tubes can also be used without any modifications. The output impedance of the Pre 1L is < 135 ohms compared to 390 ohms for the Pre 1. The Pre 1L is an obvious companion for the Amp 1, but could be paired with a number other amplifiers, tube or solid state.
The 1L seems designed for the consumer who has a CD-based system with a few add-ons such as a tape deck, tuner, etc. However, if you are concerned about the ability to add phono capabilities in the future, Sonic Frontiers has told me that a separate Anthem phono stage is currently in the works and will sell for $895 USD -- a wise move. The 1L has inputs for up to 4 sources, a headphone jack, balance knob, mono/stereo selector, mute button, balance control, and of course, a volume knob. Volume and balance controls are of audiophile calibre from the well known Noble company. If I had my way I'd like to see a bypass/direct input that eliminates the signal going through the controls and straight to the volume control. That was a nice feature in the older Sonic Frontiers SFL-1 preamp that resulted in improved sound. Well, I didn't get my way, but we still end up with a nicely styled preamp with all the necessary controls. Inputs and outputs are single-ended only, which is expected at this price. Internally a switch can be set to allow 8, 16, or 24 dB of gain. I left the switch at the factory default of 16 dB. Tube life, according to Sonic Frontiers, is expected to be three to five audiophile years. This would obviously vary depending on usage patterns. Re-tubing at today's prices is $70 USD, which is pretty easy to live with I'd say.
If you think that the headphone jack is a joke add on in order to entice the mid-fi crowd, you're not alone, I thought that too. However, I played around with it, and although its sound is not as good as, say, one of the moderately priced Headroom products, it's not too bad either. It's very clean, dynamic, and I spent many nights listening to great music when others went to sleep. To my ears, the headphone jack is a welcome feature on the 1L.
Some Assembly Required
The packaging of the Anthem products is nothing short of extraordinary, regardless of their price. Very few audio manufacturers go to the detail that Sonic Frontiers has with all of their products. In my mind the others should take some pointers. As expected, the boxes are oversized with foam braces holding the units internally for good protection. Thick plastic wrap protects each unit's finish. Both products came packed with two white gloves for handling of the tubes (oils from your hands can cause long-term damage to tubes). There is a complete operating manual to give you all info on your new purchase and Sonic Frontiers has also thrown in a copy of A Taste of Tubes The Connoisseur's Cookbook. This is a cute, well written book that will teach you all about tubes and tube-based products. To top things off, they even include two nice-looking Anthem posters. Overboard on the extras? Maybe...but one thing is for certain, for even their lowest-priced products, Sonic Frontiers makes you feel like you just bought one of their most expensive products. To me, this little extra goes a long way in a consumer's eyes.
There is some tube assembly required, although Sonic Frontiers has tried to make this as painless as possible, even for a novice consumer. To avoid transportation damage to the tubes, they come packed individually in boxes, so you have to insert them in their sockets in the preamp and amp yourself. Sonic Frontiers has done a good job of labeling the tube boxes and providing instructions for showing exactly where each tube should go. If you are a complete novice you may get a little intimidated looking for letters like "LV1" on the circuit board. It took me a moment to find the right socket since all the lettering is the same color. But don't worry, you'll find it and when you do, lining up the tube to insert is no problem. You may have a bit of a tough time applying the right amount of force on the tube to get it into its socket, but just heed their manual's warning and don't ram it down hard and don't squeeze it to death. Instead, gently rock it until all pins are inserted completely. You'll also have to screw on the chassis top, and Sonic Frontier has come through again, supply not only all the screws but a Phillips screwdriver necessary for the job. I do have one complaint: there are too many screws for the lid and they are so small that they get lost easily (inside the chassis, for example). It took me a while to find them all. Nevertheless, I was up and listening inside of 15 minutes. Trust me, if I can do it, you can do too.
The review sample Amp 1 and Pre 1L came finished in a whitish-silver (it's also available in black). This attractive color of silver, incidentally, is very similar to that which Classe Audio uses on its amplifiers (something I figured out while placing the Amp 1 atop my Classe Fifteen). Both units have a chunky feel of quality and there appears to be strong attention to detail. Although the Amp 1 and Pre 1L are in the $1000 price range, Sonic Frontiers has wisely eschewed plasticy construction prevalent in some other similarly priced products. The resulting appearance of the Amp 1 and 1L design is simple and rather elegant. It appealed to my spouse quickly.
Some may be put off by the fact that Sonic Frontiers chose NOT to show off the tubes inside. Let's face it: part of the pleasure of having tubes is the satisfaction of showing them off. They give you that warm, glowing feeling of purchasing something really nifty. The only way you'll see the Anthem tubes is to lean over the top and look through the ventilation grills. I guess that's their way of telling you to just sit down and listen.
From the get-go I was surprised to find that Pre 1L/Amp 1 combo did not really sound like tube-based products. I say really because in a way they did. Sure they were smooth and clean with that so-called musicality thing happening, but I was expecting the romantic bloom and bloat of tube days gone by. It was not there and this, to my ears, was a plus. Instead, I heard a surprising amount of detail and transparency that many would liken to solid state. To me the combination sounded neutral. At this point, however, I hardly had any miles on these units, so rash judgment wasn't needed. Sonic Frontiers warned of a 70-hour break in before I should take the combo seriously.
After about 20 hours things improved and after about 40 I couldn't hear much more changing. Still, I waited for the prescribed 70 to ensure I was giving everything a fair shake. The break-in period gave the polite performing Amp 1 a little bit more grunt and growl. For both the Amp 1 and Pre 1L there was more texture, richness and depth from top to bottom. I began serious listening by using only the Amp 1 in my regular system with a Theta Digital front end, Blue Circle BC-3 preamp, Merlin TSM speakers, and Nirvana Audio cabling. In addition, I found the Audio Marginal Silverflex and JPS Labs Superconductor interconnects to be synergistic matches.
My regular amplifier is the Classe Fifteen rated at 175 watts of well-controlled, balls to the wall solid-state power. With the Amp 1 in the picture there was a definite change in presentation, even with the bass-limited TSM. The Classe has a big sound that is weighty and forceful. It is the kind of amplifier that goes WHUMP! Other big solid state amps go WHUMP! too. Even Sonic Frontiers new all-tube Power 3 goes WHUMP! I even heard the Power 1 at a dealer and it conveys a satisfying Whump! On the other hand, the Amp 1 is slightly stunted in the bass region and in comparison to some big boys, it only goes whump. To its credit, it does not go Whoomph like many traditional-sounding tube amps. This, in fact, is my strongest criticism of the Amp 1. Don't get me wrong, it has deep bass, but it does not have that sense of weight or kick in the bottom end that other amps do. In comparison to what the Amp 1 did right, this proved minor.
What impressed me most about the Amp 1 is that from the first listen I completely forgot that I was listening to tubes. There was nothing in its character that spelled out Toob Sound. Instead, I was listening to an extremely refined amplifier with an exceedingly neutral sonic palette that has wonderful clarity, excellent resolution of space, scads of detail, and above all, engaging musical presence. That lush, romantic, woolly, overbloated sound attributed to old-time tube designs was not to be found. In fact, some may prefer that the Amp 1 have a little more bloom or palpability or whatever you want to call it. I found the presentation spot on. Images were well focused and stable, instruments and vocalist were rendered with great presence, and the tonal balance felt natural and real. Truth be told, I found more pleasure listening to music through the Amp 1 than I did through the much more expensive Classe Fifteen. In turn, I found myself thinking that those tube guys were right!
I wish to point out one characteristic of the Amp 1 that will be seen as a criticism by some and a benefit to others. Like the bottom end, subjectively the top seems slightly stunted -- but only slightly, because at no time did the amplifier sound rolled off liked I've heard in other designs. Whether it is displaying the top frequencies more accurately or more euphonically, I can't be sure. However, I only found that this enhanced its musicality since too many systems and recordings have some unnecessary brightness. The splendid but sonically splashy soundtrack to Baz Lurhman's Romeo and Juliet was never more listenable. Jim Cuddy's soaring vocals on the well-recorded but edgy Diamond Mine from Blue Rodeo were never more pleasing. Steve Earle's voice was full and textured, but never hard and irritating as I've heard in other systems. If it's coloration, it's coloration I am happy to live with. I want to emphasize, though, that what I am talking about is slight.
As I expected, the Pre 1L proved a synergistic match to the Amp 1. Still, when I moved the stellar $3300 Blue Circle BC-3 out of the picture and the Pre 1L in, I noticed an immediate reduction in detail and presence and a slight degradation in clarity. In short, the Pre 1L was not as good as the more-than-three-times-the-price Blue Circle unit. Not surprising. However, what was surprisingly was just how pleasing the 1L proved to be. I was more than impressed to find that the Pre 1L shared a similar sonic signature to the world class BC-3. Tonally, they sounded almost identical. Each has a full, robust sound that brings life to vocals and sparkle to instruments. The 1L could not quite muster up the quite the same soundstage specificity, but it was not that far off what the BC-3 was doing. The BC-3 had a definite edge in the retrieval of detail that resulted in the listener being able to hear into the recording better. Is this comparison unfair given the vast price difference? Hardly. For less than 1/3 of the BC-3's price this spells out fabulous performance for the 1L.
I recall the comparisons I did between the now discontinued Sonic Frontiers SFL-1 preamplifier that I used to own and the BC-3 when I first received it. The SFL-1 was a fine performer; however, the BC-3 quickly eclipsed it. In comparison, it sounded a tad muddled and plodding with woolly sounding bass performance. And the highs did not seem to have the sparkle and sheen that both of these units possess. Sonic memory tells me that the Pre 1L is better than the SFL-1, at a lower price.
A brief audition that proved interesting and educational was when my friend brought over the much heralded YBA 2 preamp. The YBA 2, in its most basic linestage configuration, retails for $2450 USD. Many consider it a bargain at its price point. We started by listening to my system with both Anthem components. My friend is an extremely critical listener and any amount of grain or brightness puts him over the edge. However, I proudly sat back and relaxed because I knew the system sounded great on this evening and there would not be any such problems in that regard. Sure enough, there was nothing but praise in his voice as we listened to almost all of the very well-recorded and wonderful music from the soundtrack Dead Man Walking. We both noted an excellent balance between detail and musicality with these low-priced units and marveled at the performance they offered. Then we decided it was time to give the YBA 2 a spin. As I connected the YBA 2 he began pumping me up on its performance as he told me how fabulous he found it to be in his system. "Incredible," he said. He was sure this was going to be his preamp. As I hooked it up, I could not help but think that Anthem was ready to be wiped when the music commenced. Who knew how my Blue Circle would come out of it either.
When the music did resume we sat slack-jawed and stunned. We listened through most of our chosen demo music before I blurted, "that sounds really thin, I mean reeeeally thin there's something wrong!"
My friend hates when I call equipment thin, particularly the YBA stuff, which he really likes.
"It's not thin Doug! It's lean, it's detailed, it's fast, it's resolving, it's..."
"It's thin, man. Sorry, but it's thin."
We both quickly concluded that in this system the YBA was not a very good match. In fairness, I could hear why the YBA 2 is so highly regarded. It's lightning quick and it shows an amazing amount of detail, clarity, and finesse that knocks over not only the Anthem, but many other preamps. However, it does this at the expense of body, weight, and texture. In my estimation, at least in this system, the YBA lacked soul that resulted in a less-than-satisfying musical presentation. In the right system I can image it would work extremely well. It apparently sounds wonderful at my friend's place. His amps are the original Sonic Frontiers SFM-75 Mk.IIs. These are amps that go Whooomphh! The nimble character of the YBA would likely serve as a good match.
We inserted the BC-3 back in the loop with splendid results. It had almost all the detail and speed of the YBA 2 along with the musicality and life that it sorely lacked. We both agreed that the Anthem has way more in common with the Blue Circle than with the YBA. A good thing, in my opinion.
Forget for a minute that the Anthem products are tube products. Regardless of the technology used, the end result is that they are very refined electronics that open a clear window into what the best high end can offer. No, they are not necessarily "Davids" looking to topple a world of "Goliath" high-end components (Sonic Frontiers would not have a Power and Line series themselves if they could do all that). Instead, they will appeal to a budget-conscious audiophile who values refinement and musicality over mammoth power and hi-fi sizzle. I am sure that for quite a bit more money you'll improve on their performance a bit -- more transparency, air, openness, speed, etc. But that's to be expected. As well, there are products that are close to this price range that may improve on specific aspects of performance. For example, there are a couple excellent solid-state amps worth considering that will give you great slam and bass weight. The excellent Belles 150A amplifier comes to mind. You may also find some fine tube amps that have greater richness and bloom. However, balance and musicality are the keys of the Anthem designs and their all-around performance is difficult to improve on. If it's sounding to you like I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Anthem gear, you're right on the money. Had Sonic Frontiers not had a $2495 Power 1 that looked so enticing, I would have likely kept the Amp 1 myself. I found it a thoroughly satisfying amplifier that had me listening to disc after disc simply for pleasure. It's a bargain at the price. I am more than satisfied with my own Blue Circle BC-3, but at $995, the Pre 1L has very few competitors and will likely become a budget benchmark. Many wise audiophiles will snap this little gem up because it's a steal. The Anthem components are that good.
Don't dream of higher-priced products if your pocketbook won't let you, the Anthem products will save your day. And don't let the fact that they are tube-based designs and therefore require a tiny bit more user interaction bother you. They worked flawlessly for the entire time I had them and the little bit of extra time assembling and retubing in the future seems insignificant compared to the sonic splendor they deliver. Consider them as one of the finest $2200 budget combinations around, or consider them excellent separates that may work beautifully in your system. Regardless, they're so good that they may make a tube-guy (or gal) out of you. They did me!
|Anthem Pre 1L Linestage and
Amp 1 Stereo Amplifier
Manufactured by Sonic Frontiers