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Sugden's A21SE Signature Integrated Amplifier: Simply Stated, Simply Wonderful
I am reminded by dialog spoken by King Osric (Max Von Sydow) in the movie “Conan The Barbarian.”
When King Osric needed Conan to rescue his daughter from Thulsa Doom, upon dumping out a bag full of jewels and offering them to take all they wanted, he says,
“ There comes a time, thief, when the jewels cease to sparkle, when the gold loses its luster, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father's love for his child.
So it is with me in my audiophile time of life, where what matters most to me now is not high power, not large heavy pieces of equipment, not stacks of individual components, nor even high and flighty names. While I freely admit all those “jewels and gold” did, at one time, matter to me; I have had Krell, Audio Research, Martin Logan, Duntech, Focal, Oracle, SME, Koetsu, Convergent …the list goes on and on.
What matters most to me now is the music and the sheer plain pleasure I get from listening to it, and that the equipment, no matter how humble or low power it may be that creates it, evokes a sense of pride in the ownership of it, not because anybody else says it is good, but because it is to me, and that it is crafted with a sense of pride on the manufacturer’s part to always make the best possible product without ever sacrificing what got them there.
Enter into my life at this time the beautifully made, nay crafted, Sugden A21SE Signature Integrated amplifier. To many in the U.S. this name is as strange and foreign as McVitties Digestives or cans of Mushy Peas, but all have been around for years and all still wonderfully delicious.
While many big name audio companies have come and gone throughout the years or have sold out to other even bigger conglomerates, the fold at Sugden have continued happily making their audio equipment in the English town of Heckmondwike -- all by hand, I might add.
Throughout the years, and through many different stereo set up configurations, my personal taste in equipment has always leaned towards the music conveyed through a solid state amp and a tube preamp. I love the weight and control of the bass produced by a Class A solid state and the open, harmonal rightness that a tube top end produces. To me, when properly paired, this has always provided me with aural bliss.
While the Sugden does not have any tubes, it does present the best of both worlds in a single, built-like-a-brick-outhouse chassis. Complete with heat sinks on both sides to help dispel the heat that Class A amplification generates, it brings back a flood of wonderful memories of system past. Ah, the glorious Class A warmth, how I have missed you.
Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that I have not loved the music produced by the myriad of systems I have had in the past. Each one of them, including my current Naim setup, has filled me with joy and moved me along the evolutionary path of musical enjoyment to where I am today -- a destination to which, with the Sugden, has been more like a coming home instead of a vacation.
One thing that reviewers for audio sites and magazines all too often say -- or should I say always like to say – is that something is the “best they’ve heard for the money,” or that “to get better you’d have to spend 2, 3, 4,times the money.” I don’t play games like this because even though they say money doesn’t matter, it invariably always does. And when you look at them plainly with realistic eyes, you’ll see that inevitably they almost always choose the most expensive items as being the best there is; the message is that cost, not the actual sound it produces, is the final determinant of what makes it sound so good. (Paying the most doesn’t mean you’re going to get better. Ask the New York Yankees.)
I am a realist, plain and simple. Whatever I am listening to or reviewing, plain and simply, sounds as good as it does whether is cost $10 dollars or $10,000 dollars.
And, plain and simple, the Sugden A21SE simply sounds wonderful. Can you find something that sounds better? Maybe. That would depend on your ears and what you deem the word better means. Can you find worse? Same goes here. Yes, I have heard much worse from many different components and companies, again regardless of cost. Can you get the same elsewhere? Ah, now there’s the rub. I have not found anything yet that sounds like the Sugden -- the way it conveys the music with the sense of timbre, realism, pace and rhythm is something uniquely special indeed. It is the closest thing to a tubed top end/solid state bottom end that I have ever heard in an entirely solid state design.
I just don’t see how you can go wrong with this great integrated from across the pond. It takes me where I want to be when I listen to music.
Brought over from dear old Blighty by Tone Imports (a wonderful company that brings many other fantastic lines of audio into the US; I highly suggest you visit their website at www.toneimports.com and see what they represent and find dealers who purvey them), the A21SE does so much so right that it represents the next step forward in my personal evolution of what I find important to music. Perhaps it’s something I’ve always wanted but never knew it until I finally heard it.
The unit itself is elegantly understated. Simply having an Input selector and a volume control knob, an on/off button, a light that glows softly blue indicating when the unit is on, a remote sensor for the remote control, and heat sinks -- a full row of them on each side to help dispel the heat-- as well as vents in the top, which it needs as it gets quite warm (okay, hot). Did I tell you how much I like Class A heat? Ah, Class A heat; it warms me and makes for good music!
I have been playing and listening to numerous LPs and CDs over a great many hours (much to the chagrin of the missus and daughter) in the past couple of weeks that I have been graciously allowed to have this beauty in my home (thanks to the finest brick and mortar retailer in the Midwest, Stereo Haven in Edwardsville, Illinois; Charlie Schnyder owner, proprietor…curator if you will, and all around great guy. Check them out at www.stereohaven.com.) You’ll notice above that I said playing AND listening. This is because while I wanted to “hear” what the amp was doing to the music. What it does so well is that it gets out of the way of the music, so I found myself being drawn into listening to the music, having to forcibly draw myself back out and remind myself I’m reviewing the amp, not the LP or CD.
Cutting to the quick: to answer the all important questions, does it have pace, rhythm and timing? Let’s see…hmmm… Duh! A no brainer here! The Sugden is both engaging and un-fatiguing. I can’t say my mind didn’t wander, though, because it did -- into the music! Can I say anything that could be more descriptive or of more praise of a component than that?!
Texturally, I find the A21SE renders both male and female voices with a naturalness that can make them seem even more real than through my current system. It gives them just that little bit more that brings me closer to life.
It renders bass with a lovely bloom that is both accurate and articulate while also being artful. Drums and percussion are reproduced with a visceral, organic quality that allows you to feel the texture of the drum head as it is struck by a stick or brush. Cymbals, high-hats, glockenspiels, gongs -- even tubular bells are rendered in a way that you hear “aural metal.” They sound like… well…metal, while the attack and decay of these being played is such that it seems to be in your room but not calling attention to itself in the song. You hear it, you know if it’s being struck by a stick, brush or mallet, but it is part of the music being played. It’s downright hair raising at times.
It is not the most powerful duck in the puddle -- a mere 30 watts -- but it is a perfect match for me and my DeVore 3XLs.
I don’t have a large listening room, but even so I am able to play music louder than you would think that a 30 watt integrated could, and with enough headroom to allow all the transients to fully express themselves with quality instead of quantity. The dynamics and swing between soft and loud passages is borderline black magic. I’ve not heard something play so softly and then so loudly when the music calls for it as the Sugden, with no compressed feeling because it might not have enough power (on paper that is). Maybe because it operates in Class A and is all on, all the time, that where and when the music calls for it, it’s there. There’s no lag time.
What is also nice abut Class A -- a fringe benefit -- is that my wife has our house borderline Arctic in temperature, and when this little baby gets warmed up it is comforting to feel it radiate its heat. (Why, I almost feel like cuddling up with it!)
Now, there are some self righteous “golden ears” out there (no need to name names, you know who they are and, more importantly to them, they know who they are) that will tell you that you need to have separate amp and pre-amps, that no single box unit, no matter how good, will sound as good as the best separates. Oh, they may say that “for the money” (see there it is again) they sound wonderful, but they will still tell you that separates are the best of the best (because those separates they refer to cost more…a lot more). Well, I’m here to tell you that if you like the way this British integrated sounds -- and I really think you will -- then why would you want separates? You may find some separates that sound different (or the same), that I will agree with. But better? That will need to be heard to be determined. (Sugden makes separates too. I wonder if they sound better…or different.)
I’m also not saying that there isn’t some stereo equipment out there that might bring you closer to the sound of live music, and they may conceivably cost many times more, than the A21SE.
What I am trying to say is, regardless of the price you pay, it is always only going to sound as good as it does, no matter what the price tag on it. Bluntly, buy with your ears, not your wallet. Your ears!
This fairly hefty, not-so-little hand crafted piece of audio equipment is something that you can take pride of ownership in, too. You can look at it on your stand with its glowing little blue light and know that it was put together by hand by people who are willing to put their name on it (you get a little tag included that has the names of everyone that had a hand in it), not by some huge conglomerate with assembly lines or sweatshops in some offshore continent by people who really have no vested interest in you or the equipment because it’s just their job.
The people in the Sugden factory create works of art and have been doing it for nigh on 50 years now, and have remained passionate about carrying on the traditions of their founder. They even close for almost a month! I don’t know for truth or not, but to me it would make sense when you have only so many employees and each is specialized at doing their particular step, if everyone goes on vacation the same time they don’t have to have someone else who might not be as qualified to fill in while someone is out -- so they all went out together. And not just for a week. Then again, maybe that’s just what they do because they have always done it? Who knows? I just know that, to me, it is awesome and when I look at that amp, I see people -- a family, if you will -- all with the same vision and goal, to provide us audiophiles and music lovers with the best piece of equipment that enables us to experience the joy of recorded music.
If I were to pooh-pooh one thing, it would be the remote. It doesn’t have a mute button! For that matter, neither does the amp, so I have to keep turning it down and up when changing records or CDs. Oh well, if having one would adversely affect the sound, then who needs it, right? On a positive note, the motor drive for the volume control is quick -- no, strike that, FAST. When you press the up/down volume control on the remote, do so quickly with a tap, otherwise you be amazed how fast you can turn it all the way up or down.
Maybe it’s because I have some English blood coursing through my veins (my grandmother was a Tilley) but I have always been an Anglophile at heart. Sports, television, food -- and when it comes to making music, especially, the English have a way of doing it that is at once old school but at the same time as good as it gets. Sugden is the epitome of that that thought.
You’ve probably noticed by now I did not mention anything about how much it costs. And I’m not going to. That is because I want you to go hear it before you know that. That way you’ll not be swayed by how much or how little it costs, simply by how it makes music.
So go to the websites mentioned and find a place near you to audition this gem. If there isn’t one near you, well…gas is cheap. Take a road trip. If you’re into music, you need to hear this integrated!
Well there you have it. The Sugden A21SE: plain and simple. It is what it is: simply wonderful!
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