So as some know, I've gone real "old school" and recently picked up a Sophia Baby tube amp. The reason is to complement my recent foray into LPs. I've even gone as far as digging into old boxes at my parents to rediscover some of my old vinyl, including some from friends. I wanted to see if I could further improve the vinyl sound that I've started to really like. I wanted something relatively cheap and small, just to get my feet wet.
I got this "baby" for about $425. It has some slight blemishes, hence the price break, but still has a 3 mo warranty. Size isn't too bad so it's not too imposing. My biggest concern is that there is no tube cage so I have to use it only at nite when my kids are asleep.
Even though it's an integrated amp w/ only one input, I'm using it as a stereo amp, with my Pioneer 45TX as my pre amp. This way I can use my AV to switch sources. Another issue is that I have to manually switch cables so that this is connected to the pre outs and to the M22's. I'm trying to find an amp switch, though I've only found this so far. My wife is nursing out 2 mo old son, so she watches Tivo at nite, so I have to let her still watch at wee hours, so the Sophia can’t be connected full time, otherwise it’d be powered on 5 times a nite.
Not the most ideal, since it doesn't take bananas or anything bigger than 14 ga. I use 10ga for my fronts BTW.
I also upgraded my cables from my Denon 2200, since I needed new cables for the pre outs. Got some new 6 channel cables and some 2 channel cables from Blue Jeans. I have several, including video cables and I love 'em.
I started doing some listening last week and was quickly impressed, but for the wrong reason. This is only 8 watts, so I had to turn up the volume from a normal listening volume (for me) from about -35 db to about -10 db. I don’t listen at loud levels, which works well for low powered tube amps and my marriage. I was quickly impressed w/ the bass response and depth. I realized that I had not compensated the LFE for the increased volume on the fronts. DOH! In order to make a fair comparison and eliminate the hassle of trying to keep 2 settings for the LFE, I decided to go full 2 channel using direct mode (no EQ). My 45TX, unfortunately, does not allow me to save different settings per input, otherwise, I would've been fine for going 2.1 w/ the phono input only.
Demo Music Material and Sources
My tastes lean more towards R&B and urban which, IMHO, doesn't necessarily require audiophile equipment. But I decided to use some material that I've really been impressed w/, along w/ some demo songs I used for speaker shopping several years ago.
Craig David - Slicker Than Your Average
This is a well recorded CD. Almost too well, since it sounds too perfect, very digital (if I can really say that). There's track w/ Sting that samples "Englishman from New York" from an LP and you hear the clicks/pops, but it doesn't really seem like vinyl. I played this on my Denon 2200 via analog.
This is an Afro Cuban LP that I got at a used bookstore closing. I never really listed to this music but I fell in love w/ the great horns. This is old, not sure how old, but the original price is $6.50. My first LP cost me $8.99 in 1980 I think. The M22's really shine here. I play this on my Pioneer PL117D w/ Ortofon OM10 cart. BTW, total cost was $75 for the setup.
Ottmar Liebert - various songs
I got turned on to this from my spinning class. Not my normal music but the guitars/percussion are fantastic. I figured that this might show the warmth of tubes quite well. I downloaded some tracks from iTunes and played this on my Mac Mini via USB to my 45TX. Yes, I said USB and it sounds great.
Here’s my full system w/ all the new stuff. In tranist is the external 250GB HD for the Mac Mini. Yes, that’s iTunes 4.9, complete w/ subscribed podcasts showing on the plasma.
Forgive me here, I’m not the best audio reviewer, but I’ll post my thoughts as a novice reviewer. Bear in mind that my results include the fact that the amp really hasn’t been broken in; it maybe has about 2 hours on it.
Running in direct mode w/ no outboard amp, only the 45TX’s stages, each source sounds great as expected. I’m most surprised that USB sounds so great. Previously, w/ my Windows laptop via USB, the sound was pretty crappy, very tinny and lifeless. Not sure if the improvement is due to the Mac Mini CPU, it’s USB interface, iTunes, etc. Who cares, I like it. Even more impressive since, from my understanding, iTunes songs are compressed at 128 Kbps. I personally use 320 Kbps w/ LAME.
Sonora Matancera – This was demo’ed first
HOLY CRAP! This is, hands down, the best sounding of the 3 sources/material. The horns sound like they are sitting right on my lap. It’s so crystal clear that I can almost see the light shine off the brass instruments. I know “warm” is a cliché w/ tubes, but the Sophia really made this LP sound warm. For me, this is the best ammo that I’ve personally experienced to shoot down claims that M22’s are too bright. If I can play trumpets, loud, w/ clarity and no harshness, I’m ecstatic. I can listen to this LP all nite long. Bass response shares the same warmth, no muddiness whatsoever. There is not a huge amount of bass on this LP, but what there is, comes out well. Soundstage is centered between the two, not as wide as I would’ve hoped. As a lark, I switched to Stereo mode, and low and behold, nice wide soundstage. BIG difference, the band was coming from the whole front wall, it almost sounded like surround sound. Wow.
Probably hard to compare against because I listened to the LP first. The guitar strumming had more life to it than before. Not as big a difference as horns on the LP but still noticeable. Barcelona Nights showed the most improvement, I could hear several guitars more distinctly than before. The bass guitar was more prevalent. In Stereo mode, the soundstage was much better as before.
One of the tracks opens w/ a piano and cello. Those instruments sound so much better w/ the Sophia. They weren’t as “alive” w/ just the 45TX. IMHO, Stereo sounds better since the bottom end was brought out a little more, but not to the detriment of anything else. I also noticed that the vocals stood out a little more, probably because of the amount reverb used during recording. The combo of the reverb and tube amp seemed to work well for some reason. Not sure why though.
For now, the Sophia is a keeper. The only reason to let it go is to try a real SET amp. I can really see how tubes can get addictive. I’ve already started looking at a possible 2nd dedicated tube system, though I have NO PLACE to put it. And as you can see, my cabinet is maxed out. I may end up just getting a phone pre amp so the LPs can always be tube powered. This is a definitely different sound. With the right source material, tubes can make a huge difference.