PS Audio Sprout

Little Big Man

Equipment report
Integrated amplifiers
PS Audio Sprout
PS Audio Sprout

Call it love at first sight. Simply put, I adored this little integrated amp from PS Audio straight out of the box. From its wonderfully compact size—slightly larger than a chunky paperback bestseller—to the look and feel of its smooth wood-paneled top and its (dare I say it?) convenience, it’s a winner. Whether you’re into digital or analog, you’ll discover big sound in a neat little package.

However, don’t let the Sprout’s petite design and relative simplicity of operation fool you. This miniature comes as close to a full-function integrated as you currently can get. The amplifier section delivers 50Wpc into 4 ohms and 32Wpc into 8—not a burly powerhouse but more than sufficient for desktop or apartment-sized listening. The Sprout’s digital section features a fully asynchronous, precision sigma/delta Wolfson DAC that supports sample rates up to 192/24 over USB. And unlike many other integrateds with built-in digital, the Sprout also comes with a moving-magnet phonostage. When you add that the Sprout can also function as an analog preamp (with discrete, buffered, line-level outputs to power a sub or a second amplifier and pair of speakers), a headphone amplifier (for low-output-impedance cans), and a wireless Bluetooth music player, its tougher to imagine what this Little Big Man can’t do than what it can. What’s more, it’s designed to be user-friendly. And indeed, it is.

The Sprout’s clean, rather streamlined appearance cuts to the chase. As befits a name like Sprout, its diminutive scale not only gives it cool “table-top” appeal (I’d call it downright—dare I say it?— cute), but also spatial economy, as there simply isn’t room on its chassis for excess bells and whistles.

The front panel features a pair of silver aluminum rotary knobs that strike the perfect balance between vintage classicism and straightforward ergonomics. One is a stepped volume control, and the other is a rotary selector for switching among vinyl, analog, digital, or Bluetooth sources. No touchscreens here. Scott McGowan’s design objectives called for a more tactile “human” experience. Although I appreciated its minimalism and hands-on style, I must admit I did hanker for a remote at times. (That said, before I got this job, I had for years been using a circa 1981 Advent receiver—and God knows that lacked a remote. So not having one didn’t seem all that strange.) The only other feature on the front, just below the Sprout name, is a ¼" headphone jack.

Call me biased, but I’d rate the Sprout’s partner-acceptance factor quite high. I’m of the opinion that hi-fi components, especially at the higher-end of the spectrum, should not only sound amazing, but also look good. The Sprout’s aesthetics, at once retro and modern, are to my eye entirely appealing.

Okay, enough about how it looks. How does it function and play? The Sprout produces a much bigger sound than both its name and its dimensions suggest. If you closed your eyes, you’d probably think you were listening to a considerably larger amp, so full-bodied is the presentation.

I thought it would be fun to try out the Sprout across the extremes of loudspeakers, from basic no-fi to über-high end. I was in such a hurry to hear the thing, I’ll admit I went with Bluetooth first. And as an experiment, I didn’t even use close-to-reference-quality speakers—just, uh, vintage Infinity bookshelves from about the time of the Advent receiver, connected with zipcord. In short, near-worst case scenario.

The initial tracks were from an old Red Book CD rip of Calexico’s The Black Light, played back via my iPhone 6’s native music app and, in spite of all the roadblocks I’d thrown in the Sprout’s way, I was astonished by the detail and richness of the presentation. I enjoyed several more tracks that first day (and over the following weeks) and was repeatedly (and pleasantly) surprised by how robust, dimensional, and easy on the ears most music came through—even before break-in, even with low-res files.

Naturally I needed to move on to higher-quality speakers before more sensible evaluation could take place. So, after allowing for more casual listening via Bluetooth, Red Book CD, and some hi-res tracks during a few weeks of break-in, I hooked up the Sprout to a pair of $28k Raidho D-1s—the magnificent two-ways that serve as my current references (coupled with a pair of JL Audio e110s). As I’d just gotten my little GEM Dandy PolyTable set up and installed a Shelter 201 cartridge (the illustrious Japanese maker of moving-coils’ first foray into moving-magnet territory), I began by spinning some vinyl—and quickly realized I needed to turn the little volume knob nearly ¾ of the way up to achieve reasonable SPLs.

A listen to the first side of Rickie Lee Jones’ The Magazine delivered easy, laid-back listening fit for a lazy Sunday afternoon. Although this easygoing pace suggested some occasional want of transient speed and slam (this is a hard-hitting album), almost all instruments sounded sweet and natural, from pretty piano and strings, to delicate triangle tings that made me sit up and take notice. And Rickie indeed sounded like Rickie.

Next I put on Leonard Cohen’s latest release, Popular Songs. The opening track “Slow” had an appropriately languid feel overall, but delivered decent bass and kick-drum separation with good soundstage depth. Violin was sweet and mellow. The Hammond B3 seemed slightly recessed compared to what I’ve heard on some reference systems. Vocals presentation was forward and powerful, but there was just a slight dulling of the sensual voices of the backup singers, which tended to sound more lilting and a touch more present on reference systems (and indeed in person, as I had the pleasure of seeing Lennie and the band on his most recent tour—much to the chagrin of JV, who’s never heard his idol live.) Yet Cohen’s gravelly voice still drew me in, and the easygoing and generally natural midrange kept me listening. It’s worth mentioning that many of these qualities—midrange focus and timbral naturalness, albeit with a somewhat narrower soundstage—tend to be characteristically associated with many moving-magnet cartridges.

Next, I gave the HiFiMan HE400S planar headphones a try—and this experience stole the show, particularly with vinyl! The David Byrne/Brian Eno left-of-center, experimental 1980 collaboration My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (remastered version from Nonesuch), chock-full of driving polyrhythms and layers of quirky (and early) sampling, became a thrillingly surreal experience. I was struck by the degree of detail and image specificity of instruments, samples, and effects, which came to my ears seemingly from all corners of the room (or the recording space). So much was happening, and with so much energy, I almost literally didn’t know where to turn. Every instrument seemed to hold its own place in space. The chugging guitars took on an urgency that surprised me; funky wah-wah effects were at once heavy yet quick-footed, with throwaway twangs that rang out in long, satisfying decays. “Help Me Somebody” displayed impressive speed, punch, and snap—a sort of counterpoint to Sprout’s generally more easygoing demeanor with tougher-to-drive loudspeakers.