To hear some vocal- and piano-centric melodies, I put on Tori Amos’ remastered Under the Pink. The reggae-tinged rhythms on “Past the Mission” felt just right, and Trent Reznor’s backing vocals emerged with great impact, and Tori’s breathy, impassioned voice sounded, well, just like Tori. Via the HE400S headphones, I heard transient and ambient information I hadn’t heard before, such as the long decays from Amos’ Bösendorfer piano in addition to occasional, subtle echoes within the recording space. Full of spirited energy, she and her piano also delivered a thrilling, lilting experience on “Cornflake Girl.” The more I turned up the volume, the more exciting the song’s buildup became. At higher volumes, between the record’s tracks I could hear subtle background hiss, but so what?
There’s another piano pop tune I feel compelled to mention: The English Beat’s “I Confess” from the Special Beat Service MoFi LP, a recording that has at times sounded a touch bright and brittle on certain systems. Not so here. In a tight, clean presentation, the vocals and piano were staged front and center, with impressive detail and naturalness on the mandolin, trumpet, and sax. So realistic were the vocals, that at one point during my headphone listening, a layered-in voice that came from out of nowhere (or from a distant place in the left channel) startled me—and actually made me jump. For a split-second I thought someone had appeared in my room almost behind me. How’s that for true-to-life impact?
Speaking of impact, Khachaturian’s Masquerade Suite on Analogue Productions’ spectacular RCA Living Stereo reissue was an aural marvel, with thrilling climaxes, cymbals, and warm energy, particularly on strings, that made me want to get up and waltz around the room (which as a dancer, I might have done, had I not been tethered to the Sprout by the cans’ cord). Such fun, easy, and pleasurable headphone listening made it hard for me to return to putting the Sprout’s other talents to the test.
Next, I figured I’d really put the Sprout through its paces. After all, the original Kickstarter page contains a video of Scott McGowan—PS Audio founder Paul McGowan’s son and the force behind the Sprout’s development—demo’ing the little amp with a pair of huge Infinity speakers to show its ability to power almost any transducer, even gigantic ones. Call me crazy, but this inspired me to shoot for the moon. So I toted the Sprout—which, weighing just shy of three pounds, wasn’t tough—to JV’s house and convinced him to pair it with his beloved, limited-edition Magico M Project loudspeakers. As you might imagine, this took a bit of persuasion. To my amazement, he said yes. And, as you might expect, this pairing was a bit of David and Goliath.
In another astonishing turn of events, JV let me play some hi-res digital tracks. Perhaps the only notable downside to the Sprout’s tiny footprint is that the space between the inputs and outputs is, by dint of its tiny dimensions, limited. It was a tight fit (and almost a deal-breaker for JV) to attach his spade-lug Crystal Absolute Dream speaker cables.
We started with a toughie: The low-end-laden Holly Cole tune “Jersey Girl” at 96/24 displayed some respectable articulation, though the bass extremes lost some control and became a bit muzzy in the deeper reaches. Vocals took on a slightly heavier, darker color, but soundstaging was fairly well defined and deeper than expected. Resolution was good on certain instruments, but the presentation could have used some more ambience, dynamic nuances, and fullness. However, with an integrated, it’s hard to say what factors could be contributing: the built-in DAC? Or something else? But let’s be honest here. We’re talking about an unrealistic pairing, a just-for-kicks experiment. So these listening notes should be taken with a grain of salt.
Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man In Paris” from a 96/24 rip of the Court and Spark LP on Nautilus fared the best of the several tracks we tried, a tune where the Sprout’s upper midrange focus served the song well. Here, the bass was lighter weight, but plenty of detail shone through, including crisp cymbal taps and piano chords. This absurd Magico pairing was a tall order for the Sprout. But the fact that the diminutive 50Wpc integrated drove these big guns and got the job done respectably well was something in itself.
Little overachiever that it is, the Sprout is hard to find fault with—especially at its incredible price and given all that it can do. The Sprout does have some deep bass, but its low end can go slightly soft around the edges or, when pushed to extreme volumes (rarely), even verge on a thump. The upper midrange and treble, particularly the brilliance range, can be slightly hooded with a subtle dulling of transients at times. On the physical front, I’ve mentioned the lack of remote control—although I can appreciate the “hands-on” design rationale behind not having one. Scott’s quote on the company’s website says it all: “We spend a great deal of time interacting with our machines, but those that bring music into our home are personal and I did not want to lose touch with that. I wanted to touch, to feel, to interact with Sprout.”
One other minor quibble: There’s a tiny toggle on/off switch on the back of the amp at the top, but no power indicator light. When I couldn’t remember whether the thing was off or on, I’d put my hand on it to see if it was warm. PS Audio deserves kudos for its winning compact design that maximizes inputs and outputs for an absolute minimum of space. But this can make certain connections a bit tricky is all.
On the sonic side, I’d describe PS Audio’s Sprout as polite yet pleasing—impossible not to enjoy. Throughout the listening period overall, a definite midrange focus emerged across rock, pop, and blues selections, both acoustic and electric. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, considering that these genres may be the music of choice for the new generation of audiophiles in the market for a Sprout. Vocals were another strong suit, and the Sprout offers a respectable sense of realism on them (and on most instruments). Timbral balance registered as fairly neutral, and imaging typically offered more detail than expected, particularly for a component at such a reasonable price. And as my listening examples illustrate, the Sprout is an absolutely stellar headphone amp. In fact, that struck me as one of its best assets.
Hats off to the Boulder, Colorado, firm—longtime makers of outstanding amplifiers (and other components) that any music lover who appreciates quality sound is bound to love, especially the new generation of listeners (who may not even call themselves audiophiles) for whom the Sprout was primarily designed. Don’t want to mess with overly complex menus, book-length user manuals, and a bewildering plethora of computerized controls? The Sprout offers plenty of quality without complication. Just connect the little guy and use the knobs on the front. For simplicity, versatility, portability, and affordability, it’s tough to beat. You get a helluva lot for your money. Termed “an amplifier for the modern home,” it looks the part. It’s hard to imagine a more fun, cool component. There’s a lot to love here, and, one presumes, a lot of love went into it.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: Integrated amplifier with built-in moving-magnet phonostage, USB and SPDIF DAC, Bluetooth receiver, and headphone amp
Amplifier power output: 32Wpc into 8 ohms, 50Wpc into 4 ohms
Headphone power output: 1W into 16 ohms, 200mW into 300 ohms
Inputs (digital): SPDIF (RCA coax), USB Type “B,” Bluetooth (antenna)
Inputs (analog): Phono (RCA) 3.5mm stereo
Outputs (analog): 3.5mm stereo
Dimensions: 6" x 1.75" x 8"
Weight: 2.9 lbs.
4826 Sterling Drive
Boulder, CO 80301