SST Thoebe II Preamplifier and Son of Ampzilla II Power Amplifier

Chips off the (Good) Ol’ Blocks

Equipment report
Categories:
Solid-state power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers
|
Products:
SST Son of Ampzilla II,
SST Thoebe II
SST Thoebe II Preamplifier and Son of Ampzilla II Power Amplifier

Because the review period was limited, I auditioned Thoebe and Son as a combination. As found with all exceptional equipment, there is on the best recordings a gratifying impression of lifelikeness and vitality, simultaneously relaxing yet wholly involving. There is nothing about the basic circuitry of these units that calls untoward attention to itself. If forced to the wall, as an initial impression I might say that I wondered if there weren’t a very slight tilt toward the yin side of the spectrum, but I suspect this owes to the fact that I had just come off reviewing the Benchmark AHB2 amplifier, which is anything but. I am especially impressed, but not surprised, given the lineage, that the bass here is so powerful, deep, superbly defined, and absolutely unflappable. At the same time, there is none of that excessively tight, punchy bass beloved of some audiophiles but which has no real equivalent in live music, where bass in addition to being strong is also warm, rich, and full.

Moving to the midrange—vocals in particular—as it happened, the end of the review period coincided with an appearance by the Anonymous Four on their farewell tour. They sang a program of seasonal music in a Greek Orthodox church in Orange County that boasts splendid acoustics. The next day I played several of their albums that contained pieces I’d heard in their live concert program. Now, clearly, it would be absurd to state that the sound resembled what I’d heard at the concert since the recordings span over a quarter century and involve different venues and one change in personnel. However, in the strictly timbral sense, the voices in the group (as currently constituted) were truthfully reproduced, and that is as tough a tonal acid test as I know, at least with musical sources.

These electronics do not favor any type of music over another, but it being the holidays, I did play a lot of choral music from large and small ensembles, several of them recorded in churches or church-like venues, again large and small. These typically have rather “wet,” that is, reverberant acoustics, and the best recordings—right now I’m listening to the Huddersfield Chorus singing Christmas music—capture plenty of ambience and hall sound. Thoebe and Son rendered these thrillingly, and quite spectacularly when large organ and brass were added, as in a program recorded in St. Paul’s. Another such recording, not seasonal, but tremendously thrilling is Paul McCreesh’s A Venetian Coronation 1595, which reconstructs the coronation ritual of a Doge in sixteenth-century Venice. The performing forces consist of a small choir with soloists, an organ, and a collection of period instruments, including natural trumpets and drums. At one point near the beginning, the drums and trumpets begin in the far distance and come forward, building in volume and intensity until they reach the front, where they perform a sensational toccata that is spread across the entire soundstage. These are compositions in which the deployment of the performers in the physical space is an essential part of the music’s meaning and experience. It is also music rich in colorful instrumental timbres and complex contrapuntal textures. Thoebe and Son reproduced it an ideally mediated combination of organic blend and textural clarity. When you find the right playback level, the sense of being in a vast space with gloriously resonant acoustics is uncannily real—Peter Walker’s “window” into the concert hall.

One characteristic of the phonostage that struck me right away was the sensational dynamic range, which is also a quality of the Ambrosia’s phonostage. The presentation was equally free from glare or tonal anomalies and was superlatively quiet. At $500 it seems to me to punch far, far above what its price-point might suggest, fully competitive with units costing a couple of grand. With just 42dB of gain, the phonostage is suitable for high-output pickups only. As I currently have none of these on hand, my listening impressions were based on the Ortofon Windfeld through my Quicksilver transformer. I’ve been using the Quicksilver on and off for nearly thirty years now, so I think I can compensate for its contribution to the sound, which is exceedingly small apart from amplifying the signal: a very neutral device, mirroring Thoebe’s phonostage, and the Windfeld has also been widely recognized for its neutrality. To anyone contemplating a Thoebe who is also deeply into vinyl, I recommend the optional phonostage without serious qualification as both an outstanding bargain and a fine performer without regard to price.

The DAC is built around the ESS Sabre (9018) 32-bit chip, and features (according to the specs) an “asynchronous, galvanically isolated USB input” that supports up to 32-bit 384kHz PCM and DSD64 + DSD128.” I do not own a music server and am not yet into downloads, hi-res or otherwise, so I can’t evaluate it in this regard. Reviews I’ve read from writers who are rate it very, very highly for these applications. I auditioned the DAC only via the transport section of my Marantz SA8004 CD player. It performed very well, to my ears its presentation ever so slightly brighter than the 8004 on its own, but Marantzes are famously smooth, natural, and musical sounding. On balance, I fractionally preferred the Marantz by itself, but that was strictly a matter of taste, not a judgment as such against Thoebe’s DAC.

 But if you buy a Thoebe, should you go for the DAC option? Well, if you already have a high-quality CD player that you enjoy, I seriously doubt the Thoebe’s DAC will be an improvement, though it will be different (among other things, it doesn’t reclock the signal, which would be unreasonable to expect as its price-point). Taking, for example, the Anonymous Four recordings I referred to earlier, my preferences fall in this order: the Marantz used as transport feeding my Benchmark DAC1, the Marantz standing alone, and the Marantz feeding Thoebe’s DAC. The Marantz/Benchmark struck my ears as the most neutral, transparent, detailed yet natural reproduction; the Marantz alone was notably smooth, natural, and musical, with a bit of warmth yet without sacrificing detail; the Marantz/Thoebe DAC was a tad on the bright side, not at all warm, yet very listenable. In fact, all yielded excellent results that I could easily live with. But truth in reporting mandates I point out that several of these Anonymous Four recordings are also SACD, which was superior to all of the Red Book presentations. So if you’re buying the Thoebe (with DAC option) solely to replace the DAC section of your current DVD player, you may get better sound or you may not. But if you’re thinking of getting your feet wet by experimenting with a music server and downloads, it’s hard to see how you can go wrong, especially in view of the $500 ticket price, which as mentioned becomes a mere $250 if you buy it in tandem with the phonostage—so you can hardly lose.

As for the place of Thoebe and Son in the current market, the one area where advances in technology and design have unquestionably benefited the consumer is electronics in the broad middle category from below a thousand up to a few thousand per unit, right where these new offerings land. Are they better than comparably priced and spec’d products from NAD, Marantz, Rotel, Paradigm, McIntosh, et al? The short answer is probably not, because the overall excellence in this sector of the market is outstandingly high. That said, however, there will be subtle differences between them, especially depending on the associated components, which means that letting your ears decide is, as always, the wisest course. This combination does have one cachet, though: the bragging rights of their lineage and, what’s more important, reproduction of extremely high accuracy, resolution, and musical authority allied to build-quality that guarantees long and trouble-free performance for decades to come.

SPECS & PRICING

Thoebe II stereo preamplifier
Inputs:  Balanced on XLR jacks, unbalanced on RCA jacks (USB input for software updates)
Outputs: Balanced and unbalanced
Headphone amplifier: 338mW into 330 ohms
Gain: 11dB or 17dB (switchable)
Optional phono input: 42dB of gain
Optional DAC: Up to 384kHz/32-bit and DSD64 and DSD128 on USB, TosLink, coaxial
Dimensions: 17" x 4" x 14" 
Weight: 25-28 lbs., depending on options
Price: $4250 as reviewed

Son of Ampzilla II stereo power amplifier
Power output: 220Wpc into 8 ohms; 350Wpc into 4 ohms
Inputs: Balanced and unbalanced
Outputs: Balanced and unbalanced
Dimensions: 17" x 5" x 9"
Weight: 40 lbs.
Price: $3500             

SPREAD SPECTRUM TECHNOLOGIES
4235 Traffic Way
Atascadero, CA 93422
(805) 466-9973
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