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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.

 

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.

Conclusion
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
DAC: Asynchonous
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.
Price: $499


PS AUDIO
4826 Sterling Drive
Boulder, CO 80301
(720) 406-8946
psaudio.com

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