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Review: Audion Super Sterling 120 stereo amplifier

ss120

by Malachi Kenney

True Confessions

It must have been at least a decade ago when the Single-Ended bug bit me. The usual thing happened, of course. I’d heard a single-ended 50 playing through some AER drivers and stumbled away from the experience smitten. I spent the next couple of years trying — with some success — to recapture that experience. I listened to a parade of triodes, DIY’ed up some electrical deathtraps to listen to, played with 45s, zapped off fingernails building 2a3 amps, got disgusted with the big 6c33c, and settled on futzing around with 6v6s and el34s because I was a cheapskate. They were all amazing. Nothing got the timing right the way a single-ended amp with a stonking big power supply did. Nothing had a midrange that glowed that way. I was in love. I had every intention of marrying a single-ended amp. That sound was just so beautiful.

Living with it, though … The Single-Ended Dream was just too demanding and crazy for me. It wasn’t what you’d call a healthy relationship.

Just like all your friends disappear when you start dating the wrong person, my audio started to leave me. First I said goodbye to the Quads. Then the Harbeths went away. Pretty soon, I was just hanging out with a bunch of freaks on the weekend. Hemp cones. Lowthers. Table saws and plywood.

Let’s not even think about what that did to my musical life. I don’t think I turned up the Clash for a year. I listened to trios instead of big bands. I stopped listening to anything Tom Waits recorded after 1980. In short, I caught myself playing music that made my stereo sound good instead of dropping a needle in whatever groove fit the mood.

It was a bad scene. I think I only realized how bad it was when I plugged in a Dynakit ST-35 and rocked out for ten straight hours.

I chucked all the hairshirt stuff the next day, bought a beat up NAD 3020 at Echo Audio, hooked its twenty huge watts up to some British speakers, and stopped worrying. I played the Clash again. I cranked the Symphonie Fantastique just because I could. My neighbors hated me. Life was great. I was free. I was over the single-ended tube scene.

In all honesty, though, I never did get quite over that sound.

Which brings us to Gary Alpern, the True Audiophile himself, Audion’s Super Sterling 120, and proof that dreams do become real eventually.

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Hooking Up

When people hear that Gary Alpern named his company “True Audiophile,” they usually respond with some level of snark about it. I’ll admit that it seems a bit grandiose from the outside, but people who know Gary know just how understated the name really is. The man is a perfection hound when it comes to getting good sound. That led him, years ago, to keep chasing that single-ended sound that haunted me. And that led him down the rabbit hole until he became the importer for Audion’s line of products. If you’re not familiar with Audion, think of an “Audio Note UK” without the creepy, cult-like fan base.

The problem is that Gary works in the real world, a world where people don’t have 101db efficient Ticonal drivers, small listening rooms, and subtle music collections that consist entirely of quiet girls with acoustic guitars. He worked with Audion to develop an amp for the American market of big speakers, big rooms, beer kegs, and George Thorogood fans. What came out the other side was the Audion Super Sterling 120, a KT120-based Single-Ended Pentode with a big volume knob, 24 watts of juice, a base price of $4500, and the power to make grown men cry tears of joy.

That phrase “base price” is always a little worrying, though, so I explored the menu. It turns out to be fairly reasonable. The amp comes with your choice of 4, 8, or 16 ohm output taps at no charge. An extra $600 buys you an extra four inputs and turns it into a real integrated amp. Another $600 buys you a remote control. We’re not dealing with any confusing “level systems” here.

There are a couple of other major upgrade packages available. The “Excalibur” is a parts package with upgrades across the board. Caps, resistors, silver input connections, and a stepped attenuator. The “Hallmark” takes the Excalibur and adds silver secondary windings to its output transformers. I don’t consider those “upgrades” so much as “entirely different models.” They were so obviously outside the scope of the review that I never even asked about the price.

Instead, Gary dropped off a well run-in, bone stock model with 8 ohm taps one Saturday afternoon and engaged in the easiest setup process known to man. Unbox it, move its thirty pounds over to the floor in front of the rack, drop in the two KT120 power tubes, plug-in the AC-heated 6H23N driver tubes, hook up a source to the single input, ratchet down your spades, add a power cord, and light it up.

The Super Sterling’s chassis is, like all Audion products, beautifully understated. Its obviously close-tolerances foreshadow the sound you hear when it turns on — reassuring silence. Single-ended amps live and die by their power supply, and the SS120’s power supply was more than up to the task of shrugging off the power line noise from the City Shop’s arc welder and my neighbor’s industrial refrigerators. The technical term for that is “promising.” I may have danced a little jig. If I’d known what was coming, I would have given Gary a hug.

I rotated just about all of my speakers and sources through the system over the next two weeks. The amp saw sources ranging from terrible digital to pretty decent vinyl. I ran it without a preamp, with a transformer coupled tube linestage, and with a TVC doing the volume control duties. At Gary’s behest, I even swapped power cords. After all that, a couple of concrete conclusions became obvious.

First: I was going to hate sending this amp back. It was the most immediately engaging, most immediately satisfying amp in its price range that I’d run across in a long time.

Second: The built-in volume control is more than good enough to completely obviate your need for a preamp in most cases. My well-tweaked K&K Linestage may have added a bit of oomph to the sound, but it was just barely transparent enough to use in front of the Super Sterling. I couldn’t say that about anything else in the house. In fact, while the K&K saw service for its built-in DAC, I usually preferred running other sources directly into the Super Sterling.

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Listening

When it comes to an amp this obviously competent, I think you have to start by talking about how, at most listening levels, it was at least as authoritative as my Manley Snappers or the Pass Labs monoblocks that I reviewed last year. More importantly, when matched to speakers with a nominal 8 ohm impedance, the amp displayed no sign of the rolled-off treble or mushy bass that plagues so many single-ended amps.

Instead of that mushiness, the superb single-ended deftness of timing and microdetail were accompanied by a sense of lead-footed acceleration. Percussion, wherever it was found, was this amp’s bread and butter. Mel Lewis saw heavy rotation during the amp’s stay. Playing the San Francisco Taiko Dojo through a pair of Altec Duplexes was borderline illegal fun. Max Roach’s kicking foot was served just as well as his cymbals.

That leads to the one tiny caveat. Some absurd bass was not necessarily the amp’s best friend. Don’t worry, the Super Sterling happily eats Mingus all day. It doesn’t even break a sweat dealing with Sarah Corina’s massively boosted bass on the the Mekons Natural, something lesser SE designs handle — if they handle it at all — by muddying the rest of the band.

I’m not talking about bass, the instrument here, but synthetic bass. Think Erykah Badu‘s “Rimshot”, or some of the undertones on the Fury Road soundtrack. In fact, just think “home theater explosions” and you’ll be in the right ballpark. Too much of that sub bass will reduce your apparent headroom quite a bit. The Super Sterling specialized in sound that had, at least at some point during production, been real. If you’re still enjoying your post-adolescent-club-kid trip, just plan to turn the big knob a bit to the left. Once you do that, even “Chapter Doof” seems surprisingly reasonable.

Guitars, on the other hand, don’t require even the slightest caveat. The KT120 is a guitar tube on steroids. In fact, strings of all kinds were served up with honor and flavor. Whether it was Link Wray‘s distortion, David Grisman‘s picking, Joanna Newsom‘s harp, or even Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, the Audion seemed to exist for strings. Of course, once you have percussion and strings, you have piano. You have Duke Ellington and Monty Alexander on tap at will. Not that you’ll have to resort to that kind of musical propriety on a Friday night, mind. Given the Audion’s willingness to do musical violence at the slightest provocation, you’re more likely to shade the windows, crank the knob to the right, drop the needle into some Sleater-Kinney, and bounce off the walls in a state of embarrassing, private bliss.

But that’s all a sideshow when you get down to it. The reason people buy single-ended amps isn’t to hear instruments, it’s to hear voices. Even the lowly el84 has been hooked up to mismatched speakers in order to get a fix of that single-ended glow, that thing the audio hippies like to call the “lit from within” quality. That’s what’s missing from the solid state amps and the rock’n’roll push-pull amps, isn’t it? That’s why people keep trying to find the end of the Single-Ended Rainbow. The Super Sterling does not disappoint on that score. You may not want to listen to too many full romantic orchestras bearing down on a massed chorus, but cue up the Tallis Scholars‘ “Live in Rome” and you’ll find nothing to complain about as the voices that lesser amps portray as a wall of harmony instead intermingle and spread out to the walls of the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in hyper-real technicolor.

The amp is so competent that you eventually have to go looking for shortcomings just to describe its flavor. You have to go looking to see if there’s a coloration that you can hang a lamp on to describe it. The Super Sterling will oblige you, even if that coloration is a little esoteric. Basically, it comes down to two things. The KT120 still isn’t a triode, and RC coupling still has a flavor. If you’re the kind of person who lives and breathes directly-coupled 2a3 amps, or if you’re someone who thrives on transformer-coupled DHT amplifiers that need a forklift to get out of the way of the vacuum cleaner, you’ll catch on to a hint of the tetrode voice. It’s an almost solid-state burr that’s almost present in the upper midrange. If you’re coming from one of Don Garber‘s erector sets, you’ll catch it right away. If you’re coming from a Pass Behemoth, you’ll wonder why everything sounds so much more natural coming out of this small, relatively affordable amp. If you’re coming from an EL34 of any stripe, it will just sound like a better version of home. As far as the cap coloration … Well … If that worries you, honestly, you’re probably already building your own amps in your basement.

The Magic

In fact, rather than making Gary drive back down to fetch his amp, I kept it for ten extra days. There were good logistical reasons for doing that (I was heading up to his neck of the woods, anyway), but there were no legitimate reasons at all for unpacking it and plugging it back in.

There was only magic.

You see, I’ve had a Tannoy problem since I was twenty years old. I heard a pair of DMTs when I visited a friend in the studio, and I was instantly hooked. Twenty years later, I’m still living with a pair of Tannoy Glenairs. Every time a review speaker leaves, I relax a little after I move the Tannoys back into place. There’s just one, little, problem with that lifestyle choice.

Tannoys like power, you see. Tannoys have no use for your puny, flea watt amplifiers. Tannerds who refuse to confine themselves to tiny rooms and mellow music are basically prohibited from ever using a traditional SET amp. They just don’t control the big, heavy cones that Tannoy has been producing since the 70’s. 845s? 211s? Nope. Not enough current. The closest you’ll get, in most cases, is a big 6c33c. Even that won’t last long before you’re back onto big, push-pull tetrodes. Refinement and subtlety are, in general, far, far down the on the list of Tannerd requirements from brute strength and iron grip.

The otherwise subtle and refined Audion Super Sterling 120, on the other hand, simply beat the Tannoys into submission. At anything less than The Who at Wembley Stadium volumes, it was one of the most effective pairings I’ve heard.

There’s something to be said about allowing the Anonymous 4 to fill your room and wrap their venue around your head. There’s something spectacular about playing Cookie Marenco’s stunning recording of Quiles & Cloud singing “Serida” with all of same realistic nuance and intimacy the duo showed when I stood five feet from them in a bar. In all honesty, you can probably get that with another amp.

There’s something even more exciting about dropping Germicide on the deck without missing a beat, and having it sound right. There’s something even better about turning up Psychedelic Pill to the verge of clipping and letting Crazy Horse channel Tennyson without any sense of an intermediary. You can probably get all of that with another amp, too.

The trick is that I haven’t found a way to get all of that for anything like the price of the Super Sterling 120. It’s a magic combination. It’s basically the James Bond of amplifiers, refinement and polish layered over a core of uncivilized, on-demand ultraviolence.

Whenever someone asks what the right single-ended amp for Tannoys is, I’ve always told them “sell your speakers.” I’ll never say that again.

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What now?

EditorsChoiceSmallHonestly, I never wanted to write a rave review of anything. A rave review is downright embarrassing. You’re stripped of all your notions of detachment, of any foolish idea that you have any personal cool. A rave makes you expose your prejudices and tastes in public in a way that modesty, sensibility, and a decent, Catholic School education would otherwise prevent. A rave says less about the subject of the review than it does about the weaknesses of the person who wrote the review.

When it comes to the Super Sterling, I’m willing to be embarrassed. I’m weak. I have a total crush on this amp.

The Audion Super Sterling 120 is a wholly successful work of art that delivers everything you could hope from twenty-odd watts of tube power. Based on price, performance, convenience, wide system compatibility, and just plain fun, it’s earned nothing less than my strongest recommendation.

About the Author

Malachi Kenney spent the last twenty years in the IT field, which may help to explain both his foul temperament and his somewhat worrisome relationship with coffee. He’s spent the last ten years enthusiastically listening to music through systems that make his friends and family doubt his mental health.

Besides relaxing with music, his hobbies include soldering, chain-smoking, driving too fast, and playing with his dog. He dislikes biographic blurbs and detests writing about himself in the third person.

Mal also contributes to Digital Audio Review and our companion site, The Audio Traveler.

While Mal has moved on from PTA, we wish him and Kirsten all the best with their new lil’ monster — and their new child. Stay tuned for more from them. Oh, and yes, while he’s official on the down-low, I expect we’ll be seeing bits and pieces, here and there, for some time to come.

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4 Comments on Review: Audion Super Sterling 120 stereo amplifier

  1. Kurt Gruetzner // December 9, 2015 at 4:55 AM //

    I also really loved your review Mal. Well-written and quite fun. Love your confessions.

    I’ve a question:

    You mentioned that, at normal listening levels, the SS 120 is at least as authoritative as your Manley Snappers or the Pass monoblocks. You also wrote later that the SS 120 controls your Tannoy Glenairs whereas 845 and 211 tube amps haven’t. I’ve read about very powerful sounding, modern 845 & 211 amps with very similar rated power, so I’m puzzled. Why do you think that is? Do you think the Glenairs are an unusual load?…

    Thanks,
    Kurt

  2. Thanks to Mal for a fantastically fun read. Also to Scot for making PTA one of best rising audio review sites on the web.

    To substantiate what you read is what you get: Mal reviewed the very first Super Sterling KT120 ever built. Completely stock. This unit crisscrossed the U.S almost a dozen times, was demo’d at several shows and still has the original tubes.

    All of us at True Audiophile and Audion appreciate your hard work, Mal.

  3. Rafe Arnott // December 5, 2015 at 1:47 PM //

    Fantastic piece Mal. This is why I turn to you for inspiration when it comes to my own writing. Thanks for bringing me into your musical world for a while this morning.

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