by John Richardson
Much has been said lately regarding the differences between the generations: Baby boomers, Generation-X, and of course, the beloved Millennials. Whether it’s the supposedly spoiled boomers, the forgotten X-ers, or the entitled Millennials, everyone seems to have varying opinions on the subject. Heck, I can’t even figure out where I’m supposed to be… Some lists put me right at the end of the baby boomers, while others count me as a proud gen-x member. I suppose if I had to choose, I feel more in line with the X-ers. Yep, I pretty much missed the go-go 1980s, and I walked right into a recession when I tried to get my first job in the early 1990s. Sucks to be me ….
Anyhow, it seems that most of the people I came of age with were motivated by money. We all wanted to be successful bankers, lawyers, and Wall Street tycoons. We all wanted to drive exotic cars, live in mansions, wallow in material excess, and even own fancy stereo rigs. Now my kids, on the other hand, are somewhat typical Millennial types, and I mean this in a good way. They weren’t helicoptered to death by my wife and me, they didn’t get trophies for showing up (as a matter of fact, I don’t think either one even owns a trophy), and they care a lot about relationships and personal experiences. Money seems to be secondary to them. My daughter speaks of spending some time “dirt-bagging” when she finishes college in another year, and my son doesn’t want to be a computer programmer, engineer, or scientist like his mom and dad. He wants to go into writing and the arts. I worry, but he tells me that he won’t need much to get by. Somehow, I believe him.
Both of my kids are also intensely interested in music. They both perform it and spend a lot of time listening to it. It’s seriously important to them and a vital part of the fabric of their lives. Not surprisingly, they approach collecting and listening to music in a far different way than I do: they thrive on the convenience of MP3 files and streaming media. On the other hand, they are both seriously into vinyl. One of “our things”, that is, one the things we do together is to go into the “big city” and each buy one or two new records. It’s cool because it’s one of the few things we enjoy doing all together, and as such has become a nice parent-child bonding experience. Rare common ground for an almost 50-year-old guy and his teen and twenty-something offspring.
Is it possible to also find common ground between an old Gen-X-er and his Millennial offspring when it comes to audio gear? Until recently, I’d say possible, yes, but not very probable. I want high-end; they want convenience and cost-effectiveness. But a new product from audio manufacturer PS Audio has done an amazing trick of allowing us to find that common ground: the Sprout. That almost irritatingly diminutive integrated amp that seems to do everything right, to the point of confounding pretty much all that I’ve considered holy about high-end audio.
I’m sure that, by now, most everyone in the audio community has heard of PS Audio’s Sprout. Briefly: it’s a robust class D amplifier that also boasts a preamp, phono stage, multiple digital inputs (including Bluetooth), high-level analog input, and a headphone amplifier, all housed in a little tiny box. By now, I’m tired out just relating all of that to you, but that’s how versatile the little bugger is.
From seed to Sprout
While PS Audio has been around for quite some time (since 1974, I believe), Sprout is actually the brainchild not of the company’s co-founder, Paul McGowan, but his son Scott. Scott McGowan is PS Audio’s director of sales, and he saw a need for a niche product. Not an overpriced perfectionist product to make all of us old folks happy, but rather a gateway drug to get those younger people (the aforementioned millennials, for example) hooked on the high-end. It was even initially marketed and offered using Kickstarter, a crowd-funding on-line vehicle that speaks to the younger generations. Apparently, the campaign was quite successful, far exceeding the initial sales goals. Fortunately, it wasn’t a one-shot buy-it-or-miss-out deal either, as Sprout remains available either factory-direct and from selected retailers. But the news gets even better for us latecomers: the asking price has dropped from $799 to $499, primarily as an incentive to get more younger folks on the bandwagon. If the value wasn’t there before (and I think it was…), Spout is now a screaming good deal!
What else is there to know? Power-wise, Sprout consists of an OEM class-D amplifier unit slated to push out 33 watts per channel into 8 ohms, or 50 watts per channel into 4 ohms. According to PS Audio’s website, the amp section was chosen from among 12 candidates, expressly for its musical attributes. The DAC section is built around a Wolfson DAC chip and can handle digital music files with resolutions up to 24 bit/192 MHz; furthermore, USB interfacing is fully asynchronous, which will make a lot of computer audio aficionados happy, especially at the asking price. Yep, you too can get into the hi-rez game with Sprout. The phono stage is said to be fully passive and will handle all high-output moving magnet cartridges. I’m guessing high-output moving coils would work fine as well.
When you take it out of the box, Sprout seems deceptively small for all that its designer claims it can accomplish. One thing I noticed and immediately appreciated, besides its very nice fit’n’finish, is the analog nature of its controls. No remote control here, no sir-ree. That’s intentional, according to Scott McGowan. Sprout is all about connectivity, not only with regard to its various inputs and outputs, but also with its owners. As we have all heard, physical connectivity is something that younger folks out there seem to lack and yet yearn for. Sprout is meant to be touched and interacted with, and that’s something I personally appreciate. Remotes have made us lazy and entitled … as I think EveAnna Manley once intimated in response to a reviewer complaining that one of her preamps lacked a remote: “Get your butt off the couch and turn up the volume!” I couldn’t agree more.
If I had any complaints upon first examination of Sprout, I’d have to comment on the crowded rear panel. I’m not really sure that anything could have been done about this, especially given the size of the unit, but it does limit the user somewhat. Example- the speaker outputs are quite small and close together. In actual use, I found I really couldn’t use spade lugs with them — there just wasn’t enough room to jam them in there. I ended up working with bare wire connections and banana plugs instead. The reality of the situation is that you just aren’t going to get crazy thick audiophile speaker cables anywhere near that back panel, but then again, I’m thinking that Mr. McGowan would argue that that’s not the point. Sprout is about affordability and accessibility, not excessive madness. Otherwise, outside of the rear panel lettering challenging my tired old eyes, I really couldn’t complain as everything you could possibly need (or want) is back there.
I ended up using Sprout in three setups/configurations through the course of this review. It spent time in my secondary (aka, home theater) setup, my big-rig setup, and as a desktop/headphone amp. Via these setups, I found I was able to investigate pretty much everything Sprout had to offer. Did I mention before how versatile this thing is?
Sprout’s tour around my listening room began in the home theater setup, where I could easily sample its Bluetooth capabilities, both for movie soundtracks and regular music listening. The main speakers here are vintage JBL 4410 monitors, which are fairly large boxes found in lots of radio stations and recording studios in the 1980s and ‘90s. My pair was jettisoned by a radio station and brought back to life, both sonically and cosmetically, by a buddy of mine. I figured that they would match nicely with the little PS Audio Sprout, as they are pretty efficient and quite neutral. The JBLs’ bass probably extends nicely down to around 40 Hz and tends to be punchy and fulsome, at least compared to my more refined ATC monitors found in the big-rig system. With Sprout running the show, that’s pretty much how the bass sounded; if anything, it might have been a little on the boomy side. Mids were neutral, and treble, which can get a bit hot with the early titanium dome tweeters on the 4410s, was open but appropriately reined in. Overall, I got that big, dynamic, and detailed sound we all like to hear along with our movies.
Bluetooth worked really well, and its implementation seemed quite robust. I occasionally got short drop-outs, but I think this was due to the Apple platform, which is supposedly prone to such events. Especially when watching movies, I really like not having to mess with hard-wired connections between my computer and DAC/amp. Unfortunately, I couldn’t interface Sprout with my Apple TV, as Mr. Sprout doesn’t have an optical input, and the Apple TV isn’t Bluetooth capable. No problem; I just streamed the video straight from my MacBook Air and let Sprout, via Bluetooth, take care of the audio part. Did this setup make me happy? In short, yes.
I also spent time checking out the Bluetooth’s ability to stream regular music from my main computer/storage system. Again, no problem getting the computer to recognize Sprout, as it popped right up in the Bluetooth menu. I had no issues streaming any of my files, but the high-resolution stuff was definitely downsampled to 44 Hz before heading out the door, at least according to my Pure Music application. Most critical listening was therefore done with CD resolution material. The music in general sounded just fine, but I wanted to make some comparisons using the “big rig” before sticking my neck out too far.
The theater setup also provided a good opportunity to check out Sprout’s high output phono stage. Typically I use a very low output moving coil cartridge on my main analog setup, so I had to borrow my son’s turntable … Yes, I realize now that I owe him. It’s a pretty good vinyl setup: a vintage Technics SP-25 motor/plinth system along with a nice Syntec broadcast tonearm sporting a Grado Black moving magnet cartridge. Lucky kid, if I do say so myself. Anyhow, this setup would be consistent with someone from the younger crowd who might want to pair Sprout with a comparably priced vintage vinyl rig.
I found the phono stage on Sprout to be a great match with my son’s record player. I had no problem getting the gain I needed, and the sound was expansive, dynamic, and properly nuanced, as only vinyl can do. I ended up spinning record after record well into the night on several occasions because … well, because I could! I found myself re-experiencing the thrill felt by early subscribers to the audiophile habit before falling so far down the rabbit hole that the jaded doubt starts to creep in. I was having fun, and I somehow felt 25 years younger! If that’s part of what Sprout is all about, then sign me up. From the rosiny touch of bow to strings on a Bach cello suite to Zappa’s screaming guitar, it was all there.
On To The Big Rig
As well as little Sprout performed on the theater system, the “Big Rig” is where I decided to let it really strut its stuff. This wasn’t originally my intention, but I soon found out that the li’l guy had nothing to apologize for playing with the big dogs. Compared to my Merrill Audio Thor amplifiers, the Sprout looked like a Chihuahua. Here indeed was an opportunity to see what type of stuff this upstart little fella is really made of.
I was most concerned about the speaker pairing. My reference ATC SCM19 (Version 2) monitors are expensive, revealing, nuanced, neutral, and somewhat inefficient. Would a $499 do-it-all amp offering up only 33 watts per channel be up to the task? I mean, I just replaced an amp/DAC/cabling ensemble costing in excess of $10,000 with Sprout. As soon as I made the swap, I could tell that things sounded different, but not at all in a bad way. In fact, after a couple of days of sweating the change, I realized that I was really sitting back and enjoying the music … I wasn’t feeling an immediate need to get my “regular stuff” back in the system. That’s a good start.
Lest we begin to think that Sprout was issued forth from the heavens by the Divine Creator Himself, a bit of perspective is in order. I limited my listening to low to medium volume levels, so no blowing the walls down here. That’s ok, since it’s how I normally listen. Headbangers probably won’t be all that interested in Sprout anyhow, as it’s just not big and impressive looking enough. However, within the somewhat restricted parameters I used, Sprout put on an impressive show indeed, as we shall see.
I also wanted to use the big system as a means of better resolving small differences in sound as I compared the various digital inputs, e.g., Bluetooth vs. coaxial S/PDIF, as well as bypassing the onboard DAC in favor of my reference DAC using Sprout’s analog input.
First up in the big-rig system was my evaluation of Sprout’s DAC module and amplifier section working together. Here, I simply took the digital S/PDIF signal out of my Sound Devices USBPre computer audio interface and fed it into Sprout’s digital RCA input. No problems, as everything worked perfectly as expected. In this configuration I felt I was truly hearing what Sprout could really do, and I have to say I’m impressed.
Cueing up an album such as Vivaldi’s “Music for Lute and Mandolin,” as performed by Paul O’Dette and The Parley of Instruments (LP, Hyperion, digitally archived) really highlighted the strengths of the Sprout’s DAC and amplifier modules. While still an early digital effort from 1985, this performance was recorded almost perfectly. If I hadn’t been fortunate enough to have picked it up on a whim at a Goodwill for $1, I’m sure I would have overlooked it altogether. I’m now very glad I didn’t. The instruments just glow, and the spatial cues are some of the best I’ve heard in a recording, provided one’s gear is up to the task. It’s just that natural. If you’re lucky enough to find this one, pick it up and see what I mean. When the music started playing, I was prepared to be a little bit underwhelmed by how the Sprout rendered it. Well, after a few bars, I was captivated, and Sprout never let go. The ATC speakers just love this little box! Wonder of wonders …. I reveled in the tonal nuances of the lute and mandolin, while the “backup band” wandered in and out of the soundstage, never becoming overly forward, but retaining the demure attitude that it should, and does, in the recording. Not only was the experience sublime; it sounded real.
As long as I never pushed the volume limits, I played album after album while Sprout responded with joyful gusto. If nothing else, I found Sprout to be eminently musical in a sort of way that makes the listener forget about the gear. Maybe it was the cost factor. If something as cool as Sprout only costs $500, then you can sort of forget about it, whereas if your amp costs $20,000, you’re always going to know it’s there and keep it forefront on your mind, nitpicking it to death. That’s just how it is.
As satisfying as Sprout is, it can’t pull off quite the same act as the much more expensive Merrill Thor monoblocks, and it shouldn’t be expected to. But its sins are those of omission, not commission, so they are much more easily overlooked. Just a few examples … While Sprout sounds satisfyingly full in the bass, it just doesn’t have the feeling of power and control that the 200 watt per channel Thors can muster. No surprise there. Further, it sounds just a tad flat in comparison to the Merrill monsters. Here, I mean to imply that Sprout has a bit of a tendency to dull the tone, presenting itself with a little less sparkle, especially in the upper midrange and treble. In short, it tends toward a darker presentation that obscures some of the harmonic structure, which leads to some lack of overall transparency, but never enough to keep the music from being enjoyable. As another example, on Edgar Meyer’s Unfolding (LP, MCA, digitally archived), the banjo on the cut “Duet” lacked some of the texture and sparkle that makes it sound that much more alive and energetic with the Thors in place.
Sprout’s ability to retrieve low level detail is actually quite good. I keep reading about how Scot Hull, my editor, hears crickets in the title song of the Chris Jones album Roadhouses and Automobiles. I have that one, though I don’t listen to it all that often. I decided to play it the other day to see if I could hear the crickets (actually, I really wanted to see if Scot had gone daft…). Lo and behold, with Sprout running the show, every time the music trailed off, there were crickets! Yes, you have to listen carefully, but they are there. I think I also heard some birds singing in there as well. I didn’t even have to turn the volume up very high. I’m sure some of the credit for this revelation goes to the tremendous resolving power of the ATC monitors, but the Sprout must have played a pretty important role as well by providing the DAC and amp modules.
My next task was to decouple the Sprout’s amplifier section from its built-in DAC, as this would tell me (hopefully …) something about the quality of the digital section. So, back in went my reference Antelope Audio DAC, now feeding Sprout’s analog input. I heard a definite sharpening up of the sound, and some of the “dark” nature of Sprout’s harmonic presentation immediately evaporated. Not really surprising, as my experience in the past with Wolfson DAC chips is that they tend to be a little more laid back and harmonically thick than, say, an ESS Sabre chip. Going back to the Vivaldi lute/mandolin works, I heard improved incisiveness and leading edge attack, along with more sparkle on top. The music just sounded more lively. Harmonics and timbre seemed more uncluttered, but maybe not as thick and rich as with Sprout’s on-board DAC. Of course, I don’t want to sound as if I’m trashing the poor li’l Sprout here. It just sounds a bit different when its own digital section is by-passed. In no way do I feel that the whole package is, or should be, de-valued. It would be silly to buy Sprout with no intention of using its DAC and amp sections together! And what a total package it is for less than $500.
While still in the “big-rig” system, I lastly wanted to take one more stab at comparing Sprout’s Bluetooth input with its coaxial digital input. Listening again to Chris Jones’ “Roadhouses and Automobiles” left no doubt in my mind that the Bluetooth option does indeed exceed my expectations after all. The sound was full and detailed, leaving no apparent sonic stone unturned. If there was any real difference between it and the pure S/PDIF coaxial hardwire input, it was beyond my ability to hear, crickets and all. The ATC speakers don’t lie, nor do they put lipstick on a pig. Sprout’s digital inputs sounded great, and that’s all there is to it.
To The Desktop
Sprout is just so little and cute that it begs for a chance to prove its mettle as the heart of a desktop media system. Taking up so little real estate, it found a nice cozy home right beside my computer monitor, talking with my Mac Mini via asynchronous usb. Here was a great opportunity to simultaneously check out Sprout’s usb capability along with its prowess as a headphone amplifier. Now, I’m not much of a headphone guy. Even late at night, I’d rather listen through my main speakers with the volume turned way down. I do like to watch movies at night using my ‘phones though. I’m not sure why, but it just works for me; maybe it’s the idea that I’m not doing the audiophile thing, so I don’t have to listen as critically. I mean, there is a picture show going on, right? And I’m always chasing the shiny object … Or maybe the ‘phones just give me the liberty to crank up the volume any time I like, day or night.
My headphones are high impedance Audio Technicas, so they aren’t very hard to drive. I found Sprout to take on the task with characteristic verve, providing me with a more than satisfactory listening experience. Keeping the volume at about 9 o’clock gave me plenty of gain and rewarded me with detailed and spacious presentation of music. Perhaps the notes were a bit edgier than I get with my regular Lavry DA-10 DAC/headphone amp, but there was no lack of detail. In comparison, my Lavry casts a more harmonically dense hue onto the music, providing a bit more timbral color. Even so, I found enough to like about Sprout’s headphone amp that I could easily live with it long-term on my desktop. It was fun streaming music via Youtube that way, lost in my own little world. Coincidentally, I experienced no issues at all with Sprout’s usb interface, which like the bluetooth, worked without a hitch.
When it’s all said and done, what can I say about the PS Audio Sprout? I mean, that hasn’t already been said. First off, I’ve really come to love this little thing. I knew I’d like it, but I didn’t expect to become so attached to it. And I’m not even a Millennial.
Speaking of Millennials, I’m thinking Sprout would be the perfect gift for each of my kids when they make the final move from the house and really head off on their own. Young folks live in small, communal spaces these days to save money (and the earth), and Sprout would be the perfect basis of a small personal stereo system. Well, it’s most of the system too. Just add speakers and a smart phone or laptop, and whammo! Great sound for your own personal listening pleasure, or to entertain your friends at parties. Add a micro projector and hang a sheet… impromptu movie night with stereophonic home theater sound! I can only imagine all the fun young’uns could have with Sprout. And older folks too. Which gets me thinking… Down the road I know that the wife and I will eventually downsize to something much smaller and easier to keep up with house-wise. I could easily imagine the two of us gathering around Sprout in the living/dining/media/everything else room and having a blast. Just like the old days…
Distilling it all down, listening to Sprout just plain makes me happy. I think it will make you happy too. So there! Just buy one and don’t look back.
About the Author
John Richardson has been interested in music and audio since his early teen years, or stated another way, as long as he can remember. He has been involved in the audio community in one way or another for around 20 years and for the last five has been a regular contributor to the on-line magazine Stereomojo. There, he has been the resident computer audio guy and “value conscious audiophile” (aka “cheap bastard”).
John is also a professor of analytical chemistry and forensic chemistry consultant in his spare time when he isn’t listening to music or evaluating gear. He tries to fit in plenty of time to hang out with his two teenage kids, his lovely wife, and the family cat, though only the cat also seems to harbor audiophile tendencies. John also enjoys running, cycling, golfing, hiking, or just about any other activity that sucks up time and money.