“Dad, why does he always get to do things before I did?” That was my daughter voicing mild complaint over the prospect of her younger brother receiving a Sprout. A Sprout, you say? Indeed, I’m speaking of PS Audio’s gateway drug into high-end audio, the venerable Sprout integrated amplifier/DAC/phono preamp. It seems that receipt of a Sprout has become something of a coming of age moment in my family. My daughter got the first generation sample I reviewed when she was a junior in college, having moved out of the dorms and into a place of her own with a bunch of other collegiate ladies. The timing just seemed right. Now, here comes the improved, second-generation Sprout, and the timing again seems right for my second kid. Not quite twenty, he’s already out on his own, apprenticing to build violins, perhaps to become the next Stradivarius (or so a dad can hope).
Both of my kids are quite musical, and they also love to listen and explore new stuff. However, like most young adults, most of their listening is done with an iPhone and a pair of cheap earbuds. It’s what all of their friends also do. But they’re good kids and in my opinion deserve a better listening experience; hence the Sprout. I know my daughter considers hers one of her most prized possessions, along with the vintage AR XA turntable I found at a yard sale and restored for her, complete with original Shure cartridge. She found her speakers herself: a tatted up pair of Boston Acoustic monitors that she re-foamed herself. Now it’s the other kid’s turn, and I’m as excited to share the PS Audio Sprout with him as I was with his older sibling.
So, in case you hadn’t heard, there’s a new model of the Sprout. According to PS Audio, it’s much improved over the previous version. It’s also more expensive, which may be yet another bone of contention between my children. To differentiate it from its earlier version, the new beast is now called the Sprout 100. The number 100 denotes its higher power: 100 watts per channel into four-ohm loads, or roughly twice the power of the older version. If you run eight-ohm speakers, you’ll get 50 watts per side, still considerably more than before. The power module itself is the latest class D technology available today according to PS Audio, meaning that it should be cool-running and efficient. There are other goodies as well, including a more refined phono stage and a high-performance DAC that will decode 128 DSD and 384/24 PCM files. There’s also a subwoofer output, single-ended analog inputs and outputs, dedicated headphone output, and a convenient remote control (thank you, PS Audio!). Another new feature I really liked was an optional bass boost, which works sort of like the bass contour filters found on classic receivers (more about this later…). Given the increased use of real estate on the rear panel, some things had to change topographically speaking. For instance, the speaker outputs are now banana only, and PS Audio provides well-made adaptors to afford the required banana connectivity if needed.
Of course, PS Audio kept some other really good stuff intact, including the small footprint, attractive front panel, and walnut top. Also preserved is the excellent Bluetooth receiver so kids like mine can sync their smartphones to the gadget.
I was thinking in terms of value (as I usually do), and I’ve come to the conclusion that with the new and improved feature set alone, the new Spout, even at a retail asking price of $599, must represent a stupidly good bargain. If it sounds great, then the deal is sweetened that much more! So then, let’s see…
Out of the box, I immediately installed the Sprout 100 in my secondary system, whose front end at the moment consists of a highly modded Steve Frosten special AR XA turntable re-build, complete with a vintage “erector set” Grace tonearm and Nagaoka cartridge. Though not an excessively high-end ‘table, it sounds great when properly set up and tweaked. Oh, and it looks killer! Speakers are my lovely Fritz Carbon 7 SE monitors, which are roughly four times the cost of the Sprout. No worries, the Sprout 100 fit right into this system like a glove on the Queen of England’s hand.
My initial impression was that the Sprout 100 sounded great right out of the box, so I got right down to checking out all of its sweet features. The Bluetooth connectivity was just as robust and good-sounding as I recalled on the previous version, giving not one iota of trouble. I think I got a few intermittent drop-outs on one occasion, which I remedied immediately by just dropping and then re-establishing the wireless connection. Listening to hours of Tidal and plenty of my own stored digital selections, I was drawn in and hooked by the smooth, analog-like (yet sufficiently detailed) presentation laid out before me by the Spout’s very high-quality DAC section. We need to recall here that PS Audio builds some superb sounding and very high-end DACs and transports, so I have to believe that there’s maybe just a little bit of “trickle down” of digital technology going on here. I don’t store any music on my phone, so I didn’t experiment directly with that application, but my son did. He was more than pleased at the audio quality he was getting; definitely not something to which he was accustomed to hearing.
I’ve enjoyed hearing the clean and crisp recent ECM recordings available on Tidal by way of the Sprout 100’s digital front end. For example, Wolfgang Muthspiel’s airy 2014 album Driftwood sounded smooth, tactile, and plenty engaging. Bass was well presented, with the kick drum sounding especially defined yet organically real. Muthspiel’s acoustic guitar was rendered lively enough to sound realistic, with plenty of sheen on the strings, but never in an overly aggressive or whiny manner. The whole system exuded a nice warm feeling, which surprised me not in the least given that both the Sprout 100 and the Fritz speakers tend a bit in that tonal direction. I’ll also mention that this is a Master/MQA encoded album, and though the music was not fully decoded, the Sprout had no trouble receiving the files via Bluetooth or playing them back.
Interestingly, I think I was most impressed by the phono stage on the Sprout redux. I recall that the phono was good enough on the previous model, but not something that stuck out, either as great or bad. Adequate, I’d say, and perhaps a bit better than I would have expected for a box at that price. This one, however, really grabbed me and held on tight. Even with my big rig right at my back, I just wanted to sit up late into the night listening to my LPs on the old AR XA through the Sprout 100’s phono stage. Thinking on it, I was probably enjoying the refinement of the new stage coupled with the greater power output and headroom provided by the more powerful amp section. Records sounded just groovy (get it?) and the cool factor couldn’t be beaten.
Checking out Al Dimeola’s somewhat unknown album Cielo e Terra (LP, Manhattan) really brought home to me how good the phono stage in the Spout really is. I’ve always enjoyed Dimeola’s playing, and here he is showcased alone playing both acoustic and Synclavier guitars in what is probably an early digital recording from 1985. Digital or not, it’s well recorded and a fun listen yielding up plenty of 1980s ambiance. As nice as the ECM digital sounded via Sprout, the “Vinyl” option takes things to an even higher level. The acoustic of Al Dimeola’s guitars is so natural and unforced as the sounds dance about the speakers in full dimensional glory. Airto Moriera is on hand on a few of the cuts to offer up some minimal percussion effects. Again, these float on the air between and behind the speakers in a most effective and unobtrusive way while adding to the overall sense of depth and dimension to the recording. As much as I am a digital guy these days, it’s simple experiences such as listening to this album that serve to remind me that vinyl is still king, even when played back using a $599 do-it-all integrated amp.
I had mentioned the optional bass boost included on this new version of Sprout. This is one feature I spent some time with, cycling it on and off repeatedly. Ultimately, I chose to leave it on, as it provided a nice bit of warm heft in the bottom end that I found to be quite pleasurable at the lower volumes at which I do most of my listening. I didn’t find it to be so much “bloat” as simply a means of enhancing the presence region of the midbass. Of course, your mileage may vary depending upon listening preference, room acoustics, and your speakers of choice. No worries either way, as you can switch it out if you don’t like it.
I also found that if nothing else, the Sprout 100 is mighty versatile. For instance, I wanted to run in a dedicated power amp that’s up for review in the second system, and I realized that my regular preamp was out for service. Hmm, thought I, doesn’t the Sprout have a set of analog outputs? Yeah, it does… OK, so it should be able to pinch hit as a preamp! And that it did. Even though the amp in question lists for nearly $4000, the lil Sprout effectively and transparently passed the signal on, either via DAC or phono, to the amp to great sonic effect. The end result was so good that it got me to wondering if PS Audio might someday do an alternative version of the Sprout in preamp only form, doing away with the main amp section altogether.
Ultimately, as with the original Sprout, I had to conclude that one of the best attributes of the Sprout 100 is that it serves to bring generations of people together, which is something that seems to rarely happen today. I invited my son to come up to listen and experiment with it to see if he would be interested in having one in his apartment. What began as a simple demo session evolved into a deep discussion of music between father and son; one of those rare moments when two generations find themselves on the same wavelength. We started to share Tidal playlists while discussing the pros and cons of Sun Ra versus Cecil Taylor and other fripperies of free jazz. He asked if I had spent any time listening to Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. I hadn’t, but promised him that I would. In turn, I introduced the kid to the wonders of one of my favorite jazzmen, Charles Lloyd, with whom he was unfamiliar. I listened to some of his favorite cuts, and he listened to some of mine. It was a memorable afternoon on many counts.
After spending many hours of quality time listening through the Sprout 100 and finally contemplating its move to greener pastures, I got to thinking what a wonderful time we get to live in as music lovers who yearn for a great listening experience. Though I haven’t yet tried the combination, I have to wonder how killer a simple system consisting of the Sprout 100 and Zu Audio Dirty Weekend speakers might sound. That’s $1600 total, and all you’d need would be a pair of speaker cables and a smartphone or computer, which I assume most of us already own. A few hundred more, and you could add a decent entry-level turntable. For around $2000 you’d have a complete system that would probably shame many others at five times the price.
All I can say is that PS Audio has only improved upon what I consider to be its best product ever, and that’s great news indeed for listeners both new and old. Enjoy!
PS Audio Sprout 100 DAC/Integrated Amplifier: $599 US Retail