Sugden Sapphire DAP‑800 preamp and FBA-800 power amplifier

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters
Sugden Audio Sapphire DAP‑800,
Sugden Audio Sapphire FBA-800

Power amplifiers are not known for their functionality, but the FBA-800 is remarkably comprehensively specified. It has two buttons on the front panel alongside the big on/off switch. One switches between balanced and single-ended operation, and the other lowers the input sensitivty by -6dB. This allows the user to adjust the gain structure to better match the preamp and loudspeakers. This is a surprisingly useful addition, especially for those who want to look beyond the Sapphire preamp.

Let’s not beat around the bush here. The FBA-800 runs hot. 40W in Class A pumps out a lot of heat, a surprising amount given the eco-friendly nature of the world today. Of course when powered down power consumption isn’t an issue, but this amp could pass as a space heater. But, that’s the price you pay for good sound, and the FBA-800 sounds really, really good. But we are running away with the story here. Let’s start with the system and the preamp. 

I used the Sugden combination with a variety of sources, but predominantly from my MacBook Pro through the USB input and via S/PDIF from a Naim Uniti Core server. Both balanced and single-ended connections between pre and power were tried, using Nordost Blue Heaven, Cardas Clear, and generic microphone cable, and the matching Nordost and Cardas cables were used in building the whole system. Speakers were either Chartwell LS6/f towers or Wilson Audio Duette 2s, although the Dynaudio Contour 30 did see some Sugden action, too. 

The good news is that the amplfiers do not require extravagent cable wrangling. Differences between cables could be heard and provided advantages in system building, but the system was just as comfy with a set of microphone cables between the preamp and power amplifier. In listening, I moderately preferred the balanced operation, but unless you are using long cables, it’s a bit of a tie. 

Now we can talk about the sound. Sugden is trying a tag line that says ‘Rescuing Music From Technology’ and it fits perfectly here. These are products that ooze musical enjoyment from every extremely hot pore. This is a sound quality that delivers the detail goods, but you never, ever notice because the overarching feeling is one of sheer listening enjoyment. There is nothing forward about the sound of the Sugden system, but there is nothing laid back about the sound either. Instead, it just draws you in. I am reminded of the A21SE by the same company, which I have used – off and on – almost since it was launched. OK, so the O-rings on the feet eventually fell off after about 15 years, and I had to superglue one of the grilles after about a decade of use, but that amp just keeps coming out of storage and being used, not because it’s a reference point but just because it’s like a musical homecoming. Music sounds right on that amplifier, but it sounds even more right here. 

At first flush, you’ll tend toward playing relatively gentle music. It’s like you need to get through your Vaughan Williams  phase on the Sugdens. You do this because it’s so rewarding, the sense of layering to the music, the sheer charm, and effortlessness to the sound is perfectly expressed in slightly flowing, gentle music designed for a pastoral mood. It’s like night-birds listening to ‘Sailing By’ at the end of the Radio 4 broadcasting day to reset their calm levels. 

That feeling is temporary, however. Pretty soon, you are trawling through the meatier end of the collection, often through jazz and into rock. These Sugdens can handle every type of music you throw at them, but there’s an in-head process you go through. It’s a voyage of musical redescovery. I found myself listening to some very well-trodden musical paths, even to the point of listening to all of Kind of Blueby Miles Davis [Columbia]. Like practically anyone who has listened to an audio system, or has eaten in a restaurant, I know that album backwards. There’s no tread left anymore... except I found myself listening to that album in full through the Sugden combo, and loving every minute of it. 

There’s a temptation to equate warm electronics with warm sound, and there is a kernel of truth to the connection. But that warmth doesn’t come at the expense of leading edge delivery and it doesn’t just make a huge soundstage as some kind of crowd pleaser. In fact, the combination – but especially the power amp – are extremely good at presenting the leading edges of music in a way that preserves timing information but doesn’t swamp the tonality or musical enjoyment at the same time. It’s the way the sound is just pulled together in one effortless gestalt that matters, and that’s what the Sugden amps do so well. You don’t tend to focus on elements of the sound because the music is so overarching, but if you force yourself to break up the sonic performance into bite-sized pieces, all those pieces are at or close to the top of their respective games. So when listening to Laura Marling singing ‘Take the Night Off’ [Once I Was An Eagle, Virgin], you not only have the stereo separation of voice and guitar, the detail and vocal articulation, the microdynamics of string noises, and the dynamic range of her singing rising out of the aether, but you get the added bonus of all of those things working together. 

This shines through with the non-oversampling DAC, although I can’t help feeling this is a good and musical DAC in an otherwise fantastic system.  

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