You’d make the same mistake after powering it up, too. OK, fifteen watts per channel is not what you’d call a ‘powerhouse’ and that places constraints on the listener in terms of loudspeaker efficiency. Any loudspeaker with a genuine sensitivity figure in the mid-90s or above is perfect, and those in the 88-95dB sensitivity range will be conditionally fine (depending on room size and ultimate listening levels). The Fyne Audio range (such as the F702 tested in last issue) would make a perfect combination, for example. Also, the amplifier goes ‘creamy’ and slightly ‘chimey’ (harmonically rich in the upper-mids and treble) rather than ‘edgy’ as it reaches its limits, so the occasional wig-out at volume is possible and actually quite enjoyable.
This is very much a ‘grace’ and ‘space’ amplifier; it also does ‘pace’ well (Lorenzon listens to a lot of rock music both in development and for his personal enjoyment, so he wouldn’t let a beauteous but rhythmically flabby sounding amplifier leave his test-bench), but what first attracts you to the Soprano LE are its rich, harmonic textures, fine detail retrieval, and exceptionally well-shaped soundstage; not too big, not too small.
Like many reviewers faced with a relatively low-powered integrated amplifier that doesn’t cost as much as a moderately-successful racehorse, the listening session commenced with something of a soft start – ‘Help Me’ from Court and Sparkby Joni Mitchell [Asylum] – as this is not a densely populated mix and Mitchell’s voice is so well-known it’s easy to determine whether the basic boxes are ticked. And they were ticked, and ticked well; so well, in fact, I played the track three times in a row, running from the USB input of the DAC, from the line input and from the MM phono stage, playing an early pressing. In all three cases, it sounded at once extremely natural, very rich and enjoyable, and consistent from source to source. I preferred the vinyl version the best and the ripped to computer version the least, but that itself is consistent with my findings elsewhere.
Having passed the recruit fitness test, it was time for basic training and review bootcamp. I marched out my usual range of recordings in order of difficulty. And the Soprano SE passed the test each and every time. OK, so this is not the first choice for anyone who thinks ‘dynamic range’ means ‘playing Mahler at window-shattering levels’, but what was surprising is just how much dynamic range and bottom end energy can be extracted from 15 watts when done properly. I have almost worn out the digits on Trentemøller’s ‘Chameleon’ [The Last Resort, Poker Flat] because of the intensity, speed, and depth of those stentorian notes mid-way through the track. Granted none of these sounds exist in nature, but they are a perfect indicator of bass depth and precision; if a sub-40Hz tone produced by a PCM-based synthesiser (that is as close to a square wave as it’s possible to make without destroying a loudspeaker) is perfectly rendered, it follows by inference (and confirmed by listening) that the same applies to tympani and deep organ pedal notes. And on playing ‘Chameleon’ the Soprano LE did exceptionally well, defining the attack and release of the bass notes perfectly, all the while not undermining the range of sounds in the mid and treble.
I’d hesitate to say this is the most neutral amplifier you can buy because the sound it makes is so sublime and satisfying. Any yet, neither does it go for the warm ‘comfort blanket’ sound of over-rich valve amplifiers. In short, it toes just the right balance. In fact, if the Soprano’s harmonically rich and elegant sound, plus its exceptional imaging, represent a deviation from strict neutrality, it’s a deviation that I’m sure many will happily go for. This also means the Soprano covers its tracks well, too, because you are enjoying the sound too much. In other words, it’s a lovely, sweet-sounding amplifier that makes you want to listen to music more... who really cares if that is not strictly accurate?
Perhaps the biggest plus-point for the Soprano LE sound is its ability to ‘scale’ well. Put something fey and small sounding its way [Feist’s ‘Mushaboom’, Let It Die, Polydor] and it will make it seem small, close, and intimate. Then flip over to a huge wall of sound [Muse’s ‘Invincible’, Black Holes & Revelations, Helium-3] and you can almost hear the stadium (or a haunted house ride full of sci-fi skyscrapers and evil pumpkin teddy bears, if you watch Muse’s crazy video). That ability to move from the tonsils of a breathy girl-with-guitar singer to a large orchestral piece, to post-modern progressive rock with a distinctly sci-fi feel is the mark of something really good, and the Soprano LE does it so very, very well.