Some days you find a diamond in the rough, other times you realize you have a lump of coal. Sun Audio has received a few good reviews over the years and i was very curious to see how well these Japanese amplifiers would fair against the stiff competition in this price category. As the retail price of the assembled unit is $4,226, it faces quite a bit of competition indeed from the likes of conrad-johnson, VAC, Manley Labs and many others. Offered in both kit and completely built form, was the Sun Audio Sv-2A3PE capable of delivering magic from a pair of quite good 2A3 tube?
The parts quality is impressive with Tamradio (Tamura Corporation) transformers, the Russian made Sovtek 2A3 tubes, Elna Cerefine power capacitors and ceramic tube sockets to name a few. Delivering 15 watts per monoblock, the Sovtek 2A3 tubes are operated in push-pull "Class AB" without negative feedback. Looking at their single page instructions for building this unit if it was supplied in kit form, novices should stay clear of build the SV-2A3PE. The more seasoned expert should have no troubles as a schematic is supplied. i truly miss the days when i worked for Heathkit Electronics. Their book supplied with each unit had building instructions that were clear, precise, detailed and thorough. Those with good soldering skills and patience could build the more complicated units. This is a call to Sun Audio and all kits manufactures to seek out an old Heathkit and study their manuals. These single page instructions and a simple schematic rules out the amateur who would really enjoy building their very own audio components (while saving a few dollars in the process).
As seen above, the unit is not overly complicated to build given the right experience in such matters. The wire layout is clean while there is plenty of room to fit various parts and tie down the wires. A week's work from a kit building professional should yield a well-made fully operational unit. In fact those with the urge to tweak will want to upgrade to the better WBT loudspeaker terminals and upgrade the power capacitors to Black Gates... and maybe silver wire and chassis dampening techniques and... Alas, this unit needed to be reviewed as stock so...
Music, Majesty and Disenchantment
After a few hundred hours of break-in, the Sun Audio SV-2A3PE went from my basic rig downstairs to the main system. While down in the basic system i noticed that the highs were a tad rolled off and the bass was not fully defined. The midrange was very nice and maybe it would need more time for everything to settle in? As time passed downstairs there were some improvements. Time for the big rig...
A few letters have been sent my way asking just what is used during my reviews. i present to you the listing below. Please keep in mind it would be impossible to try each and every combination with every review product, though over the years a professional review gets a good feel for synergy. It is like a professional chef who knows which combination of spices will make the most tantalizing meal.
Moving the Sun Audio SV-2A3PE monoblocks up to the main system replaced the Wavelength Audio Cardinal monoblocks. Wavelength Audio makes outstanding amplifiers and my recent review of their Mercury amplifiers in Ultimate Audio Volume 4 Number 2 will tell you how good they are (outstanding if you must know). After a few hours of warming up and settling in, i immediately noticed the lack of definition. There was a slowness to the initial attack and decay of notes. It is much like replacing a glorious 12 cylinder Ferrari with a four banger Honda. Where did all the fun go? Worse still was the rolled off top octaves and plodding bass notes. This caused the harmonics to be less than natural. Not overly so as the midrange was good, but nothing near that of the Wavelength Cardinal.
After trying a few loudspeaker cables, i settled with the Nirvana S-L and Nirvana Avantgarde jumpers. A truly synergistic combination if there ever was one. While the Avantgarde hornspeakers use self-powered bass/subwoofers, it was still easy to hear a slowness in the lowermost octaves. This was repeated with my long-term fave KEF 104/2 loudspeakers (and Kimber cabling). Back to the Avantgarde loudspeakers, the Uno hornspeakers seemed to mate better with the SV-2A3PE as the highs are a touch more augmented than with the more refined Duos (see my review of these in the upcoming edition of Ultimate Audio reaching your mailbox and newsstands any day now). While the Clearaudio Insider Reference Gold cartridge offers vast details and impressive speed, it seemed a waste when using the SV-2A3PE. Imagine using top-grade film in a Kodak camera. While the better film does indeed help, the lack of photographic quality in the Kodak still remains.
In fact no matter what i tried, it seems that the inherent quality, or lack thereof, of the Sun Audio SV-2A3PE remained evident. Using digital or analog sources seemed to make little difference... and i know my analog rig is capable of bringing about a speed and clarity that is mind-bendingly impressive. At this point i shall reframe from writing more. Basically the mids are ok, the highs rolled off and bass lacks definition. Overall speed is unimpressive while the unit lacks any real sense of PRaT (pace, rhythm and timing). Before i forget, imaging was a bit disappointing as well. No matter how much i moved the various loudspeaker to optimize for the amplifiers, there was still some bloat while, at times, i could sacrifice imagine clarity/definition for more stereo separation. You can choose which you feel is more important, yet it seems neither were splendid at the same time.
The Sad Truth
While i find it hard to write a less than positive review, the truth as i hear it in my systems must be told. While the less experienced reviewer might seem to love virtually all products that come into their possession, those of us who have been doing this for many years and have personal exposure to a vast variety of products in their home seem to have a better, more balanced view of what is an exception product. Of course having a top-flight system is another factor. Possessing a high quality versus low quality system for reviewing is like the difference between a children's microscope and a precision laboratory-grade one (or Kodak camera versus a Hassleblad for those who enjoy photography). It may be virtually impossible to see precisely with a children's microscope (Kodak) while the laboratory-grade unit (Hasselblad) brings everything into sharp focus. This is what scares me (and other professional reviewers) in that some reviewers simply lack the experience, knowledge and/or have a less than optimal system for reviewing. The wise reader will pay close attention to these details.
The Sun Audio SV-2A3PE was simply too slow and unrefined within a system consisting of the likes of the ultra-fi Avantgarde Acoustic Uno and also Duo hornspeakers plus the merely outstanding conrad-johnson Premiere 17LS preamplifier... let alone the Clearaudio Insider Reference Gold cartridge and VOYD turntable. Cabling? i tried Nirvana, Kimber, some custom jobbies and even the collecting dust in the corner MonsterCable just to make sure no stone was left unturned. Maybe if my system was more basic lower-fi it would hide the flaws of the SV-2A3PE? If my system was less than neutral tonally, maybe the punchy bass would be needed in a system lacking lower frequency reproduction capabilities?
In the end i can not recommend the Sun Audio SV-2A3PE as the VAC Avatar simply was leagues ahead, let alone my memories of the Manley Labs Stingray that gave a different, yet excellent view into the music without being sluggish as with the Sun Audio unit. Lastly, the conrad-johnson CAV-50 was simply harmonically and overall musically better than the San Audio and retails for over $1,000 less! In the end i would seek elsewhere for 15 watts per channel. VAC is about to release their new $1,999 Auricle amplifier and this could be a great bargain for those looking for classic tube amplifier looks, excellent quality manufacturing and higher than single digit output power.
Tubes: two 2A3, one SN7GT and one 5U4G
Sun Audio Co., Ltd.