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January 2004
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Sophia Electric 300B Amplifier Mk. II
Review By Todd Warnke
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Sophia Electric 300B Amplifier Mk. II  One of the great joys of sharing time with a two-year-old son is seeing the world through fresh eyes. To Miles every fallen gold aspen leaf is worth bending over taking a look at just as each full moon is magical and its following new moon raises the same question, "Daddy, where moon go?" And, apropos to this conversation, every good song on the stereo is worth grooving to. To see him funk it up to "It's Your Thing" by The Isley Brothers, to watch him swaying on the couch to Grant Green's take on "Minor League", to catch him being drawn in by the slowly rising strings of Gorecki's "3rd Symphony" (he comes from the next room and sits on my chair with me when he hears this!) or to revel in him stomp wildly about the backyard when I crank some Muddy Waters is to be reminded of the power, poetry and beauty of music. It also helps to clear the cobwebs from the reviewer part of my mind. Listening to gear for its sonic attributes should be an onerous task as it distances you from the music, but like a great many "adult" tasks, over time one becomes inured to its drawbacks, and instead of casting them off we end up wearing them as bravely won battle scars. Miles will have none of that and I suppose we should not either.

So what does this have to do with the Sophia Electric 300B Amplifier Mk. II? Just this, listening to music through this amplifier had a similar rekindling affect, albeit without the sticky fingers and tousled hair. With the Sophia in the system, I experienced a restored sense of the wonder, joy and especially the beauty of music. Moreover, those traits, particularly the last one, are the most subversive in the entire high-end hobby, at least as it is practiced by the Western Male. So with that in mind, let us quickly leave this territory and the "B" word behind, though I fear we may have to revisit it before the review concludes.

 

The Amplifier

The 9 watt per channel Sophia Electric 300B Amplifier Mk. II is not yet another me-too 300B design in an off the shelf box - something that is in part noticeable with your first glance at the amplifier. Outfitted in mirror-polished stainless steel, the chassis floats two inches above the ground via integrated grey titanium-nickel cones at the corners. At 18 inches wide and 15.25 inches deep, the footprint of the amplifier is large but, at least for me not unmanageable. The black transformer housing covers the rear third of the chassis and is topped with a 24k gold nameplate which balances perfectly with the 24k tube rings and gold-plated RCA jacks mounted on the front fascia. The overall look exudes class, refinement and combines to set the Sophia Electric apart from the crowd; however, the most significant difference between the Sophia Electric amplifier and most other 300B designs lies not on the surface but in the tube choices.

Power, need I say it, is courtesy of a pair of 300B tubes, one per side. These 300Bs are Sophia Electric's own mesh-plates, renowned for their broadband power and detail. A pair of 5Z3PA tubes handles rectification. So far, standard fair, where the Sophia Electric design differs is in the SRPP input/driver stage. While SRPP design is quite common in 300B amplifiers via a single 6SL7 per channel, Sophia Electric augments the 6SL7 signal by adding an EL-34 to the circuit, wired in triode, which dramatically raises the current in the driver stage while maintaining linearity. This, according to Sophia Electric, allows the 300B to see "the maximum potential" current, which in turn, is said to expand both the frequency reach and power of the 300B.

Inside the chassis, Sophia Electric employs all point-to-point wiring and premium parts while the rear apron supports three high-quality 5-way speaker posts per side - one ground and both 4-ohm and 8 ohm taps. These posts are well-spaced and easy to hand-tighten. The overall fit and finish of the 300B Amplifier Mk. II is uniformly first class and easily the equal of products costing many times more.

 

The Setup

The Sophia Electric 300B spent most of its time driving either my reference Merlin VSM loudspeakers or a pair of Silverline Panatella IIIs. Upstream components were primarily my First Sound Presence Deluxe pre-amplifier, a Cary SLP-88 pre-amplifier, Cary 303/200 CD player and my Dodson DA-217 mk. II DAC. Wiring was via Cardas, Audio Magic, Acoustic Zen, Stereovox and Shunyata Research while power was conditioned by Shunyata Research.

During amplifier burn-in I found that the correct partnering equipment was essential in order to understand the Sophia Electric amplifier, not because she needed help, rather because she demanded and then rewarded honesty in each part of the system. Thus I found myself moving to the most neutral setup possible - Cardas Neutral Reference cables, Cary CD player, First Sound pre-amplifier and Acoustic Zen power cords.

 

The Payoff

Warmed up, with the system locked-in and regardless of musical source - whether the aforementioned raunchy R&B of the Isleys, the subtle jazz of Grant Green, the existential bite of Muddy Waters or the ethereal prayers of Gorecki - the 300B delivered a nuanced honesty coupled to an relaxing flow and beauty. This rare and intoxicating combination builds its strength, as do most 300B amplifiers, from the middle outwards - though the Sophia Electric reaches deeper into the bass and does so with more authority than most 300B amplifiers.

Starting with the midrange, the Sophia Electric delivers detail in the natural manner native to the best 300B-based amplifiers. Take, for example, my perennial favorite, the title track of Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark [DCC GZS 1025]. The opening piano is resonant, woody and yet highly focused, detailed and completely believable. Mitchell's voice was rich, expressive and quite obviously in a separate sound booth from the rest of the players. When Larry Carlton's acoustic guitar kicks in it too is harmonically rich, detailed but also full of the spark and speed necessary to sound real. On this track, and indeed the entire album, the Sophia Electric amplifier delivered sound quality that was vivid, life-like and utterly entrancing.

Of course, sound quality like I just described does not happen without the treble exhibiting skill equal to that shown in the midrange. For example, with the 300B Amplifier Sir Roland Hanna's left hand on his Tommy Flanagan tribute album, Tributaries [IPO Recordings IPOC1004] was brilliantly clear, delicate, harmonically rich and in perfect balance with the midrange. This wonderful sound extends beyond the piano register and most of the way through to the top of the treble with only a slight softening at the most extreme reach of my hearing.

As for the bass, perhaps it is the addition of the EL34 or perhaps it is the custom-built transformers (most likely both) but the Sophia Electric has the best bass I have yet to hear from a single-ended, single-tube per channel 300B amplifier. Rich, detailed, very quick and bloody close to flat all the way into the mid-30s, it is the perfect compliment to the mid and upper ranges of the Sophia Electric. For years I have used the live version of "Can't Win" by Richard Thompson from his Watching the Dark career retrospective [Hannibal HNCD 5303] as an acid test of the power and bite in the nether regions. This nine minute bitter, driven piece of social commentary features pile-driver drumming, an agile and deep bass line and, of course, incendiary guitar. To put it all in balance requires harmonic delicacy and density as well as brute strength, a feat few amplifiers of any power rating or topology can accomplish. The Sophia Electric, while not breaking the rules of physics, pushes up against their practical limits as it delineates the bass in vivid harmonic colors and with surprising brutality. Ok, it is not Ayre or Rowland bass, but then neither Ayre nor Rowland have the spot-on richness of the Sophia Electric through the midrange. In all, remarkable performance.

The other pieces of the sonic envelope fall nicely into place as well. Staging is deep, wide and very stable. Micro-dynamic changes, like a lovers breath in your ear, gave swift and subtle jolts while macro swings were more than acceptable for a 300B amplifier. The combined staging and dynamic cues allowed for superb resolution of inner details, and the harmonic integrity of the amplifier allowed those details to remain life-like and not to be rendered scientifically dry and emotionally vacant in the manner of so many other highly detailed components.

Summed up, the Sophia Electric 300B Amplifier Mk. II takes the standard 300B skills - harmonic truth, excellent staging and micro-dynamic nuance - and adds to them extended if not quite flat treble, superb bass extension and pitch articulation, and an unexpected macro-dynamic power.

 

The Field

Ok, if you read the above carefully you probably noticed a major qualifier. I mentioned that the Sophia Electric offered, "the best bass I have yet to hear from a single-ended, single-tube per channel 300B amplifier", a comment that is in direct reference to the Manley Labs Neo-Classic 300B amplifier.

At about 45% higher cost, the Manleys add a second 300B power tube per channel, 3 more single-ended watts, the ability to switch between single-ended and push-pull, and selectable feedback. It also adds the best bass I've heard from any tubed amplifier, much less a 300B amplifier. In addition the Manleys reach a touch higher than the Sophia Electric albeit with a very slight overlay of grain in comparison. Dynamically the Manley is a monster in both single-ended and push-pull modes and offers power that the Sophia simply cannot equal.

However, what the Manleys cannot do is add is more detail, more emotion, a more accurate stage nor more believable sound than the Sophia Electric. Rather, the Sophia Electric amplifier offers all the detail of the more expensive Manleys with an even more expansive tonal purity. This allows for a greater emotional palette as well a slightly more believable and immersive sound.

The sonic tradeoffs between these two superb amplifiers will most likely mean that if you love one the other will impress but not completely satisfy. The Manley, as strange as it sounds when referring to a 300B amplifier, is a taut, driven boogie machine that can handle the finesse parts without a bobble even if she'd rather be out at an all-night party. Think Katherine Hepburn. On the other hand, the Sophia is nuanced, detailed and pure though fully capable of holding her own for a night of raucous rhythm and blues. Think Hepburn again, only this time Audrey and you have it.

 

The 'B' Word

I play the piano, poorly for sure, but I play an excellent instrument that I am also fortunate to hear played by my teacher and this gives me pretty fair insight into the sound of the piano. It is creaky, clanky and cantankerous. And, simultaneously it is flowing, resonant and lyrical. The Sophia Electric reproduces this duality better than all but one or two amplifiers I have heard in my room, and not just with the piano but with all instruments. It faithfully replays the warts, the clangs and smears, but seems to pay special attention to the underlying premise of a piece, to the reason for the music. More often then not, it finds that in the tonal range and beauty of those instruments. Piano is rendered in both wood and string, female vocals have mouth and chest, guitars have speed and resonance. The result escapes easy categorization. After months of listening, writing and mulling it over I am left with only one word to describe what it does. It makes beauty.

Beauty, of course, is a dangerous thing and like every dangerous thing exists for both good and evil. Her siren call has enticed sailors of all levels on to the rocks, and yet her calm voice has freed many a suffering mind from daily woe. We, in the western world and especially in the technical aspects of it, have tried to save ourselves from the rocks and so have attempted to render her only in scales of numbers and logic and in the process have often given up on her soothing powers. But truth is, words and formulas cannot declaw beauty, and eventually we must face her. This amplifier faces her without flinching.

A superb example of what I am referring to can be heard when listening to the aforementioned "Can't Win". A coarse amplifier can easy portray the acid tone, the driven pulse and the overt anger in the song. An overly refined amplifier may be able to tease out the pain, regret and longing that underpins the sentiment, but only an amplifier that can both move air and move the soul can place both viewpoints in the room at the same time. This act is a one of re-creating beauty. It allows us to experience the range of human emotion, which surely is the impetus behind most beautiful art. And this the Sophia Electric does almost without peer.

 

Summation

The Sophia Electric 300B Mk. II amplifier does a great many things superbly. She reveals tonal nuance, excels at micro-dynamic shadings, offers rich and real midrange tones, reaches fairly deep into the bass and does so with surprising power. As importantly, she does nothing poorly, especially in light of her power rating. Above all this, the Sophia Electric 300B Amplifier Mk II makes music and she does so with beauty. The first of those things is the ostensible goal of this pursuit, but in that attempt, not a few folks have abandoned the second. Not this lovely amplifier. She unleashed a tonal purity, tonal detail and dynamic flow that mimicked reality so well that more than mere notes were released into my room. Within her limits, a superb product indeed.

Tonality

96

Sub-bass (10 Hz - 60 Hz)

84

Mid-bass (80 Hz - 200 Hz)

95

Midrange (200 Hz - 3,000 Hz)

98

High-frequencies (3,000 Hz on up)

93

Attack

91

Decay

91

Inner Resolution

92

Soundscape width front

93

Soundscape width rear

93

Soundscape depth behind loudspeakers

95

Soundscape extension into the room

80

Imaging

95

Fit and Finish

100

Self Noise

95

Value for the Money

99

 

Specifications

Power Output: Nine watts stereo

Output Type:  Single-ended 300B amplifier with no negative feedback

Output Tubes: one 300B per channel

Driver Tube: one EL-34 per channel

Input Tube: one 6SN7 per channel (power amp version), 6SL7 (integrated version)

Frequency Response: 10Hz to 32KHz (3dB)

Signal To Noise Ratio: more than 90dB

Weight: 90 pounds

Dimensions: 18 X 15 X 10 (WxDxH in inches)

Price: $4,995

 

Company Information

Sophia Electric
Voice: (703) 204-1429
Fax: (703) 560-3502
Website: www.sophiaelectric.com
E-mail: sales@Sophiaelectric.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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