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Audition: Sonic Frontiers SFS-80 vs Red Rose Music Model 2

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I have just recovered from a theft at my house. Among major losses, two computers stolen. I'd consider myself wise not to keep any money at my house. That, plus procrastination, kept me from bringing out this report. However, I am finally here.

I had firstly decided to make this a part of the MMMicroOne review. But when I started writing I felt it required a separate thread for keeping the focus on this comparison clear and concise. So, here I am with a new slate.

[IMG2]http://audio-heritage.jp/SONICFRONTIERS/amp/sfs-80.jpg[/IMG2]The Sonic Frontiers SFS-80 is a stereo power amplifier from Sonic Frontier (who else) and the name of the model directly expand to "Sonic Frontier Stereo - 80", where 80 indicates its power output. 80 watts rms into the entire 20-20,000 HZ bandwidth one channel driven. Now, that's quite a lot of wattage from a tube amp. Primary tubes used in this amp are 6550 (commercially better known as KT88/KT99). These tubes are known as high output tubes and hence are suitable for high wattage amps like these.

The manufacturer of the amp, Sonic Frontiers, started as a "kit" supplier. Due to the quality of their work they became famous soon and turned into a manufacturer selling pre-assembled full components (rather than kits). In their days they were one of the better known audio companies in North America. Their products won a number of awards and many of their components were listed as CLASS-A by Stereophile. Their products not only wooed consumers but also professional installers. Their components are said to be used by organizations such as NASA.

It's is easy to see that the review that is to follow is of highly reputed products, even as very little talked about these days.

Red Rose Music again is no less interesting. It's a Mark Levinson brand, a synonym for exotica. The model under review named "Model 2" is a stereo power amplifier delivering 45 watts at 1 kHz. It utilizes EL-34 as output tubes and 12AT7 in the driver and gain stages. As for the manufacturer, Mark Levinson needs no introduction. He and his products are a legend in their own right. So the two amplifiers that we are going to compare here are equally reputed, equally capable. It will be interesting to see how do they compare.

Other equipment used during this test were Goldmund Transport, Goldmund PRE-DAC, Benchmark HDR 1 DAC, Nuforce Icon HDP DAC, Canare Speaker Cable, Evolution Acoustics Cable, Evolution Acoustics MMMicroOne speakers, Evolution Acoustics MMThree speakers.

First and foremost the sound. Both the amps are top flight amps in their own right, and have quite a bit of similarity and dissimilarities. For similarities, they both are fairly detailed for tube amps. They both offer amazing sound-stage, a grain free mid-range which a pleasure to the ears. Highs on both the amps are similar though the RRM Model 2 having a slight edge.

Now for the differences. On the outset I have to admit, the SFS-80 is full of tube goodness. And I strictly don't mean a "colored" sound here. I have auditioned hundreds of equipment at various price points and it doesn't take me long to discern the difference. The tonality from the SFS-80 was a class act. The vocals flew from the speakers like the flight of a free bird, unrestrained, inhibited. The presentation was so liquid, so free-flowing I can bet a thousand bucks no one will be able to guess the size of the listening room, or the placement of the speakers if he were made to listen to the setup blind-folded. In simple words, this setup made the speakers, the electronics disappear.

Tracks such as Its Wonderful (Diana Krall), Love Over Gold (Dire Straits) sounded wonderfully "alive". Especially Love Over Gold. It was like being in the stadium listening to Dire Straits perform live.

The sound-stage was fantastic, stereo image quite impressive, mid-range silky smooth, full-bodied vocals bringing the subtle timbre of the voices to life. Low end extensions were acceptably good and high were smooth and pleasantly extended. My only gripe with this amp was that the transients were not as fast as I would have expected. Not in the same class as best of solid-state amplifiers. But, I am not sure if my expectation from this amp is right. Because the solid-state amps I am talking about aren't cheap either. They use different technology and offer different advantages and disadvantages. They wouldn't do so many other things this amp did at this price point.

Another gripe was the low end. The amp couldn't make the speakers go loud to reference levels (by Solid state amplifier standards at least). When volume was pushed up the lows suffered. But at normally loud level (loud enough for day-to-day listening), they sounded fantastic. This problem with the low end extension can be traced to impedance mismatch. This amp is known to have slightly higher output impedance. So careful matching is required. Speakers with very low impedance at certain points may not be a suitable match for this amp. I have no frequency versus impedance data regarding the two speakers that were used during this review, but I have a feeling these speakers dip a little low at lower frequency ranges. With the speakers that don't have such requirements, this amp may be a fantastic partner.

The best thing about this amp is that these use 6550 type of tubes for output, which are high power output tubes. That makes this among the more powerful of tube amps. Only mono-blocks offer more power among tube amps.

[IMG2]http://www.redrosemusic.com/images/M2topleft_big.jpg[/IMG2]Red Rose Music Model 2 (henceforth Model 2 or the RRM) was different. Different in that, it sounded less "tubish", more "SS-like". The sound was laid out flat, in a neutral tone. If I try to describe it, I may use the term cold, though that would not be totally appropriate. They were neutral, but to my ears, they failed to evoke emotions (compared to the SFS-80). They were somewhat faster in the reproduction and the transients came out better, making the sound seem more detailed. But it could also be due to the reason that the sound from this amp was "lean" (compared to somewhat "fat" {not ambiguous/not wooly} from the SFS-80).

One area where this amp sounded more accurate was the sound-stage. My reference track for testing the sound-stage is Thriller by Michael Jackson. In the prelude to this track, MJ emerges from the bathroom (?) and walks across from right to left. I have heard this track on several dozen combination of equipment and nothing came close to the reproduction when this track was played back on Evolution Acoustics MMMicroOne driven by the Model 2, source being an optimized computer feeding a Benchmark HDR 1 DAC. It was simply the most accurate reconstruction of sound-stage that I have ever heard. It was almost like seeing MJ walk across.

Another area, where this amp excelled was the low end. The SFS-80 struggled to drive the speakers loud in tracks with more low-frequency content. However, the Model 2 drove them effortlessly. However, as I pointed out, this may be due to impedance mismatch. Model 2 doesn't have as high output impedance as the SFS-80 and that might have played a role. Because, as I pointed earlier, among the two, Model 2 has lower power output, so theoretically it can't supply as much power as the SFS-80. But it is more stable at low impedance compared to the SFS-80.

To sum up, SFS-80 is a wonderful high power output tube amp. Whereas the Model 2 is a more SS-like amp, with lower power output but better stability at lower impedance. What one might pick out of the two is a personal choice, possibly based on what speakers they would like to mate them with. But no matter which one do they choose, they will be happy. Because listening to these amps in separate setups at different place might make the differences among them virtually indiscernible.
 
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metalmickey

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thats bad ranjeet! i meant the theft...hope no one was injured....time to spec up the security system....anyway back to the thread...exccellent review as usual...though cant afford these hotties :p right now and have a chinese rip off already!...yaqin mc-10l which can be modded to the specs of model 2!(mine has 6n1's which can be replaced/modded to use the 12ax?7's)...
 
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I was shaken with disbelief by the theft :mad:

Yaqin amps are no wimps. They are poor man's Mark Levinson :eek:hyeah: I was contemplating getting one, but then, shuffling through too many equipments is way too time consuming than I'd prefer. So I decided to skip the Yaqin experience.
 
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Internationally, the tube amp market is quite huge. Especially, if you start counting the Chinese manufacturers. China has a very developed tube amp industry. Part reason being that due to its military past they are still manufacturing tubes. Not to mention they are excellent in cloning anything.

Internationally, tube amps come in all sizes, shapes and prices. We can only compare them by setting a proper frame of reference.
 

sidvee

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In early 2000 when I used to travel to Shanghai frequently I picked up a pair of Aurum Cantus speakers with ribbon tweeter (I believe I paid $500). I later realized that these were being rebranded as Red Rose Rosebud and sold at 4-5 times the price at the red rose store in Manhattan (the current rosebud II is priced at $3500). Not sure if the same thing is being done with the amp., but I would be careful with this brand. Of-course if it is purely based on sound quality they sound very good, but when it comes to VFM it is a different thing.
Cheers,
Sid
 
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Yes, I am aware of Red Rose Speakers using Aurum Cantus drivers. Their speakers are same/similar too. However, since the word has gone out, Red Rose Music is lying low now. In the meantime, Aurum Cantus has gone ahead and created many flagship products one after the other.

Oh by the way, Red Rose Music Model 2 is not a copy of a Chinese amp, rather it is based on a AudioPrism design. The manufacturer claims that Model 2 is not a copy, rather it uses an upgraded circuitry with much higher grade components. If his claim is true, the extra price Red Rose Music is asking for might well be justified. But, like in all things audio, you never know until you hear them.
 
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