In a world awash with sub-$2000 Chinese-made tube amps, it takes a lot to make one that stands out from the crowd. Some champions have already emerged, especially the PrimaLunas, but there's an overwhelming sense of "so what?" to the genre.
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Then something grabs you, as Melody's SP3 grabbed me. It is a non-sequitur, resembling only one slightly dearer model in the range, and it's very much entry-level: integrated, minimal facilities, small footprint, small price tag. The rest of the catalogue is decidedly more up-market.
As ever, the first thing about a component that either seduces or repels is the looks. With the SP3, it's so butch yet so adorable that you want to take it home and put it on a shelf full of either scale model Hummers or stuffed toys. Its footprint of only 11.9 by 8.1 by 13.25 inches (W/H/D) takes up barely two-thirds the space of an LP sleeve. Colored titanium gray, it oozes macho presence from its solid aluminum face plate to the hardware on top.
If this were a teenager, it would be a heavily-pierced Goth. The curved front is so carved from solid heavy metal that you have to chuckle at its Spinal Tap insouciance. Containing an impressive 10 valves - four 5881 output tubes and two each of 12AX7, 12AU7 and 6922 for preamp and driver duties - the SP3 uses a nifty mix of an easy-to-remove perforated valve cage for the output tubes and six delightfully old-fashioned slip-on sleeves to protect the glassware.
Minimalism defines the facilities and controls. The front panel contains only a volume rotary and pilot light. On-off is a rocker switch on the left side, while you can choose between its two inputs with a rocker on the right. On the rear panel are multi-way speaker terminals that allow you to choose between four or eight ohms, phono inputs and an IEC mains input. Interestingly, given the paucity of features, the unit does offer user-adjustable bias facilities on either side of the unit.
Despite this simplicity and the need to keep an eye on costs, corners do not appear to have been cut. It has robust, gold-plated terminals and sockets, the volume control is a proper 24-step switched attenuator, there's a mix of hard-wiring and PCBs inside and the unit delivers a sensible 36 watts per channel, enough to work the PMC DB1+ and the Tannoy Autograph Minis in a 12- by 18-foot room.
Blatantly, this unit has no issues with punching above its weight. In terms of both SPLs and bass response, it sounds like a bigger amplifier; I wouldn't have registered any surprise if someone told me it carried four 6550s. Its grunt will drive most "usual suspect" two-way speakers, its affinity with the PMCs promising an audiophile-satisfying system for under £2000.
What raises it above China's budget brigade is surprisingly grown-up detail and clarity. The re-mastered Doors catalogue - especially Strange Days (Elektra/Rhino 8122 79998 4) - offers a gourmet feast of previously unheard mixes: missed vocals, guitar fills, etc. The SP3 handles low-level information with such aplomb that it suggests an almost magical handling of residual noise. Even without tweaking - no tube dampers, no trick stands or feet - the SP3 demonstrated almost exactly the finesse I expect to sacrifice at this price.
Jim Morrison's familiar vocals, part husky, part liquid, enjoyed substantial body and presence, free of artifice. Sibilance was negligible, warmth was a given. You just gotta love it. Julie London's voice, followed by something from the other extreme - "Teenage Dirtbag" by Wheatus - identify this as an amp for those who adore vocal textures. Scarily, its mid-band is almost LS3/5A-worthy: accurate, clear, revelatory.
Beyond that, this little bugger actually rocks. With "Hello I Love You," the charging bass lines, militaristic drumming and cheesy organ revealed a rhythm section that never earned the plaudits it deserved. Those with taste love The Doors as a band that complimented Jim Morrison to a "T." But the new recordings remind us that Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger and John Densmore were/are sublime musicians, producing licks rarely heard on other works of the period. Melody's smallest allows the instruments to form a cohesive whole, while providing enough openness and clarity to allow you to focus on one virtuoso at a time.
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