Yes, the A21a's extra headroom, courtesy of another 15W/ch, is substantial, but the oldie still drives some ornery speakers like Quad ESLs and LS3/5As with ease; the New Audio Frontiers speakers are so sensitive that the elder amp's volume control never strayed past 11 o'clock. So 'loud' just ain't an issue. But what the A21 Series Two has which will keep lucky owners from ever letting go of this thirtysomething is a sort of gentility, a breeding, a type ofwhich isn't just a part of the original 1967 design; it's redolent of the era.
Which is not to say that the A21a is brash or rude or vulgar. Quite simply, it's . Which is a couple of characters too long to be a four-letter word. In this sense it means 'analytical', 'matter-of-fact' - almost cold-blooded. And that's as it should be, if we're true to the goals of accuracy, low-coloration and an absence of distortion. The A21a, nostalgia and valve prejudices and high-end leanings be damned, is absolutely faithful to its . At the risk of incurring a wave of wrath from across the pond from which I might never recover, I have to say that the A21a made me think continually of...Krell.
It possesses, on a far smaller scale, of course, the kind of virtues which make Krells THE choice for a large number of high-end customers of the solid-state persuasion. The Sugden's sound is detailed, coherent, top-to-bottom consistent and cut into the air with a precision that suggests keyhole surgery. Even with bass-heavy recordings and while driving massive towers like the References, the bass never flubbed, never exhibited a teensy trace of overhang. Treble attack was ideal for listening to flurries of fast trumpet and guitar work, especially if coming from a system which made it impossible to separate the notes. And the A21a understands three-dimension soundstages.
Of course, the Sugden lacks the slam of a 3000-plus powerhouse. It will not crack plaster, though it will produce levels to earn you a place on if you own high-sensitivity speakers. Sorry, gang, but headbanging costs loadsamoney. Conversely, the Sugden will never place you in the invidious position familiar to NAD3020 masoch- er, owners, whose amps struggled to drive a pair of cans. The Sugden is like Goldilocks' preferred porridge. Oops, there's that subliminal gold message...
Sonically, then, there's no downside unless you swear by single-ended triodes or push-pull EL34s, in which case Class-A solid state amp would prove to be an anathema. Rather, the A21a is a delightful stepping-stone toward Krell and the like, for those wa-a-ay short of the requisite dosh. At 749 in line level form, its adjusted-for-1998 pricing means that inflation has touched Sugden only a bit; the company says that working backwards, 749 is the equivalent of 72.50 circa 1967.
Then there's the mm+mc phono stage for another 70. Alas, I preferred the smoother, quieter NAD PP-1 at 39.95, but that lacks moving-coil suitability. A competent Sugden dealer, however, will certainly allow you to hear a phono-equipped A21a against an A21a with an outboard phono section of your own choice.
But don't let the question of the phono stage distract you. The Sugden A21a, now that the Musical Fidelity A1 is a memory, is the choice if you want affordable Class-A. Phrased that way, you might think I'm describing a victory by default. Not so: the Sugden has few rivals at or near its price; my personal shortlist features only the Audio Analogue Puccini SE and the Musical Fidelity X-A1.
Remember: we're talking about an amp made by salt-of-the-earth Yorkshiremen who can't be bothered with the nonsense attached to specialty audio. They'll never shout about the A21a, any more than they boasted about their own pioneering efforts in making Class-A technology available to the masses. And this is behaviour which makes the Sugden A21a the best-kept secret in British hi-fi.