Sugden Masterclass Preamp and Mono Amps Reviewed

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Sugden Masterclass Preamp and Mono Amps Reviewed

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As I was warned, the Sugdens demand a full warm-up, hence my insistence in leaving them on for a couple of weeks. You could hear the sound improving in the first half-hour, optimum temperature reached after about two hours, as the mid grew warmer, the highs sweeter and the bass more refined. But even from cold the Sugden system displays its clearly defined character, a sound reminiscent of the earliest Krells, had they mated with a classic Sugden. But, curious as it may seem, there's more than a touch of valve warmth - not what I expected, even with an ex-Audio Note staffer on-board.

As if to confirm everything positive that's be written about Class A operation, the Sugdens are eerily free of a certain type of peculiarly solid-state irritant. There's little in the sound to suggest the onset of fatigue, especially a grain-free top end with a sweet richness that, frankly, is out of fashion in the digital era, when a whole generation of lobotomised cretins is being bred to regard MP3 sound as acceptable. There's nothing deceptive going on here, and it's not as if Sugden 'dialled in' a facsimile of tubes. It's merely an affirmation of all that is right about tubes.

This lushness carries down through the midband, just before a slight tightening in the lower mid which carries on all the way to the lower limits. But the Sugdens do not possess the kind of chunky bass thwack associated with big tranny amps. As if to disarm its audience, the Masterclass system exhibits an almost reticent bass a whole lifetime away from the all-night-rave assault that is now the norm. For me, it was a bonus, given that the Wilson system already fills my room with as much in-your-face bass as it can handle, but it did make the amps sound a bit light or less solid when auditioning them alongside Theta's Dreadnaught.

How ever much you do or don't want to attribute this to Class A operation, the Sugden amps manifest a level of detail and delicacy which ear-mark the pre-amp, but which I though would be compromised down the amplification chain. It's this particular trait which makes the two so ideally matched, the Masterclass pre-amp seeming almost effete when driving the Theta. But it's a precious thing, usually the preserve of 300B-based single-ended triodes (indeed, their only real virtue), and it was a treat to find it in a powerhouse like the Sugden.


And the Sugden is also blessed with an openness and airiness that creates a heightened sense of three-dimensional bass. Coinciding with the arrival of the Sugdens were some new uber-schmaltz packages - a 4CD Streisand set and a double Andy Williams best of - marked by the rich, silky sound best exemplified by Capitol recordings of a decade earlier. The Sugdens caressed the nuances, especially the vocal ticks that keep you from mistaking Williams for Bennett or Streisand for Minelli. Then again, you'd have to be as stupid and deaf as an MP3 supporter to do that in the first place. It strikes me that Sugden has wrapped a retro experience in an ultra-modern package, not unlike what Mazda did with its MX-5, a modern replacement for a Sixties British roadster.

Sugden's Masterclass units, then, are an ingenious way of enjoying the bliss of Golden Age hardware without the anguish, while avoiding limited edition reproductions, vintage refurbs and the like. They therefore occupy a curious position where they have the driving capability, command and sheer force of a massive US amplifier, but they remain - I dunno, , even when forced to reproduce the likes of Nirvana or Guns'n'Roses or Ozric Tentacles. Think of it as Monty instead of Patton, or Brian Epstein instead of Col. Tom. Quite clearly, the new-wave Sugdens reveal a company unafraid of following its own tradition-led muse while giving lip service to 21st Century demands. I think, then, that we're about to witness the rebirth of a brand that was in danger of falling into the 'Whatever Happened To...?' listing. And for xenophobes, especially from Yorkshire, that's good news indeed.

Read more audiophile stereo and integrated amp reviews from Copland, Krell, Cello, Audio Research, Mark Levinson and others by clicking here.

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