A valve amp at 1300 Euros sounds like a bit of a bargain. Add to the package an onboard phonostage and DAC and this Italian package starts to look even more attractive. Adam Billingham takes this latin beauty for a spin. 

When Hifi Pig Towers sent me my first HiFi mission of reviewing an Italian valve amp I received it with a mixture of both excitement and slight trepidation. I’ve never actually owned a valve amp, though I’ve listened to rather a few at various HiFi shows and other people’s homes, but I always thought them to be expensive, a little fussy and rather too esoteric for a modern music listener like myself. While I found many of these amps to be undoubtedly beautiful, there is surely nothing more beautiful in the electronics world than the soft glow of beautifully created tubes, I think I probably rather unfairly thought that valve amps were probably owned by the older HiFi listener who enjoyed craft ale and discussed what was the best von Karajan recording. Synthesis’ beautiful little Soprano amp was about to put a bullet to the head of my rather ignorant pre-conceptions.

If you haven’t heard of Synthesis, they are an Italian company set up in 1992 by Luigi Lorenzon with over 20 products in their portfolio of amps, CD’s, DACs and headphone amps. Now having owned a couple of Italian motorbikes I know that the Italians know how to create something of beauty and the gorgeous little Soprano amp is no different. 

BUILD AND FEATURES

Unpacking the packaging to reveal a rather hefty black box (10kg) I was surprised of its relatively small dimensions (310*295*150mm). On the right hand side, you have the guts of the amp that houses the power supply and has the large volume knob, power switch and input selector switches. The left half of the amp contains the 4 Electro Harmonix EL84 tubes with a 7 layered grill that protects the tubes, disperses heat and gives the amp a rather sexy look. On the rear of the amp you have a pair of speaker terminals, RCA line in, moving magnet phono input and a Coax, Optical and USB input. So that’s a great start and for me the perfect combination of inputs for the heart of any modern music system. One thing that did worry me, however, was that the large volume control felt rather badly made, with a rather too soft feel on turning and also it was slightly askew (to be fair this was a review/demo amp so might well have been knocked a little) and also the remote was serviceable but rather cheap feeling. Had corners been cut elsewhere I wondered as I plugged her all in, turned her on and gave her a good few hours warm-up time?

SOUND QUALITY

So, I thought I’d start her off slowly with a bit of Richard Hawley’s Late Night Final album on CD, an album full of reverbed atmospherics, 50’s guitar, sparse percussion, and Richards splendid voice. Straight away I sat up in my chair, the Soprano started to deliver. The first thing I noticed was the beautiful balance the Soprano managed to convey in the music; everything just sat in the right place in the mix. Richard’s voice seemed to be conveyed with even more warmth and the highs of the jangly guitars avoided any shrillness and had a beautiful clarity, sitting nicely forward in the mix, the drums had great attack but weren’t in your face and the reverberated FX surrounded me like a warm blanket, showing off the imaging this amp could deliver. Precious Sight is one track with lots of deep, synthesised bass all the way through and the Soprano delivered it beautifully, giving plenty of depth, as well as a fabulous tone without muddying the rest of the mix. I was impressed already.

Next up to was First Aid KKit’sdebut album, The Big Black and The Blue, another album I thought would suit the tonal qualities of a tube amp. There is a beautiful refinement that the amp brings to the Swedish Soderberg sister’s folky pop. Again, there is that fantastic balance in the sound that this little amp manages to bring; nothing stands out strikingly in the mix yet everything has its own space, with great dynamics. Vocals and guitars are definitely a thing the Soprano deals with with such finesse that it should be wearing a dinner jacket. There is no lack of excitement and clarity in its delivery though so don’t mistake its finesse for dullness.

So, I’d broken her in with some laidback music, next was to see how she handled something a little more dynamically challenging. James Blake’s self-titled debut is all analogue synthesisers, heavy bass, and electronic percussion, with fantastic production that I thought might prove a bit of a challenge for the little Italian but once again she shone. James’ vocals still sat perfectly against the tight drums and the filtered Dave Smith Prophet 8. One track, Limit To Your Love, is one of my go-to tracks when reviewing kit for myself, with its beautiful piano, haunting vocals, and thunderous sub bass. Even the bass didn’t put her off her step and she remained calm and composed, delivering the sub with warmth and without a hint of fatigue.

Throughout these tracks on CD I compared the analogue output from my Primare CD32 and the optical output. The DAC also performed very well for an inbuilt bit of kit and still retained excellent detail and warmth. The highs were probably a little more pronounced but in no way were they shrill or over the top. On some of the less quality recordings it perhaps wasn’t quite as forgiving as my CD player but for an inbuilt DAC it performed sterling work.

PHONO STAGE

Finally, I thought I’d put the inbuilt phono stage to test. I started her off with Tom Mischs’ excellent debut Geography. Again, for an inbuilt phono stage, the little Italian cutey performed excellent work, delivering the crisp synthesised drums with plenty of energy and Toms’ fabulous George Benson like guitar work with fluidity and gusto. Later on a bit of Zep also showed that while not the first word in sharp dynamics the Soprano was more than able to give plenty of excitement, animation, and fun to the thundering foursome. She may have not been quite as detailed as my Primare R32 stage but she would be more than satisfactory to those with a mid-range deck.

CONCLUSION

Throughout my time with the Soprano the one thing I loved about her the most was just her beautiful sense of musicality she bought to everything I listened to. I know that one shouldn’t judge power by watts (The Soprano is rated at 12w per channel) but my LS50s, while beautifully accurate, are a little harder to drive than most but at no time did the amp get flustered at volumes that were more than plenty for my listening room. There were several times while listening with her that I got goose pimples and a big smile on my face from music that I have heard dozens, if not hundreds of times before and this is the best thing a good bit of kit can offer. I started my journey being a little bit of an inverse snob about what this tube amp could offer but I came out the other side wanting to keep her. With a name like ‘Soprano’, with her italic writing you can see why I might have thought this is an amp for the past but actually, I couldn’t have been more wrong this is an amp very much in the present with an analogue heritage as well as a digital future. If you have ever dreamed of an affair with a beautiful Italian and are in the market for an amp around the £1000 mark you absolutely owe it to yourself to give the little Soprano a listen. I for one will be very sad to part ways with her.

AT A GLANCE

Build Quality: Very well built except for that irritatingly cheap volume knob!

Sound Quality: Excellent throughout. Warmth, precision and detail in equal measure.

Value For Money: Outstanding. A great sounding valve amp with inbuilt DAC and phono stage, what’s not to love.

Pros: Great selection of inputs and a wonderful warm sound.

Cons: Some might be put off by the apparent lower power rating. That volume knob!

Price: 1300 Euros

Adam Billingham

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review Equipment: Kef LS50, Primare CD32, Michell Gyrodec, Audiomods arm, Ortofon Black cartridge.

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