Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Tale of Two Amps (Part 2) The Sonofa'GUM SG-5500

Like the McChanson SET, the REDGUM Sonofa is one of the best bang for buck amplifiers around at the moment, and when it comes to solid state it may just be the very best value on the market fullstop.

The name REDGUM should be better known than the name McChanson, but like McChanson, REDGUM is hardly the household name that Rega, NAD, Rotel, Denon, Technics, Sony, Yamaha etc have become. REDGUM are a small and specialised HiFi business operating on the outskirts of Melbourne (Australia). They do a a range of stereo gear, but their big speciality is amplifiers, and they produce an impressive range. From the Sonofa, which is their baby amp at AUD $699, right up to their AUD$19,000 monoblocks.

The Sonofa is the latest model added to their range and it departs from the usual REDGUM formula of "Made in Australia." REDGUM had the Sonofa made in China, so they could keep the prices down of what they see as being the introductory model to their range. Sonically, it's a REDGUM design, for sure, and they modify the units once they arrive back in Australia. Presumably to prevent the Chinese factories from producing grey label copies.

I don't need to give a long review here of how good this amplifier is. Michael O'Conner has already done that for Audio and Video Lifestyle magazine, and he knows how to talk about stereo gear better than I do. So I can only give you my personal experiences.

Out of the box, it's got weight and substance to it. It's an immaculate build and as Michael says in his review -- think Rotel. So you set it up and plug it in. It sounds good, really good, but it is also one of the most interesting sounding amplifiers I have ever heard. Hard to put a finger on. It's different, but a good different, and I'm thinking that maybe this is the REDGUM sound that gets talked about. But it will probably need burn in I say to myself. I have been so conscious of burn in since I started to upgrade my equipment and am constantly amazed at some professional reviewers who appear to review quality stereo equipment straight out of the box. What you hear today will always sound better tomorrow, unless of course it's a cheap, ordinary piece of gear. But that is not what we are talking about here.

Cut to three weeks later and the amplifier is fully burned in and and has been delivering exceptional music. There is clarity across the mid-range and the bass is exceptional, and the overall sound has a sharp definite punch to it. This is a powerful amplifier. It kicks and keeps the clarity at its 55 watts per channel. No distortion in sound whatsoever as you pump the volume.

Speaking to Lindy Gerber at REDGUM, she told me that she believed the amp would be great for somebody who wanted to replace one of their classic Japanese amps that was getting a bit long in the tooth. While I agree with her, kind of, I think she was being too generous, and maybe underselling the Sonofa. The Sonofa is a better and very different amplifier to the classic and reasonably priced Japanese amps that we all know and love so well. It has much better clarity across the mid-range, and its bass is sharp and tight. Not the more boomy bass which has always been a problem with the mid-market Japanese amps in my opinion, and something that has always sent me seeking alternatives. I like reggae and amps that boom the bass turn reggae into a mess. The Sonofa handles reggae beautifully, as it does everything else. I am tempted to say that it really excels with rock music, but some further listening is needed.

My own view about Sonofa is that it handles bass just so well, that it sounds more like a great Brit amp (I'm thinking QED) from the mid 90s, when reggae was big in the UK.

Is there anything else that I need to say? Maybe a couple of things. The burn in period of 2 to 3 weeks is really important if you only play vinyl. On CD it doesn't probably need so long, although after 3 weeks it starts to do soundstaging on CD really well, and I guess that does matter if you like CD.

This amp, like a valve amp, needs warm up. I believe this is because of the large toroid transformer (180VA) REDGUM use in all their gear (the same thing that is responsible for their big sound?). It needs five minutes to warm up in standby, and about 20 minutes if you have shut the amp completely down at any stage.

You can get this amp direct from the REDGUM site or try The Wizard on Ebay. Make him an offer like I did. The Wizard also has a link to the Michael O'Conner review I mentioned above.

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