Sprout by PS Audio

Sprout is the brainchild of the young passionate audiophile Scott McGowan, the son of PS Audio CEO Paul McGowan. It is a new stereo integrated amplifier that he designed, partly motivated as a way of bringing into the high-end fold a younger generation of music lovers who for the most part are typically viewed as only listening to music in MP3 format on an iPod, iPhone and with headphones.

Another motivation was to make quality modern audio equipment accessible and simple for the average person (of any age)—and without having to take out a mortgage to do so. In one small box—only 6” W x 8” L x 1.75” H and weighing in at only 2.9 lbs—Sprout contains a remarkable array of well thought out high-quality audiophile goodies.

In addition to a well-made internal power supply, it contains a passive EQ moving magnet phono preamplifier, a powerful headphone amp (with a 1/4” jack), a stereo Class D amp at 50 watts per channel (at 4 Ohms, 32 watts at 8 Ohms), an analog preamplifier, a 24/192 fully asynchronous DAC (with XMOS USB input, using a fine Wolfson WM8524 chip), and an analog stepped volume control. It also has a built in Bluetooth receiver that allows wireless streaming to its DAC. And all of this for a retail price of $799.

I had the pleasure of meeting Scott McGowan in his delightful ‘Sprout Lounge’ when I helped cover the RMAF back in October 2014 for Audiophilia; but I did not have a chance to listen to the Sprout at length let alone carefully analyze its diverse capabilities. McGowan kindly helped arrange for me to obtain a Sprout for this review.

How does it look and how do you control it?

When the Sprout arrived, I was immediately taken by how tiny it was. Even though I knew the dimensions on paper, I had not recalled visually it being that small—and only 2.9 pounds. I was quite amazed. On the PS Audio website it is mentioned that McGowan personally likes the designing style of both Braun’s Dieter Rams and Apple’s Jony Ive, and this is evident. The top is a beautiful walnut wood, while the front and sides are a sleek silver colored metal. Visually and operationally, it is as simple as can be, a welcome change from the sometimes hopelessly overly complex high-end electronic devices we normally deal with in high end audio.

Sprout has only two (entirely manual and stepped) control knobs on the front, one for ‘mode’ selection from among vinyl, analog, digital, or Bluetooth, and the other for volume; and there is no remote control—one fewer thing to lose, or have one of my young children break, or sit on by mistake—no display monitors or even lights. To the left of the mode knob is the headphone jack. And that is it. Purposely very tactile by McGowan’s design. The power switch is on the back where a slew of inputs/outputs can be found beyond the speaker connectors, including a USB and a coaxial digital input, RCA phono inputs–with a ground, an analog 3.5mm stereo input (for TV, radio or even an analog reel-to-reel tape deck), and an additional analog out 3.5mm stereo connector for using a subwoofer or external amp. Finally, if you so wish, you can use your own power cord versus the stock one.

Decathlon?

What quickly dawned on me was the fact that this one simple unit could already do at least three significant things that my expensive high-end audio system could not: (1) It could play vinyl—I have no phono preamp, (2) it could be used as a headphone amp—I don’t have one; and because it has a built in DAC with USB input, all I would have to do to use headphones is to snap my music server’s USB cord into the Sprout instead of into my current DAC. Finally (3) (very cool indeed) it could wirelessly be streamed music to its DAC via its internal Bluetooth receiver from my iPhone/iPad/computer; no USB cables, IP addresses and such to complicate matters.

I thus sensed a kind of ‘Decathlon’ device here: Not meant to be (or claiming to be) best at any one thing, but very good at all—particularly for the money. Moreover, because of its small size and weight, one could carry it around in a backpack just like a laptop, and ‘roam about with the Sprout’ to visit friends and audiophiles alike. I quickly became enthusiastic and excited thinking through all of these possibilities— it made me feel young again. So, I did what I thought most audiophiles in my shoes would have done: I bought a trendy pair of sunglasses, a new watch, and a nifty backpack that would safely hold the Sprout to roam about with—part of my planned method of review. Except for my new bulky Casio G-shock watch–which made all potential young audiophiles look at me in wonder (‘He must be at least 50 years old, right?’)–my plan worked: I had a blast reviewing the Sprout.

Preparing for this review

A top priority of mine in preparation for this review was to choose an appropriate pair of audiophile quality headphones to match with the Sprout. I sure did succeed: The wonderful Master & Dynamic MH40 headphones, which retail for $399. I was very familiar with these headphones having tried them out on various headphone amps over the last 5 months or so starting with the New York Audio Show last Fall (2014). In the end (I tell the result now): Perfect match. They are slim and portable, very solidly made, offer outstanding detailed sound for the money, use comfortable high-grade leather, and have a beautiful stylish design. They also allow the cable (thin and elegant) to be plugged into either the left or the right side (you choose) and have a tiny mute button on the right driver. For my review, Jonathan Levine, CEO and Founder of Master & Dynamic generously let me use a new pair of the MH40S2 version (brown leather/ silver). My new backpack arrived too, and it was just right for the task ahead; its description included:

‘With it’s distinctive swerve design and padded computer sleeve, the High Sierra Swerve day pack will comfortably carry your gear all day long. The multi-compartment design has a padded computer sleeve with back access that accommodates a 15-inch laptop.’ 

Replace ‘15-inch laptop’ with ‘8-inch Sprout’. I was now ready to start my review in earnest.

At home with the Sprout

The instruction booklet for the Sprout was tiny also; about 10 pages or so. I never had to use it; all was so plainly obvious. But, I skimmed through the booklet anyhow so as to gauge how an uninitiated audio user might react, and concluded it was very easy to understand. I couldn’t help contrasting that with my new watch’s 200 pages or so user’s guide, and the fact that after two days I still had not been able to set the location (NYC) and date on the watch properly.

The first thing I did—and was able to do it with ease within 5 minutes of the Sprout’s arrival— was to use the Sprout at home as a headphone amp/DAC, using my Mac-Mini music server with JRiver MediaCenter and USB. I was quite taken by surprise at the quality of sound. From bass on up to the high ends, the sound was smooth, transparent and musical. Many headphone amps that are not even endowed with an internal DAC can easily cost at least as much as the Sprout does itself, but what really struck me: The Sprout is already a bargain just as a headphone amp/DAC combo.

Continuing with headphones, I then tried the Bluetooth streaming using my iPhone, and then MacBook Air using iTunes, Safari and other software/Apps; this simply dazzled me. Its so-easy-to-use interface by just turning on Bluetooth on your device and connecting to ‘Sprout’ as an option that comes right up in the display of your device is a winner. I had never done this sort of thing before–I quickly became addicted. The clincher was this: As I was obsessively and intensely listening to the Sprout with headphones near my system cabinet at 2:00 a.m., my wife was working on her MacBook Air to make an online birthday invitation for one of our daughters. She wanted me to choose some music that would be part of the invitation. I was a dash irritated to have my precious reviewing/testing of the Sprout interfered with each time she requested me to come to the kitchen to listen. After the second such request it quickly dawned on me: Bluetooth her MacBook Air to the Sprout and off we go! It was a great success, and I ended up killing two birds with one stone. I chose the Byrds 1965 rendition of ‘Turn,Turn,Turn’ since our daughter was ‘Turning 2’.

At that point next up was to use the Sprout (again with digital source only) as a stereo amp and DAC to replace my $12,000–700 Watts per channel–class D pair of Merrill Audio Veritas mono-block amps, $6,000 PS Audio Direct Stream DAC, and sending the analog output to my $15,000 pair of Alta Audio FRM-2 speakers. Very unfair of course, and trying to use my heavy and very thick speaker cables (spade ends for the amps) was not easy, requiring placing a weight on the Sprout so as not to pull it off the shelf; but yet again the Sprout performed way better than I ever thought was possible: a clean, smooth, detailed and natural sound, with a decent sized soundstage and decent imaging—very respectable; impressive indeed.

But the real eye opener came when I streamed CD resolution rips from my MacBook Air over the Bluetooth versus playing the same rip via the USB cord with Mac Mini music server. One can simply toggle back and forth between the two modes (Digital/Bluetooth) to compare as they play at the same time: any difference was slight. I was dazzled yet again-even more than when I used the headphones. This was a revelation. Because of this, I went back to using the headphone amp mode (no speakers) and re-testing (much more carefully) the comparison between the Bluetooth from my MacBook Air versus USB from my music server. I was extremely impressed, so much so that I showed this to my trusted IT guy (at work), Sam Lee, for perusal. He said, ‘I have never heard such fine audio sound over Bluetooth, I did not think it possible; quite amazing!’.

At this point, I queried McGowan directly by email and asked what is the Sprout doing with Bluetooth differently/better than others to make this sound so good? After all, Bluetooth devices are not known to be high-fidelity quality devices. His answer was:

The vast majority of Bluetooth implementations on the market rely on the DAC internal to the Bluetooth module. While these DACs have good specifications, we did not like their sound. Instead, we pull the raw data from the Bluetooth module and pass it directly to Sprouts internal Wolfson DAC making it nearly indistinguishable from any other digital input.

Of important final note is that unlike my high-end system, using the Sprout as I did above in the various ways requires no analog interconnect cables which can be an expensive component of an audio system—only a USB cable and speaker cables at most.

Creating an audiophile quality entry-level system with the Sprout

What became obvious to me: The inexpensive Sprout unit together with a computer as music server, reasonably priced audiophile quality pair of both headphones and speakers could yield an exceptional entry-level audiophile quality system in and of itself for the home. So, I took the next step to test this point. I contacted my friend Mike Levy, who is the CEO and Founder of Alta Audio, and asked to borrow a pair of his remarkable small ‘Solo’ speakers which weigh only 15 lbs each and cost about 1/10th of the price of my FRM-2s. He kindly agreed to do so. I also acquired a much lighter and much less expensive pair of speaker cables for the job that had banana plugs on both ends so as to easily connect them (Anticables Level 2 Performance Series; under 1/2 lb in weight for a 10’ pair). I simply connected the speaker cables and Bluetoothed away immediately. Wonderful sound; deep, full, transparent, natural—hard to believe.

A fantastic match. It yielded a full entry-level audiophile quality system that costs less than $4500 that truly satisfied me. This is computed as follows: Sprout ($799), Speakers ($2000), headphones ($399), computer as music server ($1000 estimate), cabling ($200 estimate for a USB cord and speaker cables). Since, most likely, one already would have a computer, the price drops down to less than $3500. And you could, if you so wish, add on an audiophile quality entry-level turntable and subwoofer for another (estimated total) of $1000.

The author with his PS Audio Sprout and 'streamlined' high end system to match it. Photo credit: Mrs. Sigman

The author with his PS Audio Sprout and 'streamlined' high end system to match it. Photo credit: Mrs. Sigman

What also struck me was that such a system could be carried in the trunk of your car, no sweat; you could take it on vacation with you (OK, maybe not the subwoofer). Even if you already had a much more expensive and more serious high-end system, this could serve as a most convenient back up and traveling companion. And, don’t forget that this system includes the headphone amp and Bluetooth streaming as well. Wow! Others can choose less expensive or more expensive alternative peripherals from what I chose— based on their personal preferences and budget—to create their own system, too.

Roaming about with the Sprout

It was now time to take the Sprout out to visit others and try it out on their systems. In particular, since I do not have a turntable, I wanted to visit someone who does—time to check out the vinyl mode and give the phono preamp a spin. So I popped the Sprout and headphones into my backpack and off I went. My friend and Audiophilia colleague, Martin Appel, happens to live nearby, and he has an exceptional turntable set-up: Avid (Sequel Plus) turntable, SME IV arm, and Shelter 9000 cartridge for a total retail of about $20K. We easily snapped the RCA cables from the turntable into the Sprout and used the grounding as well. It took 3 minutes. We played some tracks from the classic ‘Take Five’ album by The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Impressive result. Martin agreed that the sound quality was very commendable, particularly considering all the other things the Sprout can do. I must soon try the Sprout out on some less expensive (but audiophile quality) entry-level turntables; I am quite intrigued.

Next on my roaming agenda was taking the Sprout to my university office and letting some students (much younger than I) see and listen to it; particularly using the Bluetooth with my MacBook Air. Overall, it was a wonderful experience. Above all, I got to witness a younger generation who have an interest in audio; who knows, maybe I can get them to start an ‘audiophile club’?

Summary

The tiny Sprout leaves a big footprint. In a recent phone conversation with McGowan, he said, ‘It took three years to make this bad boy because we would not compromise on our vision.’ Time well spent. I know of no other such device on the market that packs all this high-quality stuff, does so in such a small, portable and light easy-to-use unit, and at such a low price ($799), let alone with such a remarkably low price/performance ratio.

There are other variations of small integrated amps on the market, but they either do not contain a phono preamp, let alone a Bluetooth receiver, and are heavier, larger and cost more. And the Sprout’s bare-bones tactile simplicity and elegant design style makes it stick out from the crowd for that reason as well. As McGowan also told me, ‘The challenge was to incorporate those vastly different features into something simple and intuitive.’ He certainly succeeded. And although my new watch still does not know where it is and what day it is, at least in addition to my other vices, I can now add onto my CV that I am an avid Bluetooth streamer, potential headphone addict and within inches of allowing a turntable in my home after a 30-year lapse.

Further information: PS Audio