Sonneteer Alabaster Review
Sonneteer's new Alabaster integrated amp is sweet music to the ears of Nick Tate.
Yes folks, another specialist integrated from a small British manufacturer. Regular readers will know we've reviewed a lot of these beasties recently, and that from Roksan's Caspian to LFD's Mistral we liked what we heard. This is great news for buyers, but it means any new product has to be more than a little special to justify it existence on Planet Hi-Fi.
Enter Sonneteer's Alabaster, a new big brother to the Campion, itself a charming mid-price integrated of several years' vintage. According to Sonneteer, it's pretty much a Campion with big boots on. Based on the same circuit topology, the Alabaster features up rated components and a much bigger toroidal transformer to cope with 50 watts a side into eight ohms in Class AB mode.
Noting to write home about you may say, but what's special is its ability to almost double that figure into four ohms. With more puling power than a Dodge Viper, it's an ideal partner for difficult 'speakers. But unlike big Yank tanks, the Alabaster runs rather hot - or should I say toast-burning, egg-frying, gas-central-heating-type hot. Sonneteer insist this isn't a problem, pointing out that it cools down when in use, which it does. But put it this way; if it was a car, you'd fit an electric fan.
Still, whatever your opinions on it's winter warming potential, you can't dispute the fact that the Alabaster is beautifully screwed together. It's a large, heavy affair with a thick brightened aluminium facia, chunky knobs for power, volume and source selection and - cue fanfare - a blue power LED. Yes, everyone's at it these days, from Alchemist to Rose to Shearne. Even though they cost a whole £1 more than boring old red ones, blue LEDs are supposedly les trucs du chien. I'm sure Versace would have approved.
Inside, the Alabaster is pretty conventional, comprising the aforementioned huge toroid and two separately rectified boards for pre and power amp sections respectively. No fancy capacitors or resistors here, just your standard ALPS blue volume pot, good OFC copper wire and military spec components. Sonneteer's philosophy is that proper basic design is far more important than any amount of designer label parts. Round the back there are bi-wireable 'speaker sockets, five sets of nickel-plated RCAs and the standard IEC mains input.
So how does the Alabaster sound? I must confess that I was initially rather cynical about such an expensive integrated amp, what with its pretty facia and fancy lights. But my fears were soon allayed as the Sonneteer got down to playing music. Bi-wired to Mission 752 Freedoms, it proved alluring and seductive. Rather than hitting you between the eyes with a whizz-bang sound - like Teac's similarly priced AX-BIO, say - it enticed you into the music and held your concentration right to the end.
Indeed, after Randy Crawford's "You Might Need Somebody" had finished, I suddenly remembered I was supposed to be reviewing the amp rather than sitting there transfixed, marvelling at the power of her voice and the beauty of the arrangement. Same story with the Crusader's "Street Life", where I really got a good sense of the Musicians' feel for the music. Here was a genuine musical event instead of a mere hi-fi reproduction, the Sonneteer relaying that uncanny spark between players that you so rarely here outside a live gig.
So, how about the Alabaster's technique? Bass was full and fruity - quite Sugden A21-a-like in this respect. It was also very tuneful, with bass lines playing more of a part in the proceedings than, for instance, Meridian's similarly priced (and excellent) 551. Mid band was very clean and clear - easily better than Rose's £615 Scion integrated I had to hand for comparisons, and much more transparent than I remember its baby brother the Campion being. Even though there was a lot of detail there - enough to show faults in recordings that many amps can't resolve - the Alabaster didn't let the imperfections interfere with the music, always a sign of good breeding.
Treble was a treat too. Although not quite as transparent as the mid band it was pleasantly sweet and crisp, again in the idiom of Sugden. The Sonneteer really sang with Classic Records' superb remastering of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue. With loads of depth, atmosphere and subtlety to cymbals, you could hear right through the studio acoustic to the old valve tape recorder. Impressive stuff.
Dynamically the Alabaster was spot on as well. It may have lacked the sheer wallop of my reference 100W Sony Esprit V-FET power amp but it was easily better at those tiny little accents, inflections and nuances that bring music alive. Along with its excellent timing (the Alabaster can stop and go better than Eddie Irvine) this made for a very enjoyable rendition of REM's 'Near Wild Heaven'. Without sounding up-front or aggressive, it conveyed the power and scale of the song along with all its intricacies (such as Peter Buck's masterly guitar picking) like a true pro. In fact, I've yet to hear a more emotive rendition of this lost REM gem on any other integrated.
Faults! Few and far between. If pushed I'd venture that despite its richness and fluidity, the Sonneteer sounds just a tad transistory; it lacks that nth degree of smoothness that the A21 has in spades. But that said, the Sonneteer can easily drive awkward 'speakers that the Sugden wouldn't have a chance with, my Linn Kan 2s being but one example.
The other gripe is that there's no phono stage. As far as I'm concerned this is like strawberries without the cream - just not right. And when you consider that sonneteer's off-board head amp costs and extra $400, it's time for a quick 'ho-hum'.
Despite my grumbles, the Alabaster is an extremely impressive device. With that elusive combination of a sweet mellifluous, musical sound with sledgehammer 'speaker driving ability, it could be just what you've always wanted - I know I wasn't too happy about having to give it back. It's one red-hot amp, and I don't just mean the heat-sink casing.
WORLD VERDICT : * * * *
Excellent high-end integrated with a
real love of music and plenty of poke.