HiFi Review: PS Audio Sprout 100. A Taste of the High End for Low Cash.
By Steve Huff
It’s been a while since I have written a HiFi review! That is because I have been happy with what I have in my main system, enjoying music and life as I should be! Some things have changed (I am an audiophile you know) but all in all I am still enjoying the music without worrying about upgrades or spending more cash.
In fact, lately I have been on a kick to try and find the best BANG FOR THE BUCK HiFi setup that includes a turntable, digital streaming and great speakers. I just needed an integrated amp that came in for as little as possible, yet offered the most quality for my money. This system is to use all quality pieces for the best sound, so no cheap speakers or recievers yet I wanted to keep my budget to under $3k. Impossible? Nahhh!
I also talk about a $1200 complete system below using the sprout that will blow away anything up to $2500. Forgot about those crappy bluetooth speakers you see at Best Buy. If you want real sound, a taste of the real high end in audio…then read on as this may be the best deal in HiFi…ever. I will also tell you how this little Sprout can give you even better sound with some very special $1200 speakers.
Small, simple, elegant. The Sprout 100 offers it all in one box. But is it any good?
MUSIC SPEAKS TO OUR SOUL
Ever since I was 14 I have had a 2 channel stereo system. Ranging from the uber cheap to crazy expensive throughout life, I consider myself a music lover, a man who is passionate about the reproduction of two channel music. At times music has saved me from depression (11 years ago), and has lifted up my mood and my soul. Music to me, is important to have in life and I prefer listening to some music at night over watching TV or mind numbing online content. So I am picky about the gear I use to listen and it has taken me 20 years to build a reference system in my home that cost me way more money than I like to think about. But what that system does for me is feed my soul with music that soothes and it’s what I love, so instead of fancy cars, homes, and items I listen to music ; )
My main system in my home is in a separate dedicated room, and sadly, I listen all by myself 99% of the time. I wanted to see if I could build a modest system in my main living area, and I set the budget to $3000. After much thought I knew I had to give the PS Audio Sprout 100 a try as the main hub for the system. But I wasn’t expecting much to be honest. Let’s see how this goes.
THE PS AUDIO SPROUT 100
I love PS Audio. As an owner of their amazing top end DSD Dac (expensive but truly the best DAC I have ever heard) I knew they were about quality. Even so, when I saw the original Sprout and then the follow up, the Sprout 100…I was skeptical. At $599 I was not believing that this integrated amp, and it’s tiny size, could please these ears. I am picky when it comes to audio (and my cameras) and I have been spoiled by the sound I love. I am no stranger to integrated amps that cost $5500-$10,000 so a little guy like this at $599 had to be “average” right?
When I listen to my reference system I become one with the music. The artists are in the room, performers surround me in a 3D space. This is all from a 2 channel setup. The 3 dimensionality of my main system is stunning. It sucks you in and delivers lifelike music. Most who I demo it to have never heard a true high end audio system, and when they hear mine their jaw drops. One friend even had a tear flow down his cheek after a three song demo. A year later he still says he never heard music sound like he heard it that night. Can the sprout even bring me some of that magic?
PS Audio shows their Spout 100 with a Clearaudio Concept table and KEF LS 50 Speakers.
The Sprout Arrived. Time to set it all up!
So I ordered a Sprout 100 from Amazon at $599 as it had 50 WPC into 8ohms and 100 into 4 ohms. It had what PS Audio called a “world class phono stage” built inside and it also had an analog input and bluetooth capability. Add a nice DAC inside and it’s ready for your ANALOG or DIGITAL needs. It’s very small, yet looked attractive with metal and a real wood top plate. Big dials… what’s not to like about the appearance and features? It’s a tad hefty to, so quality construction.
My goal was to assemble a living room system, with digital and analog and I wanted quality components without spending a fortune. I have had a system here in my home that cost as much as $40,000 (not anymore though as I found I can achieve the same sound for much less). Insane but it was built over 20 years so it took me a long time to get there. Most reviews were highly praising the Sprout 100 and some on forums said it was just “ok”. I was about to find out what this little guy was all about. But first let me show you what I went with for a complete system under $3000. I will also show you how to get this quality for less than half if you are on a tighter budget.
The Technics 1200 and 1210 GR turntables are stunning. NO longer for DJ’s but made for pure audiophile use, this is one of the best Turntables I have ever owned for many reasons. It was thousands less than my old “reference” table and I admit, I like it better. This is the last table I will ever buy. I bought the 1210 GR. (black model)
Here my total budget was $3,000 for a complete HiFi system that would give a taste of the real high end sound for much less cash outlay. So I decided to build this Sprout 100 system like this:
- Technics 1210 GR Turntable $1699. Yes, I have had very nice turntables ranging from the VPI Prime, VPI Classic to a lovely McIntosh and a $5500 Clearaudio deck (that I liked the least actually). Funny enough this Technics beats them all for my eyes and ears and for much less money when it comes to build, features and SOUND though that is subjective. IMO, This direct drive TT is the best kept secret in the audiophile world as most audiophiles would never think that a new production Technics 1210GR (BTW, it is NOT a DJ Table anymore, but made for Audiophiles by Technics) would beat a boutique table. This one does, for me and my ears. It makes some of those high end tables seem…well…cheap. *I found one for $1299 as an open box and find this to be a steal, a bargain for what it is.
- Klipsch RP-600M Speakers $549. Seeing that I adore and love Klipsch Heresy III (review) and Cornwall III (review) I gave the 600M a try. These large bookshelf style monitors have gotten raves as for the money ($550) they perform better than some pricier speakers. No harshness here, no treble bite here. No horn shout. Just smooth, warm and natural leaning BIG sound. The midrange is not the best as it is a little flat and hollow when compared to the $3000 speakers I have heard but for the money, wow! After trying a few speakers with the Sprout 100, these were the best match for me within my limited budget, without question. Synergy is working here for sure and these can play LOUD for concert style volume in your home!
- Sonos for basic streaming $349. No need for high res in this system, and besides, I never saw much benefit to high res files, even in my $40k system. Sometimes they sound worse, etched and non musical. So a Sonos is good enough with a $30 Optical cable from Audioquest. This will not be a sit down critical listening system but more of a room filling music system. Background even, but if I want to sit in the sweet spot I want great performance and some goosebumps as well ; ) But do not use the RCA outs of the Sonos, instead use the optical out to the Sprout 100 optical in. This way you will use the Sprout 100 DAC which is superior to the Sonos DAC.
- Ortofon Bronze Cartridge for the Turntable $400. I tested a few MM cartridges and needed a high output for the phono stage in the Sprout 100. It does not do well with anything but higher output cartridges. I’d recommend not going under 3mv of output. The bronze has 5mV which is high but works great.
- Cables. As of now I have $50 in all cables. Generic. Speaker Cables I use for this review HERE. These are well worth the $35 even if you already have some cheap wire.
I have just under $2800 in this system and am using all really nice components. Now it was time to hook it all up and see if I made a huge mistake or found a system that can rival much more expensive systems. Can it do imaging, soundstage and sound good wile doing it? We shall see…
I set up the speakers on stands I had in my closet (Pangea), placed the Sprout 100 into the system and after testing two phono pre amps (external) I found the internal of the sprout 100 beat them both in the way it made my records sound (the others cost $150 and $450) which impressed me, big time. There was a flow and organic sound to the internal phono pre amp and it was QUIET. It reminded me of what vinyl is supposed to sound like and showed me why Vinyl can be superior to digital. With that said, some will prefer an outboard phono pre amp and if you want to use exotic cartridges that are low output an external is a must. The internal phono stage is a tad dull when compared to a high dollar pre amp but for the money, it’s excellent.
The external pre’s brought more features and gain but the sound was not any better in this case. The two that lost out to the Sprout internal stage for me (in my room and this system) were the Shiit Mani and the Parks Puffin. The Mani had balls and grunt but was a tad too fat sounding for some reason and had some hiss when the volume turned up. Didn’t have the depth that the internal showed me for a bit. The Puffin was cool as heck but overall I found it added a sheen to the sound with this setup, and I think it wasn’t playing well with the Klipsch’s slightly forward midrange. Was like a slight hardness to the sound. I tried dialing it in but over 2 weeks it fatigued me so went back. Could be the synergy just wasn’t there with the speakers, in fact that must be it. It gets rave reviews, and it is amazing for tweaking but I am about the sound, and that is all in this case. The Puffin converts analog to digital which also kind of defeats the purpose of listening to analog.
So a win already for the Sprout 100. Keep in mind though, this internal stage will work well with only MM carts. This is not compatible with low output moving coil carts. But the sound surprised me as normally phono stages built in to an integrated are thin sounding or weak. This one can rock.
The Klipsch RP-600M. These things are amazing for the cost. They look and are built like $1200 speakers and have a synergy with the Sprout. A little on the harder side of neutral but again, for the money…these are beautiful to look and and listen to. A huge step up from those $300 speakers you see on store shelves and for only $250 more. HUGE bang for the buck
After hooking up the Klipsch RP-600M speakers using $30 cables (I am a huge believer in good cables but had to stay in budget here) and then my Sonos I cued up some playlists I use for demoing systems and the sound. I have a mix of music styles that range from just about any genre you can think of.
To say I was blown away in an understatement. WOW. NO SUB here (not needed for me) but the bass was blowing my mind, and as I turned it up to super loud volumes to test for strain it was WAY TOO MUCH bass! Boomy and not sounding great…
I then realized the Sprout 100 bass boost was ON. A press and hold of the volume dial and bam, it went to normal mode. It seems the Sprout defaults to this mode as PS Audio feel most will use small bookshelf speakers with the sprout 100. This boost adds more mid bass energy and thump. A nice rounded fat sound with plenty of detail at the same time. But without the boost, wow…it opened up the sound and there was a nice soundstage (though small) and imaging (this was very good). When I sat in a sweet spot, there it was. REAL HIFI sound. A true taste of what high end audio brings. It can be a tad thin without the boost, if the volume is low though. But I like that the Sprout 100 gives us that quick option. Some will prefer it on, some will like it off. I will say with it off the sound is a tad “thin” so I think most who buy this little guy will like it on.
Sitting off axis was also quite nice. At night I would sit on my couch off to the side and enable the boost mode. Low volume listening was full, rich and filled the room even at low volume. I even could hear some 3D moments in there as well where instruments would jet out into the room. Nothing like my main system but maybe 75% of it, and at 15X less cost! At times I was saying to myself “how could this be”? I am not used to this quality at this price point and normally when something is hyped to be a giant killer, it is not. This one gets close and does defeat a “giant” later in this review.
Wether I was listening to vinyl, or through the Sonos ( yes, even bluetooth) the Sprout 100 didn’t even break a sweat. The Klipsch are easy to drive though, which is what helps make this a perfect combo. I did try some other speakers that were harder to drive and while they cost much more, most didn’t sound as effortless as the Klipsch in this system, but TWO were much better than the Klipsch (will talk about that in a minute). Goes to show how much synergy plays a role, as well as the room and setup of course.
FUN… BUT SERIOUS FUN…
In some ways I have more fun listening to this system over my big money system. It has a flow about it, and I do not ever stress about the sound as it sounds great and cost me much less than what I have just a couple of rooms away. Does its sound as good as my megabuck system? Of course not but damn does it get mighty close if I throw in a pair of Dynaudio Special 40 (My bookshelf Speaker of the year for the last two years, yea, they are THAT good and the Sprout easily drives them to their full potential. See my Review of them HERE). But it still sounds fabulous with the much lower cost Klipsch. Clean, clear, detailed yet never etched or analytical. It has a way of delivering sound in a way that is not offensive, not too warm, not too bright and never muffled. It lets you focus on what you should be focusing on…the music.
I listen to the music. I enjoy the music. For the first time my wife is getting into it as well. We now listen to music and watch less TV (how it should be) and she even shops the used record stores with me! She never has been into audio before, and now she is starting to enjoy it. So I am spending much more time listening to the little sprout system over my crazy high end system. THAT says it all! More time with my love while enjoying music!
Also, when I say FUN I do not mean that in a negative way as some take it. To me SERIOUS FUN means getting some of those audiophile qualities but at the same time, getting a room filling amazing beautiful sound as well. No stress, no problems, no worries. It just works and sounds great day after day. It’s fun as it doesn’t cost 5 figures and I do not have to stress about everything in the chain as I would a mega system.
WHAT I DID NOT LIKE ABOUT THE SPROUT
I would have liked to see the remote (it’s a metal remote) add a button to turn on and off the bass boost, even switch inputs. I wish the volume dial did not endlessly turn on the front of the unit. I wish the volume dial did not take 3 or 4 rotations to get to a decent volume. This gives the impression the Sprout has a weak amp section but this is not the case. Keep turning that dial and it seems to have endless power once you hit the sweet spot.
I wish it had 100 WPC into 8 Ohms and 200 into 4 as then it could drive ANY speaker made. As it is it can drive 95% of speakers made, which I guess I should not be complaining about!
It can sound a tad lean with the bass boost off but this also brings more detail and layering. It seem like it could use a little more meat on the bones without the bass boost, but I guess that is what the boost is for.
That is all. I love everything else about the Sprout 100.
All metal remote…not a cheap hollow plastic job! It’s also magnetic so I stick it to a metal stool I use as an end table. This way it never gets lost!
VS the MUSICAL FIDELITY M3si INTEGRATED.
I had a Musical Fidelity M3si on hand and this is an integrated that sells for $1500. I assumed it would slaughter the Sprout 100. The Musical Fidelity has 90 WPC and is a heavy beefy large integrated. I replaced the sprout with it and did not like what I heard. With the Musical Fidelity there was a huge surge of power, or so it seemed, but the sound was way brighter, and fatigue set in within 10 minutes. This amp had muscle and seemed like way too much gain on tap, as it came across as more harsh than the little Sprout. In other words, this amp is not a match for the Klipsch RP600M but could be beautiful with other speakers (and is). I put the Sprout 100 back in and smiled…ahhhhhh : ) This was just a synergy thing with the speakers. Musical Fidelity makes some great gear but would not recommend them with these Klipsch speakers.
VS CHEAP CHINESE TUBE AMPS
I ordered a couple of $300-$400 tube amps from Amazon and no contest. The Sprout 100 beat them with ease in detail, flow and audiophile traits. One of these tube amps broke after four days. Went right back.
The PS Audio sprout REALLY DOES give a taste of true high end audio. It is a much better option than ANY big box store receiver. It beats some integrated amps up to $1500 as I saw with the Musical Fidelity (with these speakers). It has a great internal phono stage for moving magnet carts and offers up bluetooth as well. I just do not know how they did it for $599 retail!
Speaking of Bluetooth, I set up my phone to the Sprout 100 and it remembers the connection every time. As soon as I turn the dial to “bluetooth” it takes maybe 2 seconds and my phone is connected and ready to stream Spotify, Tidal or whatever you use for your music streaming. The Bluetooth sounds GREAT as well if not a little pinched compared to using an optical connection from the Sonos.
This amp has it all. It can power most speakers, has serious features and QUALITY features. When you set up your speakers correctly, and match them correctly this little amp can deliver some great music. It will be a gateway drug of sorts to those who have not been here yet, so be careful.
I love the Sprout 100 and feel it offers the best value in high end audio today. In fact, in my 25 years of HiFi I have never seen a better value for the money than right here. I have spent 3-4X as much on an integrated that did not do what the Sprout can do, nor did it sound as good.
I’ve never seen value like this before in this crazy high end hobby. For $3000 I was able to get close to systems costing much more and when you add in the simplicity, size and price…then you have a grand slam here.
What this under $3000 setup will do is give you a small taste of that high end. Traits such as imaging, soundstage and 3 Dimensionality. On a smaller scale, when speakers are set up correctly. But how would you like to achieve that $10k sound from a little Sprout 100 and $1200 speakers? How about $15k sound when using $2999 speakers? I discovered something when testing all of this and found a couple of speakers that I thought the Sprout could not power. The 84 DB Efficient B&W 707 S2 and the Dynaudio Special 40. These are small bookshelf speakers as well and both smaller than the Klipsch, which are quite large for bookshelf speakers.
I hooked up a set of B&W 707 S2 speakers in piano black and WOW, I mean… these are pure audiophile speakers and sound SCARILY close to the Sonus Faber Guarneri Traditions I reviewed here recently when it comes to transparency and imaging (those speakers are $16k), and that is no joke. These tiny speakers are gorgeous to look at and seem to do the impossible as they fill a huge room with ease and bass with the sweetest treble I have heard in a while with better bass than the Klipsch, and this is with the Sprout 100. But this article was about staying on budget, so the Klipsch being half the cost is is within the budget! I only mention the 707 S2 as if you wanted to spend $600 more, you will get a nicer richer sounding speaker that would make almost anyone happy for years to come, even jaded audiophiles (I am one). In larger rooms though, these little speakers may need a subwoofer.
I also was able to add in a pair of the amazing Dynaudio Special 40 speakers. This speaker is for me, the best bookshelf speaker I have heard up to $10,000. No Joke. These are “end game” kind of speakers as they lack in no area. The Midrange is throaty and full and creates voices so realistic you may look around the room to see who is with you. The treble is never exaggerated (as the B&W are slightly) and the bass is strong, tight and plentiful even without a sub. These sound like full range speakers in my spacious living room. They are the most cohesive, organic and big sounding small speakers I have ever heard. They excel in 3D, Soundstage width and makes all music sound so good.
Dynaudios are usually hard to drive but the 40 is not. With that said, my Octave V40SE powers these Dynaudios much better than the sprout 100 (as it should for the cost difference) but the Sprout does bring out the character of the 40’s and plays them loudly if you like that sort of thing. We get a taste of the speakers potential but I will say that these speakers deserve a better amp. It does drive them well though, with the Sprout 100 character coming through.
What I took away from this is that the Sprout 100 can drive almost any speaker with authority. It may be small, and inexpensive but do not let that fool you. It’s the real deal. A rarity in HiFi.
What if your Budget is $1200 or less and you do not want to use a Turntable?
Buy a Sprout 100 HERE for $599. Buy the Klipsch RP-600M HERE for $550. Buy this cheap but great quality speaker cable for under $40. That’s all you need. Stream via bluetooth and this will sound extremely better than ANY powered speaker setup in the same range. I did buy the Klipsch RP51’s powered speakers before these and well…no…they do not get close to this setup. I tried a Naim Muso (owned the 1, tested the 2) and while nice, nope. You lose out on stereo imaging, grunt and imaging capabilities. I tested a few Apple Home pods. I love Apple but a big fat MEH on the Pods. Being a tech guy and reviewer I am lucky that I get to try so many cool items.
The setup above would cost you around $1200 and you would have an amazing 2 channel system that gives you the taste of high end for so little. So spend $650 more on those B&W 707 S2 and you could have a complete audiophile setup for $2000 if you skip the turntable.
You can also add a $300 turntable and be at $1500 for a whole Klipsch based setup, $2200 for the B&W setup. As for me, I only went with the technics table as it will be the last table I ever buy and is the latest newest version being made today for AUDIOPHILE use, not DJ use. It is that good for so much less than what you can get from the audiophile brands (and IMO even better build and sound) so I had to snag one. It’s a lifetime keeper.
The PS Audio Sprout 100 is a steal in the world of HiFi. I have never seen anything quite like it, the performance and features, for so little money. It really does have a great phono pre amp and DAC, all ready to go. Bluetooth works and connects reliably and sounds great as well. In my tests it drove every speaker I threw at it with ease and with amazing width, depth and detail but it is not thin or hard sounding, instead it has a nice flow to the sound and a high end character to the sound.
I recommend the Sprout 100 over ANY big box store receiver up to $1000 (Sony, Pioneer, Onkyo, etc). It will best them all with ease and grace. I recommend it over cheap tube integrated amps you see on Amazon. It will best them dollar for dollar and be more reliable over the long haul. I recommend this to anyone who loves music and wants as good of a sound that they can get for the money, and then some. I know of no way to spend $1500 (Sprout 100, Klipsch Speakers, Cable, basic Turntable) in audio than right here. No muss, no fuss.
For those wondering if the Sprout 100 can scale up to better performance with cable upgrades, yes it can. I tested it with $10 RCA cables and $1000 RCA cables. The sweet spot were THESE that come in at $229.
These $229 cables added detail, air, a widened soundstage and better imaging over the $10 cables and beat out a more expensive $500 interconnect as well. These are the interconnects I would recommend for this system if you can swing it. It improves the sound and yes, it’s a large difference. Even so, this sounds great with cheap cables as well ; ) So pick your poison. BTW, I did add a sub to this system but did not need it. While it gave me the lowest octaves that my speakers can not reach, I just didn’t need it for my enjoyment. It was “too much” of a good thing in my room. The Sprout 100 does have a nifty SUB OUT so it’s easy to add a sub of your choice and it will send 80Hz and below to the sub.
I love this PS Audio Sprout 100. After also adoring their high end Direct Stream Senior DAC, I am now a big fan of PS Audio. Add to this their excellent customer service and you have a company that truly cares about ALL of us, not just the rich in the audio world. They created the first under $600 integrated I would ever recommend, and it sounds fantastic as well as has all the features one would need in todays world of music.
You do not have to be a huge music fan or audiophile to enjoy what this Sprout 100 brings to your life. If you enjoy music, and want a high quality music system in your home that sounds way better than ANY bluetooth speaker, or system from a big box store. This is a true taste of the high end, and it’s all 90% of us will ever need. Many buy these for their kids in college, or for a bedroom system. I am here to say it has the performance to be part of a main system as well and can even scale up and work with megabuck speakers, cables and amps (it also has a pre out to be used as a preamp if you wanted to ever add an amp, or say a tube amp)! It’s the ultimate geek out amp for us audiophiles and a huge bang for the buck for the average music lover. I can not recommend this more!!
PS Audio Sprout 100. Highly Recommended. FIVE STARS.
WHERE TO BUY?
More thoughts on the speakers tested…
B&W 707 S2 can be found at Crutchfield or Best Buy Magnolia centers and I have to say that this speaker truly blew my mind with what it was doing for its size. I preferred it to the larger 706 and 705 as it has a sweetness and 3 dimensional sound that is just amazing for the price, though less lower octave bass. This speaker sounds like a $5000 speaker when set up correctly, and with the PS Audio Sprout 100 behind it! Listening to Billy Joel Live at Shea Stadium was amazing and bested ALL setups I tested here. No sub needed either in my living room as it has tighter and deeper mid bass than the larger Klipsch! The treble on these is a tad tipped up but not in an offensive way. In fact it is what helps make them amazing at imaging. Delicate, deep and sweet sound here. Weakness? The bass is not HUGE but rich. It has a mid bass presence that gives a full sound but it will not kick you in the gut. Can sound a little thin with rock and metal for this reason.
With that said the Dynaudio Special 40 are indeed very special. If you want an end game speaker that has the best bass of all of the speakers I tested along with the best midrange (no contest) and weight while never being slow, sloppy or overly warm, take a look here. They are 3 Dimensional and just have the most pleasing organic sound wether you listen to rock, jazz, vocal, electronic, rap, country, metal or whatever. Expensive but with their high end gloss finish, and their custom made drivers these speakers are my fave bookshelf speakers and can to be beat for the money. Weaknesses? NONE. These should be $5000 yet they can be found for as little as $2500-$2600 new. You can buy them from Dedicated Audio HERE. See my full Special 40 review HERE.
The Klipsch RP-600M are amazing for the cost. $549 and you get a speaker that looks like $1000. The sound is Klipsch, so it will not sound like the two options above but again, gives the most for your money. The Klipsch will have the weakest bass of the three, and a more flat midrange due to the horn speaker technology. The top end is not bright but when pushed loud may be fatiguing over time for some. Almost anyone could be happy with these but when you do side by side comparisons against the other two speakers above, the weakness of the Klipsch is apparent. It has a different sound signature, the Klipsch sound. Some love it, some do not but they do match well with the Sprout 100. Also, The bass can be a tad boomy and “one note” at louder volumes. But again at $549 you will have a hard time besting these.