“Small but beautiful.” Gawd, do I love it when those words can be applied to hi-fi equipment. Hey, I’m trying to sympathise with real people, OK? It’s not like reviewers have to justify to their spouses why the house is overrun with colossal audio components. Mrs K., for example, is hip to the fact that the latest in a run of gigantic amplifiers around which she had to manoeuvre for two months just to go from the TV to the sofa were actually there for occupationally-related purposes. But, oh!, was she relieved when they were returned to the distributor.
She didn’t even notice the Sutherlands. And that’s a compliment.
Dig: a Sutherland C-2000 pre-amplifier ($8000), astride a pair of the matching A-2000 monoblock power amplifiers ($10,000 per pair) means occupation of no more space than a single conventional high-end power amp. And with the Sutherland stack we’re also talking three teensy, “separatable” chassis, so you can position an A-2000 behind each speaker and place the C-2000 on your rack or shelf and they’ll almost disappear. Their sculpted cabinets measure a mere 9.6×3.7x17in (whd) each. The reason why I’m making such a big deal about the dimensions is that they reflect in a spiritual way the entire Sutherland approach: no pain, all gain. You don’t make sacrifices to house this stuff; neither do you suffer during ownership when you actually use it. Hell, the Sutherland gear even looks terrific.
Each solid aluminum chassis consists of a pair of U-cross-section “hulls” which form the top and bottom sections of the enclosure, a small back plate, and a chunky front panel. On the A-2000s, all you see is a power-on LED, while the C-2000 sports a single rotary knob, four LEDs to indicate source, and 16 LEDs to show volume level. Amusingly, the Sutherlands’ AC sockets are on the bottom, so the company supplies cables with right-angle IEC three-pin connectors; the likelihood of accidentally yanking out the cables is rare. And while aesthetics can only inspire a personal response, I defy anyone to object to the look of the Sutherlands. Or the simplicity.
And you don’t get any simpler than power amplifiers when it comes to a dearth of fittings (LAMM aside); the 100 watt A-2000 is no exception. The back contains a gold-plated signal input, a pair of multi-way binding posts for speaker connections, and a reset button. The latter is useful and necessary in that the A-2000s are designed to be left on at all times and lack on/off switches. In the event of a power brown-out or an overload or some other event which triggers the comprehensive protection regime, the reset is used to restore operation.
It leads you to wondering if Ron Sutherland is the kind of guy who wore two condoms when he was a bachelor. You want security? Firstly, the A-2000 employs soft turn-on and turn-off to prevent anything nasty from reaching your speakers, and output is muted instantaneously during power-down or brown-outs. A shorted speaker connection, signal levels high enough to “threaten” the output transistors, inadequate ventilation causing the back panel (which acts as a heat sink) to exceed 80 degrees centigrade, an AC line voltage drop, or any other faults will switch the unit automatically to stand-by. Rectify the fault and you can then reactivate the Sutherland with the reset toggle. And this is done without any drama, the protection circuitry residing outside the signal path and operating instantaneously. This is the amp to sell to an insurance broker or a hypochondriac.
All-MOSFET circuitry is employed, the compact dimensions ensuring that the 10 output devices are located as close to the energy storage capacitors as possible; the latter consists of 18 parallel-connected 10,000 microfarad capacitors with polypropylene by-pass caps. Connection of the MOSFETs is through solid copper bus-bars, and single-ended circuit topology provides near-direct simplicity unavailable in balanced configurations.
(I don’t want to get into an argument about single-ended versus balanced here, especially as many of my fave components are fully-balanced; suffice to say, with the Sutherlands you won’t miss the excuse to use your XLR connectors one little bit. And Sutherland presents a pretty strong argument against balanced operation by pointing out that it merely increases circuit complexity while addressing a problem which doesn’t justify the cure. So there.)
Fastidious as he is, Sutherland saw to it that even the geography of the circuit was addressed comprehensively. The power transformer, for example, resides at the front, as far from the driver stage as possible to preclude any interaction. These suckers idle with no transformer buzz, they run cool to the touch and even stacking them – as I did for a few days for sheer, un-audiophilic convenience – resulted in no sonic degradation whatsoever. Each chassis acted as if the others were in another room, the proximity introducing no interaction which I could detect. And the amplifier on the bottom seemed unaffected by the reduction in ventilation.
Yes, even sitting on top of a stack of A-2000s, the C-2000 behaved impeccably. Like its amplifying brethren, the C-2000 is built to hospital standards, and it, too, reflects audio paranoia, with isolation and safety features including muted outputs during switch-on and switch-off, distancing of the power supply and power entry from the signal path to avoid power line disturbance, and a litany of filters and constant current regulators to ensure that neither “dirty” AC nor RF ever violates this device.
Dual-mono in construction, the C-2000 contains a 1/8in thick motherboard with mirror-imaged halves containing each channel, the two halves electrostatically isolated by a solid copper shield. Amusingly, the row of gold-plated RCAs on the back is set up with the sockets in “opposition”; rather than having an input’s left and right sockets adjacent to or above/below each other, the rows start from opposite ends. So you have the left main output on one side of the C-2000 and the right main output on the other.
Sutherland’s isolationist tendency (what else do you call living in Kansas?) extends to the power supply, which is removed from the signal path, while separate constant current sources drive to the individual stages to maintain L/R isolation. A precision J-FET switched attenuator provides 120-step volume setting over an 80dB range, represented by the aforementioned 16 LEDs on the front panel. And behind all of this is microprocessor control with no presence in the signal path, the processor ceasing to operate after volume levels are set or inputs are selected.
It’s here that you must turn to the owner’s manual, because from this point on – actually operating the thing – the Sutherland pre-amp parts company with convention. And one little factoid will tell you that, despite the company’s address, it doesn’t look like we’re in Kansas, Toto: the remote control which operates the C-2000 wears only two buttons. Yes, two buttons for accessing volume and source selection functions.
Mystifyingly, this pair of press switches provides volume up-and-down with user-variable rates of acceleration, they access the four inputs through sequential scanning, and volume level automatically mutes during source selection; this is mandatory as you can only access the source selection by lowering the volume all the way, a neat method of ensuring that nobody’s ever blasted out of the listening seat. After you lower the level beyond the point of silence, continued pressing on the “down” button causes the source selection to run through the inputs. After you choose your source, pressing the “up” button returns to the remote control to volume selection mode. Stop when you reach your preferred level.
This volume setting business is taken to a degree way beyond what any of us thought we might need. The Bow Technologies ZZ-One integrated amp, for example, addresses its linear rather than logarithmic volume setting by providing a switch which effectively creates a second “scale”; in normal mode you’d find yourself never turning the rotary past 7 o’clock because it’s so immediately loud. The Bow’s second setting allows you to operate the volume control more conventionally, over a wider scale so to speak, especially useful if you run sensitive speakers. With the C-2000, you tailor the behavior of the volume control by adjusting its acceleration. It made me think of the settings available to computer users when they adjust the speed of a mouse: fast, slow, with or without “trails”. The C-2000’s remote can be set to operate at a velocity anywhere between 10 volume changes per second for truly fine adjustment up to 25 changes per second for cocky speed-demons. On the down setting, the rate of level change can be adjusted from 10 changes per second to 50 per second, the latter ideal for listeners who prefer quick muting action. And once you get the hang of it, you’ll forget all about the rotary volume control.
So, you’ve got minimalism, you’ve got awesome build quality, you’ve got enough computer processing to fill a laptop. But does cook, so to speak? Let’s eliminate one concern from the outset: the 100W/channel rating seems conservative, because the A-2000s act like monsters weighing 80lb rather than a svelte 24lb each. In a world that still believes there’s no substitute for cubic inches, an A-2000 is a Lotus Elan among Buicks.
All of which meant that I suffered no restrictions when it came to selecting speakers for the review. Although I spent the bulk of the time using Ron Sutherland’s preferred loudspeaker (he always seems to use the latest Wilson WATT/Puppy), I also tried the A-2000s with three different Sonus Fabers, the original Quad electrostatics, Apogee Ribbon Monitors, and Rogers LS3/5As. At no point did I detect a loss of steam, so I’m fairly confident that the A-2000 will perform adequately with most normal speakers, but make sure you try ’em at home if you own something hungry and ornery. In other words, I didn’t get to run ’em on my old Scintillas…
For sources I used a variety of CD players; there’s a matching phono amplifier called the PH-2000, which wasn’t supplied for review. Main listening consisted of the Sutherlands fed by the Marantz CD-12/DA-12 as turbo’d by Ken Ishiwata, along with the Meracus CD transport from Germany, the budget Marantz CD-63SE, and the Theta Data III/Pro Gen V combination. Wires? Nirvana interconnects, Harmonix speaker wire, and Sutherland’s own AC cables.
No added tweaks were employed, as I’ve grown weary of sticky dots, pucks, clamps, ad nauseum…especially in the context of an amplification system with build integrity that’s so clearly above reproach. As with products from Krell, Rowland, and the like, nothing seems to rattle nor to vibrate on the Sutherland, so why bother with band-aids designed for lesser components? The only other item, then, which I addressed beyond the norm, was the extended burn-in period, as advised by the manufacturer. And the performance improved as audibly as does that of a 300B tube during warm-up. So, another hint for the potential Sutherland owner: make sure the retailer switched on the demo pair a few hours before your appointment, or you won’t hear the full story.
Truth be known, the Sutherland combination is so shy about revealing its talents that it took longer to “understand” than any product I’ve reviewed in recent memory. Like all thoroughbreds, it demonstrated immediately that it was a true high-end component, but comprehending the subtleties required familiarization. I’m still learning what the Sutherlands can do even after a couple of months’ experience, because the limiting factors are the source components, speakers and cables – not the Sutherlands themselves.
Given that most amplification systems, no, make that all components seem to have a single overriding character trait that provides a synecdochic classification, it was handy to find that the Sutherlands, too, have one which describes the experience in spades: lightness. Whether it’s lightness of touch, light as in “illumination”, light in weight, or light as in transparency, the Sutherlands are a delicate touch relative to other high-end amplifiers’ sledgehammer approaches. Whether it’s right or wrong is not the issue. What’s important is that the Sutherlands exist as alternatives to heavy-handedness, to the Hulk Hogan approach to amp design.
Peerless clarity, comprehensive portrayal of the finest of details, overall precision and an eerie smoothness are aspects of this lightness, this sheer finesse. I understand now, after living with the Sutherlands, why I would turn into a real pain-in-the-ass at CESes by hanging around the Sutherland room. I’d audition track after track – “Mr Sandman” by the Chordettes, most of Big Daddy’s Sgt Pepper, Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” and anything else in my Carry-Disc wallet – just because it wasn’t like listening to hi-fi. It was a case of listening into the music, the listener incapable of detecting seams, coloration or any distortions not inherent in the recordings.
It’s all a case of rightness as well as lightness: Bass with both convincing extension and control good enough to tame a Wilson Puppy. Imaging showing the kind of precision which makes WATT ownership a treat for 3D crazies. A vocals-friendly midband that just itches to be heard through the old Quads or the LS3/5As. Speed and attack to challenge Apogee’s new mini-ribbon or Focal’s inverted domes. And the illusion of such cavernous stage depth as to turn even a small room into an amphitheater. The Sutherland system is just so natural and so shock-free that it’s a perfect wet-nurse for high-end newbies.
Analytical? Hygienic? Bare-ass nekkid? Perhaps. But mainly it’s a case of welcomed invisibility. Like I said, my wife didn’t even notice that the Sutherland products were in the room. And, in a continuation of my belief that a designer’s personality is reflected in the component, then the Sutherland amplifiers are Ron Sutherland in metal: a tad reticent, unprepossessing, and genteel, but so correct, authoritative and competent that it’s almost a case of split personality. So maybe it’s no coincidence that Ron Sutherland is facially, as in the Alex Baldwin movie, a dead ringer for…the Shadow.
(Fi Magazine, 1996)