Founded by Paul McGowan and Stan Warren in 1974, PS Audio has been in the business for a very long time now and have always focused on producing flagship class products that are priced far closer to the realm of reality than their competition. That is not to say PS Audio is a budget oriented brand, in fact their most touted product the DirectStream DSD DAC sells for just under six thousand dollars, yet competitors often charge three to four times as much for similar products. The world of high-end audio is a bewildering one, full of inflation, vanity pricing and snake oil, yet PS Audio has always managed to stay firmly below the fray in terms of price while making products that receive widespread critical acclaim.
PS Audio’s first real venture into the market of audio that anyone can afford is the Kickstarter funded and aptly named Sprout, which stands a mere 1.75” tall, 6” wide and 8” deep. Inside that diminutive package PS Audio has managed to fit a passive moving magnet phono preamp, a 192/24 asynchronous Wolfson WM8524 DAC that can be fed by Bluetooth or USB and both headphone and speaker amplifiers. The Sprout can accept analog, coaxial digital or USB input and also offers analog stepped volume control. They’ve also dropped the price to $499. The only catch? They had to produce these in China to make this price feasible.
Sprout has a surprisingly powerful 50Wpc class-D amplifier on board in addition to a headphone amplifier capable of delivering 500mW into a 16 ohm load or 425mW into a 300 ohm load. There are very few headphones that would be hard for this little guy to drive.
A Note About Analog
I should clarify that due to the formats myriad inconveniences (space primarily) and personal preference, I do not currently have a turntable in my home, so I was unable to put the phono-preamp in the Sprout to the test.
Digital Listening – Headphones
With the days of analog sources more or less behind me at this stage, I maintain a very large library of FLAC audio that I access off a NAS throughout my home. To get the Sprout started, I installed it in my office where I used it for a week solid while working during the day via my HiFi Man HE-560 headphones. As a DAC, there is no question that PS Audio’s implementation of the Wolfson WM8524 is extremely solid. Comparing it to the AudioQuest Dragonfly and the Schiit Modi 2 Uber DACs I most frequently use, it was definitely distinctly different, but not in a negative way. I would describe the Sprout as neutral and resolving, though I did note some lack of bottom end on some of the more intense electronic music I am used to listening to through my Schiit Vali and Woo Audio WA6 amps. Further research on this seems to show this is at the amplifier level, and not a result of the DAC implementation.
Digital Listening – Speakers
Switching to speakers I placed the Sprout in my living room where I let it feed my Definitive Technology Mythos ST-L’s. The amplifier on board once again sounded surprisingly good for such a tiny package. Other tiny units I have reviewed like the NuForce Dia have sounded hollow and have lacked the punch to really convince my ears that the amp is not diminutive in size. With the Sprout this was not the case except under the most demanding circumstances. Whether I was listening to the eerie and fun electronic sounds of Dance With The Dead or 40’s Jazz, the Sprout frequently found me tapping my feet and forgetting I was listening critically. When the volume was dialed way up, the Sprout did from time to time demonstrate a slight lack of power when handling the most intense sequences, yet once again this is a problem that can be solved by using a more easily driven speaker.
On the few occasions we had guests over, I became extremely fond of showing off the Sprout’s Bluetooth implementation, which I firmly believe is one of the finest I have ever come across. While not quite up to par with airplay or UPnP signal streaming via my Arcam AirDAC, the Bluetooth input on the Sprout is the first I have heard that doesn’t sound claustrophobic or suffer from compression artifacts at moderate to high levels. Of all the features on this unit that will appeal to the mass market, I believe this is it. Bluetooth has become ubiquitous outside audiophile homes, and it is no wonder why. Everyone has a mobile phone today that can play back audio via Bluetooth, which promotes music’s inherently social nature better than expensive interconnects and dedicated sources. The Sprout’s Bluetooth input is a damn good feature and it sounds good too!
While the Sprout was not the finest piece of equipment I had ever heard, it had the ability to be surprisingly engaging and fun to listen to while never misbehaving or sounding like a piece of “cheap gear”. Ultimately, we all have to remind ourselves that “cheap gear” is exactly what the Sprout is – it’s more audio enjoyment packed into a tiny box for $499 than I can shake a stick at, and it’s the ideal device for many consumers.
For the family members or friends we all have that never quite manage to get into audio like us, Scott McGowan’s brainchild is truly a panacea. Priced at just under five hundred dollars, with the Sprout you can buy almost the entire audio pie for the price of a slice. You’ll need a capable pair of speakers to accompany the Sprout, but added to a pair of Audioengine P4’s ($249) or Pioneer SP-FS52’s ($260), the Sprout can now deliver an amazing audio system for approximately $750!
With many high-end audio companies forgetting what really matters about this hobby (music), PS Audio’s Sprout is a breath of fresh air. Whether I consider the well-considered use of Kickstarter to fund development and gauge interest, or the truly impressive value this device represents, I can find very few reasons not to suggest this to those who ask for a suggestion. Highly Recommended!