Review: Shanling SP-80 Tube amp
That’s what a friend’s daughter said they looked like, and I got what she meant after a second’s thought. The SP-80’s look like a couple of steam locomotives. High-end, Orient Express style, naturally: anodized aluminum, brushed steel, chrome, gold. High-quality machining and plating. But where the similarly-designed CD-T100 player looks like a space station, the lines of these amps suggest the age of steam, solid, heavy, powerful. They use old technology too: two EL34 output tubes in ultralinear, push-pull configuration, along with a 6SN7 and a 6SL7 as drivers. The transformer housings are large, very large, and placed at the back of the chassis... like a loco driver’s cab. There is a modern touch, though, in the circular readout/sensor window at the front. These amps can be run as power amps or as single-input integrateds, using the built-in volume control circuitry. The display elements are blue and pale green. At night, when the tubes glow softly and the warm light reflects from the different metal tones, the effect is quite lovely.
The matching CD player had a double box, but this one is triple: ten flaps to open before you come to the treasures. The packing is really very good, the foam is high-quality, reusable many times. One of the two boxes is labeled “fittings included.” The fittings in question are the remote control, a soft chamois leather for wiping all the polished metal, and the manual, because the other box has its own set of the other “fittings”: a pair of white cotton gloves, a premium power cord and a pair of Shanling-labeled EL34 output tubes.
Lift off the block containing the fittings and you see the amp in its plastic bag. There is a strong smell of aromatic hydrocarbons, or anodizing bath, or something, when you open the bag. The amp is absolutely gorgeous, pictures no more do it justice than they did the CD-T100 player. The output tubes fit nicely into the ceramic sockets, but the amp doesn’t fit my 5-shelf Target rack very well. It’s too deep. Half of each foot, front and rear, sticks out fore and aft. And unfortunately, I have to put the amps on a lower shelf, where they can’t really be seen. This is almost an affront, because with their beautiful machining, exotic materials and the circular readout/sensor windows, they are absolutely meant to be drooled over. You can wipe them off with the chamois.
The power cords fit well and my Ensemble Masterflux interconnect cables reach all the way to the amps’ front right sides and plug in nicely. The output terminals accept my Ensemble Voiceflux’ Cardas spades. The terminals themselves look a good deal like 5-way WBTs but are labeled Shanling. A final cable with stereo minijack connectors connects the amps at the back next to a toggle switch. One of these switches goes up, the other down. The amp with the switch up becomes the control unit, and the other’s volume level is slaved to it. You point the remote at the master to control both amps. When I switch on the slave the display obsequiously reads “SlaveWait.” As soon as I switch on the master amp the readout switches to a twin of the other.
An info sheet from the distributor comes with the amps and points out an idiosyncrasy of the master-slave volume control system. First, if one is controlling system volume from another unit, a preamp for instance, a -30 dB volume setting gives the best results. I confirm this in listening; lower volume settings give a less lively and immediate sound, while higher ones seem a little distorted. Second, the user is warned that the master display will show garbage (although the control still operates normally) unless the two amps are switched on at a 30-second interval. I test this and find that the display anomaly appears as stated if the switching interval is more than about a second, or less than about thirty seconds. It can be avoided by waiting to switch on the second amp, as suggested, or by switching on the two amps in very quick succession, with a minimal delay ; or you can just make sure you turn on the master before you turn on the slave.
Now before I go into more detail about these amps’ sound, I have to warn that because of these amps, this review is being written by a born-again tube guy, someone who's just rediscovered that he loves tubes. People who have already had the experience know what I’m going to say and can skip ahead.
I've had solid-state electronics for years and never thought transistors were particularly shabby, quite the opposite in fact. When I got these amps to try, my ambition for my system was better solid-state electronics. I have a preamp which makes me very happy, a Klyne SK-5A nearly twenty years old, and it's solid-state. It replaced a Copland CTA-301, which is a tube preamp, and the Klyne sounds better to me. I was real dubious about trying a tube amplifier. I thought I needed more watts, not fewer. I didn't want to be sweating as I listened in July, and I absolutely hated the idea of being tied to tube supplies, a commodity whose best days are past, to boot. But I remembered magic moments spent with my very first amp, a tubed Dyna SCA-35 that I built from a kit when I was 16. So I guess it was nostalgia that got me started, but I'm sold on tubes now, these Shanling tubes, and it will be hard to make me go back. I am an enthusiastic observer, not a highly knowledgeable one; I cannot carefully compare these amps with other tube amps at the same price point or higher. I’ve hardly heard any, except BAT’s, Quads, Carys, Nagras at the Montreal shows. They all sounded great, and I can only add that the Shanling engineers have managed to get great sound out of their tubes too. I don't miss my transistors a bit.
When I started listening I realized right away that this upgrade had given me something I had wanted for years. One of the things that has bothered me ever since I started listening to CDs at home has been a treble edge, on voices especially, a particular distortion that was absent on vinyl but that I had to mentally "tune out" whenever I listened to a less-than-perfect digital recording. I mentioned it to other people, who didn't seem to notice. I played one of the worst discs for my ( then ) dealer, who pooh-poohed it. I gave up, figured it was something I had to live with, part of the technological downslide in reproduced music since the majors abandoned vinyl. So now you understand the magnitude of this revelation. As soon as I played a disc, I realized the edge was gone! Well, 90 % gone. The "bad" discs still had it, but their edge was much less prominent. My previous electronics, which were well-reviewed and not cheap, had been exaggerating a digital artifact, adding distortion to it and making it much more evident. These amps make digital much more sweet-sounding.
There was a lot more to notice. Tubes in the past have had a reputation for imperfect control in the bass region, and sweetness at the expense of speed and snap. The SP-80's seem very quick, though. There is no impression of slowness, excessive warmth or low-end bloat. I heard no tubbiness or flabbiness in the bass, even though one upgrader has claimed his work “eliminates” this in these amps. There was a difference in character. The low end seemed less hard and "square", more rounded. There seemed to be about the same bass energy overall but more impact in the mid and upper bass region. Bass was perhaps a bit less sustained but more punchy. In the rest of the spectrum the difference was clearly a big improvement. There was clearly much more music. The soundstage had far more definition, front-to-back and left-to-right. Instruments were far easier to place and separate and their timbres were better defined, their harmonics richer. There was far more space, and more air. Highs were cleaner, cymbals more pleasant whether shimmering, ringing or crisp. Voices, ah, voices were far more natural and their emotion was far more apparent. When my mood was receptive, the emotion in some recordings touched me so much I was off the ground, a bit dazed. Part singing was exquisite, all vocal lines easy to follow, but the harmonies nevertheless blended superbly into a musical whole. I love choral singing, used to do it a lot, and I found myself carried away, singing along.
There is a very rich and dense texture of detail, a more complex weave than I have been used to. Front-to-back, there is more roundness and dimension, truer harmony and timbre and more warmth. There is a better restitution of the energy and emotion of the performers. On Buena Vista Social Club’s “El Carretero”, the dynamics and flow of the music had the wave-like quality of music which is deeply felt by the performers. These musicians are getting along in years and their energy is sweet not wild, they transmit rhythm with very precise timing rather than slam and punch. The Shanlings brought this quality out clearly. The vocal harmonies on a favourite disc by Hart Rouge have become so clear that on my favourite song, “À la Claire Fontaine”, I can differentiate two female singers in close harmony and a male voice in unison with one of the girls. It’s a tour de force and I feel like singing myself.
Listening to vinyl is an absolute treat. The Academy of Ancient Music plays Mozart on original instruments on the L’Oiseau-Lyre five-volume symphony collection. Strings are textured and sweet, individual instruments easy to pick out, attack is clean, timing snappy, tympany have impact and timbre and the sound of the hall opens out around and behind the speakers. I love Mozart’s invention, the flow of musical ideas is thrilling.
People sometimes make references to other creations when they try to communicate their impressions of audio equipment; cars or fine wine, say. I know little about cars or wine, so I’m going to keep it simple. My old amp was male, these are female. My transistor amp is solid, forthright, assertive not agressive, detailed, clear and authoritative. These Shanling amps have finesse, melody, depth and emotion. My solid-state amp delivered great sound through an exercise of precise, clear logic and mastery; the Shanlings reach out and touch you with their infinite devotion to the music. I was prepared to live with them for a while before reviewing them so they would be sure to break in. But living with them has shown me what I didn’t expect. Break-in didn’t really take long, a few hours, but with these amps my system takes up my time. I have a hard time leaving music on in the background because I lose track of what I’m doing; when I walk past the open door of the living room, I am drawn in to listen. I don’t have to listen for wonderful aspects of the sound to convince myself I have a great system. The system disappears, and I have music.
Specs: Two EL34 ouput tubes, one 6SN7 and one 6SL7 as drivers. Net weight 15 kg each, dimensions 460 x 205 x 195 mm. 4 ohm and 8 ohm output taps, no 16 ohm. More info at the Canadian distributor’s site, www.charismaaudio.com
Linn LP12 Lingo, rewired Rega RB-300, Cardas Heart, Shanling CD-T100, Klyne SK-5A preamp, Meadowlark Shearwater Hot Rods, Ensemble Masterflux, Voiceflux and Powerflux cables.