Review: Sugden Masterclass phono stage Preamplifier

Category: Preamps

The Sugden Masterclass Phono Stage

My story in search of my ideal phono stage took me to Yorkshire finest, in the form of the Masterclass. I had heard a two Sugden set ups at Hi Fi shows both CD fronted and tailed of with ART speakers. I loved the sound immediately. It stood out from a lot of the blanched and etched sounds emanating from most rooms in that it produced music. It was sweet and rather airy despite the limitations of the rooms.

In the brief conversation I had with staff from Sugden, both at the show in 2003, and when I arranged to loan the phono stage I got the impression that I was talking to people who understood their product and who had a good understanding of music. Both these qualities are a recipe for success, and are probably prevalent in most people who sell high end gear, but I did like the discourse that I had, and the fact that there was simply no hard sell, merely ‘have a listen, if you like it, we’ll talk further’. At this juncture I must give special mention to Dave who runs PROGRESSIVE AUDIO who was very helpful and accommodating in loaning me this product, I wish all people in Hi Fi were like him, a true gentleman and enthusiast who just happens to also sell Hi Fi!

Turning to the Sugden, there are inputs for two moving coil cartridges, and also adjustable loading sockets at the back whereby plugs can be put onto single ended phono plugs. There is also provision for a moving magnet input as well. There are two outputs as well. I like the arrangements, in particular the loading which is the one also used on the Whest 0.20. As it happened I didn’t get to make use of that facility as I forgot to get some plugs of David at Progressive Audio. The loading was, I am told, 500ohms. I was happy with this in any event as it is a loading I used on the Conrad Johnson EF 1 with my Shelter 501 mark 2 cartridge.

The phono stage required an IEC cable, and I was duly supplied with a cable called MERLIN. Very nice too, and just as an aside, I tried this with my Lavardin IT and experienced gains in solidity, slam as well as air, highly recommended at £150.00. Set up was simplicity itself – a true plug and play product with no fuss.

The first thing I would say about this phono stage sound wise is as follows:
‘Sweets for my sweet,
Sugar for my honey,
Your sweet kiss…’
And so the song goes.

I think this very much set the sonic signature of the Sugden, but this of itself would be faint praise in my view, and incidentally my lyricism was a compliment.

What I found with all types of music played through this stage, even edgy rocky music like the leading edge of ‘Miss You’ by the Rolling Stones lost the etched, and in my view harsh sound, instead you would just follow the riffs and the music, most impressive indeed. Moreover this always lent itself to long term listening sessions that were un-fatiguing. On the last night I had the stage I happened to be hosting some friends for dinner, they had not seen a system like mine (I was most proud!) and I started playing a few tunes, and lo and behold this went on for about 3 hours into the evening as I just dragged out music from my collection. The added benefit to me was that I got another evenings listening done too.

What brought about the sweetness was very much what I would call a liquid lyrical cohesiveness, I cannot think of another expression with this product that can be so honest and descriptive. This also makes me feel a bit heartless in breaking down each and every aspect of the performance.

Starting from the bottom up I found that bass was available aplenty with this phono stage but it did not draw particular attention to itself, it simply provided a good foundation. There weren’t any particular fireworks by way of placing bass in a specific location, and a grip so as to play out the full note shape and decay of a bass note in the manner exhibited by the Renaissance, the Whest, and the Paul Hynes. Yes you could here the notes, and yes they had body, but it was not of the type that made you think mmm… raunchy, rude and perky. It unfortunately did not float and grip with the precision of the other stages I mentioned, but it never sounded bad or unmusical with it.

Moving on up the mid-band was great. Vocals loved the lavish treatment bestowed by this phono stage. The stage had lovely tonal shading that let instruments be clearly defined by their colour, volume and type of sound, and never took the hard edged approach in this aspect. Vocals were very natural, and never harsh. They seemed to integrate with the rest of a music set as if another instrument in a band. This was particularly evident ‘Mercy Me’ by Marvin Gaye. You could really feel the communication in Marvin’s’ voice. Here I found it showed up a little of the coolness exhibited by the Renaissance and a lot of that on the Passion. Part of this ability to project the mid-band so well was the fact that there was so much air to the sound afforded by the fact it was another wide bandwidth phono-stage that let the sound just breath.

Shifting to the top end, this was much the same as the mid-band. There was excellent tonality coming through in high pitched voices, strings and sound effects. This helped define and delineate the sounds coming through easily and allowed sounds to feel airy and alive. Most impressive.

Not everything was all sweetness and light. One of the problems of the sweet liquid and lush sound was that on simple passages images would be very stable initially and would be able to find their location easily, when, however several other instruments, or other voices kicked in that image placement would start to waver. To this end there was image instability. A prime example was when I played ‘welcome to the story so far’ by Galliano where it starts of with a single female voice and several instruments from drums, strings and horns all kick in. Where an image is very stable as with the Paul Hynes everything seems to occupy its’ own space. Here, whilst there was a general location of instruments, they never really occupied time and 3d space. As a result of this the imaging also depth of field and as a result the image of the room between speakers became a little triangular. Don’t get me wrong with the fact that it was not a case of left speaker, right speaker, as they did disappear, but image placement and stability could be better.

Also there was a tendency to actually play items of sound from within instrument groups a bit too melded together both in space, and to some degree sound. I would nevertheless say that this was a very mild tendency, and one which came about on more critical listening.

As to image depth of field and three dimensionality, I felt that though this phono stage would cut the mustard with more simple works, as set out above, it could get confused.

So what are we left with, well even before my review William Shakespeare must have heard this phono stage when he wrote:
‘If music be the food of love play on, (for those who like it)
give me excess of it so surfeiting the appetite may sicken and so die… (Shakespeare: Duke Orsino: Twelfth Night)
This sums it up so succinctly, but those wanting a more mundane summing up, here goes:

For a start, and from a purely material and technical point of view we have a phono stage with provisions for 2 cartridge inputs with adjustable loading in a neat single box. That single box is well made and also surprisingly attractive. This is technically a very useful piece of equipment.

Turning to the sound I would say that in terms of listenabilty over long periods of time the musicality alone would convince many people to hand over their money as there is an overriding sweet musicality that panders to the senses. If you are a person who is into straightforward whiz bang, look at my image placement and ruthless neutrality brigade then look elsewhere. I have found myself being very much seduced along the former path, and the Sugden is a capable guide.

Loheswaran Amirthananthar (that's why I use my old nickname Lohanimal)

Associated gear
Amazon Model One turntable with Morch DP6 arm, Transfiguration temper cartridge and/or Shelter 501 cartridge.
Lavardin IT amplifier
Lavardin Cables
Yamaha NS1000m Speakers
Speakers of my own making
Townshend seismic stand

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Hi Lohanimal,since you've listened to quite a few phono preamps, could you please let me know which one would you go after for a real improvement. I have the Whest audio .20. Should I go for the Sugden phono PA-4for E1500 used or what?Best
@willcal48If the Sugden is voiced like the masterclass I would stick to the Whest. What I found was that when things got complex it 'sugared' the pill. The Whest maintained consistency and shape to the various instruments and sounds, whereas the Sugden, under pressure of complex music, kind of melded the sounds together.
I bought a second-hand Vendetta SCP2B got it recapped and got modern IC's and it is absolutely phenomenal - it makes sense. The music is just a lot more seductive than before - almost chocolatey (odd description I know).
I do reckon that the new budget Tron coincident valve phono stage will be excellent - I heard it at a demo and it was a nice sound being produced - I appreciate that sounds are often hard to isolate, but by the same token you tend to get an understanding of the overall sound that a person/manufacturer is trying to make.
I am told, though haven't heard, that the current breed of Tom Evans gear is quieter than my phono stage, and has a lot more body than before. I must say I heard a first gen 'Groove' and thought that the Whest was an awful lot better.