Sugden A21SE Signature Edition Class A in a BIG way...

By Jeff Dorgay

Listening to Dexter Gordon’s classic, “GO” through the Sugden A21 (actually the A21SE Signature, but I don’t want to keep writing that) and my Quad 2812s is positively heavenly, with all the tone, texture, and dynamics I’d ever need.

There is something incredibly cool about listening to an amplifier that sounds this emotionally involving that doesn’t have a five-figure price tag. Record after record reveals one a-ha moment after another.

Honestly, it’s even better than that. Music and audio lovers often have a wide range of needs, and at times it’s easy to lose your way obsessing over things you don’t need. I’m not being judgmental, I’m sharing this from an “it takes one to know one” perspective.

I’ll make this easy for you

If you don’t need more than 30 watts per channel, or balanced inputs, buy a Sudgen A21SE Signature. Get off the anxiety train and just dig it. A big part of the magic that this amplifier possesses is because of its class-A operation. But Sugden takes this a step further – this amplifier is single-endedclass-A. If you’ve ever heard one of the early Pass Aleph amplifiers, they use a somewhat similar approach.
Running the output transistors in single ended mode gives this amplifier an added amount of liquidity that even the best class-A amps can’t achieve. Dare I say, they sound tube like. If you love the sound of an SET but need more than a few watts per channel, with some serious bass control to boot, this amplifier is going to quickly become your holy grail.

Bypass the bling

If you ask the fellow that manages Jerry Seinfeld’s fleet of Porsches his thoughts on the best of the breed, he’ll look you in the eye and say “mid 80s Carrera – they are the best mixture of fun, function, and performance, without all those weight adding features.” That’s what the Sugden A21SE Sig is – a perfectly executed 84 Carrera with no options. Pure driving excitement. Ironically, Jonathan Halpern, the Sugden importer drives a mid 80s Carerra. Coincidence?

If you’ve got a turntable and a DAC, do you really need a zillion inputs, all those blinking lights, meters and such? If you do – that’s ok, this amplifier will not make you happy. But if you just love to drive, I mean listen, and all that matters is sheer performance without all the frills, few things will do the job like the A21 does. And every amplifier I know that is this luscious costs a lot more. The A21SE Sig’s meager $3,250 MSRP is the best money you’ll ever spend in high end audio.

This is an amp that even if you move on to a more grandiose system, you should keep. Forever.

As mentioned earlier, the A21SE Sig features five, single ended, RCA inputs. We used the dCS Vivaldi ONE as our digital source and the Artisan Fidelity Garrard 301 with Boulder 508 phono (via XLR adapters) for analog duties. This amplifier is not the least bit out of its element with world class sources, and it has more than enough resolution to hear the difference between a gamut of phono stages from $1,000 to $65,000.

Auditioning required

With only 30 watts per channel at your disposal, you have to use them wisely, so you’ll need to get the right speakers, but it’s not like only having 9 watts per channel to work with. John DeVore’s speakers work well with the A21SE Sig; Harbeth, Spendor, and Grahams make great playmates too. Ditto for the Focal Sopra and Kanta range. Those in small rooms can achieve magic with whatever flavor of LS3/5a you enjoy. Perhaps the biggest surprise was connecting the A21SE Sig up to the Focal Stella Utopia Ems. These massive three ways, with their 13” field coil woofers enjoy a sensitivity rating of 94db/1-watt and they thrive on low power, high quality amplification. Again, the A21SE Sig delivers a stunning, three dimensional presentation with these flagship speakers.

The Sugden doesn’t really need any “break in” beyond being powered up for 24 hours, like every other class-A amplifier we’ve used, it does need to warm up. Even though there are no vacuum tubes here, class-A amplifiers usually run fairly warm and it takes about 90 minutes to fully stabilize thermally.

Sound at turn on is fine, but as you’ve had your A21 for a while, and become familiar with it, you’ll notice a slight haze in the presentation when it is ice cold; slowly and gradually clearing over that first 90 minutes it’s on.

Glued to the listening chair

Record after record proves that this is an amplifier completely free of fatigue. There’s a level of inner detail present, that will have you scratching your head (or reaching for the screwdriver to take the top cover off) to find the vacuum tubes inside. While you won’t find them, this is the result of decades of engineering refinement.

Regardless of the music you love, the A21SE Sig allows an incredibly musical experience. Bass is powerful, controlled, and anything but one-note. As the Focals go down to 16hz, the sheer amount of control and texture that this little amplifier delivers might be lost on a listener with a pair of LS3/5as, but through the mighty Focals, it was dramatic and impressive.

Inner detail is equally fantastic. Especially when listening to music with densely packed, similarly voiced harmonies, like Crosby, Stills and Nash, Utopia, or Crowded House. Where lesser amplifiers would leave these tunes sounding like a fat, or maybe slightly overdubbed vocal, the A21SE Sig gives each vocalist and individual space within the recording. CSN’s “Helplessly Hoping” is just beautiful to behold. Going back to the 80’s self-titled Utopia, Todd Rundgren, Willie Wilcox, Kasim Sulton and Roger Powell all go back and forth trading lead vocals on each track, yet because they all have such a similar vocal range, it’s easy (on an lesser resolving amplifier) to think TR is doing all the lead vocals. Again, the A21SE Sig clearly reveals the subtle differences between the group members.

Acoustic music lovers will be equally, if not more enthralled. The sheer amount of texture this amplifier reveals when listening to violins and pianos of different kinds is amazing. Everyone who’s ever claimed that “solid-state doesn’t/can’t sound as good as tubes” needs to hear this amplifier.

I could go on forever

But I don’t want to bore you. Seriously the Sugden A21SE Signature is an amplifier that every audiophile and music lover should own. For some it will be a destination product – it’s certainly good enough in that capacity. For others it will be a bookmark, but either way, this is an amplifier that shouldn’t be missed.

Oh yeah, you can get one in orange too. I like that a lot.

I guarantee that this is an amplifier, that once you hear it, you will never forget it. Very enthusiastically recommended, especially in a world where we mistakenly think that “high end sound” requires a six figure budget.

The Sugden A21SE Signature

MSRP: $3,250 (factory) (US importer)

Analog Source Luxman PD171A w/Kiseki Purple Heart

Digital Source dCS Bartok

Speakers Quad 2818, Harbeth P3SR, JBL L-100 Classic

Cable Tellurium Q Black Diamond

Power PSAudio P15 Power Plant