SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published September 15, 2003

 

Sugden Bijou HeadMaster Headphone Preamplifier/Amplifier

"They Had Small Brains and They Died."

That was the title of a song on an album whose name I've long since forgotten. Ostensibly about the dinosaurs, it serves as a perfect reminder that bigger is not necessarily better -- and that's true in hi-fi as well as real life.

Seriously now, how many music lovers do you know who actually want huge hi-fi products? (Audiophiles don't count -- we're weird that way). I've had some of the finest -- and hugest -- audio gear in the world in my house and no one has ever exclaimed, "What a big amplifier -- I bet it sounds great!"

No, what they say is, "Bet that's loud!"

Sugden's new Bijou line, on the other hand, has the bulletproof build quality of the finest audio jewelry, but it's tiny. The HeadMaster preamp/headphone amp and AmpMaster are 3"H x 9"W x 10"D and the CDMaster is built like two of the other components stacked on top of each other. People want these products. "Boy, I bet this sounds good," more than one visitor has commented upon spotting the $995-USD HeadMaster on my desktop.

When all those big-name audio companies have gotten it so wrong, how can a company you’ve probably never even heard of get it so right?

Size matters

J. E. Sugden & Co., Ltd. has been manufacturing hi-fi components for over four decades. The British company is located in Heckmondwike, West Yorkshire, where all of the firm's design and production are carried out in a converted two-story mill.

Sugden makes everything from casework to circuit boards by hand -- its products are even measured using test equipment designed and manufactured by Jim Sugden. Each unit is packed with a tag bearing the signatures of the people who assembled and tested it.

The HeadMaster combines a remote-volume-controlled line-level preamplifier with a dedicated class-A headphone amplifier. Despite its small size, it looks serious. The case is distinguished by rounded corners, which mirror the .75" posts that run through the .25" aluminum top and bottom plates, solidly clamping the four aluminum side walls.

The casework sports what Sugden calls a "black chrome" finish, which looks like what other companies call titanium. Sugden also makes a titanium finish for some of its other products and it does look different from the Bijou's finish, but if you think in terms of gray rather than glossy black, you'll be in the right ballpark. The front panel is uncluttered and clean. From left to right, it has a .25" phono jack, a small power LED, a volume control, an IR receptor, and an input selector. What you do not find on the front panel is any lettering or labels -- that's silk-screened on the top plate, where it can be easily read from above. Good show, that.

On the rear panel (and these are labeled there, rather than on the lid) are five pairs of high-quality gold-plated RCA jacks: a preamp output, a parallel tape output, and three line-level inputs. There's also a rocker-type power switch (you did notice there wasn't one on the front, didn't you?) and an IEC power-cord receptacle.

Tony Miller, Sugden's current owner and the HeadMaster's designer, describes the HM as a current-feedback, single-ended, DC-coupled, current-gain, pure-class-A circuit. "This is the reason it drives just about anything," he said. Miller goes on: "The damn thing's got balls-a-plenty!" The input selector employs logic-operated twin-gold-contact bifurcated crossbar relays with a contact resistance of less than 0.05 ohms. (Man, I thought the circuit description was a mouthful!) These relays, Miller says, are "non-invasive" of the input signal and keep the signal pathways as short as possible.

Sugden also points out that it employs a class-A circuit design because the company feels class-A operation best preserves wide bandwidth and dynamic contrast at low listening levels. This is particularly important in a headphone amplifier, as North American importer George Stanwick is quick to point out: "This gives listeners greater satisfaction and safety at lower levels, since they don't feel compelled to turn up the volume to get the dynamics exhibited by live music. Many people just aren't aware of how loud they end up listening in their search for that 'live' sound -- it's enough to cause permanent hearing damage."

Plugging in a pair of headphones mutes the preamp outputs of the HeadMaster, so you can listen through speakers or your 'phones, but not both.

All men are at last of a size

I used the HeadMaster in a variety of systems, both as a dedicated headphone amp and as a preamp in my office and main systems. Headphones used were the AKG-1000s, Sennheiser HD 600s (with the Stefan Audio Arts cables), and the Etymotic ER-4P. In my office, I fed the HeadMaster with a Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista CD player; in the main system the Classé CDP-10 did the job. As a preamp, I used the Sugden in conjunction with the AmpMaster 35Wpc amplifier, as well as the Ayre V-5x and Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300. The speakers in the main system were the Amphion Xenons; in the office, I used Dynaudio Microns. Cables, as usual these days, were Shunyata Research Constellation Series Aries interconnects and Lyra speaker cables.

You may know me by my size

At $995, you don't want no puny little thang, you expect performance -- and with Sugden's HeadMaster, by gum, you get it. It is a peach of a headphone amplifier, sounding sweet and lush, but with lots of sock as well. As a preamp, it's swell, too -- putting me in mind of Melos' very much lamented SHA-1. Like that old favorite, it was a preamplifier that bordered on greatness without costing a ton -- sorta like getting a headphone amp thrown in for free.

What it's remarkably like, in fact, is getting a really good preamp with a really good headphone amp thrown in -- like the HeadRoom Max, for example. It doesn't have HeadRoom's signature crossfeed circuit which helps eliminate the "music originating in the center of your head" sound so many people dislike about headphone listening, but the HeadMaster does possess the same iron control over the music and low-level detail as the Max.

Further, not everyone likes the sound of the crossfeed circuit. Some folks find it obscures detail; others hear a steeliness that disconcerts them. The HeadMaster doesn't attempt to substantially change the headphone experience so much as maximize what's already in the signal. And it has three inputs and that tape output, giving it flexibility the Max doesn't have.

Both units have phenomenal low-level detail, which really does translate into more rational playback levels -- especially with hard-to-drive loads like the AKG-1000, which can break the spine of any puny headphone amp.

The Sugden has a warm, almost tube-like sound that is rich in fundamental harmonics -- it sounds lusher than the Max, if no less clear. This was quite noticeable in John Coltrane's tenor saxophone on Mobile Fidelity's new remastering of Steamin' with the Miles Davis Quintet [UDSACD 2019], where the HeadMaster put a deep burnish on the brass on 'Trane's tone. The same instrument sounded harder and brighter through the Max.

Does this mean the Sugden is more accurate than the Max or simply that it reinforces my own preferences? That's really hard to say since every new mastering of this jazz classic sounds different from the ones that have preceded it. I don't have access to the original masters, so I can't say which sound is closest to that on the tape. It may be a moot point anyway.

Preference doesn't require any justification, at least not if we're honest about that being what it is. We only get into trouble when we confuse our specific set of preferences with that chimera called accuracy. If you like a mellow, deep, rich sound, the HeadMaster's going to float your boat -- if you prefer detail and separation of specific sonic cues, the Max will do it for you. Which is right? I think it’s the one you like best -- but I'm the original audio slut.

Size is not grandeur

When I inserted the HeadMaster into my main listening system as a preamplifier in place of my Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista, I was amazed at how little obvious difference the regime change caused. The relaxed, unforced musical presentation I enjoy continued without interruption and the music retained its mid-hall presentation.

Robert Silverman's muscular Beethoven [Orpheum Masters KSP 830] remained mercurial, the percussive note attack blending smoothly into a liquid and prolonged decay, then disappearing rapidly as the small recording venue refused to support its acoustic bloom. Sorting out that complex combination of sounds is a great test of low-level detail and the Sugden passed with flying colors. All of the information was presented with great clarity, yet the overall effect supported the passionate musicality of the performances without emphasizing the venue's shortcomings.

Of course, when we listen to live music, we do that without even thinking about it. But our hi-fi systems tend to act as filters, underlining some aspects of the sound picture more than others. The whole trick to putting together an enjoyable music system is to pick components that don't highlight the warp and weft of the sonic tapestry at the expense of the larger picture.

The HeadMaster presents that musical overview in an extremely satisfactory manner, but at the loss of a small amount of three-dimensionality. If you're a soundstaging freak, you'll find the stage somewhat foreshortened by the Sugden. It simply isn't a match in this regard to my two all-time reference preamps, the Ayre K-1x or Conrad-Johnson Premier 17LS, but then few preamps are.

A more rational point of comparison would be my other favorite little overachiever, the Monolithic Sound's PA-1 preamplifier/HC-1b DM power supply, which, at $748, is even in the same price range.

Listening to the Telarc Hovhaness disc that has been my acid test for big, complex presentation over the last few months (Mysterious Mountain; Hymn to Glacier Peak; Mount St. Helens; Storm on Mount Wildcat [Telarc SACD 60604]), I find that the pair of preamps caught both the muscularity and tonal purity of the performance quite nicely. But there were differences.

The HeadMaster captured the shades in between the primary tonal colors with a wider range of shadings than the PA-1/HC-1b, which had an interesting collateral effect: the overall picture initially seemed to lack distinguishing detail.

To some extent, that's also a description of that warmth I keep mentioning. When you use a filter, you tend to accentuate contrast at the expense of the true picture. This can be a useful thing, as when we use a UV filter on a camera lens to reduce atmospheric haze, which obscures visual detail. The result isn't what we really see with our eyes, but that increased clarity has its own appeal.

It works that way in hi-fi, too. There are detail freaks that feel that music lives and dies through contrast and highlighted detail and then there are those who would rather hear the subtle shadings in between all those "layers." And, just as in photography, neither is "right," since a live musical event contains so much more musical information than either extreme in high-fidelity reproduction.

However, if your preference runs to the presentation of a big orchestra that has a distinct front row, second row, and so on back to the rear wall, the HeadMaster will sound a tad foreshortened. You can hear that there is depth and, in fact, that there are rows, but there's also a fair amount of atmospheric (acoustic) haze apparent. I hear this as greater harmonic shading, but some will simply hear it as a lack of clarity. As you are bent, so will you perceive.

Less open to debate, however, is the way in which the Sugden's mild (and to my ear, pleasing) warmth affects system synergy. The PA-1/HC-1b simply whomped it in the bass-extension department, delivering both tighter and more extended rump thump. The HeadMaster didn't rob the music of bass, but bass authority isn't what it brings to the party, either.

Combine it with products that impart their own warmth on the signal -- such as my Musical Fidelity amp and CD player -- and you may end up with too much of a good thing down in the bottom octaves. I think I'm correct when I say nobody really likes puddingy bass. However, most of the gear that I suspect will be paired with the HeadMaster won't err on the side of warmth, so adding a bit of mellow probably won't be a bad thing.

I think no virtue goes with size

Maybe I'm a sucker for a pretty face, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Sugden Bijou HeadMaster. It's a fantastic headphone amplifier and drove even my toughest headphone loads with authority and intensely enjoyable musicality.

As a preamplifier, it was also a joy. It does have a "sound," if you will, but it happens to be one I enjoy and recognize as true to the music. If you prefer shading to contrast and warmth over hyper-detail, you'll like it, too.

Does that sound guarded? Actually, I'm gaga over the Bijou, but in matters of taste, as they say, there can be no disputation -- you may well hear things differently. I can say that I have heard few products under a grand that have given me more flat-out audio pleasure than the HeadMaster and that I'd buy it in a flash.

What's not open to debate is the build quality and sense of substance that the HeadMaster exudes. This is a product that just feels special and everyone recognizes that the minute they clap eyes on it, or caress it (and everyone seems to want to stroke it).

That's not a minor consideration. In fact, it's a very big thing indeed.

 ...Wes Phillips
wes@onhifi.com

Sugden Bijou HeadMaster Headphone Preamplifier/Amplifier
Price: $995 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor (valid only in country of purchase).

J. E. Sugden & Co Ltd.
Valley Works, Station Lane
Heckmondwike
West Yorkshire, WF16 0NF

E-mail: info@jesugden.co.uk

North American distributor:
Stanalog, Inc.
P.O. Box 671
Hagaman, NY 12086
Phone: (518) 843-3070

E-mail: stanalog@nycap.rr.com
Website: www.stanalog.com


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