|Sonic Frontiers Power 3 Special Edition Mono Amplifier|
|Home Theater Power Amplifiers Mono Amplifiers|
|Written by Bryan Southard|
|Thursday, 01 March 2001|
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The Power 3 Special Edition mono amplifier is a new reference product from Sonic Frontiers, the Canadian-based audio/video electronic manufacturing company. Sonic has been in business since 1990 with a handful of products that have received industry recognition for being among the very top of their class. The original Power 3 amplifiers have been in production since 1995, with the new Special Edition version now available as of March 2001.
The Special Edition Power 3 is a hopped-up, much-refined version of the original Power 3 mono amplifier. Similar to the standard Power 3, the dimensions of the Special Edition remain the same at 18 inches wide, 22 inches deep and nine inches tall. The look is exactly the same as that of the previous Power 3, consisting of a box to the rear of the amplifier, containing the transformer and power supply electronics, and an extended platter to the front with a complement of eight power tubes and six input driver tubes. Set against brushed stainless steel, the tubes provide a spectacular glow.
One difference in the Power 3 Special Edition from the previous model is its much more powerful Svetlana KT88 Power tubes. These tubes have long been manufactured in Russia and were not available in the U.S. until recently. Most products in the U.S. continue to use the U.S.-manufactured 6550 power tube, which has a much lower output. The 6550 power tube is inferior to the Svetlana KT88 in several ways, but most notably in its reduction in power output. The benefit of the KT88 power tubes in the Power 3 Special Edition version is a boost to the already high-powered (certainly for tube amplification) original Power 3s, which are rated at 220 watts per channel. Sonic Frontiers also includes eight NOS (New Old Stock) German VALVO or SIEMENS 25 to 35 year old vintage ECC88 / 6DJ8 type input/drive tubes. The new Special Edition packs a mean 260 watts per channel.
The Special Edition Power 3 has upgraded gold-plated porcelain tube sockets for a more pure tube connection, Kimber Silver Streak input wire, Kimber AGSS output wiring, Caddock and Vishay signal path resistors – over 30 per monoblock - the highest quality RTX polystyrene MultiCap Capacitors, and a new faceplate to round off the Special Edition mods. The Special Edition Power 3 represents Sonic Frontiers’ effort to provide a no-compromise solution to amplification.
Also different is the price tag. The Power 3 Special Edition amplifiers retail for $11,999 per pair, compared to the standard Power 3s, which sell for $9,999 per pair.
Upgrades are expected to be available for the standard Power 3s later this summer. However, they are expected to cost more than $2,000 (the difference in price between the original and new models). This is due to the significant breakdown required for the retrofit.
I have been using the Sonic Frontiers Power 2, reviewed by AudioRevolution.com back in 1998, as my reference for better than two years. I am currently using the Revel Salon loudspeakers as my reference, speakers that need and benefit from higher power output. The arrival of the Power 3s meant an opportunity to hear the proposed best of an electronics line that has already earned my respect. Could this amplifier live up to my high expectations? Let’s see.
As was mentioned in Jerry Del Colliano’s Power 2 review, the act of unpacking Sonic Frontiers amplifiers is somewhat like Christmas morning for audio enthusiasts. Upon removing the amplifiers – very large ones - from the boxes, you will need to install the tubes. A nifty installation kit including tubes, biasing tools, and a white glove for protecting the tubes from any hand oils during installation, is included. After the tubes have been carefully set up, these amps are ready to fire. Fire would seem to be an appropriate word as the glow of this tube complement is an amazing orange. Biasing is performed at the top of the amplifier, using a screwdriver-type tool with built-in red and green lighting indicating when the tubes are properly set. Biasing takes about five minutes and should be performed once a month, as properly biased tubes last longer and sound better.
Once the Power 3s were connected to my speakers, I was ready to rock - almost. I fired the amps up and patiently waited until they had the recommended 200 hours of break-in time. After break-in was complete, my critical listening began. There are many aspects of any new product that need to be evaluated. This is best accomplished when the listener keeps a very open mind and avoids any pre-determined conclusions. However, once in awhile, a product comes along which gives an immediately striking performance. Such is the case with the Power 3 SEs.
There were many aspects of these amplifiers that were immediately impressive. Most notable, in addition to the abundant amount of power, was a much greater level of musical transparency.
Jazz singer Julia Fordham is a musician who I recently discovered and had the good fortune to see perform live in a San Francisco club. The Japanese release of her album Porcelain (Circa Records Ltd./Virgin Japan Ltd.) contains a couple songs not released on the U.S. pressing. In the song "Prince of Piece," I found several different qualities of her voice to be unusually engaging. I found the vocal textures to be much improved when played on the Power 3 Ses, compared to how the same material sounded when played over a couple of other amplifiers that I have recently heard. Fordham’s voice had an inherent realness that was absolutely mesmerizing. Compared to the Pass X350, the Power 3 SE had a considerably more convincing presentation. The vocals were much more set back, without the faintest suggestion of coming forward.
When a product is void of sonic artifacts that can push images forward, or artifacts from the music that can become somewhat obtrusive, you find yourself almost gasping for breath. This is the case with the sound coming through the Power 3 SEs. For me, this phenomenon is caused by the somewhat expected presence of reproduced artifacts, grain and flaws in the music. When these distractions are missing from the music, you get a feeling of relief or an unexpected relaxation in the reproduction. In the case of the Power 3 Special Editions, the relaxation isn’t slowness or laziness, but rather an absence of unnecessary harshness.
Let’s embark upon a musical journey into the past. First I am going to go with Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia Records). Bob Dylan has been one of the greatest influences on American folk music, as well as being a huge influence on rock ‘n’ roll greats like Jimi Hendrix. I admit to being influenced by Dylan as well.
In the song "Ballad of a Thin Man," Dylan’s vocals were presented nicely, with a tremendous amount of air around the vocal body. This is an area in which the Power 3s excel over many other amps. The harmonica was separated and laid back well, with great air between the ambient room information.