Sonic Frontiers Power 3 Special Edition Mono Amplifier 
Home Theater Power Amplifiers Mono Amplifiers
Written by Bryan Southard   
Thursday, 01 March 2001

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 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.

The Music
  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.

Sound Summary
Overall, I found the Power 3 Special Editions to perform very well. The bass is abundant, perhaps not as quick and deep as on some solid state monsters, but solid state sound shouldn’t be expected from tube amplification.

Those who have read and have followed my opinions know that I love tube gear. It offers reality. In most cases, this reality is not without compromise. The compromises are most commonly made in the lower frequencies. I found the low-frequency extension of the Power 3 SEs to be the best I have heard from a tube amplifier. The low-frequency information was more coherent and present than that provided by the Audio Research VT100 Mk II. I feel that, top to bottom, the Power 3 SEs sound sweeter and less reproduced. However, I do feel that there is some midrange coloration not found in the Audio Research VT100 Mk II. Even with this coloration, though, I still preferred the Power 3s in nearly every category.

Compared to Sonic Frontiers Power 2s that I have been using, the Power 3 SEs are considerably more transparent and better in absolutely every category - a notable improvement.

The Power 3 SEs have an enormous amount of power. I am currently using the Revel Salons as my reference loudspeakers, which need higher power to get peak performance. I found the Power 3 SEs to possess control similar to the very high-powered Pass X350s, with the exception of ultimate bass extension. Let’s face it, as stated earlier, bass extension is what solid state amps do best.

The midrange of the Power 3 SEs is incredibly palpable and engaging.

The Downside
The Power 3 Special Editions, being tube amplifiers, have the same problem that scares many enthusiasts away – tube maintenance. Tubes will last you in the area of 2000 hours. Depending on how much you listen, this could mean anywhere from one to three years of tube life between replacements at a cost of about $1,000 for the two amplifiers. My feeling is that if you can afford a $12,000 set of amplifiers, you probably aren’t worried about tube replacement, although math tells you that this will represent anywhere from $30 to $75 per month.

Additionally, worries of how to determine when a tube is going, or has gone bad, and making sure you have replacement tubes on hand so that you are not without music for an extended period of time while waiting for new tubes to arrive, are additional concerns.

Tube products can be a pain to position. You can’t easily place them in a rack, because of severe ventilation problems. It can be done, but care must be taken. Tube amplifiers get very hot, much hotter than solid state. Keeping them out and within reach can present a problem for people with kids and animals – again, another case where care must be taken.

The points that I have listed are all points that exist with any tube product. The fact is that tubes are not for everyone.

I do not think that the Sonic Frontiers Power 3 Special Edition amplifiers are perfect. For that matter, I haven’t heard any amplifier that is perfect. There are compromises inherent in every amplifier on the market. Knowing where you are and are not willing to accept compromise brings you to your best personal choice.

The Power 3 SEs are, however, the best tube amplification that I have had in my personal sound system to date. They provide a tremendous level of resolution and ultimate enjoyment. I feel they excel in providing the most important information, the finite detail that is often called air, or information that separates the instruments from the room. It is this level of detail that makes reproduction real.

If you can live without the ultimate bass control of the solid state mega-watt amps, and have a taste for truly realistic vocals and instruments, then the Sonic Frontiers Power 3 Special Edition is a great choice. For me, it has raised the bar and will become a permanent part of my reference system.
Manufacturer Sonic Frontiers
Model Power 3 Special Edition Mono Amplifier
Reviewer Bryan Southard

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