Přinášíme Vám překlad skvělé recenze Soulnote A-2 v magazínu Hi-fi Voice.
Japanese brand Soulnote may not be among the most well-known in our region, yet it has been in existence since 2004, although the first models only saw the light of day in the year 2011, after a quite extensive period of development. The company officially entered the European market just the year before last. Behind the brand is former director of the Japanese division of Marantz, Mr. Norinaga Nakazawa, and it is not a small company – it employs over 50 people. Currently, their catalog features three series, simply labeled 1, 2, and 3. The development is characterized by a reliance not on technical specifications, but primarily on the development through listening experiences.
Soulnote A-2, in line with the naming logic, falls into the middle series and is an integrated amplifier (the separated design is exclusively found in the highest series). However, with a few "buts" – thanks to switches on the rear panel, the A-2 can be transformed into several quite unique roles. The included two channels can function as a standard integrated amplifier, or the A-2 can be a relatively classical stereo two-channel amplifier. It can also be set for bridged amplification (meaning you will have a monoblock) or bi-amping (one channel amplifying through one set of terminals for highs and the other set for lows). In bi-amp mode, you effectively operate two integrated amplifiers in parallel. This represents an impressive potential for a gradual upgrade to your audio setup.
In terms of design, it is a very distinctive device with a markedly angular style emphasized by horizontal ribbing on the front and sides. The (un)fastening of the top panel is also interesting – in line with a rather unorthodox approach to combating unwanted vibrations, the top cover with large ventilation openings is not fully secured and resonates when tapped.
On the front, there is a prominent company logo beneath a small red display. The main features are two rotary controls for volume adjustment and input selection. The active connection is indicated by a series of small red LEDs. The power button with a "very mechanical" feel is delicately integrated into one of the longitudinal ribs. It appears to be a decidedly unique design, certainly not unattractive, and the material quality aligns excellently with the demands of its category.
At the rear, you'll find a neatly arranged set of connections. In the middle of the top row, there are three RCA inputs, below which are the same number of balanced XLR inputs. At the very bottom, there are four speaker terminals. On the edges, there are the previously mentioned switches on one side and the power socket on the other.
The entire aluminum chassis comes from the factory with small blunt feet, which, however, can be unscrewed and, as the manufacturer recommends, replaced with the supplied set of spikes. Just be cautious about your furniture – the amplifier, with a width of 43 cm, depth of 42.3 cm, and height of 16 cm, weighs a substantial 20 kg.
If you peek inside, you'll see meticulously symmetrical components and PCBs. On the sides, there are heatsinks for the power modules, in the center front, a shielded 600 VA toroidal transformer with a dual winding, and on the right front, a section with resistors controlled via relays, forming the volume control system that clicks so satisfyingly when adjusting the volume level.
The circuits are conducted in full symmetry, and the design avoids the use of any feedback, which is a fundamental element of the brand's philosophy. Therefore, you won't find voltage feedback on the output modules, power circuits, or even in the voltage amplification stage. An interesting solution is the minimization of signal paths for input terminals, input selection, volume control, and voltage amplification onto a single multi-layer PCB with very thick 70 μm copper traces.
Another noteworthy aspect is the absence of any inductive elements in the paths through which high currents flow. This is intended to result in an exceptionally wide frequency response and stability. To eliminate unwanted transitional resistance, there are no connectors throughout the entire amplifier; all wiring is directly soldered onto the boards.
The power is delivered by four pairs of output transistors on each channel (2SC2837/2SA1186) in parallel configuration. Before assembly, these pairs are meticulously measured and matched to form an optimal Darlington solution. Specifically, this translates to 100 watts per channel into 8 ohms, precisely double that into 4 ohms, and an impressive 400 watts into 8 ohms in bridge mode.
The operational frequency range is wide – from 3 to 240,000 Hz (+/- 1 dB / 1 W / 8 ohms). While the total harmonic distortion value of 0.03% (50 W / 8 ohms) may not sound overly impressive, it aligns with the earlier statement that the company prioritizes factors beyond technical specifications. The signal-to-noise ratio of 110 dB is considered good.
The Soulnote A-2 spent an unusually long time in our editorial office, undergoing a break-in period (at times paired with the D-2 converter) in a smaller setup instead of the Musical Fidelity M8xi and EverSolo DAC-Z8 (with IsoTek V5 Titan) while being listened to through Fyne Audio F1-5 speakers. It also played in the main system, where, in addition to the mentioned DAC from the same series, it was accompanied by equipment such as Métronome DSC and OPPO UDP-205. Comparisons were made with Norma Revo SC-2 LN / Norma Revo PA 160 MR, all on an IsoTek V5 Sigmas filter. The system was interconnected with a mix of Nordost Valhalla 2, Heimdall 2, and KrautWire Super Symetric Gold cables. The speakers used were KEF Blade One Meta.
In all positions, the A-2 demonstrated excellent control and liveliness in the bass component of Margo Price's "Black Wolf Blues" (from "Strays II" | 2023). Not only do the deep tones carry plenty of energy, but they also exhibit decisiveness and meticulous contours, which are truly outstanding for an integrated amplifier. The penetration combined with specificity dictates the pace and drive with unprecedented naturalness, offering both depth and a sense of authority. One can only shrug at how this is possible in the given price category and the essentially "normal" concept of an integrated amplifier. Perhaps the bass could have a bit more volume, as it is primarily impactful and brisk, but it's nothing that you would notice during standard listening. The separation of positions and colors is fascinatingly entertaining and good.
A notable gift of the A-2 is the immediacy with which it presents music and how engagingly it does so. Despite revealing the garage-quality of the recording "Sok Up The Sun" by Soccer Mommy ("Karaoke Night" | 2023), it doesn't matter at all – even that gritty sound style is wonderfully energetic, as solid as biblical principles, and as piercing as a hawk's eye. Yet, it doesn't sound forward or vulgar; it's simply concert-like, clear, and thus pushes the musical content to the forefront rather than emphasizing its own character. Thanks to a lot of energy, it pulses, expressive and distinct, presented with excellent emphasis and many, many details. It's as if – compared to the vast majority of competitors – someone properly "lit up" the mix of your songs.
The pedal to the floor is primarily noticeable in the lower part of the frequency spectrum, but even the highs in "Ready Set Go" by Grace Potter ("Mother Road" | 2023 | GEP Adventures) certainly don't suffer from any caution. They crackle, ring, cut through the air with boldness and joy, possess precise contours and a superbly readable texture. They are simply clear and open as much as possible. Despite their presenting robustness, they don't cut into your ears, aren't unpleasant in any way; it's a natural, concrete edge without any sense of something extra – a very pure style.
"La jetée" by the French artist Raphaël ("Haute fidelité" | 2021 | SONY | 88644819079) is notably loaded, especially in the low end, in line with the local musical taste, but overall, it's a modern recording with bold dynamics. In a small space, we achieved a volume level of 10, and with KEF in a larger space, it reached 20, well below the maximum limit. The A-2 confidently asserts itself with gusto, carving out tones and showcasing its power, subjectively surpassing its paper rating of a hundred watts. The intensity and emphasis are simply fantastic. And that solidity, that's something too. How a seemingly ordinary (albeit high-end sized) integrated amp can do this on first impression is not easy to comprehend. Despite all the power and forcefulness, the sound has a firmly anchored grip and control, suggesting something more than sufficient reserve. Perhaps Musical Fidelity has a bigger and more powerful sound, but certainly not as concrete as this.
Hand in hand with excellent clarity and transparency is the great resolution. "I Asked" from the eponymous album MABGATE (2023) was full of nuances and subtle sounds, with the main lines outlined with precision and instruments depicted with exquisite firmness. The sound plays with a great deal of expressiveness – as mentioned earlier, practically with concert-like immediacy and a sense of presence. It almost feels like the music is urging you to come closer, with the stage extending beyond the speakers, tempting you to lean forward and touch it. The sound signature is incredibly firm, and despite its slightly forward presentation, it doesn't fatigue even after longer listening sessions. The longest listening day could extend to over eight hours, and the amplifier wasn't turned off with tired ears
It seems that the Slovak music scene has a talent for producing modern electro-pop, such as "Čierna šelma" by Katarína Máliková ("Postalgia" | 2019 | Sinko Records | SR 0119). The beautiful scene had confidently defined dimensions—not massive, but solid, very concrete, and individual sounds are fantastically delineated. As mentioned earlier, there is an unusual impression of stretching the stage not only in the obvious right-left axis but also a step backward, and most importantly, a step forward beyond the speakers, simply closer to you. This creates a very attractive effect, emphasizing plasticity with almost holographic ambitions. It's worth noting again that this is partially due to the overall forwardness, but it works, creating a sense that you are truly closer to the music.
The slightly raw and also slightly dirty and garage-like (though perhaps more like a sacristy here) "All of my Friends are Going to Hell" by Reverend Kristin Michael Hyter ("SAVED!" | 2023 | Perpetual Flame Ministries) was indeed very intense. From the initial restraint to the vigorous pounding on the piano or the piercing vocals, you truly feel that it's an intense personal statement. Nevertheless, the music is easy to listen to, penetrates effortlessly, and its salvific (or warning) energy propels forward, whether played quietly or very loudly—the only thing that changes is the acoustic pressure.
The Soulnote A-2 integrated amplifier was one of the biggest surprises for us last year and perhaps not only then. Coming from the "former engineers of the Marantz brand," you probably wouldn't expect this kind of sound, generally not even from Japanese developers. However, within its robust industrial chassis lies an incredible potential, even in the context of a higher price range. Firstly, the "scalable" concept deserves great praise, where you can start with one integrated amp and, by adding more pieces, build up to a large, divided setup. But even in its basic form, you get a sound that is wonderfully transparent, clear, exuding energy directly, and aligned like soldiers on parade. The confidence, specificity, energy, drive, and explosiveness reliably captivate you, instilling a desire to listen to more and more recordings and enjoy them. The amount of life energy that the designers managed to capture within the A-2 is enormous, and its willingness to play is gigantic. The Soulnote A-2 is a fantastic, fantastic, and once again fantastic integrated amplifier.
- Exceptionally enjoyable and expressive sound tuning
- Robust construction
- Configurability and connectivity
- Very fair price for the performance offered
- Excellent control even with more complex speakers
- Possibility for system expansion by adding additional units
- With more aggressive speakers, it might occasionally sound too assertive