“Sushi can only be evaluated by eating it.” That is one of my favorite quotes from Soulnote’s Design Philosophy page. I’ve been saying similar things for decades, albeit with a NJ flavor.
When we evaluate a piece of hifi gear, the most important measure of performance is found when listening to music through it. This obviously means we’re also listening to the rest of the system, the room, and what ever music we choose to play. To my mind, these facts necessitate that some amount of time needs to be spent just listening to get beyond comparisons, beyond the first impressions based on difference—how does this new thing make music sound different from the thing it replaced?
In order to get to know the sound of a given piece of hifi gear, we need to put it through its paces in order to understand its voice, or lack thereof, to determine if it makes music addictive, magical, and full of wonder. To make the listening experience completely captivating in a way that honors the music. Because difference, in and of itself, is not a value judgement.
The Soulnote A-2 Integrated Amplifier isn’t obvious. It does not announce itself with a grand entrance into the listening room like some boisterous life-of-the-party guest. Rather, its strengths mainly lie in getting out of the way, receding into the background so that the sound of music is what we’re left with, hanging there in the air ready to to be taken in as deeply as time and attention allow.
There’s a sonic purity to the A-2’s way with reproduction that transcends system context. I paired the Soulnote with a number of different speakers including the Marten Parker Trio (review), the resident DeVore Fidelity O/96, the review Q Acoustics Concept 50 (more info), and the review Credo EV 1202 Reference (more info). And in each case, the Soulnote’s purity of sound shone through.
Purity of sound is, in the end, the most appropriate phrase that came to mind to convey the Soulnote’s way with music. The A-2 is also lightning quick, as light on its sonic feet as I’ve heard, making it nimble as all get out while retaining music’s body and color. A combination of strengths that are uncommon in my experience. It is also plenty powerful, its rated 100 Watts (into 8 Ohms) feeling like a lot more through each of the speakers I had on hand during this review period. I attribute this sense of more than enough power to the A-2’s ability to control each of the speakers in use, regardless of their specific load, so things like bass response and upper frequency extension felt at once controlled and limitless in terms of force and speed. Music sounded fully formed with a superb sense of micro-delicacy that gives music drama and surprising scale.
If you read the rather long Soulnote Design Philosophy, page written by Chief Designer Hideki Kato, you’ll find a number of explanations for this performance that veer a bit from the common. I’m not going to repeat these thoughts here at length but I recommend reading them for a fuller picture of the Soulnote approach.
Soulnote, the company, was formed in 2004 by former Marantz Japan director Norinaga Nakazawa, and it is part of the CSR Corporation (Corporate + Social + Responsibility), which is based in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan. I mention this because the company’s history, in terms of design and experience, reaches back with Nakazawa to the 1980s, where he oversaw the design of the near-legendary Marantz CD63 CD player and worked on the development of non-feedback amplifiers. While the Soulnote A-2 is a new product, its design is based on decades of experience.
The A-2 Integrated Amplifier generates its power from a Class A/B design, albeit one that employs no negative feedback. As Chief Designer Kato explains in his Design Philosophy, Negative feedback circuits are a common way to improve static performance. 99% of audio circuits in the world use negative feedback circuits. I used to design amplifiers with negative feedback circuits, but the deeper the negative feedback is applied, the better the static [measured] performance, but the more the music loses its life force and sounds boring. The company isn’t shy about providing details into their design, and we learn that they use Toshiba 2SK209 Series JFETs, ELNA capacitors, Sanken Bipolar transistors (2SC2837/2SA1186), and a 600 VA bifilar wound toroidal transformer from the A-2 product page. The volume control, that offers a reassuring click when turned up or down with the knob or included remote, incorporates Soulnote’s original relays in a balanced attenuator system that switches high-precision resistors.
Unpacking the A-2 from its ample packaging announced an uncommon design choice with a rattle—the unit’s top plate ‘floats’ on the chassis as opposed to being firmly attached. Soulnote explains, The top cover, which has a particularly large influence on sound quality, features a dual-component construction that joins the base plate and the aluminum panels at three points so that they do not dampen each other. By grounding it at three points without fixing it to the aluminum portions of the housing itself, this design succeeds in pulling down the sound focus while still keeping it expansive.. Resonance, vibration, damping, and even air are discussed at length in those Design Philosophy pages. While I cannot speak to the floating top plate’s impact on sound quality, there was no A/B option, I can speak to the A-2’s performance across a few systems which I would, in fact, describe as focused and expansive.
As you can see, classic hifi design has carried over into the A-2’s appearance with its woody side panels accented by the deeply ribbed aluminum front panel that disguises the power button in one of the ribs. Weighing in at about 45 lbs, the A-2 looks and feels the part of solid unflappable sturdy. At least that’s the way I see it.
In addition to the ins and outs you’d expect from any integrated amplifier, the A-2 adds six different operating modes with corresponding switchable settings for a host of configuration options (from Soulnote):
Stereo pre-main amplifier
BTL monaural pre-main amplifier
Bi-amp monaural pre-main amplifier
Stereo power amplifier
BTL monaural power amplifier
Bi-amp monaural power amplifier
I used the A-2 as an integrated amplifier for this review.
Of all the recent music recommendations I’ve shared, not one comes close to the universal love shared, via email or in person at Axpona 2022, over King Hannah’s I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me. In addition to that badass fun of a record, I’ve also been enjoying their take on Bruuuuuce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” from his lonesome and lovely Nebraska album. In King Hannah’s hands, the song takes on a more obvious impending doom air, with an electronic whirlwind slowly building in the background with Hannah Merrick’s forlorn lyrics riding over a driving beat. Simple stuff sonically yet you want all of these pieces laid out bare, which the Soulnote does with flair. Quick as a whip dynamics, superb bass control, rich tone color, and a sound image as big and vast as an empty highway at night.
I’ve mentioned Nilüfer Yanya’s PAINLESS a number of times and every time I listen again, it seems to get more infectiously fun. Through the Soulnote driving the Credo EV 1202 Ref. speakers with the EMM Labs NS1 streamer feeding the EMM Labs DA V2 DAC, every last ounce of sound was portrayed in living color. Once again the dynamic jump factor was through the roof with big bold and controlled bass. While it’s been too long since the ModWright KWH 225i Hybrid Integrated Amplifier left the Barn (review), memory suggests it would have made for an interesting comparison as it had a similar set of strengths with a touch more body and slam. In the ModWright review I called it “a kiss of sweetness” and the A-2 sounds a bit more matter of fact, a bit more resolving.
Hania & Dobrawa’s Inner Symphonies finds childhood friends Hania Rani and Dobrawa Czocher reunited for an album of original compositions, released on Deutsche Grammophon in Octoboer 2021. Hania is a pianist while Dobrawa is a solo cellist with the Szczecin Philharmonic and together they made a record of nearly painful beauty. This is big-sounding music recorded in Szczecin’s Philharmonic Hall, with vast trails running off into space and the Soulnote re-presents this landscape with stunning clarity. Hania’s piano in particular is reproduced with such stunning clarity and focus from both hands running the length of the keyboard, I wanted to highlight this aspect of the Soulnote’s performance for those listeners who value superbly controlled clarity—the A-2 has you covered.
Nils Frahm’s recent Music For Animals clocks in at 3 hours+ so it works on the conscious mind like a movie or travel or meditative state. I’m a fan of Frahm’s work, his album Solo from 2015 is a personal favorite, so I’m all in for the full Frahm experience on Music For Animals. If you know his work, you know that Frahm cares about sound and its qualities to an extraordinary degree. He plays a Klavins-Piano Model 370 on Solo that stands over 12’ tall and offers, as you’d expect, a completely unique sound.
From the Music For Animals liner notes:
Unfolding at an unhurried, meditative pace in a celebration of tone, timbre, and texture – and thus of sound itself – Music For Animals offers an unusually immersive experience. “My constant inspiration,” Nils explains, “was something as mesmerising as watching a great waterfall or the leaves on a tree in a storm. It’s good we have symphonies and music where there’s a development, but a waterfall doesn’t need an Act 1, 2, 3, then an outcome, nor do the leaves on a tree in a storm. Some people like watching the leaves rustle and the branches move. This record is for them”.
trans. “Don’t you hear that horrible screaming all round you? That screaming men call silence?”
As someone who can watch the opening sequence of Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser over and over (and over) where the wind makes a sea out of a wheat field, Music For Animals is for me. The A-2’s strengths—clarity, control, lightning speed, and a stable sound image as large as the recording allows—were made for this music. As part of the Credo/EMM Labs system, the Soulnote reaches into the tiniest recesses while painting a Great Plains-sized landscape for Frahm’s mesmerizing world to slowly unfold within. Breathtaking.
The Soulnote A-2 is the kind of hifi product that speaks to people who are interested in more than what a spec sheet has to say. Or, who need to eat Sushi to know if they like its taste. To my way of experiencing, the A-2 is for people who dig deep—deep into the music they love, the story behind the products they choose to live with, and even how these things look and feel. If you are that kind of listener, the Soulnote A-2 has many riches to offer including a purity of sound that makes listening to music addictive, magical, and full of wonder.
Rated output: 100W×2(8ohm), 200W×2 (4ohm), 400W (BTL MONO 8ohm)
Total harmonic distortion: 0.03% (50W 8ohm)
Frequency characteristic SPEAKER (8ohm 1W): 3Hz to 240kHz (±1.0dB)
Input sensitivity/impedance: LINE 1,2,3 (balanced): 700mV/16kohm , LINE 4,5,6 (single ended): 700mV/8kohm
S/N ratio: 110dB (IHF A network)
Power voltage: 220V AC 50Hz(A-2H), 115V AC 60Hz(A-2T), 230V AC 50Hz(A-2E)
Power consumption: 355W, 125W (during idling)
Maximum external dimensions: Main unit: 455(W) × 162(H) × 423(D)mm
Included accessories: Remote control, Spikes, Power cord