System Review: PS Audio Sprout100 + ELAC Debut 2.0
It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve been thinking about writing a system review for years. It’s also the case that I’ve wanted to review this particular system for years as well. On one hand, every component review is a system review, on the other hand reviews are rarely presented as such. This is all well and good as long as we’re careful about we say in a given component review but the idea of reviewing a system has always appealed to me seeing as we listen to systems not components.
I first reviewed the original PS Audio Sprout in 2015 for AudioStream. Long story short, I liked it. The PS Audio Sprout100 is the new model, which adds a number of things to the original including more output ICEpower, double the original’s 50wpc, the 100’s DAC reaches way up to 24/384 for PCM files and DSD128, there’s a variable subwoofer mono output, full RCA analog in/out connectors, a redesigned RIAA phono-stage, and a newly designed z-feedback low-impedance headphone amplifier. The Sprout100 costs $599.00 (see the full Sprout specs).
A quick Sprout100 feature recap means if you own a Sprout, you need to add a source(s). The input options include a computer or network player’s USB output, Bluetooth (like from your phone), a turntable (yes!), an analog device (like a cassette deck), and a Toslnk-output-enabled device like your TV. On the output side, you need to add speakers and/or a pair of headphones. Depending on your setup, you’ll obviously need some cables and for the purposes of this system review, I’ve chosen to use cabling from AudioQuest because they make sense seeing as the company’s lineup includes many affordable and well-made products. I’m also a fan of not mixing and matching cables from different manufacturers in general, and especially for a relatively simple system. My thinking is—life’s too short and the list of great music to listen to is too long to fuss over cables.
I remember first catching wind, and an earful, of the Andrew Jones designed ELAC Debut speakers in their room at RMAF 2015 where the system earned my “Favorite Room” not-an-award. Talking about price/performance, I said, “Man, that’s just crazy!” Here I sit in the barn with a pair of the ELAC Debut 2.0 B5.2 speakers, something I’ve wanted and waited to do since 2015. Yes, audiophiles can be patient, contrary to popular belief.
The Debut 2.0 B5.2 speakers, hereafter Debut 2.0, are a 2-way bass reflex design housing a 1″ cloth dome tweeter and a 5-1/4″ Aramid fiber woofer. The cabinet is made from CARB2 Rated MDF [footnote 1] and the Debut 2.0 comes in your choice of Black Ash Vinyl or Black Ash Vinyl (wink). The price of admission is $249.98 /pair (see the full specs).
The AudioQuest cables in play included the Type 4 speaker cables ($232.00/6′ pair) and the Forest USB cable ($35.95/0.75M).
System Price for the Sprout100 + ELAC Debut 2.0 speakers + AQ speaker cables + AQ USB cable = $1,115.94.
I used my Sonore microRendu to feed the Sprout via USB, the Well Tempered Amadeus turntable for spinning vinyl, my iPhone 6 for Bluetoothing, Roon to control streaming playback, and Target speaker stands. I’m not including the price for these components and software in the system price since you don’t have to use them. Again, you can serve the Srout100’s USB input with the output from a computer.
As you can see, I’m using this system as an in-room hifi (actually in-barn but a barn is also optional). While I know people who use this combination on their desktop, I prefer the less is more approach for my desk’s top which means active speakers + DAC. YMMV. The barn is roughly 35′ x 45′ x 12′ but the listening area, which is cordoned off with books and records, is roughly 18′ wide by 35′ deep but I sit about 9′ from the speakers, which sit about 5 1/2′ from the rear wall. The ELACs are spaced roughly 7′ from each other, which is a narrower setup than where my DeVore gibbon Xs live but I spent real time getting the ELACs to sing in this space and this location is where they, and I, were happiest.
While we’re here, I cannot overemphasize the importance of spending real time on speaker placement. I’ve heard many a system completely transformed from, “Wow that sounds really shitty” to “Wow that sounds amazing” by simply getting the speakers in the right place in room. No joke. I like to do my near-final adjustments in the near dark so my eyes don’t interfere with my ears, and then a final tweak with a tape measure in hand (in the light).
Extolling the virtues of relatively affordable gear is a road well-trodden as well as being an active minefield of clichés and praise inflation. That being said, the things I want from a hifi do not change based on the price of the gear I review. So, while I expect more from more expensive things, I do not expect less from less expensive things. All to say I have a sonic baseline below which lives gear that sucks the life out of music. In my experience, a price tag does not guarantee placement above or below that line. Once you are above the line, spending more money can get you more, especially with speakers. But things like a new cable will more often than not buy an incremental improvement whereas new speakers can buy completely new sound.
The Sprout100 / ELAC Debut 2.0 system lives well above my sonic base line. In fact, it clears that line like a long jumper equipped with a pole vault pole (how’s that for a cliché?). This system, being fed files to the Sprout’s internal DAC, delivers a very convincing musical message regardless of the music being played. It is at once rich, incisive, and punchy, while being capable of delicacy. I put this system through many paces over a number of weeks, listening throughout the day and into the night. I couldn’t possibly list all of the music I played because I don’t remember.
The Sprout’s phono stage is damn-near amazing, all things considered. For anyone building a vinyl rig upon this base system, Sprout100 / ELAC Debut 2.0, you will find no shortcomings whatsoever. I spun a whole lotta love including a bunch of recent LP purchases (Spiritflesh’s Spiritflesh, Marc Ribot’s Songs of Protest, Ora Iso, Schammasch’s Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror and The Maldoror Chants: Hermaphrodite) and my only thought, other than music-centric mulling was, “Man, that’s just crazy!”
I love Bluetooth. There, I said it. The reason being, anyone with a phone with music on it, i.e. everyone, can play music through this system in a matter of seconds. That makes for a very friendly family and friends hifi. And it sounds just fine. I also spent some time with the AudioQuest NightOwls plugged into Sprout and it also made for a moving musical pairing. This system lends itself to an investment in some good quality headphones which means you can remove the largest barrier to good sound—the room.
While I’ve spent words focusing on the Sprout100, the ELAC Debut 2.0 are obviously co-stars in this system package. While I’ll be penning follow-ups for both of these pieces to explore how they mate with other gear, the ELAC’s certainly love little Sprout. As a pair, they are able to dance with Duke, swing with Sinatra, and even Boogie with Stu. There isn’t any particular area of reproduction I find myself focusing on when listening, rather the most compelling thing to my ears about this pairing is an overall balance. This means I was not led down a path toward a specific kind of music, as lesser systems tend to do (you know, Oops! That sounds really bad. Where’s that lute music?).
But, you knew there would be at least one, there’s just so much air a small two-way speaker can move. When pushed hard toward higher-than-normal listening levels in the barn, things begin to flatten out and get hard. If you want visceral and you have a lot of space to fill, you’re going to have to spend more money on more speaker. Whether that means adding a sub or moving to floor-standers, we’re moving away from the intent of this system review. Namely, for people looking to buy a hifi that allows them to stream, play records, play music from the TV, and listen in-room or on headphones, you will be hard-pressed to find a more compelling solution than this simple system.
If I could add one thing, I’d ask for a streaming, Roon-Ready Sprout thus eliminating the need for a computer or network player, further simplifying this already simple system.
Summing up, for a system coming in at the $1100 mark, give or take, the Sprout100 / ELAC Debut 2.0 system is in every respect a winner. While you won’t get everything, where would you put it (thanks Steven Wright), what you will get is a hifi capable of mating you to your music in meaningful ways. I also find the Sprout to be one heck of a nice looking piece of kit, better looking in fact than the endless parade of black metal box w/silver faceplate clones. Sprout has character, and wood! What more can you ask?
The best laid plans of mice, and we have some visit the barn, and man (me) leave so many variables, even with a system review, so as to render my findings at best a broad generalization, a facsimile of findings.
Here are the top five differentiating factors from universal findings:
- the barn is big
- your room may not be
- I’m using a digital delivery system which, all told, runs at about $5k give or take ( Synology NAS / sonicTransporter i5 / AudioQuest Ethernet cables / DJM Electronics GigaFOILv4 – INLINE Ethernet filter
- I’m also using the AudioQuest NRG-Y3 power cord instead of the stock Sprout power cord because it makes the system sound better
- I’m not you
Hmm. What to do, what, to do. In a word, experience matters. At least to my mind. While experience is praised in most professions, according to some people, hifi experience is fraught with peril. Why should we listen to a guy working in a hifi store when all he has is a few decades-worth of experience listening to and mixing and matching hifi components to get the best possible sound when we have guys on audio forums calling foul on every, single, professional in the industry? After all, someone with a few thousand comments on a hifi forum has no vested interest </sarcasm>.
One of my favorite records, dating back to the the 1970s, which is when I first heard it but the LP came out in ’69, is John McLaughlin’s Extrapolation. I loved this record so much, I looked up the definition of extrapolation:
the action of estimating or concluding something by assuming that existing trends will continue or a current method will remain applicable.
While I doubt John McLaughlin named his 1969 record Extrapolation so that I could pull this rabbit out my hat some near 50-years on, I’m obviously committed to running with this analogy. For good reason—every review you read is site, system, and person specific. No matter how hard the cold wind of objectivism tries to blow in the face of reality. While some suggest this renders all reviews meaningless, I have to push back with experience.
Based on my experience, if you decide to buy the PS Audio Sprout100 and the ELAC Debut 2.0 speakers, I can safely extrapolate from that experience and say with confidence you are getting one helluva Adrenalin-indusing hifi. Unless you are A) dead, or B) a jaded audiophile.
The PS Audio Sprout100 and the ELAC Debut 2.0 speakers earn our Recommended System award with aplomb.
1. CARB Phase 1 and Phase 2 are a part of California’s Composite Wood Products Regulation (CWP Regulation), which took effect in 2009 with Phase 1. The regulation has to do with reducing formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products, hardwood plywood, particleboard and medium density fiberboard (MDF).
Price: $249.98 /pair
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