It is impossible to know from a name, or from how the founder of the company dresses for that matter, what a component will sound like. If one were to go by appearances only, the attire of James Bongiorno or the garish blue hue of his Ampzilla amplifier might be off-putting. James, now departed, was a vibrant individual who displayed that vibrancy in many ways. I recall seeing the Ampzilla at shows and I always wanted to review it, partly because of the sound it was making, and partly because of its looks!
It turned out the opportunity came to me when Constantine Soo, Publisher of Dagogo solicited the writers with the chance to review the components here presented. I was hesitant, though, and I will be honest about it; I noticed that Spread Spectrum Technologies, the company James Bongiorno started, was now in the hands of Wyred4Sound. I had sampled a Wyred4Sound amp previously in my room, but passed on it as a review candidate as it was not sufficiently enticing. I wondered if the mysterious Ampzilla II would capture my imagination beyond its name, so I took a chance on it.
It was a great move, as the Ampzilla II strikes my ear as radically different from the W4S amp I had used. I was pleased to see the thorough explanation contained on the “About” link at the SST homepage that EJ Sarmento, Wyred4Sound’s chief designer, is honoring the original design, retaining the larger schema but tweaking it, while toning down the blue color scheme to black. Thus far it seems the marriage of W4S and SST is working out.
Arrival and unpacking
The double boxed cartons with thick foam did the job protecting the Thoebe II and Son of Ampzilla II, and communication with Tony Holt of Wyred4Sound was timely and polite, a great customer service experience.
The components feature a flat, dull aluminum faceplate with matte gray cases. Gone is the vibrant, but somewhat off-putting garish blue color. The styling is understated, even generic along the lines of older NAD products. My first impression is of a subdued appearance, but thankfully without eyeball piercing LEDs. The stock feet are generously sized, so as to allow easy lifting, and the weight is not prohibitive for most owners to handle alone.
These are the simple gear man’s delight, with throwback features such as BALANCE, BASS and TREBLE controls. I typically am disgruntled with contouring of the signal, but I found these controls deft and effective, liking the effect regardless of whatever potential degradation of the sound might occur from them being included.
The smallish remote looks better than most, but the nomenclature on the rear side of the components is far too small to be helpful. When a person has to peer over the side of a component at black lettering on a dark case using a flashlight, it is time to improve the experience.
The SST Thoebe II is a feature-rich preamp, having a collection of functions grouped in small touch buttons under a moderately sized display. Thankfully, bright green is used for the dimmable display, making it legible from a distance. To the left side of the display are two ¼” headphone outputs; the left one operates in conjunction with the speakers, but the right one mutes the Line function of the preamp while in use. To the far right is the VOLUME control knob. The other functions, duplicated on the adequately sized remote control, are from left to right STANDBY, INPUT UP or INPUT DOWN (Three pair unbalanced, one pair balanced), BASS, TREBLE, IR Sensor, BALANCE, PHASE, GAIN, DIM and MUTE.
The BASS and TREBLE controls adjust each from -5 to +5 in 1dB increments. Balance can be adjusted from +10L to +10R in 1dB increments. Phase is toggled between zero and 180 degrees, as is the Gain setting between High and Low. The Phono stage requires an MM or high output MC cartridge, and it uses a new RIAA optimized topology. I only use file playback or streaming audio, so I will leave discussion of the Phono stage to others. The built-in DAC uses the ESS Sabre 9018 chip, has an Asynchronous, galvanically isolated USB input, and supports up to 32 bit 384kHz PCM and DSD4 and DSD128.
The backside of the unit is busy on the left side, with the optional Phono inputs above three sets of RCA inputs and one set of XLR. Fixed line level outputs occupy a black rectangle on the back plate alerting the owner to these potentially damaging outputs that are attenuated. A set of three RCA outputs and one set of XLR outputs follow. Above these are the Toslink, USB and Coaxial Inputs. Just off center of the back is a 12V Trigger output which when connected will turn on both the Thoebe II and Son of Ampzilla II. The 15A IEC sits off to the right with the power fuse compartment integral.
How about all those features?
In my room I have no need of balance control, as it is a perfect environment for listening. I did, however, test the Thoebe II’s BALANCE function and found it to shift the center image incrementally enough so as to allow for subtle manipulation. The indication of balance shifting is shown unusually by the display, but becomes intuitive quickly enough.
The BASS and TREBLE controls are the real stars of the user-friendly features of the Thoebe II. I found myself calling upon them whenever I set up a system with not quite enough top- or bottom-end. The value of an adjustable preamp with quality tonal controls can be enormous. If the audiophile does not wish to pursue adjustment of the system via cables, then the bass and treble controls are indispensable.
Any set of components and cables have an innate character, but when a new item is introduced into the system there is no telling precisely how and to what degree the sound quality will shift. One may be able to ball park the effect, but it may not be to full satisfaction. For instance, the Red Dragon S500 is a “cooler” sounding amplifier than the Son of Ampzilla II. If I were to construct the exact same system with the S500 I may deem the result too top-end emphasized. The Thoebe II’s treble control of only one or two steps down might bring a satisfactory lowering of the intensity on all music, not only particular tracks.
The BASS and TREBLE controls are readily available on the remote control, so I found that if a track was played with too heavy a bass footprint I could instantly lighten it; this is a very gratifying way to enjoy a piece of music at a higher level, but without the associated displeasure at the dynamic overload. Unlike tonal controls of the past, I found these to pose a very light burden on the signal, such that I did not mind the effect, and did not feel I was losing definition or detail for the sake of using it. This is one of the few tone controls I would use myself, and I did find myself taking advantage of it during the review without concerns for degradation of the sound. I like the combination of the cleanness of ESS Sabre chips in a DAC, yet having the configuration capacity of addressing any tonal issues.
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