If the following descriptions lack any overt tube-centricism, it's because the SP-80s, once dialed in by Mr. Johnson, play perhaps not entirely in the Daniel Day-Lewis leagues yet -- unless you deliberately obliterated what makes the good ones special to begin with, thermionic amps do a few things better/differently than transistor designs which tends to give the former away -- then surely in the Sean Penn class of method acting: Completely in the service of whatever script you insert them into; with only the barest hint of personality left; and, within their wattage/star power rating, a predictable box office slam dunk. Before this movie simile exhaust itself to silliness, let's switch hats to act like a properly and dour constipated audiophile. Method acting, ya know? Lol.

As a teaser (just can' t behave for long), let's start with a brief anecdote. Walter Liederman as the authorized Shanling dealer ships his first pair of SP-80s north into maple syrup country. He wants Chris' opinion on whether these amps, like their previous join collaborations on the T-100/200 players, would lend themselves for an attractive cost/performance makeover. That's it - the anecdote. Not sure what to think, Liederman eventually phones Chris who sheepishly explains that the amps hadn't been returned due to one minor problem he just couldn't solve - they'd become his new references.

Since he pays him for the ongoing modifications, Wally clearly had Johnson securely by the short'n'curlies. So he figures that this is just about the best endorsement for the SP-80s he could have hoped for. He sends Chris a second pair of Shanling monos to find out what this fuss is all about, then deducts the cost of the first pair from Chris' running invoices with Underwood HiFi. Now that's it - a true and poignant anecdote I confirmed with Chris. He knows a thing or two about expensive Sonic Frontiers tube pre- and power amps. He should be hyper critical, current with his assessment and anything but casual when selecting new personal reference amps. Incidentally, the review loaners were Wally's personal pair, fully broken-in and expected back in short order. Dammit.

Like John Stronczer of Bel Canto Design and Eric Lauchli of Coda-Continuum who employ it in their just-reviewed $3,800 PRe6 and $2,950 Unison, Chris called the new BurrBrown PGA2310 programmable gain attenuator chip hands-down the best currently made. Though implemented with a tube buffer in the Shanlings and restricted to a single input -- something one could expand upon with an inexpensive passive as a bypass switching console, say the $250 CIA VPC-1 -- this bit of technogeekery predicted an ultra-transparent, high-resolution preamp stage in the modified SP-80s.

During my time with them, I only encountered a few intermittent software-specific hiccups. Twice upon power-up, one amp's display would read garbage but, like a computer glitch, reset itself after shut-down. Once I got loud distortion and easily triple the volume from what the actual setting said I should have gotten. This remedied itself via a simple hard reset/power-down, a quicker fix than recovering from the near heart-attack thrust upon me by this high-decibel sonic test for remote control reflexes. I stopped the CD player in two seconds flat and avoided speaker damage. Phew! While this suggested that Shanling needs to revisit the logic circuits for the display/attenuators to exorcise these occasional gremlins, the post-mod sonics require zero adjustments.

Their remnants of specific qualities occurred in three areas, two not necessarily exclusive to tubes -- though far more common there than with transistors -- one exclusive to glass bottles for most intents and purposes and where my own small ears are concerned. First, I clearly perceived a minor softness of attack, as though leading edges were slightly buffered. Not to be mistaken for slow or ponderous but simply blunted to avoid zing -- in general far better than accentuating it -- this also prevented the last word in jump/excitement factor, possible when leading edges rise faster without turning stark, brutal or hyped. Second, the treble possessed that glare-free, gritless polished quality of baby-breath ease. Not as mysteriously extended and lit up as my Brazilian amps, it still caused that fluffy aeration of the soundstage and its inhabitants which has gardeners poke holes into their lawns to increase oxygenation. This was in contrast to the super-dense projection of the just-reviewed Audio Zone AMP-1 whose relative lack of air didn't turn dry but rather rendered the music extremely robust and slightly wet. If that equalled a rich cream-based Ben & Jerry's ice cream, the SP-80s were closer to juice-based sherbet - more translucent and spacious, less compacted. Third, the combination of transient softness and loose textural weave was responsible for an overriding sense of elegance, sweetness and prettiness.

Instead of focusing doggedly on mechanical ultra-resolution, the SP-80s struck me as being more concerned with musical flow, that organic feel of things breathing relaxedly - not cobbled together of Frankenstein parts but being of one seamless piece. It didn't make these monos into low-rez amps. I could hear rather deeply into the soundstage though they neither broke new ground nor went quite as far as others I've had through here. They simply didn't emphasize that gesture of being concerned over these last minutia, rather inviting admiration of holistic beauty instead.

As the intro already set up, these three attributes acted as faint reminders of personality. They were no longer outright hit-me-over-the-head traits but washed-out footprints in the sand - overall shape recognizable but traction profile long since vanished. Hence don't misread gentle sweetness for syrupy excess, minor softness for sluggishness. Whether due to a very special output transformer, the power supply upgrades, both or something else altogether, the Shanlings' bass was very solid-statish in weight, reach, control and solidity, merely exhibiting the same leading edge behavior of the higher bands to differentiate it from ultra high-current contenders.

If you performed a blind-folded listening session? The only quality that would give away "tubes, somewhere" to an experienced listener would be that distinct yet hard-to-describe aerated quality in textural substance, most readily identified in the three-dimensional gestalt of voices that floated and billowed rather than appearing cast or hewn. It's an area where, until recently, I've remained loyally beholden to the conviction that tubes enjoyed a protected advantage over solid-state. I've since heard a brand-new sand amplifier that is the equal to my AUDIOPAX monos in every single cherished regard but then (sniff), clearly superior in others. It makes a permanent sex change of yours truly -- from thermo dude to transistor Joe --highly likely in the not-so-distant future. You'll be the first to know which doc wielded the knife in said operation. However, until I can hit a high C without breakup, no pregunten nada mas.

Those familiar with the EL-34 "Blues" tube weren't surprised to see the SP-80s earlier referred to as slightly sweet. The surprising part? How well reined-in this propensity was here to survive as a mere skoch rather than potent dose; how lean the overall presentation felt compared to many clearly thick and warm implementations of this affordable pentode to render this leanness not lean per se but lean merely for an EL-34 amp, hence pretty close to neutral if any of us could figure neutral once and for all. If my commentary now stops, it's for one simple reason. Like a Sean Penn performance, nothing more remains to be said about the actor. I could go on ad infinitum describing what certain albums sounded like. Still, that wouldn't tell you anything useful about the Shanling SP-80s. Their output power proved more than adequate for the nOrh SM6.9s to dispel any notions of tubular wussy watts. They seem perfectly matched for speakers 88dB or higher - i.e. the vast majority on the market, with certain barbaric low-impedance loads still best left to the arc-welding brigade of brick shit house amps.

Where my $13,800 combo of PRe6/Model 88 went further -- besides the obvious input switching facilities -- was in the areas of micro resolution (I could hear more low-level detail); decay trail lengths (connected to lower innate noise floor and more extended treble); accelerated rise times (more dynamic jump factor); and even more 3D thereness. At close to 1/4 the price, the Shanlings' superior industrial design, elimination of one box and set of interconnects and only a minor reduction of resolving power weighed most heavily in their favor. Not your typical tube devices nor using expensive rare glass bottles, these Chinese statement amplifiers with in-built analog attenuation should appeal to those one-source listeners who value overall neutrality over strong colorations but still favor a subtle penchant for prettification over brutal warts'n'all honesty and prefer diaphanous spaciousness over razor-edged focus. Seeing that Shanling's own high-resolution T-200 CD/SACD player is the SP-80s' natural companion and en route for some intimate ensemble playing, I'll report more shortly on any potential synergy between these components. Stay tuned then to 103.7 CHFI: Chinese HiFi with ruthless ambitions to rewrite the price/ performance/appearance recipe in bona fide high-performance gear.

PS: Once the review went live, I got a phone call from Walter Liederman. He explained that the display weirdness encountered was a function of proper turn-on sequence. SInce he didn't remember it, I tried it both ways. Sure enough. Turn the Master amp on first and everything's peachy. Start with the Slave though and the Master acts all wigged out and bent outa shape. Now I'm wondering. Did I operate the Master in the latter state when I experienced the unwitting power surge and distortion mentioned earlier? Since it only happened once, that now seems highly likely. Duh. Reviewers....

Underwood HiFi website
exclusive source for the Level-1 modification described
Manufacturer's website