This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

This review first appeared in the February 2008 issue of and can be read in its original German version here. It is herewith translated and presented to an English-only audience through a mutual syndication arrangement with As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end has a link below it to his e-mail should you have questions or feedback you wish to send. All images contained in this review are the property of - Ed.

Reviewer: Jörg Dames
Source: Fonel Simplicité (variable outputs), Audiomeca Obsession II
Amplification: pre/power - Bel Canto PRe3/M300, Myryad MXP2000/MXA2150, Funk LAP-2.V2 – integrated - Accuphase E212, Myryad MXI2080, Lua 4040C
Loudspeaker: Sehring 703 SE, Spendor S3/5, Spendor S 8e, Quadral Phonologue C Rondo
Cable: low-level - HMS Sestetto Mk3, Straight Wire Virtuoso, WSS KS1 Silverline - high-level -: HMS Fortissimo, SilverLine LS2, HMS Al Cinema, Ortofon SPK 500
Review component retail: €3,190

A classic
Some things you know and like, even if you occasionally don't know why. Naturally, I knew Sugden. Of Sugden. While I always related to the brand as something I'd be interested to look into closer, I never really got around to doing so. I even had to catch up on pronunciation now. Though arguably counter-intuitive, the domestic importer assures me that it's not 'Sagden' with an 'a' and sharp 'S' but -- obvious perhaps to all those unfamiliar with basic English conventions -- 'Sugden' with a 'u' and soft 's'. So much for nonessentials. On harder facts, Sugden clearly is no Johnny come lately, having plied the trade for a good forty years now. Founder James E. Sugden's first integrated reaches back into the mid 60s and was, at the time, one of the very first transistor amps to be biased permanently and deeply in class A. High bias currents remain a company motto to this day even beyond the power amplifier category per se.

Justifications for class A are the avoidance of zero crossing distortion and the shifting of a transistor's load lines into highest linearity -- deeper into class A -- for theoretically purer truer sonics. In West Yorkshire (England), individuality is further fostered with actual fabrication: Appreciating DIY, one mostly relies on in-house solutions, designs and production. As the website puts it, everything's "in hand, in house and under control!"

Sugden's A21SE is a direct successor to the A21 pater familias of yore and thus the most current incarnation of four decades of evolution and refinements. The SE suffix indicates the existence of a lesser offspring, the 'small' A21a Series 2 integrated which starts at €1.990 (without phono). As the saying goes, the €1,200 surcharge for the two extra letters would have an old woman knitting for weeks. But let me say that even during the very first audition merely to determine the component's review worthiness, the Sugden A21SE really stood apart. And the four-figure luxury tax also justifies itself with concrete parts upgrades.

Both channels gain their own transformer windings (minimal current sharing), relay-switched source selection and exploded bandwidth to 280kHz which impacts slew rate, subjective speed and improved phase fidelity. Even power grows a touch with the SE version (2 x 30 watts over 2 x 25 into 8Ω) and the potentiometer is an Alps Blue. Parts tolerance and matching too are more rarefied to approach those reserved for Sugden's Masterclass Series (such as the €5,980 Masterclass integrated). The Sugden A21SE thus manages model politics in a symbiotic fashion. Its innards are oriented towards the Masterclass components, its outer fit'n'finish mirror the design-focused Bijou range.

Personally, I'd call the A21SE's industrial design well done - timelessly simple, individualistic and somehow robust. This goes beyond optics to include tactile feedback. Be it the mains switch, source selector or volume control, everything clicks into place with assuring substance or turns against confidence-inspiring even resistance. Sonically, I well recall the spontaneous impression of that very first encounter: exceptionally clear and relaxed, against a calm but black background. That first impressions weren't arbitrary but astute would manifest during subsequent serious sessions alongside certain routine test discs. The Sugden A21SE indeed proved endowed with special charms.

To wit, the six-headed Brit formation Pure Reason Revolution on Dark Third, particularly in the UK press, has routinely endured quite frenetic praise alongside such giants as Pink Floyd or Hawkwind. Even though these juxtapositions strike me as a bit silly and first exposure rather suggested unicorn poster kitsch, once a certain affinity for Art Rock was in place, I did make out. By now I'm quite fond of this album.

While Dark Third hasn't become an essential standard during initial getting-to-know-you sessions with review testers, it proved useful to hone in on the English amp's mettle. Particularly during the opener "Aeropause", the close-mic'd cymbals can rather bite or -- with
a very different system -- suffer a timid wall flower existence. With the Sugden in tow, it was neither nor. Quite so well balanced I rarely hear the bronze bits of a drum kit over my Sehring S 703SE (incidentally no reflection on the speaker). Articulate, incarnate and with just the right dose of natural incision but without -- typical especially with transistors -- their disembodied tizz and tension.

Natural is the key word to describe the Sugden's way with voices. The fairytale voice of Chloe Alper comes across impressively silken, relaxed and rich without devolving into elevator muzak, not a given at all since comparison sand amps (refer back to the introduction) handled things rather less fable-like, i.e. more buttoned down and reduced in color. So hats off for the upper mid/treble range.

To be clear, the Sugden A21SE epitomizes a realistically organic approach of musical flow, relaxation and a goodly dose of molten shimmer rather than pressurized drive and projected jump factor. While I didn't enter this assignment expecting loudness wars, I did expect an ideal mate in the compact, fast and comparatively energetic Quadral Phonologue C Rondo. I was wrong. Even though one is easily tricked -- moi included -- to think otherwise, reality continues to insist that 'small' speakers require 'bigger' amps. For once, like and like don't make for maximal attraction. Disregard makes for lack of energetic involvement -- raw displacement and air movement in the listening room -- and one ends up with blandness.

30 watts per side aren't opulent enough to compel small membranes to deliver large air pressures; even the kind of watts magically endowed with class A bias. Thus back it was to the Sehring S703SE whose 86dB rating itself isn't exactly miraculously sensible. Still, the Sugden A21SE proved exceptionally persuasive and colorful on the brisk, often short piano runs of Dark Third as well as -- attention, CD change -- the soprano sax on Øystein Sevåg's "Hanging Gardens" [album Bridge]. If you like beautiful classicist arrangements of down-tempo acoustic music, then Øystein Sevåg is a hot tip, high recording standards included.

The Sugden impressed again. The quite dominant soprano sax -- not entirely surprising by now -- came across as more blown and hence with greater sonority and color than I'm used to with transistor amps. Ditto for the flute and piano in "Hanging Gardens" which this Brit renders less ordinary and with more harmonic content than my beloved Accuphase E212. While the latter is far from compromised where honest timbres and instrumental body are concerned, the Sugden is plainly spooky good on those points. From midrange to treble, the Sugden is exceptionally believable and relaxed.

Nobody is perfect. So where does it hang? Time for well-recorded avant-garde electronica. Haujobb is an industrial German duo often compared to the maple leafs of Skinny Puppy for complex sound structures but their Vertical Mixes are considerably less rude. The Sugden A21SE digests even such synthetic fare with aplomb which here relies further on analytical insight. Obviously, the already sketched-out organic flow would be at odds with an overdone vivisectionist's approach. Nevertheless, the Sugden doesn't swallow a thing in the mid to upper bands. Hence even the microcosmic minutiae of densely layered but subtle sound bytes whizzing through space aren't shortchanged. Quite brilliant.

The more urgent pressurization of competing amps which have their own virtues with such electronic material is necessarily replaced by greater flow. Organica with synthetica? Across the board, the Sugden is free from artificial hardness and tension to render its playback less angular and nervously upset. This even benefits music without acoustic instruments.

In matters soundstaging, there are no complaints either. Don't expect hyper-etched outlines and rock-hewn immobility as you might get from certain muscle amps. Still, the Sugden doesn't get confused inside dense complexity. Sounds detach from the speakers to form a resolved and free stage that's voluminous and adequately defined without honing into specifics with undue obsession.

Still no criticisms? While particularly on brutally hard e-guitar fare, the Sugden's compact power and benign mids and highs might suggest limitations, that's not a real critique. In matters of long-term comfort, its rather an asset in fact. What I do wish for is more bass quality - quality, not quantity. The Sugden is tonally balanced and far from lean but 2 x 30 watts simply underplay pulsating rhythms and punchy articulation.

That's far from disastrous, however. I'd still peg the Sugden an excellent all-rounder for all manner of musical genres. I would, however, mate it to grown-up speakers of higher sensitivity ratings and boxes and sources with drier bass. To be sure, the
power on tap -- depending on speakers of course -- is plenty sufficient to demonstrate your record collection to your neighbor without the latter's consent. The Sugden 21SE simply is no rocking party animal.

Which was never its intention in the first place. If you want your system to turn you on straight and without foreplay and furthermore contribute only hard-of-hearing ill-defined speakers, you'll pass on this amp. Should you favor realism, body, musical flow and rich mids -- i.e. fatigue-free purity and black backgrounds -- this amp is among the best I've yet encountered. I'm certain in fact that many a diehard valve fiend would go wild over this semi-conductor machine. Beware speaker choices however: You'll want sufficiently large drivers. The Sugden A21SE plainly won't vitalize lazy speaker nor have small monitors play large spaces with anything approaching conviction. While I didn't expect the world with the exceedingly neutral 86dB Sehring S703SE, I was quite blown away by the results, with just minor points subtracted for bass.

The Sugden A21 SE ...
  • Excels in the mids and high with uncommonly relaxed richness free from artificial edges and corners to render competing amps quite ordinary by comparison.
  • Additionally renders these bands pleasantly colorful and saturated.
  • Conveys a very pure, undistorted organic sound field.
  • Is tonally balanced and realistically three-dimensional with sufficient localization focus.
  • Due to limited output power, is no paradigm of drive and displacement and renders the bass with softer flow.
  • Embodies unique yet timeless industrial design (a personal favorite) and overall good construction.


  • 3.190 euros
  • Weight: 14kg
  • Dimensions: 115 mm x 430 mm x 360 mm (H x W x D)
  • Finish: Titanium or Graphite (tester in Graphite)
  • Output power: 2 x 30 Watt/8 Ohm, 2 x 40 Watt/4Ohm
  • Power consumptions: ca. 150 watts
  • Operational biasing: class-A
  • Inputs: 5 x high-level single-ended
  • Other: Pre-out
redaktion @
Sugden website