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Sugden HeadMaster Review/comparison

post #1 of 34
Thread Starter 
The other day I stopped by The Analog Room in San Jose just to see what was new, and I was surprised to see a Sugden HeadMaster sitting on the shelf next to a Grado RA-1. I was surprised for two reasons, one being he doesn’t carry much in the way of headphone stuff, only Grado in the past. The other reason was I had always heard that the Headmaster was a little on the bright side, and I know that Brian, who owns the shop, doesn’t care for bright sounding stuff. After all, he carries a lot of tube amps and turntables…I saw over a dozen different turntables there. The headmaster wasn’t hooked up, so I borrowed it for the evening.

Sugden is a British company that’s been making quality stuff for a long time. They have an integrated amp that’s been in production for over a decade. The HeadMaster is the first of a new series of compact components including an amp and cd player. The Headmaster is an all discreet solid state unit configured in Class A. It has three inputs, a tape out and a line out, so it can be used as a preamp. It’s a very attractive unit with a titanium color front panel and slightly darker steel gray top and bottom plates. It weighs 7.7 lbs, looks and feels very solid. The 5 pairs of RCA connectors are all high quality. The full size headphone jack is not a locking type and in fact doesn’t require a very high insertion force, making it easier for the headphone plug to be accidentally pulled out.

When I first plugged it in and started the tunes, the first thing I noticed was it wasn’t bright at all, just very neutral and transparent. The other thing that hit me is it was very spacious and airy. This seems to be the kind of presentation that comes with the best tube equipment but this is solid state! It also ran very cool, which surprised me as Class A circuits usually run a bit warm. This amp seemed like a real contender, so I rounded up all of the usual suspects for a comparison test. I still had my HeadRoom Maxed-out Home then, so it, the Corda and the ZOTL were all compared. By the way, the ZOTL has Sylvania NOS tubes in place of the stock tubes.

I used a wide variety of music, including symphonies, chamber music, opera, and lots of assorted jazz and rock. I mainly used the Linn Ikemi as a source and Sennheiser HD600 with the blue Clou for phones. No matter what was playing, the sonic signatures of the different amps were pretty consistent. All of the amps had excellent bass, tight and well extended. The Headmaster was the most spacious and airy sounding, making all of the other amps sound like they had a flattened soundstage, lacking depth. Amazingly, it was the Headmaster and the ZOTL that sounded the most alike. The Headmaster had more depth and seemed slightly faster and more detailed than the ZOTL. On the other hand, the ZOTL sounded a little richer, maybe a tad fuller in the mid bass.

The Maxed-out Home (with the crossfeed processor turned off) was less airy and much drier sounding than either the ZOTL or Headmaster. It also sounded slightly rolled off at the top, which it is being the older design. The latest HeadRoom designs don’t have this roll off. I didn’t have a MAX on hand but from what I recall when I compared my MOH to the new MAX during the Bay Area get together, the two units sounded quite close to each other, other than the top end that I mentioned. It was the Corda that sounded a bit bright in comparison to the other more expensive amps. It was the least airy and open sounding of the amps. Keep in mind though it is less than half the price of the other amps.

The one thing that the Headmaster lacks (as well as the ZOTL) is crossfeed. I use an external DIY crossfeed box so that’s not a big deal for me but it would have been nice to have it built in.

If I had to chose among these amps, including the MAX, it would come down to the Headmaster and the ZOTL. I like the sound of the ZOTL but I would have to say that the Headmaster is probably the better amp overall. I’ve decided I have to have both.

While writing this up I hooked up the HeadMaster to the tape outputs of a Rega Mira integrated amp and played some records on a Rega P3/Glider. I first played the new reissue of Mingus’ Blues & Roots. Recorded in 1959, this not only is great music but sounds great too, with excellent bass and very three dimensional. I didn’t hear a single pop or click in the whole record, and it cost $12 which I believe is cheaper than the CD version. Next I played some of the Complete Silent Way Sessions by Miles Davis. This is also an excellent sounding.

By the way, I’m told that Sugden is now making the Headmaster with a remote control. The problem with this is that they’re raising the price from $800 to $1000. There are a few of the non-remote units left so if anyone is interested in them at the lower price they should act fast.

I have some photos to post but it's late now so they'll have to wait.
post #2 of 34

Re: Sugden HeadMaster Review/comparison

Originally posted by KurtW
I like the sound of the ZOTL but I would have to say that the Headmaster is probably the better amp overall.

That's a very strong statement for the HeadMaster considering how much you like the ZOTL. I'd like to hear one some day.

Thanks for the excellent review, man!
post #3 of 34
Great review! Would like to know more about your experiences using the Sugden as a pre-amp.

Heh heh...the Legion Of Headmasters is growing!
post #4 of 34
Another myth dispelled, thanks for the review. Where do those who own the Sugden Headmaster purchase them, appears to be hard to find in USA.

Stone Audio UK is offering new headmaster for @$800 shipped to USA. You get 17.5% discount because they deduct the VAT when shipping to USA (568 pounds total cost includes fastest shipping), and they do have models with 110v power for USA, anyone ordered from these guys? This appears to be the model with remote control from description at website, although I would want to confirm that before ordering.


BTW I really think Headroom should take note here, would not cost that much more to have 3 inputs and remote for Headroom Max, then it really woud be a true preamp product.
post #5 of 34
Great review, Kurt! Those are three amps that are rarely compared directly, so this comparison is especially helpful.
post #6 of 34
Thanks for the great review, Kurt! Now, I also need to get one. But should I skip a source upgrade for the Headmaster?

For a better price than Stone Audio has, try http://www.signals.demon.co.uk. I e-mailed them a little while ago and they ship to the US and might give you even better prices than those listed. Don't know about service, though, as I ended up going with the Melos SHA-1 instead of the Sugden Headmaster.
post #7 of 34
DanG, that link isn't working for me...
post #8 of 34
remove the "." after uk, and the link will work.
post #9 of 34
Team Sugden grows! Excellent review, nice to hear I didn't miss out on too much when going for the Headmaster over the Zotl. Of course, it helps that I only paid $490 for it (no remote).

Please do post the photos when you have the time, it'd be interesting to see how they compare size-wize.
post #10 of 34
Thread Starter 
If you want a US source you can call the Analog Room in San Jose at 408-971-6158. They are open Tues-Fri. 10am to 7pm PST, Sat. until 5 or 6pm. I know they will ship stuff, and if you're out of state you can save on tax.
post #11 of 34
Originally posted by mcbiff
Team Sugden grows! Excellent review, nice to hear I didn't miss out on too much when going for the Headmaster over the Zotl. *snip*
I second that statement. I thought about posting a review of my unit when I got it, but without anything to compare it to I felt I would have been saying nothing new. It was harsh at first using the IXOS gamma 1002s, but after replacing them for Nodost Blue Heavens I found things improved noticably (much to my relief, they were the first 'expensive' ICs I had bought).

Overall, I am very pleased with my Headmaster, especially the 3 inputs so I can hook up my CD, PC and PS2 (via an XRGB-2) and switch between them at leisure . There is slight sound leakage between the channels however at maximum volume...

I was trying to listen to something from my PC, but had selected the wrong input so I kept cranking the volume until I heard a faint sound. I was just thinking about buying a new soundcard when it dawned on me 'wrong input, fool!' I'm glad I turned the volume down before switching to the right channel or I'd probably be deaf now, this thing goes so loud!
post #12 of 34
Thread Starter 
I tried the HeadMaster in my big system to really see what it could do. The sources are a dCS DAC/upsampler with a SF SFT1 transport, and a Oracle/Grahm/Win/SF Phono-l vinyl system. It sounded excellent with the HD600. Then I took the preamp out to 2 Wright Sounds WPA3.5 mono blocks. These are 3.5 watt SET amps using the 2A3 tube, sometimes known as "God's tube". You can get more info on this amp here: http://www.wright-sound.com/products/MoreDetail.asp?Id=15 I wired the headphones directly to the amp output connections, without any dropping resistors. This is how it's done on the ZOTL, and it works with low output amps. I was a little afraid it would be too hard to control the output but it worked great.

Switching back and forth between the HeadMaster and Wrights, using the HeadMaster as the preamp, showed a little better low end with the Headmaster, but a slightly more transparent sound overall with the Wrights. Then I substituted my Welborne Labs Revelle passive preamp with dual stepped attenuators for the Headmaster. The sound was amazing! Vails were lifted and the sound became wonderfully transparent and vibrant. This is the best sound I've ever heard from headphones. I can't imagine it getting any better.

So, as good as the HeadMaster is as a preamp it doesn't compete with a good passive preamp with stepped attenuators, but I've not heard anything that does, including the Sonic Frontiers Line 2 which costs several times as much. The amp section is also excellent, but from what I heard I think there should be more exploring with SET amps.
post #13 of 34
Kurt, when you said " the sound was amazing" I assume you are referring to the 2A3s. That means the SET 2A3 amp is even better than the Sugden Headmaster right? :>
post #14 of 34
thanks for the review kurt! Man, that just makes me want this amp even more. I can only imagine what the soundstage would be like with the K501's as headphones...
post #15 of 34
Great review, Kurt!
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