01 September, 2010

Overview-Sonic Frontiers

Overview-Sonic Frontiers

Back in the early 90's, Sonic Frontiers was all the rage. They went under later but the AV subsidiary Anthem is still around. Information on old SF products can be found here. I have used and heard a lot of their products. Here are my views, briefly:

I put this first because I think in this area they excel, partly because of the era during which they produce products was the era of the excellent (and expensive) Ultranalogue 20-bit D20400A chip. I believe this is one of the best DAC chips ever.

SFD-2 This is the earlier flagship which uses 2 chips and has balanced outputs. Earlier MkI does not have HDCD decoding. Later beefed up MkII does, but there are also minor changes and cosmetic variations within its long production, which I shall not go into. I have owned before a MkI before it went bust, and still own a MkII. I suspect, contrary to popular opinion, the cheaper MkI is better sounding. But either one will still show a clean pair of heels to much more expensive, especially modern DACs. e.g. Just recently, in a friend's place, it completely slaughtered the DAC section of his Acuustic Arts CDP (whose transport section is no good either; all those over-rated reviews!). Tube rolling further enhances this DAC. One of the best DACs.

SFD-1 This is a cheaper version that uses only 1 chip and does not have balanced features. It does not sound nearly as good as the SFD-2.

Ultrajitterbug and Transdac I have owned both before but IMHO they are not as good as similar products from the contemporary Audio Alchemy or Monarchy Audio.

SFT-1 and SFCD-1 The SFCD-1 is actually a very good player, since it uses their own DAC. But the problem of this player, and the SFT-1 transport, lies in the unreliable laser mechanism, Philips CDM12 (.4 I believe). I would avoid these.

Transport and Processor 3 These are later ones. For similar reason I would avoid the transport. I have heard the Processor 3 in my home and I personally think it is not as good as the earlier SFD-2.

SFL-1 This is the first one, and has numerous incarnations and special edition. Mine I think was the MkIII. It can be configured to use 1x 6DJ8 or 1x 12AT7. But it is the transistor part of this hybrid preamp that is troublesome. Beware IC failure is common, though it's not difficult to repair. It sounds reasonably good with a good tube and has very good imaging, but if you compare it to an ARC hybrid preamp that uses also just 1 tube, like LS-1/SP9 (which I did), there is no comparison. ARC wins hand-over in every department, particularly dynamics, yielding ground perhaps only in imaging. For its price, it's a good buy.

SFL-2 Haven't seriously heard this 2-box flagship with balanced features, reputed to be clinical sounding. But its price is not bad for a balanced tube preamp, and worth a try!

Line 1, 2, 3 Based on my extended hearing of friends' Line2/Power2, and Power 3, I'd think these are OK, but not great. They should be run in balanced mode for best results. Using RCA connection somehow loses dynamic.

SFS-50 is the earliest one, and I have used it, but I think the next one, SFS-40, using EL34, is the best sounding of the whole lot. Mine had better treble than almost all other tube amps I used, but the woolly bass is not too good, and cannot be ameliorated by tube rolling, hence its Archilles' heel. I am not impressed by their higher powered SFS-80 and SFS-160.

Power 1, 2,3 I am not impressed by these. They should be used in balanced mode for best results.

Overall, I am not crazy about their preamps and amps. In this department, comparison with ARC would be disadvantageous. But SF's digital products still have a place.


  1. AnonymousJune 20, 2011

    Dear Doctorjohn,

    I would like to ask if you still think the SFD-2 is the best DAC in that price range or is there something better that you tried lately (e.g. Audio Note DACs).

    Thank you in advance.

  2. SFD-2: Yes, personally I think it is still one of the best DACs, and not only in its price class. It will always be of value, as evidenced by its escalating second-hand price. Audio Note DAC, yes, the non-oversampling ones are excellent (even the lowly Zero), more direct sound with great presence. If asked to choose between my (old version PCM63) AN DAC-2 and SFD-2 I'd reluctantly choose AN, even if it has no XLR out.

  3. Another sleeper (though not quite as good in 44.1, but has facilities up to 96kHz) is the very reasonably priced Softone/ICL model 2. Their Model 3 CD Player is excellent too.

  4. AnonymousJune 21, 2011

    I use a Parasound DAC1600 which is also PCM63 but with PMD100 and a cheap output stage, would it make sense to modify it to transformer coupled output? I think it is pretty good in stock form but then again I did not hear the ones mentioned.

    I did not find much about the Softone, I found one second hand for 525$, do I guess it is not in the same league as the SF of AN?

  5. The PCM63 is a favorite chip of mine. And I think the Parasound DAC1600 is an excellent DAC, and it would be hard to beat. If I were you, I'd just stick with it.