Sonic Impact Super T Stereo Digital Amp

A problem was looming in the kitchen--aside from my rudimentary cooking skills and haphazard sanitary habits, that is. I found myself avoiding my kitchen system. The kitchen rig seemed like a good idea at the time. By combining a mass-market mini-system with a sat/sub set, and wall-mounting the satellites, I'd squeeze music into a tight L-shaped place where only radio had gone before. Anyway, I soon tired of the system's rudimentary and haphazard performance and it devolved into a glorified radio. After a decade I threw in the dish towel and replaced the radio function with, well, a radio. Then I set about brainstorming a new music system for the kitchen.

As before, I was looking for a grand concept. I wanted it to be innovative in a low-rent way, and distinct from the fold-up iPod docking system in my bedroom and the stereo integrated amp and desktop monitor combo in my home-office. Then I read a review of the Sonic Impact Super T by Wes Phillips of Stereophile. An environmentally appropriate compact fluorescent lightbulb flicked on in the thought bubble always hovering over my head.

There was my grand concept. I'd replace the comparatively bulky mini-system with a sleek metal box barely more than three inches wide. It would accommodate only one input and that would be one of my four flash-based music players. I figured I could always cheat by using my old Panasonic portable CD player or still-loved Sony Walkman Professional cassette recorder. Along with the amp, the player of the moment would rest on a red steel shelf, in a six-inch space between the amp and the coffeemaker. That recovery of space seemed a minor triumph in itself. We're talking six inches of prime Manhattan real estate here, the equivalent of six feet in a normal American home, or sixty in a McMansion. The speakers would be a pair of JBL Control1Xtreme that got crowded off my home-office desktop by a too-sweet pair of the Era Design 4. Like the old ones, they would be wall mounted. This new kitchen rig would be a system like no other, a bold nonconformist like the one it replaced, except that it would sound better, or so I hoped.

Sonic Impact specializes in portable audio products, including the beautiful T24 iPod docking system recently reviewed here. The Super T is one of the company's three digital amps. The others include the Class T Gen 2, a recently upgraded model that runs on wall current or AA batteries, and the Sonic Tio PC amplifier board.

Digital amplifier technology would give my new system an energy-efficient street cred that would undercut the old one's 35 watts per channel. Sonic Impact's Class T amps are similar to Class D in that they dissipate less energy in the form of heat. The Super T is rated by the manufacturer at 15 watts "direct power." It is based on the Tripath TA2024 amplifier chip which is rated at six watts per channel into eight ohms and eleven watts into four ohms. When resting, its switching power supply consumes next to no power.

Out of the box, the Super T is much prettier than the product shots above suggest. The brushed aluminum box has a nice gleam. Denting it would take a sledgehammer. The large volume knob spins smoothly about 300 degrees with no clickstops. As with many blue LEDs, the front-panel power indicator is bright enough to read by. On the back panel are plastic-nut binding posts, a DC input for the power brick, and two RCA-type line inputs with three inches of space between them, suggesting an inexplicable taste for more expensive cable than the generic RCA-to-mini-jack adapter I used. The back panel is liberally ventilated though the Super T barely heats up at all when in use.

The Super T took its place on the red steel shelf. A couple dozen feet of 16-gauge zip cord crept behind the shelf, along the floor, up a corner, and across the ceiling boundary to the wall-mounted JBL Control1Xtreme speakers (thanks to JBL for the WBC-1 mounting kit). This centered the speakers above the stool, where I sit admiring the view, and fired them toward the sink, where I wash dishes by hand like the 19th-century primitive I am.

The room has virtually no absorptive elements--just hard plaster walls, fifth-rate appliances, cabinets that don't quite close, my tray table from Bed Bath & Beyond, and a window--so the midrange is chronically smudged by numerous short reflections. But the Sonic T and JBLs still managed to improve over the mini-system and cube-type satellites they replaced in vocal intelligibility. There was a small but helpful amount of largely uncongested midbass to replace the old system's belching passive subwoofer, and for the first time ever in the kitchen, I heard something that would qualify as high-frequency response. If not exactly pristine, it was very tasty. Credit the Control1Xtreme's sweet titanium-laminate tweeters for that as well as the Super T.

There was more than enough volume capability to maintain a moderate listening level--for kitchen listening, about 70dB or less. The logical approach was to leave the iPod's volume control where it would be for headphone listening, about two-thirds of maximium, and crank the amp all the way. But I could also max out the iPod and run the amp at one-third of its potential. When I was wearing an oven mitt, it was easier to make on-the-fly adjustments with the amp's big volume knob than with the iPod's clickwheel. The knob moved so easily that I could manipulate it with the back of the wrist when both hands were messy.

The Sonic T and JBL combo succeeded handsomely as an exercise in power conservation. With the amp rated at six watts per channel into eight ohms, the signal sourced maxed, and the amp volume operating at one-third, my system was probably running at fewer than two watts per channel. Here is an energy-saving stereo system for our energy-scarce future, a next step for those who have already bought a fuel-efficient car, agonized over the thermostat, and replaced obsolete incandescent lamps with compact fluorescents.

Sonic Impact's Super T amplifier is powerful not in watts but in other ways. It's remarkable for what it's not: big, bulky, power-hungry. With its small footprint, it would easily sneak onto a desktop, and it fits neatly into all kinds of other situations. Mated with an appropriately sensitive pair of speakers--the JBLs used here are rated at 89dB--it reduces power consumption about as far as current technology will allow. And there's a touch of magic about it. This little amp is one of those products you like looking at, playing with, just having around. I'm very happy with mine and anticipate using it for many pleasurable years.

Price: $159 from Sonic Impact and other online retailers.

Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.