High Fidelity: Chinese gear combines tubes, solid-state

By Todd Whitesel
In Review:
Sheng Ya (http://grantfidelity.com)
A-80CS Hybrid integrated amplifier, $900
CD-18CS Tube CD Player, $900

Report Card:
Value: Low on gizmos but high on sound.
Final Grade:

The A-80CS Hybrid Integrated Amplifier and CD-18CS Tube CE player bring tubes and transistors for great-sounding, maintenance-free gear at competitive prices. Photo courtesy Sheng Ya.
The A-80CS Hybrid Integrated Amplifier and CD-18CS Tube CE player bring tubes and transistors for great-sounding, maintenance-free gear at competitive prices. Photo courtesy Sheng Ya.
Sheng Ya is a Chinese outfit that’s been designing high-fi gear for nearly 20 years, but its wares have been mostly unavailable on this side of the Atlantic, or Pacific, depending on your address. Its products are now offered across North America solely by Grant Fidelity in Canada.

Sheng Ya offers a range of audiophile-grade goodies across several price points. Two of the company’s latest pieces, the A-80CS Hybrid Integrated Amplifier and CD-18CS Tube CE player, bring tubes and transistors for great-sounding, maintenance-free gear at competitive prices.

The Gear

The A-80CS is a hybrid integrated amplifier which divvies the duties of front end and output between tubes and solid-state (transistors) respectively. Doing so — in theory — enables designers to blend the classic live and liquid sound of tubes with the hearty low-end reproduction and quiet operation of solid-state gear. That aptly describes the A-80CS. The rear panel contains a pair of speaker terminals, four analog inputs, AC input for the supplied detachable power cord and a switch to adjust the brightness of the tube window.

This is purely aesthetic, but I liked having the tube display brighter because I like how it looks and because it’s a handy visual cue that indicates the amp itself is on. The internal chassis is divided, isolating the pre-amp section and low-noise power transformer to keep signal interference low. Pre-amplification is handled by a 6N2 vacuum tube. All taken, the A-80CS weighs in at a satisfyingly sturdy 22.2 pounds.

I’d like to dispel any notion of tubes being difficult to manage or maintain. Yes, they do require some occasional biasing to sound their best and prolong life, but that shouldn’t be looked at any differently than keeping a phono stylus clean. It’s all part of the experience. But if you’re still tube-wary, the A-80CS and CD-18CS keep the tubes in while requiring no tinkering from the user. When the amp and CD player are first powered on, the units enter a “warm-up” stage where any playback is temporarily suspended until the tubes reach operating status. This is easily monitored, as a light blinks until each is ready to go. It takes less than 15 seconds.

The companion CD player CD-18CS features a similar design to the A-C80S, with a tray-loading drawer and LED display split by a center tube. Beneath the display are five control buttons. The rear panel is spartan, with one pair of gold-plated analog outs, a single gold-plated digital coaxial out, tube brightness switch and AC input with detachable power cord.

The player boasts a Philips VAM1202 laser pick-up, Burr-Brown PCM1716 24Bit/96 kHz DAC chip, Burr-Brown OPA2134 and Philips NE5532 op-amp and a pair of Shuguang 6N2 tubes for power supply and tube output. The CD-18CS is just shy of 14 pounds.

Operation and Listening

Both components operate whisper-quiet; the amp’s top panel does get warm but never dangerously so, even after hours of continuous playback.

The black plastic remotes that come with each unit seem chintzy and underwhelming compared with components they control, but they get the job done. Because the amp and player feature push-in power buttons, neither can be turned on or off via remote.

The A-C80S is a bold, lush-sounding amplifier with more juice than you might expect. Although it’s rated at 80 watts, this is no shrinking violet when the call comes for volume, and it can cope with demanding climaxes, thumping bass and other situations when plenty of backbone is needed. Its hybrid design offers the best of both worlds: tube warmth and transistor oomph.

The CD-18CS offers tube sound in spades, with a golden midrange that can take the compressed edge off of all but the worst offenders, such as Rush’s Vapor Trails. It isn’t the most detailed player at the top end, but it has an easy-going personality that makes for fatigue-free listening, hour after hour.

Taken together, some might say the sound is too “tubey,” with a definite trend toward creamy midrange and highs, but such can be adjusted via the amp’s tone controls.

Don’t confuse richness with flab, however — the Sheng Ya pair offers plenty of detail and the “air” around instruments that I’ve grown to cherish.

Beyond the rich bloom of sound, the greatest strength of the Sheng Ya pair is re-creating the sound of live performance. Listening to “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’,” from Bob Dylan’s 2009 release Together Through Life, was like being transported to a gig at some backstreet Austin, Texas, music joint. The sway and swank of the electric guitar, accordion and Dylan’s voice sounded like being there. I can offer no greater praise.

Final Thoughts

The Sheng Ya combo makes for very smooth and pleasurable listening. The amp is capable of driving low- and high-efficiency speakers with ease.

I recommend this pair highly for rock, pop, blues and reggae. Low on gizmos but high on sound, Sheng Ya makes it easy and affordable to own tube-driven gear that should satisfy all but the most fervent solid state fans or power-hungry listeners.

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