Sherbourn 5/1500A Five-Channel Amplifier
The fireworks are popping, the burgers are grilling, and the bourbon is flowing, which can only mean one thing: It's the end of another workday at the Lewis house. When that day falls early in the month of July, you can bet that some extra contemplation of all things American will be on the itinerary, as well. Let's face it: Is there anything more American than an underdog? I'll bet Ron Fone and Eugene Tang don't think there is, which may be why they decided back in 1998 to start Sherbourn right here in the USA—in Boston, no less. Sure, market size, the economy, and the fact that both men were already working for American companies were undoubtedly the real cause. But, somewhere in the back of their minds, they had to figure that, if a loose confederation of farmers, merchants, and castaways from all over Europe could defeat (or at least outlast) the greatest military power of the time and forge a nation that would quickly become a world superpower, then a small, sharply focused amplifier company just might be able to shoulder in with the big boys and get its piece of the pie.
Don't break out the violin for Sherbourn just yet. This is hardly the talentless, deprived, and seemingly hopeless underdog of movie lore. Between Fone and Tang, they've got a truly impressive amount of experience in the audio game at such companies as McIntosh, NAD, TARA Labs, Acoustic Research, and a/d/s/. Sherbourn's commitment to delivering hi-fi quality and performance at mid-fi prices has garnered them considerable attention, as well. Still, we all know that small companies are underdogs in this business, just as they are in almost all other businesses—especially ones that only produce one kind of product. Interestingly enough, we have received word that Sherbourn plans to release a preamp soon. Sadly, the advantages of a company that focuses all of its efforts in one direction are lost on many today. I know people who won't buy an amplifier from a company that doesn't also offer a preamp, having somehow convinced themselves that the only way to achieve a cohesive electronics pairing is to buy from the same manufacturer. Uniformity isn't a bad philosophy for audio, but it should hardly be one's rule, either.
Sherbourn's commitment comes into focus when you first examine the 5/1500A amplifier. Even on the surface, it's impressive: a five-channel amp that offers 200 watts per channel and balanced inputs for $2,000. When you check under the hood, you'll really start to understand the value that this model represents. What you'll find is five independent monoblock amplifiers with individual power supplies, individual transformers, and even individual heatsinks. This design's most obvious benefit is that each channel has its own independent engine; thus, it has all of the power it wants, when it wants, without having to share. Proponents of using one or two large community transformers in a five-channel amp will argue that the front channels should have access to all of the power of one or two big transformers for two-channel reproduction or for heavy transient peaks in soundtracks. This particular argument was stronger back in the days when Pro Logic dominated the movie scene and two-channel was the only way to listen to music. With the development of movie formats in which five full-range channels are in complete control (and with movement toward music formats that do the same), power sharing can be a serious issue for some amplifiers when all five channels are firing at once. You might be surprised by how much power the surrounds require for modern movie soundtracks and especially for multichannel music. You shouldn't be surprised by how much gas the center channel needs, especially with movies, where it's consistently the hardest-driven speaker in the system.
After ample break-in time, I decided to go right at the 5/1500A with Snell's unforgiving THX Ultra 2-certified speaker system, which I reviewed in the May 2002 issue. The front three XA1900THX speakers aren't especially insensitive, but they aren't shy about dipping below 1-ohm-impedance loads at times and had already made short work of a couple of amps we had lying around. I'm pretty sure I did permanent damage to my eardrums trying to get the 5/1500A to shut down, but I had no such luck. I eventually had to step out of the listening room, eliciting concerns from the fellows two rooms over (where the SPL was still intense) as to my sanity. Upon my return, I found that, even after several minutes of the LFE-heavy Haunting DVD at painful levels and with all speakers running full-range (without subs), the 5/1500A was still chugging along—and with relative composure, at that. Obviously, the sound wasn't as polished as it was at lower levels, but it still sounded pretty damn good at a point where many amps (including some with long price tags) would've simply thrown in the towel.