Any British hi-fi magazine reader in 1980 would be treated to page after page of commentary and opinion – sometimes dressed up as fact, sometimes not – about how poor Japanese amplifiers were. This was particularly the case, they said, in the affordable area when all their “frills” meant the money wasn’t spent on things that would improve the sound. Instead, all those tone controls, filters and tape monitoring circuits simply made them inferior specimens to the pure and noble breed of British amps!
I never quite understood this, for two reasons. First, the products that they recommended – like the A&R Cambridge A60 and Nytech CTA252XD – also had quite a few superfluous features, if not quite the ‘arms length’ list that the Japanese managed. Secondly, they seemed to gloss over economies of scale. If Sony for example sold 10,000 examples of an individual model worldwide in one year, then they could provide a far higher quality product at the price than UK manufacturers who would kill to sell one tenth of that. With the latter, parts would be ordered from the Radiospares catalogue in dozens, but with the former they would be custom-made by the Japanese consumer electronics giants themselves in batches of thousands.
There was also the odd view held by some UK hi-fi hacks that somehow the Japanese didn’t actually know how to design a high quality specialist amplifier – something that indicated they hadn’t done much research into the ultra-competitive high end market of the land of the rising Yen! As a result, when your average British hi-fi expert got to review something like the Sony TA-F35, it was almost a racing certainty that they would think ill of it, at least initially. This is a shame, because if you look at it with the advantage of forty years’ hindsight, this is a really impressive little thing.
Selling for Y45,000 in its native Japan and roughly £190 in the UK in 1980, this was an amplifier that was just one up from Sony’s entry level models. It offered a degree of refinements in terms of features, including a half-decent MM/MC phono stage (with input sensitivity of 0.17mV for moving coil and 2.5mV for moving magnet cartridges. There was also a tape monitor, auxiliary and tuner inputs, plus a claimed 2x 40W RMS per channel into 8 ohms. The specs were impressive; a frequency response quoted at 5Hz to 60kHz, total harmonic distortion of 0.015% and signal-to-noise ratios of 73dB (MC), 88dB (MM) and 101dB (line). Its damping factor was said to be 50.
Although not absolutely state-of-the-art, there were few affordable mid-price amps around that did as well at that time; lest we forget, the British Audiolab 8000a that came out just a couple of years later didn’t really better this. Although the Sony wins no prizes for style, it is a functionally laid out product with a decent range of facilities and the obligatory LED power meters, which have a fast action more useful than many. The fascia is a thin brushed aluminium affair with plastic end caps, mating to a silver-sprayed pressed steel case. Vital statistics are 430x80x335mm and 6.2kg; interestingly just three years earlier, the equivalent to the TA-F35 – the Sony TA-3650 – put out similar power from an amplifier that was over twice the height, weight and price.
What marks this amplifier out as being worthy of writing about its build quality and sound. Whip the cover off and look under the bonnet, and you’ll see an interesting design than perhaps you didn’t quite expect. The fascia controls link to long plastic rods that operate the preamplifier section which is positioned at the back, right up close to the input sockets – despite this, they all have a lovely action. The power supply comprises a large frame-type transformer sending the juice via two big Sony-branded smoothing capacitors. The two power amp channels are located at different positions on the board to give a kind of dual mono topology, and it is DC-coupled.
Sonically, the Sony sounds very good for an affordable integrated of its time and price. It’s a very lively performer with lots of get-up-and-go. There’s no sense of the music being leaden or plodding, quite the reverse. It has bags of enthusiasm and this is backed up by a very solid forty watts of power; there’s certainly no sense that this is an optimistic claim. The result is a little integrated that sounds bigger and more expensive than it is. It’s more detailed than you might expect, and this means the tonal character of instruments is better defined. It’s a little well lit in the upper midband but nothing over the top, and treble is decently south. At the bottom end, bass is commendably taut for an amp of this stature and enjoyably tuneful too. The only criticism is a slightly curtailed depth perspective, but you can’t have everything at this price!
In other words, the Sony TA-F35 is a nice surprise. It’s not the world’s greatest amp but if you want a cheap no-nonsense product with decent power and a friendly, engaging nature then you can do far worse. The fact that these are going for almost nothing now makes them all the more attractive; this review sample was sold as faulty for £30, due to being down on one channel. A quick squirt of contact cleaner into all of its pots and switches had it working like new. It’s a tribute to the solid build quality that so many are still around now, giving sterling service.