April 1, 2005
Song Audio SA-1 Preamplifier
Few pieces of audio equipment have made the rounds at the SoundStage! Network like the Song Audio SA-1 preamplifier. Jerry Kindela first reviewed the SA-1 in Ultra Audio, and he ended up buying the review sample. Ross Mantle, who also writes for Ultra Audio, listened to an SA-1 for a time when he reviewed Song Audios SA-34 SB integrated amplifier and absolutely loved it -- he told me about it every time I visited him. Marc Mickelson listened to the SA-1 when he reviewed the Song Audio SA-300 MB mono amps for SoundStage! last March and was so impressed with it that he assigned Jason Thorpe to write a follow-up review, which Jason did last December. Concurrent with Jasons review, the SA-1 also earned the distinction of being the first preamplifier measured as part of our new preamplifier-measurement program, which complements our existing loudspeaker and amplifier measurements.
Given the amount of press the SA-1 has had already, youd think that wed heard enough about this all-tube unit by now, no matter how good it is. Well, thats what I thought, too, until I finally heard an SA-1 for myself when Song Kim, owner of Song Audio, visited my new listening room and dropped off the SA-1, a pair of SA-300 MB monos, and some Loth-X Troubadour loudspeakers that he distributes in Canada. I used the SA-1 with Songs equipment, as well as some other equipment that I was reviewing. To make a long story short, I thought so much of the SA-1s sound, which was far better than I imagined, that I thought it was worth telling my own tale about here.
Im not going to get into the technical details of the SA-1 -- if you really want to know what kind of tubes it uses or how many inputs it has, I suggest you read the earlier reviews. All Im going to say is that it is a two-piece, all-tube affair that only has single-end inputs and outputs and no remote control. The latter point may make some cringe at the thought of getting up and out of their chairs to change the volume, but as Ross Mantle said from my very own listening chair while listening to my system, "What do you expect from the SA-1? Its a purist piece."
The SA-1 is a simple, elegant affair with a nifty, colored faceplate that deserves comment, not just for its distinctive appearance but also because of a significant improvement thats been made over original SA-1, which was what Jerry Kindela reviewed in Ultra Audio. Those early-model SA-1s had the same semi-transparent, greenish-tinged faceplate, but it was glued onto the chassis. There was a problem with that, though. Over time, heat reacted with the glue and the faceplate, and on those original models you could see funny spots and smudges develop, seemingly within the faceplate. They were somewhat unsightly and no doubt a concern for Song Audio.
Song Audio no longer glues the semi-transparent faceplate on, but rather holds it in place with a polished aluminum bracket that runs the length of the top and bottom. Not only does that fix the glue situation, it makes for a more attractive-looking preamp. Ross Mantle, who used an original SA-1 for a time, noted the change right off the bat and said, "The aluminum lines makes it look slimmer, like a shirt with vertical stripes does on a man." Ross always seems to have the right thing to say.
I slipped the SA-1 into my regular review system just after a reader told me to try the Benchmark Media DAC1 in the Calibrated mode instead of Variable. With the DAC1s back switch set to Variable, you can use the DAC1s onboard volume control and run the DAC1 straight into power amps, which is the way I reviewed it. Calibrated bypasses some of the DAC1s circuitry, including the volume control, so you now need a preamplifier. The reader promised an enormous improvement by using a super-high-quality line-stage preamp instead of relying on whats inside the DAC1. He was right -- well, mostly right, anyway.
The rest of the system included a Theta Data Basic transport, 200Wpc Stello M200 solid-state mono amps, and two loudspeakers that I have in for review: MB Quarts Vera VS 1F and ACIs Sapphire XL. The digital cable was an i2Digital X-60, with Nordost Quattro-Fil between the DAC1 and SA-1, and then Nirvana S-L from the SA-1 to the M200s. I used generic speaker wire due to the MB Quart speakers rather odd, restrictive binding posts.
I lost a touch of transparency and immediacy going from the DAC1 running in Variable mode straight into M200s versus the DAC1 running Calibrated and going through the SA-1 and then to the M200s. A little bit of thereness was gone and the bass was a touch softer. Thats the downside -- the only downside. What I gained, though, more than made up for those losses. There was a more stable soundstage with improved image focus and a better-realized sense of depth, along with smoothness and purity, particularly in the mids and highs, that was absolutely hair-raising.
Take, for example, Bruce Cockburns "Grim Travellers" from Humans [True North TND 317]. Although the soundstage is seriously strange on this recording -- with drums that go from way over here to way over there, too wide to be realistic -- the recording has decent image specificity, which means you can really hear how oddly the instruments have been placed. The SA-1 wont fix flaws in a recording, obviously, but I found that with it in the system the stage tightened up, so that image placement was even better focused than when running the DAC1 straight into the amps. The instruments size and exact placement were obvious, and any sense of depth was far easier to discern. The Vera VS 1F speakers have amazing dynamics and can play to near-lifelike playback levels with the right amplifier; as the drums thundered across the stage, I could practically see them being struck.
While the improvement in the soundstage impressed me, the midrange and high-frequency smoothness and purity bowled me over. I remember playing Sades Love Deluxe [Epic 85243] over mostly the same system as the Cockburn disc, the difference being the speakers, which I changed to ACIs Sapphire XLs. Love Deluxe has deep, rich, and sensuous sound, and the recording captures Sades voice in such a way that makes it sound angelic and pure.
The haunting "Pearls" is one of my favorite tracks from this CD. Sades voice is forward in the mix, and theres plenty of space around, whether natural or studio-created. Her voice was projected almost holographically, with the same kind of specificity I heard from Cockburns on "Grim Travellers." What I loved, though, was how crystalline and pure it sounded -- more so than when I ran the DAC1 straight into the amps.
The SA-1 has ease, sweetness and beguiling purity that I just love. And while that ease and purity cant make recordings like the thin, frequency-range-constrained, dynamically challenged How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb from U2 [Interscope 000361302 ] sound perfect, it can make it a touch more palatable and, therefore, pleasurable to the ears. I dont doubt that many good preamps can tighten up a stage as I first described, but what the SA-1 sounds like in the mids and highs is something unique. Few other preamps Ive heard sound like it.
The SA-1s liquid presentation forces you to sit down and listen, and theres an ideal balance it achieves between cleanliness and richness. The SA-1 is clean and clear, yet never sterile or cold; rich and warm, but never syrupy or slow. Jason Thorpes assessment of the SA-1 was that it has the qualities of a solid-state piece -- a rather linear presentation -- along with the best sonic qualities of tube gear: richness and smoothness. Hes dead-on correct. The SA-1 doesnt give you the umpteenth level of transparency and detail, and, admittedly, its a touch soft in the bass, but it sounds flat-out fabulous with a gloriously smooth midrange and top end. The bass is a little rounded -- kind of a tube-like sound, which shouldnt be all that surprising. Completely accurate? Probably not. Thoroughly listenable? Oh, certainly. Gorgeous, in fact, and thats why I now far prefer the SA-1 in my system to the DAC1 going straight into the M200s.
The SA-1 is an absolutely wonderful-sounding, albeit minimalist, preamp, and if it has a fault, its that it costs $4200. The price is not outlandish by high-end standards, but its not cheap either, particularly because the SA-1 has few features and no remote control. On the other hand, the SA-1 is a two-piece affair and does look very elegant. Whats more, Song Audio supplies the SA-1 with a pure-silver power cord that Song Kim says is worth $400 if sold separately. If you think of it that way, the SA-1 is priced fairly.
Others obviously agree. When Song Kim dropped off the equipment he said that the SA-1 is the top seller in his lineup, and I believe him. Unlike his very-low-powered 300B-based amps, which Ill be writing about in the future, the SA-1 is a far more versatile product that you can fit into almost any conventional two-channel system, as I have done here. I cant say that about the SA-300 MB monos, even though they have their own charms, simply because of how much -- or, rather, how little -- power they deliver.
If you tend to use high-powered solid-state amps but yearn for the liquidity and ease of tubes, try the Song Audio SA-1 preamp. It's the ticket to the best attributes of tube sound with few of the drawbacks.
Song Audio SA-1 Preamplifier