Review: ART SLA-1 Amplifier
What do you get for two hundred bucks nowadays? Let’s see: I grudgingly spent $220 to feed my family at an upscale restaurant last Sunday, I spent nearly that on my electric bill last month, and I spent thrice that to get a couple of dings pounded out of my ‘96 Subaru. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not cheap—I actually enjoy spending money on the stuff that counts: namely, hi fi components. And since I don’t smoke or drink, or play golf, or drive flashy wheels, or take expensive vacations (unless my wife threatens) I figure I’m practically licensed to shoot maybe 10 to 20 grand per annum at said stuff that counts, and to drag it down into my basement lair for experimental purposes. To that end I’ve applied myself with stealthy determination over the past 15 or so hi fi seasons (January through Thanksgiving, whereupon I resign myself to spend the rest of the year above ground, nodding off to Christmas tunes alongside my well-fed family).
Where was I? Oh yah (as we say in Minnesota), two hundred bucks can get you a mini-mite amp called the ART SLA-1, made by a pro-audio company in Rochester, NY called Applied Research and Technology. But we don’t care about that, right? I myself, international hi fi trophy hunter these many years, never actually formed a single thought about pro audio until I read a now-cancelled thread in the Forum last week called “What’s the best amp you ever heard?” started by a guy who was actually selling mods for the unit (nameless in this review, although I’m not sure he’s been abused enough) who was making some pretty reckless-sounding “best amp” claims for the humble ART SLA-1. Since names like Krell and Lamm were being brushed aside like carp guts on “Iron Chef,” my next experimental assignment quickly formed itself. I pulled a credit card down from the rack and Googled (sorry) my way to a mail-order dealer. Two days later the tiny piece was in my hands.
So what did I get for my two hundred bucks? With dual volume controls on its rack-mount face the thing looks like a solid state preamp circa 1980: two inches high, nine deep and sixteen from fin to fin. The fins are coarse-edge sharp, by the way—I soon learned to lift the little bugger by grabbing from the front and back. Rear panel sports a set of balanced inputs in addition to ¼” inputs (what the hell are these?). No RCA’s. Ground lift switch, bridge mode switch. The cheap plastic binding posts are closely spaced and difficult to use with spades, but work all right for bananas or bare wire. A small external housing contains the AC input and a cooling fan. The whole thing weighs in at 13 pounds, and in stereo mode delivers 100 wpc into 8 ohms, 130 into 4. Lack of RCA inputs could have been a problem for me, since I don’t own a balanced out preamp, but I used the XLR/RCA adapters from my RM-200.
I slipped the SLA-1 into today’s system—TNT IV, JMW 12, Shelter 901, Lindemann SACD, Groove, Vibe/Pulse, Groove Tube cables, Piega P10s—flipped the switch, and lowered the needle into Brahms. I’d like to report that some kind of magic happened, but the first thing I noticed was the noisy fan (a problem that diminished during my ears’ recommended 100-hour break-in period. It also helps to keep the little beast at least 8 feet away). The amp’s dominant characteristic engaged me soon after, however: the orchestra (in this case, Bruno Walter’s) seemed faster, lighter on its feet, more effectively placed than I was used to hearing it. This speed and transparency really surprised me, and continued to surprise me over the next few days—everything I played, from gigantic Mahler to intimate Patricia Barber, seemed to have acquired a snap and drive that floated it out of the grunge and actually opened for me a new sense of musical priority. That’s a big deal for me, folks. I had pegged myself as too experienced (read: jaded and cynical) by now to allow my long-time preference for weight and tonal richness to be pushed around by a midget like this. But when I put my other amps into the picture the focus softened, things slowed a bit, voices and instruments thickened and somehow seemed “hotter” in an unnatural way: less revealing of time and space. These amps (RM-200, Dreadnaught, Innersound ESL) are all highly regarded, and I like them a lot, but I don’t fool myself that they are at the cutting edge. What they are, at least in the case of the Dreadnaught and ESL, is Big—big watts, lots of current—big enough to unroll a deep, black bass carpet out of the Piegas for the music to rest upon. That carpet is diminished using the SLA-1, although my newly minted musical priorities argue that fast bass may be preferable to more bass. For now, the kid stays in the picture.
So what’s the downside to this little boat-floater? Let’s face it; the Slay One (think...) is a cheap amp with cheap parts, so it can sound a bit lean and at times even threadbare (my ears are still breaking in, remember). Sometimes its pinpoint focus is just too intense through the Piegas’ highly sensitive ribbon tweeters, making me leap to the Vibe’s volume control for relief. Inserting my tubed cj16 adds body, but at the expense of some transparency (on balance, though, a nice match). And at 100 wpc it can’t drive the P10s with black-bottom authority; for my soon-to-arrive Sound Lab M-1s, fuhgeddaboudit.
A few notes: I left the dual volume controls wide open while using preamps, but I found them to be very effective in a direct run from the source. The arrangement posed the usual dilemma, of course—purity of signal versus dynamic punch. But maybe a good choice for a one-source ‘phile who’s really on a budget. If I had a budget of, say, $1000 to build a system, I’d start here. Also: I love turning this thing off and on for switching cables. Not a peep of protest, or lingering death. Flip the switch and yank the cable with impunity.
It would be nice to be able to draw a helpful conclusion here, based on some wide experience with good little amps, but I don’t have that experience. For all I know, any smaller amp might have displayed this kind of agility and transparency—but I seriously doubt it could sound this good at $200 plus change. I’ll leave it for others to debate whether a mod to this amp, or some other budget amp altogether, would be a more righteous investment. I had my fun; soon I’ll be dragging heavier stuff downstairs to feed the M-1s. What I got for my two hundred bucks was a pleasing glimpse of what I’ve been missing—and maybe a smaller electric bill next month.
VPI TNT IV
Origin Live Resolution
Origin Live Illustrious
Van den Hul Grasshopper III
Tom Evans Vibe
Tom Evans Pulse
Tom Evans Groove
conrad johnson 16LS series 2
Music Reference RM-200
Groove Tube interconnects
Innersound speaker cables