Review: SAS Audio Labs 10A active pre-amp Tube preamp
Like many of you, I have wanted to be in an audio group my whole life. Up till now the petition has prevented this possibility. Since the statute of limitations expired about three years ago, this club is now a reality. I have had the opportunity to meet some of the most interesting people since the organization has been established including manufacturers, and other audio lovers. Several of these new acquaintances are even worth knowing. One of the most knowledgeable fellows is the gentleman who established the NEWAS (Northeast Wisconsin Audio Society) website. I have learned many things from him that the average reader would not care to know. I have learned his friends call him Ol’ tin ear,” but I would never presume to be so informal. To me he will always be known a Mr Tin Ear. I remember a time when we were out for dinner... but I guess this would not be the right time to talk about something like THAT.
Meetings of the Northeast Wisconsin Audiophile Society in many ways remind me of college lectures. A mass of humanity is prepared to attend, others are caught up in the swarm of excitement, and anticipation. A whirlpool exercises less of an impact on the sea around it than the possibility of a meeting of the Society. Then somewhere between the threshold and the door, the mass dissolves, leaving a smaller group of flotsam than one might have preferred. There is the wonder of where everyone else went, but once inside it would be impolite to get up and walk out. I generally show up for the food and beverages. Once the both of them are gone and/or someone starts talking about collecting money to cover the host’s costs, it's time for me to make a sudden and secretive exit. Windows are an excellent and often overlooked (other than by burglars) escape route. I include that for your own future reference. My windows are sealed for this very reason.
Steve Sammet of SAS Audio Labs is a gentleman in every sense of the word. He is kind, patient, and willing to share his experience with anyone. While he is not much to look at, he does possess a lack of finesse and refinement that immediately endeared him to the entire NEWAS group. In a manner such as a person would have for a brother, or a grandfather, or like the kindly neighbor who just does not know when to go home. Fortunately for us Steve lives in Illinois. He fit in altogether too well.
Steve was kind enough to bring his SAS Audio Labs 10A Active tube linestage and his monoblock tube amplifiers for the NEWAS to audition. This review deals only with the pre-amp, if indeed it actually deals with that. Better people than me have reviewed Steve’s pre-amp, but it would be a waste of time to read their review once this one has been digested and then, well never mind.
This convocation of the NEWAS’s was held in Madison at the home of someone’s wayward child. His own system is in disarray, as is his private life, but I would not mention that in polite company. The host’s Sony CD/SACD/DVD player was used a the single source, as it is the only one he owns. This prevented any confusion as to which source to use. I fact for which I felt a degree of gratitude. His (the host will from this point forward be referred to as: him; his; or he, since as far as I know he does not have a name. There was nothing on the mailbox) Soliloquy speakers were the only speakers used, since they were again, the only speakers he owns. All of this seemed reasonable to me.
Steve had already installed his pre-amp and amplifiers in the system when I arrived. I was actually looking for a girl I met years earlier, and was going door to door trying to find her when I arrived at the meeting. I had such high hopes for the day, but I stayed anyway.
A few details about the pre-amp are in order, so here they are in no particular order. The unit has five line level inputs, and one tape loop. I don’t know how many people still use the tape loop, but it makes the unit look more full featured, so damn the costs! The 10A Active has two sets of output jacks. I did not have access to the tubes, so I cannot comment with accuracy, just let me say the were JJ 6922's. The powercord was not detachable which was a little disappointing since there are so many expensive PCs on which a person can waste their money. I know, I have six different PC’s collecting dust in my system. There is a switch on the back of the unit which allows the listener to switch polarity. Oddly enough, this is too often an issue, when it ought not to be, that Steve thinks of everything. While the 10A Active is not as beautiful as some of the ultra-high end gear out there, or even as beautiful as me, for that matter, it doesn’t look like something that Steve put together in his garage. He did after all put it together in his workshop, and the distance from the garage is obvious to all who notice it.
I am of the opinion that only bad music should be used to audition gear, and from what I heard, everyone there agreed with my theory. Bad music allows the listener to concentrate on the equipment, and not get caught up in the emotion of the music. Steve had a CD of a trio of women singing that reminded me of grating cheese with the old fashioned wash-board type grater in the sense that hearing them sing was like repeatedly dragging ones knuckles across the grater. Perfect for the situation!
The SAS 10A displayed a level of refinement that I had not heard on the hosts system during my previous visits, while he was out of town. The host’s own system consisted of a Krell KBL pre-amp and an older JVC M30/30 class A amp. As anyone with one functional ear will tell you, there is a distinct difference between the sound of a solid state system and a system comprised of mainly tube equipment. Many people with two functional ears will argue this though.
After a litany of bad music, so overwhelming in it’s width and breadth I was able to draw a few conclusions. Unfortunately I do not recall what any of them were, so I will have to rely on my memory.
Now what were we talking about? Anyway, the equipment from SAS Audio Labs presented a different aural picture than the Krell/JVC combo. The SAS gear seemed a little more laid back and softer. While a tight, defined soundstage is pleasant to hear, it is not often present in live concerts, not to the degree that some gear presents it. My own preference would be for something somewhere between what the Krell/JVC showed, and what was evident from the SAS Audio gear. The SAS gear provided a little less bass than one might have experienced in the hosts system, both in volume and definition. This is not to say that the SAS combo is weak in bass, just that other will provide it in a fuller degree.
A few of the NEWAS’s expressed concern over some of the things which appeared to be missing, like their wallets, but that’s another issue. I was not aware of it at this point but Steve had replaced the host’s Purist Audio Design interconnect, and speaker cables with something of his own manufacture. It was decided to remove Steve’s cable and replace the host’s cable. Purist cable is known to be finicky, and does not respond well to being moved. Just like my own children in the morning With the Purist cables in place, many of my own complaints were eliminated. The softness to the midrange was replaced with something closer to the ‘magic’ that tubeophiles preach about, the bass was stronger, and more detailed. Even the bad music sounded more palatable. The fact of the matter is this...
About this time the Pizza arrived. I don’t recall the name of the Pizzeria from which we ordered, but the food was first rate. Probably too good for the bunch of third rate four flushers in attendance. Five of the six drinks I brought along were gone, so I drank the seventh. After we ate... are getting tired of this also?
...the pre-amp was a very good piece of gear. Steve has spent a lot of time upgrading his proven design. He knows the parts of his design so well that he can make it sound like whatever pre-amp a listener might want to emulate, but that is not his purpose. He wants to make, and maybe even sell a great quality, neutral sounding pre-amp. He doesn’t want to run with the big dogs, he’d probably rather nap with a small kitten, but he will continue to produce a bargain priced (in my opinion) unit that is bound to please a music lover without a nine figure income. Okay I’ll stop.
If I might point out something I did not like about the unit it would be the dual potentiometers. I’m not sure I understand the need for them, but I trust that Steve has a reason for using them. Maybe they were on sale. I find it more work than needed, to try to get both adjustments set perfectly. I would also like to see balanced inputs, because I like the way they look. I don’t know how much sense that would make since I don’t know if the circuitry is truly balanced. It is difficult to find an aspect of the SAS pre-amp to fault. It’s not as good as the $15,000 pre-amps, but it’s better than many cost a few times as much as the 10A.
If you want to pretty pre-amp, keep looking, if you want a pre-amp that beautifies the music, check this one out.
Steve will answer questions at: firstname.lastname@example.org