SAS Audio Labs 10A / 11A Preamps.
The NE WI Audio Society (www.newaudiosociety.com) were happy to host Steve from SAS Audio Labs at our March meeting in Madison on the 20th.
Steve is a real nice guy and has a great passion for the hobby. He is founder and designer of SAS Audio Labs (www.sasaudiolabs.com), a company trading for around 7 years and now very much in the limelight due in part to some very favorable product reviews from the audio press.
Steve likes to keep things simple, which is often best. His 10A preamp has minimal functions, no 'bells and whistles' to negatively affect the sound. The 10A is a dual volume control design which takes a little getting used to for us lazy 'remote controlled everything' dudes, but it's really a breeze to setup and use.
The 10A has a basic yet attractive chassis with some switch functions that allow for easier system matching and flexibility of use. Steve doesn't make a big deal about aesthetics, but he makes a very big deal about the sound quality of his gear, and so he should. The 10A is a sweet sounding preamp. It appears to be very transparent, with good presentation through the frequency range. Grainy recordings sound grainy. Recordings with poorly mic'd upright basses (Abdullah Ibrahim - Capetown Revisited) sound just like recordings with poorly mic'd upright basses. That's the way a preamp should be. It's at the heart of the system and ideally should neither add nor subtract. If I had to try and pin down where the 10A sits alongside its peers, I'd say it has more of the neutrality of a good ARC tubed linestage, rather than the bloom of a CJ.
The 10A is revealing and doubly so when it comes to cables. Steve used hand made cables based on Jena Labs materials but without the intricate braiding that involves many labor hours and significantly impacts the cost. Switching over to far more expensive cables from Purist Audio made a very worthwhile improvement to the sound.
This hobby is largely about compromise, and in an imperfect world we all have acceptable and unacceptable trade-offs when it comes to developing and fine-tuning the sound of our systems. For me I prefer to hear a component that adds nothing to the sound and hopefully subtracts little. It's acceptable to have some weakness by omission so long as it doesn't add gobs of bass, or flesh-out the midrange in an unnatural way, or rolls-off the highs to sound more relaxed, or whatever. Perhaps the 10A was a little lighter in the bass than other preamps in the same price range ($1995), not soft and flabby, just a little less of it, perhaps. Yet changing the cables, as we did later in the demonstration, seemed to make remarkable improvements to the sound, so maybe it was just a system synergy issue.
There are switches on the rear of the preamp that basically take the whole frequency range and shift it up or down, depending on your tastes and the rest of the equipment. Steve calls them 'magic switches' which I think is a polite way of saying "Don't even think about asking me how these work". Using the magic switches certainly changed the sound in the sense of a warmer/cooler tonal balance, so that offers users some improved flexibility over most of what's out there in the preamp field.
Steve also has a hot-rod version of the 10A, named the 11A. This is a 4 chassis design that takes the same solid engineering principles of the 10A and stretches them even further. We were not able to play the two side by side, but from what Steve says, and I believe him, the 11A builds noticeably on the performance of the 10A, to such an extent so as to justify the $1500 increase in price over the 10A.
Steve's monoblock amps are also very worthy of note. As a prototype, I would encourage Steve to add any finishing touches to their design and get them into the market as soon as possible. They seem to compliment the 10A and at $2500/pair fit right in price wise. Steve is playing a little with the voicing on the power amps, and I think took with him from our meeting the idea of improving the lower frequency response of the mono's. I'm looking forward to having an opportunity to hear what the finished production model can do.
I'd love to get my hands on the 11A and use it in my system for a while and perhaps write a more in-depth review, but as Steve says..."you'll just have to get in line".
Review Equipment available for comparison (not my system):
Krell KBL Preamplifier
Sony DVP-S9000es CD Player
Blue Circle BC-22 Mk2 stereo power amp
Soliloquy 6.3 Speaker
Purist Colossus Rev. A Interconnect
Purist Museaus shotgun bi-wire
Tweaks - Various cones etc