Audio Research SP9 preamplifier Guy Lemcoe 6/91
From China With Love: It's comforting to assume a certain degree of continuity in life—we make decisions and act on impulses derived from our understanding of process and prediction in the natural world. Repeatability rules. Without it, we would hesitate to take that last step off a ladder or board an airplane. It's disconcerting, therefore, to think that an innocuous change would cause us to rethink our expectations of that which is and will be.
Consider the case of the Audio Research SP9 Mk.II, wherein tubes from one country replace tubes from another. Would this exchange—more importantly, should this exchange affect the SP9's sonic signature? After all, a tube is a tube, right? Wrong, bias breath. The sonic effect of the substitution is, in this case, clearly audible; the implications of that change are as unsettling to me, a reviewer, as they must be for you, the consumer. (As you'll see, I was forced to completely revise my earlier opinion of this product.)
Imagine a scenario wherein you've just gotten comfortable with the sound of your system. You've listened carefully to various components, cables, cartridges, etc. and selected those which interact to complement the musical experience. You like what you hear and you've gotten involved in the music, perhaps for the first time. You spend days reacquainting yourself with your library of recorded music, rediscovering that which attracted you to the muse in the first place. You're happy, at peace with yourself and the universe. (If a reviewer, you'll wax enthusiastic in print over your newly discovered "reference," or shake your head in dismay.) Then along comes a manufacturer of a component you own (or have reviewed) informing you of a "change" in the product (a good reason for sending in those registration cards you file away with the warranty and instruction manual).
In some instances this change may be a major upgrade, such as parts replacement with higher-tech, closer-spec'd ones. In other instances, a complete rebuild of the component is called for. In either case, better sound is always implied, if not actually promised. Understandably, these changes usually involve cash outlays ranging from modest to serious. If the latter, the audio component often ends up in the pages of a publication such as Audiomart, sans mod.
Sometimes the change may only be minor, such as substitution of one brand of resistor for another of equal spec with minimal (if any) sonic consequences. Most consumers, I believe, are not interested in this kind of "change." Thus, manufacturers rarely advise customers of them. (Imagine the confusion and frustration if, whenever a manufacturer had to source parts from a new supplier, this change was advertised! High-end anxiety is elevated enough.) However, sometimes a change snuggles in between these two extremes. Imagine getting a dramatic improvement in the sound of a component merely by replacing two $19.95 tubes.
This relatively inexpensive and user-friendly change is encouraged by Audio Research for their SP9 Mk.II preamplifier. Since October 1990, Audio Research has made available to its customers new, Chinese 6DJ8-H vacuum tubes to replace the Russian 6DJ8s installed in preamps built up to a month before. The new, high-transconductance tubes are said to be manufactured "specifically for high-resolution audio reproduction" and can be used in any of ARC's preamps. My review of an earlier SP9 Mk.II (#60037003) appeared in Vol.13 No.11. It lacked the new tubes, and I judged its performance good but unexceptional. Subsequent to that review, Audio Research sent me a new unit (#80437006) for audition with the new tubes and a request for a follow-up review. Well, you're reading that follow-up, and have I got good news for all you SP9 owners (or potential owners)!
My initial listening session with this new preamp caused me to go back and reread my original review, for what I was hearing did not sound at all like what I wrote about then. For example, the "somewhat reticent" bass and midrange I described has been replaced by strong, focused sound. The sonic character is rich, liquid, and full-bodied. ("Don't Give Up," from Peter Gabriel's 1986 album So, Geffen GHS 24088, illustrated this.) Musical notes, either naturally produced or electronically generated, possessed "personality," a quality I rarely hear in recorded music—I was immediately drawn into the musical experience. In addition, the balance between lows and highs has been improved to the point where it is no longer an issue. The music unfolds with no discontinuity between registers. The "spotlighting" effect is gone, and along with it the tendency for the listener to focus more on the equipment than on the music. The listener is still seated closer to the stage than with some other preamps I've heard, but this perspective is not annoying or unbelievable. It's just different.
I couldn't hear the exaggerated "forwardness" of the earlier unit. Instead, the holographic quality on certain records took me by surprise, equaling the best I've heard. The soundstage had opened up in all dimensions—the "telephoto lens" effect was a thing of the past.
A record I often use to evaluate soundstaging is Mark Isham's Film Music (Windham Hill WH-1041). The industrial noises at the beginning of "Mrs. Soffel" should emerge from a point a considerable distance behind the speakers. The SP9 Mk.II was especially convincing in its rendering of this spatial effect, instantly conveying the plaintive tone of the following music.
The "clear, sparkling highs" remain, but now—I'm at a loss to explain why—they have personality. In fact, "personality" perhaps best describes the sound of the revised SP9 Mk.II. It has a sonic signature, as do all components, yet this signature is benign and does not interfere with the music. It enhances the musical experience by conveying the texture of the music in a way I don't often hear. Instrumental timbres are rendered with authority (on "Mrs. Soffel," I have rarely heard the pennywhistle sound so real or lamentive), and the reproduction of male and female voices is as good as I've heard. I sat spellbound listening to Lou Reed and John Cale on last year's Songs For Drella (Sire 26140-1, Vol.14 No.2). Their presence in the room is so tangible on certain cuts, it's unnerving. "Style It Takes," in particular, raised a large lump in my throat. Thanks, Bob Ludwig, for preserving this masterpiece so effectively!
Dynamics were improved across the board, the music now having more impact and life. It breathed freely, becoming an organic entity, immediately and intimately involving the listener with its seductive sound. Yet this seductiveness was not gained at the expense of transparency. Fine performance details were preserved without the "softness" I had heard earlier (and which tended to cloud the image of the performers and the tangibility of the experience).
I'd characterized the earlier SP9 Mk.II as being "overwhelmingly saccharine"—a quality I'd compared to the taste of a Golden Delicious apple. Forget apples—this preamp sounds like music! With the change of tubes, the gap between the SP14 and SP9 Mk.II has narrowed considerably, and, with the "magic" now contained in the latter, I wouldn't be surprised if its sales threatened those of the former. I should add that the improvement was not unique to the phono section. The line section was exemplary as well. I found myself digging into my CD collection more often than I'd like to admit, thoroughly enjoying the music.
The inevitable comparison with the Counterpoint SA-3000 begged to be made; since it was close at hand, I proceeded with the showdown. As I expected, the sound of the SP9 Mk.II now presented a strong challenge to its similarly priced competitor. The new tubes were working their magic, and it soon became clear that the quality differences I'd heard earlier between the two preamps were no longer there. The Counterpoint had met its match, and then some. Continued listening to all types of music through both preamps confirmed my initial gut-level impression that the SP9 Mk.II (with the Chinese tubes) was now the Counterpoint's equal. I'd be hard pressed to recommend one over the other on strictly sonic terms. The fundamental difference between the two preamps is one of the listener's perspective. If you prefer row E in the concert hall, you'll most likely be swayed in the direction of the SP9 Mk.II. If you favor row J, you'll probably like the Counterpoint. Either preamp will provide excellent sound if properly system-matched.
To sum up, the SP9 Mk.II (like the SP14) excels in conveying an overriding sense of "musicality" to any signal sent through it. The sound, as a result, is seductive and compelling. It's also non-fatiguing, a quality I appreciate and demand from any component. (I spend a lot of time listening!) My earlier placement of this preamp in Class C must now be changed: I recommend, without any reservations, that the SP9 Mk.II be promoted to a solid placement in Class B.—Guy Lemcoe