Counterpoint SA-100 power amplifier Postscript: A New Sample
Shortly after my review hit Santa Fe, Tom Norton called to say that he'd arranged for Counterpoint to send along another SA-100; evidently, the amp I heard was one of the first hundred off the line, and Counterpoint's John Fermin felt that it might not represent a typical SA-100 as well as a current unit. The new amp arrived a few days later, but just as I was about to listen to it after a few days' burn-in, TJN called back, telling me that Counterpoint had sent it with the wrong input 6DJ8s, and that the new tubes were en route. But didn't Counterpoint subject these tubes to a couple hundred hours of measurements and listening tests, as they said they did in the manual? Why hadn't they found out they had the wrong tubes then? No matter; the new tubes arrived a couple of days later, and after swapping them out and letting the amp cook for a week, I sat down to listen. At my request, the original SA-100 I had sent back to Santa Fe for measurements was returned to me, in order to compare it with the new version.
The new Yugoslavian tubes definitely looked different from the Chinese 6DJ8s in the original amp. They looked identical to the tubes that came in the second SA-100, but I switched them out anyway for my listening. The new amp appeared to be identical in circuitry and parts to the original SA-100, with one curious exception: on the original amp, the ground lugs of the input RCA jacks were taken to circuit ground via insulated solid-core wire directly to the pc board below, while the second SA-100 took a different route to ground, winding between components across the board toward the middle and finally terminating at a different location. As far as any operating differences went, the new amp was slightly more sensitive than the first, although this could have been due to many factors other than the change in input tubes. The levels for the two amps were matched using a digital multimeter at the speaker terminals, with track one of the Stereophile Test CD serving as a –20dB, 1kHz reference tone.
To start things off, I listened to the original SA-100 playing JA's recording of Anna Maria Stanczyk's piano on the Test CD. For about a minute. Then I switched to the new Counterpoint, and it was immediately obvious that something was very, very wrong with the first amp. But was there something very, very right with the second?
The new SA-100 sounded clearly better than the original, virtually across the board. That's not to say it was a great amp, though; there were still traces of the grain and indistinct imaging and soundstaging I heard with the first amp, although to a much smaller degree than before. What was once an intensely irritating halo of hash surrounding each note was now simply a bit of grain no worse than, say, the original Adcom GFA-555. Which wasn't great news, but at least a step in the right direction.
The bass was leagues better, however. No longer did it disembody the bassline from the rest of the music; firmed-up and drier, it sounded quicker and cleaner than SA#1. The midrange, too, was much improved, cleaned up almost to the point of reticence. While SA#1 spat vocals and instruments like sax and piano at my face in disgust, SA#2 presented the midrange with more finesse and much less edginess. The difference in midrange presentation was, aside from the large reduction in audible distortion, the most noticeable improvement in the newer Counterpoint. Again, though, it should be noted that these improvements are relative to SA#1; the midrange of SA#2 was considerably more veiled than the Muse Model One Hundred, and just slightly less musical than the less-expensive Adcom GFA-555 II. Again, it was a huge step up from SA#1, but still short of the mark set by not only the Muse but the Adcom as well.
The highs were listenable, but still carried a tiny bit of the glaze I heard from SA#1. Cymbals were much, much smoother, but never came alive as they had with either the Muse or the VTL Tiny Triodes. Whether it was due to the reduction in distortion or some other aspect of the new tubes' influence on the overall circuit, SA#2 had a more laid-back presentation through the highs than its predecessor. Definitely more musical, but not really all that involving on my Angeluses.
I'll tell you what, though: I could and did listen to SA#2 for hours, enjoying old favorites and new raves alike with nary a complaint, while I couldn't even listen once to Elvis's Sun Sessions on SA#1. And I can listen to The King on wheezing truck-stop Rockolas without thinking about anything but how good that chicken-fried steak feels in my belly; that's how bad SA#1 was, and how much better the second amp sounded.
So is the current Counterpoint SA-100 a contender? I'd have to say that, even with the large improvements wrought by the Yugo 6DJ8s, no. Not with the Muse Model One Hundred available at exactly the same price. The Muse betters the Counterpoint in every area, and not by a small margin. The Muse 100 is by far the most musical solid-state amp I've heard anywhere near its price range, and the Counterpoint just couldn't begin to compete in my system in the areas of musical involvement, dynamics, and freedom from grain and coloration. If the Muse sold for twice what the Counterpoint goes for, I might be tempted to recommend the SA-100. After all, it's really no worse than most of the other $1200 solid-state amps I've heard, and in some areas it's quite competitive. But the Muse Model One Hundred doesn't cost twice as much; at the same price as the SA-100, it's a stunner, without equal until you get up into the high two-thousands, low threes. And that's why the Counterpoint doesn't get the nod. I would suggest, however, that current SA-100 owners check their input tubes. If your 6DJ8s are the older Chinese versions, replace them with the new Yugos ASAP.—Corey Greenberg