Plinius Audio SA-103 power amplifier
Audio reviewers are kinda slutty. Not sexually, of course, but in the way we promiscuously go through equipment. Like the most popular girl in school, or Tiger Woods, we have our choice of any hot thing we want, whenever we want it. Heck, reviewers don't even have to pick up equipment at bars or clubs: the stuff is delivered right to our homes. We use the gear for a few months, then send it packing once the next hottie comes over to play in our room.
One of the dangers of being a sexually promiscuous person, besides strange spots on your privates, is that it can lead to a perpetual state of falling in lust. And when you become a lust junky, it's hard to recognize, let alone sustain, deep and meaningful love. I think the same can be true for audio reviewers. Because reviewers rarely have to commit to any given product for more than three months, we fall in love too easily and too frequentlyand then we write about it. But what passes for love in an audio review is often merely the lust du jour.
On the other hand, most audiophiles (our readers) have the opposite experience while building their systems. Before buying any new component, most buyers I know search, yearn, agonize, scrimp, and save. Such folks properly court a product, fall in love, and then marry it. It's no wonder so much venom is poured out in audiophile forums when a magazine gives someone's favorite brand or model a slightly sniffy review: It's like having someone point out your wife's buck teeth in an international journal. Some of us in the press have lost sight of how deeply committed most audiophiles are to their gear.
So if reviewers are just audio gigolos, how do we know when we have really and truly fallen in lovenot lustwith a product? During my time with the Plinius SA-103, the question really nagged at me.
Making Love Out of Nothing At All
When Scot Markwell of Elite Audio/Video Distribution contacted me out of the blue to see if I'd like to review something from Plinius Audio, I was only casually aware of the company. Based in Christchurch, New Zealand, Plinius was founded in 1980 by Peter Thomson to make power amplifiers and preamplifiers. After 1987, when Plinius merged with Craft Audio Limited and its chief designer, Gary Morrison, the expanded company began to get noticed for its designs. They now also make phono preamps and a CD player.
Wes Phillips reviewed the Plinius SA-100 Mk.II (a forerunner of the SA-103) in the April 1997 Stereophile (Vol.20 No.4), and Paul Bolin reviewed the SA-Reference in May 2006 (Vol.29 No.5). Both WP and PB noted that Plinius had not received the sort of widespread recognition in the High End that it deserves, which made me feel a little better about not knowing more about them. The SA-103 immediately caught my eye as a prime review subject because, first, I'm rather sweet on class-Abiased, solid-state amplifiers; and second, its price of $7830, while on the high side, seemed quite reasonable for what looked like a beautifully made amp that could put out a peak current of 50 amps per channel. While I've been trying to keep the prices of gear I review in the sane range, this time I thought I'd splurge a bit. I e-mailed Markwell and asked him to send me an SA-103.
The Plinius SA-103 is a classic solid-state design with some decidedly modern touches and flourishes. It's claimed to output 125Wpc of class-Abiased power into 8 ohms, or 220Wpc into 4 ohms. It can also be bridged for mono operation, in which mode it kicks out a whopping 400 class-A watts into 8 ohms. A knob on the rear panel lets you select which input and output mode you want to use: RCA stereo, RCA bridged, balanced stereo, or balanced bridged. When in balanced mono mode, the SA-103 operates in fully balanced mono from input to output. Also on the rear panel are four sets of speaker binding posts, to permit biwiring. Plinius says that premium parts are used throughout, including internal wiring by Siltech. The layout of the rear panel is clear, clean, and concise. On the front panel are pushbuttons labeled Mute and Class A.
At first glance, the SA-103 looks like a quintessential Man-Amp, but of the amps that have shacked up with me, it's one of the more sexy looking, and in ways that entirely serve its function. The silvery aluminum of the thick faceplate has an elegant satin sheen, and the aluminum top plate is particularly robust. Two large handles dominate the front, conveniently paired with two smaller handles on the rear. Four handles on an amp that weighs 83 lbs is a useful touch. However, the visual star of The SA-103 Show are its heatsinks. Each unfurls from one of the amp's side panels like a frond of fern, reminding me of one of the most recognized symbols of New Zealand: the silver fern. These aluminum fronds not only provide a large surface area from which to dissipate the considerable heat generated by a class-A amp, they're also beautiful, and create a much more inviting look than is offered by most big, spiky amps.