Plinius SA-Reference power amplifier Page 2
Exceptional clarity and evenhandedness in the top octaves is a necessary predicate to natural-sounding transient performance. The SA-Ref showed exceptional fidelity to live sound with its reproductions of plucked strings and percussion. The mallet percussion in "The Duel with the Skeletons," from Journey to the Center of the Earth: The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann (UK LP, London Phase 4 SP44207), was immaculately clean without any amp-supplied crispness. The isolated percussion points in A. Clyde Roller and the Eastman Wind Symphony's recording of Hovhaness' Symphony 4 (Dutch LP, Mercury Golden Classics SRI 71050) hung luxuriously in the air. Acoustic guitars had shimmer but avoided any edgy highlighting of the initial attack of plectrum on string. Things sounded as fast as they do in real life, with no added illusion of speed.
Tube amplifiers are renowned for their ability to capture the sense of space that the best recordings provide, but the solid-state Plinius is far more than merely respectable in this sense. Julius Katchen's recording of Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (with Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic, UK LP, London CS 6153) sounds rather dark and distant, but the SA-Reference showed the deeply quiet background necessary to resolve the low-level details that establish the shape and size of the soundstage. The resolution of woodwind details deep in the orchestra was also notable.
Image scaling is another area where the Plinius offered performance comparable with the best of the best. When not pumping out lots of watts, a high-powered amp can sometimes blow up the size of an image or seem to flatten it a bit. The SA-Ref was capable of captivating intimacy on solo material such as Bert Jansch's "Needle of Death" and "Anji," from Bert Jansch/It Don't Bother Me (2 albums on one UK CD, Transatlantic ESM CD407), or small-group recordings such as Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby (SACD/CD, Riverside/Analogue Productions CART 9399 SA). Given expansive productions such as "Keep an Eye on Summer" and "Dream Angel," from Brian Wilson's Imagination (CD, Giant 24703-2), or Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra's traversal of Copland's Appalachian Spring (CD, Reference RR-93 HDCD), the SA-Ref readily conjured up in my room suitably large spaces populated with precisely located images.
Bringing +300W to the dance should mean that the SA-Reference had a broad dynamic envelope, and it did. The most powerful moments of the Vaughan Williams, in particular the tuttis with organ in the third movement, had real majesty and grandiosity through the Plinius. Led Zeppelin IV's stomping Zen raga, "When the Levee Breaks" (UK LP, Atlantic K50008), was just as potent and energizing. Softer but no less demanding dynamic contrasts were also managed exceptionally well. Bert Jansch's rasgueados in "Anji" had the snap and sudden loudness they should have but sometimes don't.
Perhaps most important, the Plinius can run with the toppermost of the poppermost megabucks amps in a crucial regard: It expended its efforts on getting out of the way of music and letting the music speak for itself. For years, I've loved the wonderful Argo LP of Neville Marriner's performance of Vaughan Williams' Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus. Because Marriner wrings every drop of drama and pathos from the piece, I've always tended to shortchange Leonard Slatkin's performance of it with the Philharmonia Orchestra (CD, RCA 61195-2). The Plinius' self-effacing qualities let me appreciate Slatkin's version for his taut and clear-eyed vision. Slatkin directs the listener's attention more to the clarity of line and structure of Vaughan Williams' sound as architecture and sculpture, rather than to its capacity for tugging at the heartstrings. The Plinius (and its quite wonderful sibling, Plinius' CD-101 CD player) revealed Slatkin's version as different but anything but inferior.
Good on ya, Plinius
I spend a lot of time reviewing cost-no-object gear—the really expensive stuff. Which makes a component like the Plinius SA-Reference all the more refreshing when I run into one. The SA-Ref may not have the last, endlessly minute degree of palpability or treble resolution that vastly more expensive amplifiers such as the Chord SPM 14000, Halcro dm58, or VTL Siegfried may have, but unless you consistently listen with the finest of speakers in a superbly synergized and optimized system, the difference is meaningless.
The SA-Reference's most winning quality is that it is so acutely close to those multi-megabuck amps in all of the ways that are most meaningful to musical communication. I readily admit that, in terms of the normal world, the SA-Ref is still expensive. But in the modern world of the High End, it is moderately priced for a statement-level product.
When I reviewed the SA-250 Mk.IV in 2000, I discovered in Plinius a company that consistently provided performance to challenge all comers, price be damned. I concluded that to buy a competing product only incrementally better would require shelling out a lot more money than you would for the Plinius.
That observation is as true now as it was then. Combining as it does brute-force power, world-class finesse, superb build quality, and a genuine and engaging musicality, the Plinius SA-Reference is one hell of an amplifier. It does many things superbly, and nothing less than very, very well. To get what more sonic quality is available—and it's not very much—you'll have to spend multiples more. I recommend the SA-Reference with unabashed enthusiasm.