Counterpoint SA-7 preamplifier

In appearance the Counterpoint SA-7 tube preamplifier is quite attractive, possessing the thin, low-profile look currently in vogue. There is a mute switch which (if you remember to use it) protects your amplifier from the preamp's turn-on and turn-off thumps. Unfortunately, the volume control on my unit didn't track accurately, and it was necessary to adjust balance with each change in volume. One unusual feature: the balance control allows very fine gradations in balance adjustment (a large movement of the control results in a small change in balance).

Since this preamp has higher output impedance than most solid-state preamps, cable matching becomes fairly important. The SA-7's sound quality underwent substantial changes as different cables were tried. Higher capacitance cables proved a disaster on the SA-7. Monster Cable was the clear choice. Many of the other audiophile cables caused excessive brightness.

I did not spend nearly as much time auditioning the SA-7 as I did the Conrad-Johnson PV-4 and Audible Illusions Modulus preamplifiers that I also review in this issue because it was somewhat unpleasant to listen to. The first of the two samples I received had a fairly harsh, glassy, overly prominent upper midrange that quickly caused listener fatigue. This not only affected instruments with fundamentals in this region but caused problems in the midrange as well, by coloring the upper harmonics. It was difficult to distinguish violins from violas, trumpets blared excessively, and tenor sax became honky sounding. The SA-7 also was slightly bass-shy.

Still, this first sample was not without virtue. The soundstage was excellent, both in width and depth, with good centerfill and image stability. The size of the instruments was right, and an excellent sense of three-dimensionality was conveyed. In fact, were it not for the upper midrange glare and resultant distortions of musical timbres, the SA-7 would have been a very good performer.

On the strength of Counterpoint's reputation for producing outstanding products, a second SA-7 was requested. The best that can be said about it is that it sounded different from the first. The upper-midrange glare was gone, but generally the preamp was mediocre. The sound was slightly grainy, and seemed rather flat, both in terms of dynamics and depth of image. Though not as bad as listening to a distant station on FM, there were unfortunate similarities.

The SA-7 was the only one of the three units with sufficient gain to allow a low-output moving-coil cartridge to be run directly into its phono stage. However, this did not prove an advantage. On the first unit, the glare was increased when using low-output moving coils; on the second sample, noise was intolerable.

Two things emerge from our experience with three samples of the Counterpoint SA-7: the preamp can be expected to vary from sample to sample; none of the samples were sonically neutral or enjoyable to listen to over a long period of time. The SA-7 cannot be considered as being in the same league with the other two preamplifiers I review in this issue.—Steven W. Watkinson

Publisher's Note
SWW's original review of the SA-7 aroused significant concern at Counterpoint, in response to which a sample was requested for audition in Santa Fe by J. Gordon Holt. (SWW's original sample was from a dealer). JGH's comments on the second sample: "Coarse high frequencies, murky upper bass and lower midrange, significantly foreshortened depth presentation. No significant additional brightness." Please note that this coincides almost exactly with SWW's observations.

After SWW returned his second sample (JGH's first) to Counterpoint, it was discovered that that sample might have been defective. Following certain production-line changes, a third sample was shipped to JGH. JGH's comments on the third sample: "Overly bright, fatiguing sound. Somewhat warm and loose low end. Noisy. Not in the same league with the Audible Illusions Modulus."—Larry Archibald

Counterpoint Electronic Systems, Inc.
company no longer in existence

Axiom05's picture

I guess they struck out with this model. Too bad there are no measurements. Is this before your arrival JA? I thought you joined the staff somewhere around 1984?

John Atkinson's picture
Axiom05 wrote:
Is this before your arrival JA? I thought you joined the staff somewhere around 1984?

I joined Stereophile in May 1986. But I did try modifying SA-7s in the UK in 1984, adding a regulated power supply to try to get better sound.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Ortofan's picture

... for (a lot) less money you could have bought the all-discrete transistor NAD 1020B, the Hafler DH-110 or the Harman-Kardon hk825.

tonykaz's picture

The Modulus ( back then ) was tearing up the entire field of Tube Preamps.

My sales of ConradJohnson went flat after I met Art Ferris and carried his little Pre. Phew

No doubt the Counterpoint people suffered and lost out.

I'd love to have an old Modulus 2A .

Tony in Michigan

spacehound's picture

The Counterpoint preamp was a terrible thing in many respects.
But if you persevered with it (I did, with the help of my local UK dealer, who didn't charge me for the preamp until I said I was happy with it) by choosing your sources and your power amp carefully and using very short cables, it could provide a performance way above its price range.

Whether its relatively low price made it actually worth all the hassle is a moot point.
(And Conrad-Johnson stuff often didn't come out too well either. Some of their supposedly 'lower priced' power amps were hopeless.)

Remember this was in the 'pre-digital' days (CD players were available but none had 'digital' outputs and I don't recall any that had volume controls), so what I now consider the best option of all, buying a DAC with a decent volume control and not using a preamp at all, wasn't available. Even now very few DACs, (or better still a 'network player' that also has a computer friendly USB input) that also have a couple of analog input so you can connect a turntable and maybe an FM tuner) are available.