Plinius Audio SA-103 power amplifier Page 3

The Plinius could also give me hell if I wanted it. My wife loves The Knife, but it has taken me a long time to get into the band's sound. I really like their songs and production, but they consistently use octavizers and pitch shifters on the voice of the already shrill-sounding Karin Dreijer-Andersson, and it gives me the willies—she sounds a bit like the Linda Blair character in The Exorcist and makes Bjîrk sound like Leontyne Price. The Plinius actually helped me better understand and appreciate what The Knife was going for in the chaotic studio treatment they gave the vocals on Deep Cuts (CD, Rabid/Mute 9339-2): I could hear each bending of pitch and shift of octavizer, the latter sometimes adding a parallel fifth to the melody, sometimes dropping the octave. I still don't know if I like this band, but I play the album because it's good to let my wife enjoy my stereo—I mean, our stereo.

Through the SA-103, the top octaves were open, sweet, and extended. During my time with the Plinius I bought a mix CD compiled by record producer Peter Kruder, Peter Kruder: Private Collection (CD, G-Stone GSCD036). It's a grab-bag of some of the weird, wild, wonderful music he's collected, with tracks by artists such as Tom Waits, Bernard Herrmann, Talk Talk, and my favorite band you've never heard of, Stargard. The sound varies a bit from track to track but is generally quite good. The unforced treble extension on Waits's "Clap Hands" and Rokia Traoré's "Mariama" was a thing of beauty. This treble, done in such an unhighlighted way, showed the Plinius to have an extremely open and revealing character, as well as a rich midrange and full, articulate bass. My overall impression of the SA-103's sound was of warm, open, powerful neutrality.

In terms of soundstaging, the Plinius SA-103 proved to be one of the best solid-state amplifiers I've heard. Some amps are good at presenting an illusion of soundstage depth by adding to the signal a character that embiggens (pace Jebediah Springfield) the sound of instruments and places them at a greater sonic distance from the listener. Other amps are surgical in their rendering of space, often giving a hyperdetailed, exciting, yet etched quality to the sound. In this regard, the Plinius SA-103 was an amp Goldilocks would have loved: it was juuuuust right.

When called on to present an upfront and vivid soundstage, such as that of Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff," from Stax: 50th Anniversary Celebration (CD, Stax STX2-30203-2), the Plinius put very little space between me and the performers, and placed the instruments squarely in my room with startling immediacy. However, the SA-103 also ably transported me to the sunken-cathedral acoustics of the enormous spaces in which Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic was recorded (by Christopher Barnett and the Gavin Bryars Ensemble; CD, Philips 446 061-2). In terms of soundstaging, the Plinius gave what it got.

Nothing Compares 2 U
A number of amps have come through my doors in the past year or so. Against the similarly powered Rogue M-180 monoblocks outfitted with KT90 output tubes, the Plinius did very well, sharing with the Rogues what I would normally call "tube magic." I love what tubes can do in the midrange, and I expected the solid-state Plinius to leave an empty spot in my heart that pined for more of that tube magic. But the Plinius's midrange was as fleshy as I like it to be. Though the Rogues did a fantastic job of presenting the illusion of a three-dimensional space, they lacked some of the SA-103's resolution and clarity. In terms of dynamics, while the Rogues are good, the Plinius was great. In this category, tube amps just can't compete with a class-A amp putting out up to 50 amps of peak current—the Plinius's balance and voicing really held together at high volumes, inviting me you to do some crankin'.

Though the class-A–biased Pass Labs amps I've spent time with, the Aleph 3 and XA30.5, have sweet trebles, I've also found them slightly closed-in at the top of the audioband, the XA30.5 having a slight emphasis in the low to mid-treble. The Plinius SA-103 matched this sweetness, but offered a more extended bandwidth at both ends of the audioband than did either Pass model. The Plinius was also a higher-resolution design than the Passes, with blacker backgrounds, less noise, and greater texture and delineation throughout the audioband. The SA-103 was also more dynamic and more timbrally neutral than the similarly priced Pass Labs INT-150 ($7150).

Why Can't This Be Love?
So—have I fallen in lust with this amp, or is it love? Certainly, there must be other amps out there that might trump the Plinius's performance in certain areas. The single-ended tube crowd won't get quite enough of that tube magic to keep them from crossing the SA-103 off their list. And those who crave the hyperdetail of a solid-state Halcro amp might not find what they're looking for in the Plinius. Those who need absurdly priced audio jewelry will also look elsewhere—the Plinius just isn't fancy or costly enough.

But if, like me, you're looking for a power amplifier that can bring you a great deal of the performance that each of these kinds of amplifiers can muster, the Plinius SA-103 may be for you. The best way I can recommend the SA103 is this: If you're considering spending a bit less than the Plinius's price, try instead to splurge on the SA-103. If you're thinking of spending a great deal more, at least give the Plinius a listen before laying down your dough.

The Plinius SA-103 offers a natural, neutral tonal balance, just the right amount of musicality, superb bass performance, plenty of current to drive the most piggish speakers, functional and tasteful design. It is (dare I say it) a good value at its price, considering its performance.

Perhaps, when the next hot amp comes through the door, the SA-103's spell will have worn off. In a few months, maybe the Plinius and I will have to have "the talk." I'll phone it up and tell it, "I'm just not that into you," and "I've met someone else." Perhaps I'll even say, "Baby, it's not you, it's me." After all, I am a promiscuous audio reviewer. I love 'em and leave 'em and never look back. But I highly encourage you to at least take a Plinius SA-103 out on a date. It could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Elite Audio/Video Distribution
1027 N. Orange Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90038
(800) 457-2577

soulful.terrain's picture

I like the narrative. Entertaining read!

Erick Lichte's picture
Thanks Soulful, I had a great time with this amp. So much fun, in fact, that I think some of it rubbed off on me as I wrote the review.
Tony von Krag's picture

I have long liked Plinius & if I upgrade this article will help in what I get next. BTW Much, much grass for the heads-up on Pantha du Prince's Black Noise. I like 'tronica very much but it's hard to find worth stuff sometimes.


Erick Lichte's picture
Much Grass back atcha, Tony. Pantha Du Prince's "This Bliss" is also very good, but "Black Noise" is my fave - it's a great recording and great music.
carlosgallardo's picture

Very funny, but for me the difference is that I'm very glad to show and share my gears to my friends.
And I'm not a promiscuos guy, well, just eventually, jajajajaja

p59teitel's picture

...that it kicked out plenty of power into your Revel F-30s.  I'm thinking of mating an SA-103 to a pair of Revel Salon 2s that are equally inefficient, and am hoping to avoid the need for two 103s to fill my 28x16 room. 

Nacho's picture

Entertaining and informative reading.  I am looking for a solid state amp with some "tube magic" in the midrange ... could this be a love match with my Focal speakers?  Nacho