When I begin by saying the AVM SA8 stereo amplifier is a difficult product to review, it is not for the usual reasons. The AVM SA8 did not present any performance problems during several weeks of auditions in my reference system or in the systems of several of my friends. It never presented any problems in setup or operation either. Quite the contrary, it was easy to set up, performed flawlessly, and is one of the best-performing amplifiers I’ve had the privilege of reviewing, which, at $13,880, it damn well should be.
The problem was very different and says more about the limits of reviewing today’s cutting-edge amplifiers than it does about the AVM SA8. The SA8 does have sonic character— every product does. But, like some of the best power amplifiers around, that sonic character is very limited. In fact, most of what you hear is the coloration of other components.
I did a lot of listening with this amplifier along with several other top amplifiers, and again and again I found that what initially appeared to be colorations in the amplifier were actually the product of colorations in the listening material, the front end, the speakers, the interconnects, and the speaker cables. In many, if not most systems, the sound character of the AVM SA8 would be overshadowed by this complex mix of colorations in the other components.
And yes, this is definitely a good thing in terms of the AVM SA8’s performance. You want as neutral a power amp as you can get. As every experienced audiophile already knows, every component in your system—and here I include a given recording, a given listening room, and the placement of speakers and listening position therein—to some extent acts as a filter and an equalizer. You can’t really solve this problem by using the coloration of one component to offset the coloration of another. No matter how well you try to blend components with different sound characters into a system, each different type of coloration comes at a cost. Something—bass, highs, dynamics, low-level detail, and natural musical life—is lost to some degree. This scarcely is a reason not to seek synergy among your components. Every experienced audiophile knows that simply assembling gear that measures well does not produce the best possible sound. You have to listen, as well. It is also a fact that many audiophiles choose a colored system because they find it musically exciting, soothing, or suited to their taste in music.
At the same time, most audiophiles do want the most neutral and transparent sounding components possible. Warm and forgiving components come at a real cost. You give up detail and dynamics, transparency in the soundstage, and much of the life of music. If you reverse the process and choose electronics that emphasize upper-midrange energy and create artificial “detail,” or that can’t really deliver the lower midrange accurately or deliver deep bass into truly demanding loads, you get more detail at the cost of an emphasis that never occurs in real life: hardness and listening fatigue, and real problems with the timbre of piano, brass, wood-winds, soprano voice, and strings—particularly massed strings.
And, this is precisely why the neutral transparency of the AVM SA8 comes close to delivering the Golden Mean. The SA8 is the product of a German company I had not previously been aware of, but in talking to one of its lead designers it quickly became apparent that AVM is an audiophile firm that focuses on music and not specsmanship. This message comes across quite clearly on its Web site (avm-audio.com), as does AVM’s attention to detail. AVM states that “we manufacture all AVM components in our own plant. For the few parts (such as pc-boards, front panels, transformers) that we cannot produce by ourselves we have reliable suppliers nearby, who have been working with us for years.”
The SA8 also shows that AVM cares about visual aesthetics, and follows in the best traditions of German design. You get a beautifully styled amplifier in the form-follows-function modern tradition. It has a compact but highly useful front-panel display (which can be turned off by the remote), and an excellent array of rear input and output connections. At the same time, you discover its real “guts” the moment you try to pick it up. The manufacturer specifies that it weighs 42 kilograms or around 93 pounds, but try moving it and I promise it will feel a lot heavier.