Though other folks (including some on this very magazine) seem to think that we’ve just been marking time in high-end audio lately, building and rebuilding the same old things only with better parts and calling them “breakthroughs,” color me an optimist. i honestly believe that high fidelity, and the quality and inventiveness of the engineering behind it, has never been higher than it is today. veils that we’ve taken for granted lo these many years (because they were so low in level and so omnipresent we didn’t realize they were there—until they weren’t) are being audibly lifted, distortions and colorations reduced. As a direct result, an abundance of new, previously unheard detail about music and music-makers (and the recording process itself) is being made clear, or clearer.
Of course, some folks (including, once again, some on this very magazine) seem to think that such fresh detail is a kind of false god—the product of either a hyped-up upper midrange and treble, or a hot vintage Neumann microphone (God save us from these, BTW, and the simply awful recordings from RCA, Mercury, and Decca that were made with them), or the propaganda of a numbskull like me who simply doesn’t know any better than to delight in hearing things he’s never heard before on recordings he’s listened to scores and scores of times. It doesn’t seem to be much use pointing out (as I have repeatedly) that I don’t delight in hearing fresh details for their own sake, but rather because, collectively, they add up to a more convincing illusion of the real thing. Or to argue that such details can be considerably less trivial than the sounds of creaking chairs in the violin section or pages of scores being turned on piano music racks or subway cars running beneath recording venues (although there is an audiophile part of me that unquestionably delights in hearing these things, as well)—that hearing, for example, a Bartók pizzicato sound like a Bartók pizzicato not only makes a substantial difference in the realism with which the timbre, duration, and intensity of the note is being sounded, but an equally substantial difference in our understanding of the music it is punctuating and our appreciation of the skills of the performer playing that music.
All of this, believe it or not, is by way of a preface to the review you’re about to read of a product—actually a system of three products—that lifts veils, lowers distortions, reveals fresh details, and, yes, heightens the illusion of realism. This product, called the Siltech SAGA System, was designed by Edwin Rijnveld, the gifted Dutch engineer who’s familiar to many of us from his pioneering work with cables and interconnects (including my current reference wires, the Crystal Cable Absolute Dreams). Turns out that Edwin, whom I visited not too long ago in Arnhem in The Netherlands (yes, that Arnhem—the bridge still stands, BTW) as a follow-up to my Crystal Cable review, is considerably more than a world-class metallurgist, although he is that, as well. He is a highly experienced EE with a penchant for building novel speakers (the glass-bodied Crystal Cable Arabesques are his latest), and equally novel electronics.
Several years ago Edwin authored the SETA, an 80W single-ended-triode monoblock amplifier that used custom-built tubes. The SETA and its companion preamplifier didn’t make much of a dent in the worldwide electronics market (only 30 pairs of the amps were ever made), but they were, nonetheless, highly regarded and very well reviewed. Not, however, as highly regarded or as well reviewed as his current SAGA System electronics, which have already been raved about in several magazines and webzines, and will shortly be raved about again by me.
What is a SAGA System? It is a very expensive ($112,500), three-box, tube/transistor-hybrid electronics suite, comprising a linestage preamplifier and a 380Wpc (into 8 ohms) stereo amplifier of highly unusual design. Though there may be nothing new under the hi-fi sun, as some folks (including some on this very magazine) aver, the SAGA System is inarguably different enough to merit a lengthy explanation, both of what it is, and of why it is the way it is.
Let’s take the why part first.
SAGA is the felicitous initialization of what Rijnveld calls Structural Amplifier Gain Architecture. And Structural Amplifier Gain Architecture is what his linestage preamplifier (the C1) and his two-box amplifier (the V1 and P1—the reason for the two boxes will be explained in a moment) exemplify. The SAGA components have been designed to electrically and mechanically revise and sonically improve upon what Rijnveld calls “the old habit” gain architecture of preamps and amps of the past, including just about every other preamp and amp on the market today.
According to Mijnheer Rijnveld, all these preamplifiers and amplifiers are caught in a bit of a time warp, using a gain architecture that made sense when analog was king but that does not make as much sense in the Digital Age. You see, back in the LP days, the job of a preamplifier was to boost the relatively weak signal of the phonostage (typically 1V or less) to line level so that it could be passed on to the amp for further boosting. Today, the output voltage of a CD player or a DAC is high enough (typically 2V) to cause that same amp to be overdriven or to overload if the signal sent to it by the preamp isn’t attenuated (i.e., if the amplification applied by the preamp isn’t lower than unity gain). And, indeed, attenuating the input signal is precisely what preamps do nowadays with digital sources, via op-amps, discrete circuitry, or passive attenuators. The trouble is that reducing the voltage of the input signal so that it won’t overload the amplifier’s input stage also reduces the dynamic range of that signal—typically by 10dB referenced to a line level of 1.5V—and as dynamic range is lowered the audibility of noise is increased since the signal-to-noise ratio has also been reduced. Once that dynamic range is lost, it can never be restored—no matter how much amplification is applied after attenuation.
Eliminating this inevitable reduction of dynamic range and the consequent increase in noise is the entire raison d’être of the SAGA System, every part of whose gain architecture has been designed to accommodate Digital Age realities. The C1 preamp applies no attenuation to the input signal, and the V1/P1 two-stage amplifier is engineered to handle the increased voltage of a digital (or analog, for that matter) source without overload or clipping, thereby preserving that lost 10dB of dynamic range while also roughly doubling perceived loudness and halving perceived noise. As Siltech points out, it is this noise that masks the low-level (and high-) details of timbres, textures, and transients that are almost universally regarded as keys to sonic realism—save by some folks (including some on this magazine).