Vincent Audio SA-31 Preamplifier and SP-331 Power Amplifier
The sport of high-end audio has been likened to peeling the layers of an onion at whose heart lies a reasonable facsimile of the sound of live music. The working assumption, of course, is that listeners must pay by the layer in order to draw ever closer to their goal. But every once in awhile I encounter companies whose components offer shortcuts to better sound at surprisingly reasonable prices—companies such as the German firm Vincent Audio. Some might question whether the phrases “German firm” and “reasonable prices” should be used in the same sentence, but in this case they can, because Vincent Audio’s driving passion is to build serious high-performance audio products that are eminently affordable. Two good cases in point would be the Vincent SA-31 vacuum-tube preamplifier ($499) and SP-331 hybrid-tube/solid-state, 150Wpc stereo power amplifier ($999). Like most others from Vincent, both were designed in Germany and manufactured in China (to hold production costs in check), and both exhibit unmistakable touches of Old World quality inside and out—quality you not only can see, but hear.
Based on two 6N16 vacuum tubes, the SA-31 is a linestage preamplifier that provides four analog inputs, two analog outputs, a recording output, and two old-school features—namely, a loudness compensation circuit and switch-selectable tone controls. Purists might counsel against using EQ for any reason, but I think there are contexts where the loudness function can improve perceived tonal balance for low-volume listening. Similarly, Vincent’s tone controls are subtle enough that they could be used, judiciously of course, to correct minor tonal imbalances in less-than-ideal recordings. Sadly, one modern feature the SA-31 does not provide is a remote control—an omission I came to regret as I made my umpteenth trip across the listening room to tweak volume levels. One very well-thought-out detail is the SA-31’s power-on muting circuit, which engages when the unit is fired up, as denoted by the power light flashing on and off, and releases once tubes are warmed up and the preamp is ready to play music.
The SA-31 produces a rich, seductive sound, whose signature characteristic is a midrange that is dynamically alive and leans just slightly to the warm side of neutral. Together, these qualities help the preamp do a fine job of capturing subtle contours or inflections in both human and instrumental voices. For example, in the opening of “Casi” from Marta Gómez’s Entre Cada Palabra [Chesky] the SA-31 shows great delicacy as it captures the very soft, gently modulated sound of Gómez’s voice accompanied by a bass guitar that deliberately plays only high harmonics sans bass fundamentals. The preamp shows how the singer’s voice remains pure, steady, and clear, even though Gómez is singing at little more than a whisper level, and also draws out the ringing sound of the bass harmonics, which fill the recording space with an almost gamelan-like sound.
One of the SA-31’s greatest strengths is its ability to reproduce continuously shaded tonalities at the edges of notes—shadings that give notes their shape and substance. Perhaps as a result, this preamp presents images that have a consistently pleasing, sculptural solidity—never the flat, “color-by-numbers” quality that some solid-state preamps exhibit.
The only quality I found odd in the SA-31 was a textural discontinuity that sometimes came into play on intensely modulated upper-midrange passages. On the loudest of vocal swells—Eva Cassidy belting out “Stormy Monday” on Live From Blues Alley [Blix Street], for instance—the SA-31 momentarily exhibited a slightly hard, strained quality. This phenomenon doesn’t occur often, but it is noticeable when it does because it is out of character with the preamp’s ordinarily smooth, imperturbable sound.
The SA-31’s bass was hearty and solidly weighted, although I found the preamp did a good but not great job of capturing low-frequency transient and textural details. When I listened to the concert bass drum on “Regular Pleasures” from Patricia Barber’s Verse [Blue Note], for example, the attack of the drum sounded slightly subdued, though its ensuing “boom” and shuddering decay sounded fundamentally correct. Similarly, on Stanley Clarke’s slapped electric bass on the title track of School Days [Nemperor, LP], the sharp, percussive “pops” at the leading edges of notes were rounded-off to a degree, though the bodies of the notes had nearly ideal power and depth. The good news is that the SA-31 consistently puts a firm bass foundation under the music—never sounding anemic down low, as some affordable preamps do. But at the same time, I felt the preamp could be improved if it provided a greater degree of lowfrequency tautness and definition.
Up high the SA-31 sounded sweet, smooth, and silvery, though it was not the last word in reproduction of high-frequency details or of the “air” surrounding instruments. In practice, this turned out to be a mixed blessing. On recordings such as John Abercrombie and Eddie Gomez’s Structures [Chesky, SACD], which features the richly detailed sound of Gene Jackson’s delicately brushed cymbals and drums, the SA-31 sounded generally refined, but it also smoothed over low-level treble details to some degree. However, on recordings such as the Boulez/Chicago reading of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 [Deutsche Grammophon], whose string passages are apt to sound overly hard or wiry in the first place, the SA-31 turned potentially strident sound into approachably clean, sweet music.
It is a credit to the SA-31 that its sound invites comparisons to today’s best $1000 preamps (e.g., the Rogue Audio Metis or Rotel RCD-1082). In those comparisons, the Vincent is nearly able to hold its own, thanks to its smooth, evocative midrange, free-breathing dynamics, and bass weight and warmth. However, it comes up a bit short in the areas of top-to-bottom detail and definition and high-frequency air. But let me put these comments in perspective. I can count on the fingers of one hand the units I think might offer the Vincent serious competition in its price range (the more versatile but also more expensive NAD C 162 preamp is one of the strongest competitors that comes to mind). The SA-31 is a highly accomplished sub-$500 preamp that offers terrific bang for the buck. Just be aware that there is a tangible gap between the best that good $500 preamps can offer and the better performance that the top $1000 models have on tap.
Vincent’s SP-331 is a robust and beautifully made 150Wpc stereo power amp that uses two 6N16 tubes to drive two banks of 6 output transistors sourced from Toshiba. Let me not mince words: The SP-331 is the best-sounding sub-$1000 amplifier I’ve yet heard, and I therefore regard it as one of the sweetest deals in high-end audio today. Here’s why.
Vincent’s SP-331 amp, like its SA-31 preamp, has midrange subtlety and richness in spades. Connect the SP-331 with a sufficiently revealing preamplifier such as Rotel’s RCD-1082, and the Vincent will reward you with vivid midrange tonal colors and a delightfully holographic 3-D presentation that reveals the finely contoured edges of notes, much as the SA-31 does. But where the SA-31 eventually runs out of gas in terms of midrange detail, the SP-331 has no such limitation, revealing significantly higher levels of midrange resolution and definition than the SA-31—again, when driven by higher-resolution preamps.
The SP-331’s broader performance envelope became obvious to me as I listened to the “Wallfahrtslied/Pilgrim’s Song” from Arvo Pärt’s Orient & Occident [ECM]. The piece is structured around blocks of choral material where Pärt draws his text from the words of Psalm 121 (“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help”), which are sung very softly so that a kind of deep, reverent hush falls over the recording space. The SP-331 lets you hear that hush as it descends, as well as the solemn, earnest voices of the singers as they deliver their lines. Yet interspersed between the choral sections are sharp, angular string passages that, through many affordable amplifiers, sound jarringly strident. Through the SP-331 those string passages do not sound strident at all; rather, they are focused and almost blinding in their intensity, as if the strings are giving voice to the psalmist’s innermost fears, anxieties, and doubts as he appeals to the Lord for protection.
The SP-331’s heightened resolution extends into the bass region, too. To appreciate the full scope of the Vincent’s low-frequency prowess, check out Victor Wooten’s performance on 6-string electric bass on “Mudslingers of the Milky Way” from Béla Fleck & The Flecktones’ “Little Worlds” [Columbia]. The 6-string bass is a formidable instrument whose lowest fundamentals reach down to the mid-30Hz range, while its upper range ventures well up into cello territory. On the track I’ve referenced, Wooten explores much of the instrument’s range, at times playing clean, beautifully modulated subterranean notes that—through the SP-331—sounded as if they were produced by a well-tempered freight train roaring past beneath my listening room floor. Yet in an instant Wooten shifts gears to play ringing upper-register notes that sound as if they come from an electric cello that has been dabbling with performance-enhancing substances. Through all of this, the SP-331 shows a big heart and real muscle, tempered by a measure of low-frequency agility that few sub-$1000 amps can match.
In the treble region the SP-331 sounds slightly softer but also more delicate and refined than typical solid-state amps in its price range. I put on the famous Dorati/London recording of Webern’s Five Pieces for Orchestra [Mercury Living Presence] and found that the SP-331 slightly truncated the sounds of hall ambience cues and high-frequency air surrounding instruments relative to the presentation I would hear from my admittedly more expensive reference amplifier. Nevertheless, the Vincent revealed much of the delightful three-dimensionality that makes those classic Mercury Living Presence recordings the sonic jewels they are. If you like your high frequencies presented upfront and with maximum definition, the Vincent probably won’t be right for you, but the fact is that it strays from strict neutrality only slightly, and in a direction that—if anything—makes the amp an easier match with other affordable components.
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