Bargain-hunting and high-end performance may seem mutually exclusive terms, but certain brands have always placed realistic pricing high on the agenda. Most amusing is that the more cost-conscious of all are the valve amp producers, who continue to create some sensational bargains. In this country, we have Croft, Audio Innovations and Concordant among others, while the USA has Lazarus, Audible Illusions and Counterpoint to carry on the Dynaco tradition.
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With the exception of Counterpoint, all of the above are either cottage industry or a cut above; Counterpoint, on the other hand, has grown to big boy level. At least, that's the impression I get just by virtue of the company's advertising budget. You don't advertise with full colour pages in American magazines when your company is tiny.
To accomplish growth when you happen to be making tube or tube-hybrid products, you have to reach a larger part of the market than that consisting of solder-heads who hang around hi-fi
shops and quote magazines chapter and verse. God bless 'em, but there just aren't enough lunatic fringe audiophiles around to support all of the specialist brands. So what does it take for products as esoteric and ¬non¬-mass-market as valve gear to appeal to a more casual buyer?
Two things have always characterized Counterpoint products. The first is that the products look modern and expensive, enough not to induce techno-fear into those who would eye a chassis bearing exposed valves with something akin to suspicion. The second is that Counterpoint has always offered affordable products, whatever the company may have in the upper reaches of the catalogue.
The flip-side, though, is that Counterpoint always wore its compromises on its sleeve, and the price you paid for smart-looking, good-sounding gear was more than the sensible number on bottom of your receipt. The lower-priced Counterpoint models, in my experience, were poorly constructed, noisy and often unreliable. But the fine sound meant that you put up with it. After all, the poor construction only affected your ego, the noise could be ameliorated with severe tweaking and the unreliability usually involved minor servicing, like the odd naff tube sneaking through the QC program.
Now there's a new generation of small models to replace such gems as the near-legendary SA-7 pre-amp, in my mind the closest thing yet to a modern equivalent of Dynaco's PAS-3. The current entry-level Counterpoint pre-amp is the SA-1000. It shows that Counterpoint paid heed to the charges laid against the '7, usually related to tube ringing and microphony so bad that you could almost use it as a substitute for an old valve Neumann.
The SA-1000 starts out by NOT cramming everything into a small chassis. Sleek though the '7 may have been, it couldn't have been too comfortable for the tubes to be lying on their sides in a shallow chassis. In the SA-1000 they stand upright, with plenty of breathing space. It also allows for a less-cluttered fascia, though I must admit that the slighty assymetrical hodge-podge and undersized controls favoured by the company help neither the aesthetics nor the ergonomics.
The SA-1000, from left to right, offers the essentials and nothing more: a source selector choosing between one of two phono settings and three line sources, a tape monitor switch, balance, volume, mute and power on/off. No complaints here, as that's all you need, though I wouldn't have minded a polarity inversion switch on a product from a company which championed the facility. The only unusual facility is the choice of phono settings, the unit arriving in a high gain mode ideal for the majority of moving coils.
To configure the SA-1000 for the low gain setting, for high output cartridges, you simply remove a couple of internal shunts which connect pins on the circuit board behind the input
selector. This activates the low gain setting while deactivating the high gain option. Counterpoint feels that keeping both active would degrade the sound, so the user makes a choice. One other option is available to phono users who don't like 47k Ohm loading for m-cs. Two sets of internally positioned sockets will accept loading resistors should you wish to tailor the sound to best suit an m-c unhappy with the factory setting.
At the back are high quality sockets which accept the various source components, plus outputs for tape and 'main out' and an earthing post for phono. Aside from the phono adjustments, the only effort demanded of the SA-1000 beyond basic hook-up is the installation of the three valves; removal of the lid for this procedure presents the perfect opportunity for setting the phono section, ideal if you don't want to keep removing the lid. The valve complement consists of a pair of 12AX7s and a single 6DJ8, clearly identified and easy to install.
Details which make the SA-1000 a more 'real world' proposition than the SA-7 include the hybrid line stage which minimizes tube ringing, the aforementioned 'big box' topology and a superior selector switch which shorts out unused inputs to eliminate crosstalk. A pleasant surprise for those moving from an SA-7 to an SA-1000, in addition to owning a pre-amp which you can touch without sending a thump or ringing through the speakers, is the presence of an auto-muting circuit which eliminates the clicks and pops that made you feel a 'Kellogg's' logo would have been a more apt decoration for the fascia.
Circuit details, reflecting the hybrid nature of the design, include solid-state regulation (good for extending tube life) and a MOSFET in the line stage to buffer the main outputs from the line valve. The SA-1000 uses triodes for all amplification stages, with the pair of dual-triode 12AX7 in the phono circuit and each half of the 6DJ8 providing line stage voltage gain for each channel; a MOSFET supplies current gain. A capacitor prevents DC from reaching the outputs. (Chorus of deep sighs of relief...) The power supply consists of a high voltage winding off the transformer for the main amplification stages, with a low voltage winding to supply filament voltage, all fully rectified.
The net result is a pre-amp which, well, ¬behaves¬, something which I found staggering considering the ornery nature of its predecessor. It will drive long leads without difficulty, it runs
cool enough to survive with a gap of only two or so inches above it and warm-up is remarkably quick, the unit reaching optimum performance level in 15-20 minutes. So how about the SA-1000's partnering power amp?
SA-100 Power Amp
Housed in the same 408x113x322mm (WHD) chassis as the SA-1000, the SA-100 seems tiny for an amplifier delivering a very real 100W/channel into 8 Ohms. Then again, it is a hybrid, so we're not looking at something which has to contain four or eight 6550s. Instead, it uses four 100W MOSFETS per channel for current amplification, but 'tubies' still get their glow-in-the-dark goodies.
The SA-100 employs four 6DJ8s for all voltage amplification and driving the output stages. The output stages feature the MOSFETs in a complementary-symmetry Class-AB configuration, with high bias broadening the SA-100's Class-A range. As a result, the unit runs warmer than its MOSFET heritage might suggest, but it's still cooler running than either an all-tube design or a pure Class-A device.
The output stage is not included in the feedback loop, and the amp seems insensitive to nasty loads. Star earthing is utilized, and an auto-muting circuit keeps this unit as thump-free as the
SA-1000; a two-colour LED, which switches from red to green after one minute, indicates readiness. New to Counterpoint and featured in the SA-100 is a copper-plated steel chassis to improve shielding and to short-circuit eddy currents which might otherwise find their way back into the audio circuits.
The LED and an on/off switch are all you find on the front panel, while the rear contains phono sockets and proper binding posts for the speaker wire. Installation is straightforward, with only
the fitting of the four valves to prevent straight-out-of-the-box relief for those lacking patience. But, like the SA-1000, the SA-100 reaches optimum performance in minutes rather than hours.
With a variety of CD players and analogue sources to hand, it was easy to determine that the SA-1000 retained all of the SA-7's virtues while eliminating its foibles. More telling would be to
find out how it mated with the SA-100 and to find if the SA-100 bettered the earlier SA-12. So, being poised to try the pairing with a variety of speakers, I was able to run the Counterpoints
through the Celestion SL-700 Special Edition, the TDL 0.5, #20k's worth of JBL Project K2 and AKG's K1000 headphones. And the first thing I learned was that headbangers will not be disappointed.
Let's put it another way: if the SA-100 were made by Carver, it would be rated at 2kW. After the debacle of the Silver Seven T, I've grown leery of small solid state amplifiers with 'attitude',
and am suspicious even of hybrids. Yet however compact and reasonably priced the SA-100, it behaved like a behemoth in the Classe or small Krell league. But it lacked finesse when asked to perform like something more musclebound, so it would be wrong to portray it as packing too effective a punch.
When used to provide sensible levels, it complemented the SA-1000 so perfectly that I soon abandoned matching either piece with other components. The Audio Research SP-14 revealed the SA-100s limitations, while running the SA-1000 through the Aragons into Divas showed that the Counterpoint pre-amp lacked some delicacy. Oh, and the Aragons showed the slightly less-expensive SA-100 what the difference is between middleweight and heavyweight. But sticking with all-Counterpoint electronics for the heart of a system costing between #3500 and #4500 seemed somehow more appropriate, because you can load the results to be whatever you want them to be if you persist with mix'n'match.
Read more about the performance of the preamp and amp on Page 2.