Junk mail rarely serves a purpose, but I'm pleased that I opened one of those 'You Can Win #100,000!!' envelopes from a famous producer of junk mail. In it, the company showed a breakdown of what you could do with your winnings, eg buy a car, pay off your mortgage and so on, but what intrigued me is that one of the items listed was 'Top Quality Hi-Fi......#3500'. This caused my heart to swell because it meant that a totally 'non-enthusiast' source has publicized the notion that hi-fi can be justified at above-Amstrad prices. It means that I don't have to apologise for the Counterpoint SA-12, at a measly #1250, because it could conceivably fit into that winner's system.
I'd like to think that British audiophiles on a budget have matured enough to accept that exotica costs big bucks in the way that car enthusiasts of limited means can understand the price of a Ferrari. And the only way you can appreciate the Counterpoint SA-12 is by looking at it relative to the high end, not by comparing it to NADs or Creeks.
Although this amplifier has been around for a few years, Counterpoint has continued to refine it in the way that Quad continually refines its products: without making a big deal out of it. So although there's no Mk II suffix, this beast is supposed to offer better performance and greater reliability than the early samples.
I don't have an early SA-12 to hand, but I've heard this amp enough times to know that it's a perfect gap-filler between the sub-#1000 and #2000-plus amps. Its competition includes a slew of British amplifiers as well as imports like the Aragons, so it's not No 1 in a field of 1. But it does have some distinguishing characteristics which could create its own niche (see the Gryphon review in this issue for further thoughts on niche marketing).
For one thing, the SA-12 is a valve/solid-state hybrid, which means that those who vacillate between the two technologies can satisfy both levels of their schizophrenia. The SA-12 employs four 100W MOSFETS per channel in the power stages, while all voltage amplification and output stage drivers are valve circuits (two ECC88s/6DJ8s per channel). The advantages are both musical and practical, because the valves offer their sonic merits where they matter most, while the MOSFETS – easily driven by the valves – can almost emulate the classic tube sound while delivering greater current than an all-valve design could muster.
This latter aspect is important, and not just because fashion has dictated that current capability is THE yardstick for assessing modern amplifiers. Exotic speaker designs, the continuing
popularity of small speakers with low sensitivity and low impedances – these have created a real, as opposed to imagined demand for high-current-capability amplifiers. Counterpoint has
employed two N-channel and two P-channel MOSFETs in a complementary-symmetry Class-AB configuration. To broaden the amplifier's Class-A range, which eliminates switching distortion, a high bias is required; this explains the need for fairly large heat sinks and other 'warm zones' not caused by the ECC88s.
The MOSFETs are driven by a cathode follower consisting of a single ECC88 per channel connected in parallel, the output of the drive stage being capacitively coupled. Voltage amplification is derived from two cascaded common cathode amplifiers, using half of an ECC88 triode for each stage. Local feedback is used to improve linearity, while global feedback is returned to the cathode resistor of the first stage from the cathode follower
driver stage. Biasing for the first stage is a mixture of fixed and cathode biasing. The SA-12's output stages are kept out of any kind of feedback loop because the company feels that it
sounds much better; this necessitated the use of MOSFETs normally found in switching power supplies for their lower output impedance when compared to the MOSFETs typically found in audio equipment. The SA-12 sports three, non-regulated power supplies.
The SA-12 is compact by prevailing high end standards, measuring only 480x113x322mm (WHD). Counterpoint has a knack for producing hardware which looks both utilitarian and elegant at the same time, all very Californian, so the SA-12's styling should please both the aesthete and the technoid. It can be rack-mounted in a standard 19in frame, but do allow for ventilation.
External details are few. The front panel features only an on/off switch and a two-colour LED to indicate warm-up (red) and full operational status (green). The SA-12 takes around two minutes to stabilize and some of you might get a bit frustrated waiting for the red to turn to green, but life's too short to get worked up about it, and such a mood means that you're too tense to enjoy music. If this is the case, just leave it on 24 hours a day; it'll sound better anyway, because optimum performance isn't delivered for at least an hour or three.
At the back, the SA-12 features a pair of gold-plated phono sockets for signal input and five-way, 19mm spaced binding posts for speaker connections. The sides are filled with sharp-cornered heat sinks. Overall fit and finish is very good, but a long way from Rowland/Krell standards.
Read more about the SA-12 on Page 2.
Unlike the Aragon 4004, for #500 more, the SA-12 is not a good match
for the Apogee Divas. Then again, who uses one small 85w/channel
amplifier to drive nearly #9K's worth of ribbons?
Being realistic and wanting to assess the Counterpoint in an 'entry
level' system of like-minded products, I chose instead to pair it with
the Sonus Faber Electa Amators and the Celestion
SL700s. Pre-amps included the Audio Research SP-14 and the Gryphon
Preamplifier, with the complete Roksan turntable/arm/cartridge
combination, the Oracle/SME/Tsurugi turntable package, and the CAL
Tempest II Special Edition and Marantz CD-12 CD players. Admittedly,
the products in front of the SA-12 were of the next highest price
level, but I didn't want to assess what went in so much as what came
out of the Counterpoint.
Auditioned from a cold start, the SA-12 is unmitigated doggie-do. It
is, far and away, the worst sound I've heard from a cold component and
I thought something must be seriously wrong. Going through LP after LP,
I could actually hear the amp improving as the temperature rose. This
is the most extreme case of mandatory warm-up I've ever experienced, so
make certain that any demo of the SA-12 that you might attend has been
preceded by the amplifier enjoying at least two hours' worth of action,
or more if possible.
After recovering from the initial shock, all was bliss. The first
impressive aspect of the SA-12's capabilities to materialise was its
effortlessness with suitable speakers. While I mentioned that
the SA-12 wouldn't mate well with the Divas, it showed no strain
driving either the Sonus Fabers or the Celestions – neither of which
work well with gutless amplifiers. Within this context, the SA-12 is an
ideal choice for top-quality, small monitors, and it eliminates any
craving for purchasing an overkill design. The most revealing test for
this characteristic is the way it amplifies delicate signals – solo
instruments for example – to exceptionally high levels without losing
any of its sparkle and without manifesting any traces of being
I know that sounds strange, to use what should be an intimate,
gentle performance at head-banging levels, but bear in mind that I do
my listening in a room much larger than would normally be the venue for
small monitors. The Sonus Fabers have proven time and again that
they're capable of filling rooms larger than they'd ever (reasonably)
be asked to accommodate; the SA-12 rose to the challenge. And remaining
delicate and sweet-sounding at high levels is a virtue which shouldn't
The SA-12 also excelled at 'sounding big', not just loud.
Californian manufacturers have a penchant for truly holographic images
and realistic soundstages, and the SA-12 – when paired with speakers
capable of resolving the sensation of space – proved to be a champion
in its class. Width and height were exceptional, while stage depth
bordered on the unbelievable. If I had to single out any 'above the
call of duty' characteristic, this would be it. You might think that
exceptional stage depth is a minor trait over which to enthuse, but I
know how wonderful it can be if your listening room is small and you
have to listen in the near field. Believe me, it's a damned sight
cheaper than knocking down the wall behind the speakers.
The music itself betrayed the hybrid nature of the design in a
curious fashion. Instead of solid-state extremities and a tube-y
midband, as I've experienced with other hybrids, the Counterpoint
offered a linear transition from solid-state to valve sound, starting
at the bottom end. It made the sound seem like a Double Decker bar,
chewy and crunchy, with rock solid lower registers loosening up a bit
by the time it reached the upper bass. The midband had the clarity and
detail associated with fine solid state amplifiers, but the upper
midband on through the extreme treble showed the lushness and
romanticism of all-tube designs. It's hard to imagine almost-dry bass
coupled with ambient-rich upper frequencies, but the SA-12 has it...and
I love it. Maybe it's too much Voltaire in my youth, but there's
nothing to beat 'the best of all possible worlds', and the Counterpoint
visits more planets than most.
If there's a down-side to this, it has to be an overall softness to
the sound, revealed particularly by the way that it smoothed or blurred
the edges of even the finely-etched Gryphon. The match with the
Celestion was only partially successful, because the top end of the
SL700 is too reticent to be driven by the almost-as-shy SA-12. This
characteristic will eliminate a number of speaker choices, but I'm all
for components which let you know emphatically with what they will or
won't work optimally.
Getting back to the financial concerns, the SA-12 is priced
perfectly to serve as the heart of an absolute top-notch high end
system which won't break the bank. Even the #3500 figure postulated by
the junk mail competition is sensible for a single-source package.
Install the SA-12 in a system using speakers such as the Sonus Faber
Electa (not the much dearer
Amator) or Magnepan SMGAs, allow #500 or so for a reasonable CD player
or a turntable/arm/cartridge combination of Rega/Revolver level and a
pre-amp from any one of a dozen competent Britsh makers and you could
sneak in under that figure, cables, stands and all.
And no-one need ever know that your system cost less than a basic Mercedes.
Competition and Comparison
Please compare the Counterpoint SA-12 power amp against its competition by reading our reviews for the AMV CVT 3030 tube integrated amp and the Audio Note Gaku-on monoblock power amplifiers. You can find more information by visiting our Stereo Amplifier section.