06 March, 2018

SMSL SA-36A Pro, Citation I, Conrad Johnson Premier 2 and 3, Cary CAD 211

For all pics, click to enlarge. L: Note the weighted down SMSL on top of HT center loudspeaker, behind which is the subwoofer. On the flanks are the Cary 211 monoblocks. Marantz 8B and Jadis JA-80's in front.

Review: SMSL SA-36A Pro
SMSL vs Cary CAD-211
Conrad Johnson Premier 2/3 vs Harman Kardon Citation I
Cary CAD-211 vs Jadis JA-80 vs Marantz 8B
JBL L20T, Part II
Letter from NYC (82) 2018 (8): Smorgasbord

R's Altec A5 saga continues. After the last report, we made two more visits and exhaustively tested numerous combinations. This article summarizes the two visits. But first, a little diversion.

SMSL SA-36A Pro (TDA7492PE) 
  • T-Amps Though I firmly believe in the superiority of tubes, for some fun at low cost I occasionally do dabble in T-amps (expensive implementations are ridiculous). My first one was the (discontinued) Lepai LP-2020A+, which employed the well-regarded Tripath TPA2020 chip. I was delighted by its performance (as an amp in a humble system here and even more as a power amp in a hi-end system here). I also bought one of its successors, the Lepai LP-2024A+ (employing TPA2024) which was almost as good, though a shade cooler in sonics (no report yet). As the TPA2020 chip had long been unavailable (Tripath had gone bankrupt), my curiosity for a better built one with a better power supply had me turn elsewhere.
  • General Info This model from the interestingly named (in Chinese, 雙木三林) company (official info) has been in production for a long time and had gone through many iterations. The earliest used the Tripath TPA2020 chip, but it was replaced soon by the Texas Instrument TPA3118 chip and all of these garnered a good reputation. However, after the company switched to the current TI TPA7492PE chip, there were quite a bit of noise and confusion on the net (read the incredible fuss made over something under $50), and that is the version I have just bought. There are variations, and mine is the more common 12V version.
  • Ergonomics The build quality is very good, though for the bare wire user (me) the small speaker binding posts are no more convenient than the cheap posts on the Lepai. What really bothers me is the lack of an indicator lamp, so be mindful of the on/off status.
  • Round 1/Chez Moi/JBL L20T I tested these on my JBL L20T (Part I here). Direct-In First I fed the output of my reference Aurorasound Vida phonoamp directly into it, and the sound was very good. As Power Amp Next, I used it with my reference System III (last described in detail here) driving the JBL L20T's. The sound was surely even better. Compared to my bookshelf reference Almarro M1A (reported here; a tall order indeed), the L20T's were just a little more weighted towards the midrange, less pure in the treble (which may be the amp too) and smaller in soundstage. It should be known that my relatively near-field and way-in-room placement minimizes the room effect and difference between loudspeakers. Although the JBL's likely would like even more power to pump out more bass, the SMSL did an excellent job driving them. The 
  • Round 2/Chez Kevin/Altec A7 It was briefly tested at the same session reported here (note in the R pic the SMSL perched atop the Dynaco PAS 3). Suffice to say the the SMSL stood up to the Conrad Johnson MV-75 amp very well.
  • Round 3/Chez R/Altec A5 The result was astonishing, as detailed in the section below.
Home Visit 1: Sometimes I think of the squad as the coaching team, trying to coalesce the players (the equipment) into a winning whole. Andy is the mild-tempered and democratic head coach, myself a temperamental assistant; R of course is the owner of the franchise - demanding at times, but not quite a Steinbrenner. On this occasion, Kevin was the fourth man, and we tried out numerous plays. The lunch (L pic) as usual was wonderful, an overstuffed omelette washed down with a brut sparkling.
  • My Agenda During the previous visit to R's smaller room, I thought that although the Altec A5 sounded quite nice, the leading edge/attack was slower than what I am accustomed to hearing from Altec (e.g. Andy's) and other well implemented horns. Remembering that none of the amps were quite satisfactory, I decided to take along my SMSL for "diagnostics". Since I also thought R's turntables in this small room had anomalies, I wanted to use digital playback as a reference. The California Audio Labs Delta Transport/Sigma Tubed DAC were dusted off and pressed into action. I brought several of my own test CD's. Equipment used were somewhat different from last time (see link above). The CJ Premier 2 served as full function preamp in lieu of the previous Jadis DPL2, its phono section also replacing the Lamm. This section described mostly the results obtained using digital playback, which was very instructive.
  • CJ Premier 2 + Cary CAD-211 We didn't hear the Cary's last time, as they had only just recently returned from electrolytic cap replacement (the big blue cans, which R had listened to for several days and heard them opening up). This long running model has had multiple iterations - these are from way back (no bias meters). The 211 designation is a misnomer, as these use a pair of 845's in each channel. Used with the CJ Premier 2, the sound was powerful but overly warm and woolly, somewhat rounded off and slow in the leading edge. These were touted for their "life sized" images, which unfortunately were rather fuzzy through the horns. Substitution of the RFT EL34's for the Russian fat bottle 6CA7 brought a significant improvement - more believable outlines.
  • CJ Premier 2 + Cary CAD-211 (vs SMSL SA-36A Pro) Using the same CJ Premier 2, the very humble SMSL showed off the glaring weakness of the Cary. Aside from a warmer tone and more power, there was nothing favorable. On Masekela's Hope, the audiophile fave stimela (Track 12) best illustrates this: the big crescendo was perfectly gauged and proportioned through the SMSL, but ill-shaped and prematurely saturated through the Cary's; the rhythmic imitations of the train were incandescent through the SMSL but sorrily flaccid through the Cary's. The trombone and double bass in the vivo movement of Stravinsky's Pulcinella (ASMF/Marriner, Argo/Decca) commanded their own lines and were perfectly integrated as a duo though the SMSL, but through the Cary's they were just plain mushy. Even worse was the Bach Double Violin Concerto (Kuijken/La Petite Bande, Pro Arte) - through the SMSL, the lines were perfectly clear, and one could feel the up- and down-bow's, all hopelessly lost through the Cary's. The playback of a jazz CD, Shirley Horn's You Won't Forget Me (Verve) was similarly excellent and, imho, much better balanced than the analog rigs.
  • CJ Premier 2 vs 3 vs Citation I We used the two turntables mostly. As there were two full function preamps with both phono sections and tape out, we went  through quite a few permutations that we had to go through. Suffice to say as a whole: CJ 2 vs 3 The CJ Premier 3 is very similar to 2, but solid state rectified, and they sounded more similar than different to my ears. Citation I As expected, the Citation I was obviously more neutral and did not unduly soften the leading edge, making it a much better match for the lugubrious Cary. Not only that, as we had fed the CJ (can't remember whether it was the 2 or 3) phono section into the Citation line stage, I can conclude that the Citation I phono section is superior. Just before we left, we played the Masekela track, and it was a lot better than before, but the crescendo was still not quite shapely.
Home Visit 2: On this occasion almost the full gang showed up. We were also joined by R's friend Louis. This occasion was marked by the arrival of an Audio Research Reference 2 preamp, which we compared to the Jadis JPS2 in the main Wilson rig. Then we tried out more combos in the A5 room. Lunch was R's wonderful home-made sausages and, for novelty, venison burger, all washed down with an excellent Chilean Shiraz and  California Red.

  • Reference 2 vs Jadis JPS2 We used the Rockport Sirius turntable, now fitted with 100 ohm loaded Ortofon 2M Black (Andy said this eliminates the unpleasant peak). We first used the Lamm LP2 phonoamp, which did not woo us, and so we replaced it by the sweeter phono section of the CJ Premier 2. We unanimously agreed that the venerable ARC (with completely stock tubes) had much better focus and control than the Jadis JPS2. In this room this is of great importance as the ARC obviously consolidated the center stage, which has a tendency to be less filled up. Naturally, with the all-Russian tubes, sound was not quite as sweet, but it is a trade-off I personally would gladly take. Interestingly, although this setup was targeted to play classical music, jazz sounded even better. On Ellington - The Pianist (Fantasy LP) Ellington's piano sounded smart (as it must) while Sam Woodyard's brushwork was breathtaking on (side 2, track 1) Tap Dancer's Blues. Sony Stitt also was very much his golden-toned, comforting self in one of his late outings, Sonny Stitt meets Sadik Hakim (Progressive, LP).
  • Cary CAD-211 vs Jadis JA-80 vs Marantz 8B based on the session reported above, we stayed with the Harman Citation I as preamp. The Cary was just as I remembered it, but the Jadis JA-80 fared not one whit better. Then we swapped the Marantz 8B in. Previously, we had heard it with the CJ Premier 2 and its slow speed bothered me. Not this time: partnered with the Citation I, the Marantz 8B showed a clean pair of heels to the Cary and Jadis. The leading edge was faster and cleaner; Masekela's Stimela almost edged up to the SMSL amp. The tonal qualities too were way superior to the Cary's and Jadis'. I was quite satisfied and would personally stay with this combo in this room.
  • Jazz vs Classical? Although the results were satisfying enough, I still think on this day, in this room, supposedly the jazz room, the jazz playback was not as as good as in the living room, supposedly the classical room. Similarly, the classical (digital) playback through the A5's sounded to me as good as the big rig. For myself, there is no such division, and indeed may write more on this in a coming article. I do think now that there is much competition between the two setups, we can expect improvements in both in due time (they are already quite wonderful).
Assessment
  • SMSL SA-36A Pro This is a wonderful little amp. The sound is excellent, particularly with efficient loudspeakers. It is more robust than my Lepai  LP-2020A+, and I have yet to hear it clip with my less efficient JBL L20T. Mine is the current version, which uses the TI TPA7492PE; I think if it can pass muster with me, there is little point in struggling to compare it with past iterations. The treble is generally good (witness how it renders violin and massed strings) though not as pure as tube, but there is a little grain at the very top which becomes noticeable at high volume. I think a little mod or a better power supply could take the amp to a higher level, though I shall stop at here for the moment. Horn users should have one of these amps on hand to compare with the tube amps (and preamps) they are using - they may be pleasantly, or unpleasantly, surprised. Its neutrality and simplicity reveals most of the music, which is more than can be said about severely flawed lesser tube gear (and this from a tube lover).
  • Conrad Johnson Premier 2/3 To my ears, the 2 and 3 are more similar than different. They share similar sonic characteristics - a big, bold sound that many like. However, their weaknesses - lack of dynamic and rhythmic exactitude, not to mention refinements - preclude my endorsement. In many ways, I think the Premier 2 and 3 are just beefed up PV-5's (substitute your favorite numerals) and may be even the worse for it. This is true of the line stage for sure. Although we had tested it less, I do also think the phono sections are too colored for me (much prefer the Citation I).
  • Jadis JPS2 Much the same can also be said about the Jadis. There is some measure of opulence, a la creme, but where is the finesse?
  • Harman Kardon Citation I The Citation I continues to impress. The phono section is superior to those in the Premier 2 and 3 and, if you ask me, likely the Lamm LP2. I also much prefer the line section over the sluggish CJ Premier 2/3 and Jadis JPS2, all cathode follower designs (Stu Hegeman was definitely onto something). Yes, the line section gets stressed a little when playing loud but this is largely ameliorated by partnering with a more forgiving amp, like the Marantz 8B.
  • Cary CAD-211 and Jadis JA-80 Not my cup of tea, as you must know by now. They were decidedly bettered by the Marantz 8B, not to mention the tiny SMSL. I actually think these have no place in a horn system but would probably do better with conventional dynamic speakers of good to moderate efficiencies and a fast modern preamp.
  • Marantz 8B Like I said before in my last report quoted above, it is hard to go wrong with this amp; the more you work with the 8B, the better it is - it repays your efforts.
  • Altec A5 Absolutely marvelous! R's pair surprise me by how well they play classical material (via CD though). I am not sure why the analog rigs are not quite performing as well - I'd venture to guess the very revealing A5's just reveal every anomaly in the chain. Personally I think, factoring in the difference in partnering gear and room, the A5 renders classical music (again CD only) at least as well as the big Wilson's; in fact, in dynamic gradation and presence they are unquestionably superior. If placed in the big living room I am confident they will easily trounce the Wilson's. Remember, the good sounding living room rescued the Wilson's, and it would do wonders with other loudspeakers too. Also, further improvement in A5 playback can likely be obtained by substituting a better subwoofer (e.g. my cheapo but over-achieving Pioneer SW-8, reported here) for the subpar (home theater) Focal. 
  • Audio Research Reference 2 This definitely has potential. I await the results of some tube rolling. I have heard this many times before in HK, and it has aways turned in reliable, if not often exciting, performances.
  • California Audio Lab Delta/Sigma This is a combo that has stood the test of time; I have heard it many times in HK, always to good effect. Although I am a fan of true multi-bit players, this is nonetheless a very good implementation of Delta-Sigma. A classic.
  • JBL L20T Impression here is the same as in Part I. Typical JBL quality that needs no further touting.

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