McGary Audio SA 1 Stereo Vacuum Tube Amplifier
So often, newer components are created in a way that makes it hard to appreciate their true lineage. I mean, when you can witness an entire rack full of equipment shrunk down onto a single microchip, and/or often full sized components reduced to fit inside a shirt pocket, one cannot actually see the individual elements that make up the circuit, anymore; they are so small. And for decades, this trend toward miniaturization has consumed technology efforts, particularly consumer and professional audio and video. Thus, a traditional analog amplifier (tube or solid-state), weighing in at tens of pounds and having a huge physical size accompanying it, is often regarded as antiquated in the presence of smaller, lighter, more modern and often digital-based alternatives. Nothing could be farther from the truth, however.
Take, for example, the case of Mike McGary and his new SA 1 vacuum tube stereo amplifier. Everything about it speaks to an old world charm, with grace and reliability that are invitations to listen at length – to ruminate. The classic mint green metallic chassis, with black satin top case, harkens to an era where vacuum tubes were king of every conceivable circuit design. And both the glow of the tubes and the style, layout, and large scale precision allow one to see and touch the components in this design (see photos) in a way that most modern gear simply will not. But it is the inviting, detailed, and laid-back presentation of the sound that will have you spending hour after hour enjoying fine musical selections. Know that the greatest care and time have been spent in pursuit of this amplifier's undying commitment to music.
The SA 1: Born From Desiring A Greater Musical Connection
Although the vacuum tube (or Grid Audion, first invented in 1906) works by using a variable gate (or valve) to control a flow of electrons. Simply stated, the greater the flow, the greater the amplification. Because tubes have been used for over 100 years as the basis of audio (and later video) components, they have been used to produce many fine products. Furthermore, vintage vacuum tubes are sought by collectors these days with an eye toward nostalgia. But when rethought and given a fresh listen, vacuum tube amplifiers have every opportunity to succeed at unleashing more about the emotional dialog between musicians and their art form than just about any choice of circuit I've worked with to date. And as an audiophile producer and engineer since 1990, it all comes down to what plays well to the listening ear.
Given the general lack of appreciation for fine, hand-made gear in this day and age, especially with the trend toward mass production of miniature components, I think Mike McGary has given us an extremely refined version of "The Classic" vacuum tube amp, which on the surface more physically resembles the qualities I recall in early Stereo professional recording and broadcasting equipment made by Ampex, with its mint green metallic façade, and visible tubes-in-sockets in front of the exposed transformers. Why this classic nod to the late 1950s and 1960s design character, with the RCA input jacks on the front panel? You may be surprised to learn that this is all for maximizing sound quality, not just for aesthetics. Nothing about McGary Audio products should be assumed or guessed at; not with this level of simply divine sound quality old world aesthetic charm.
Tried And Tested
1) Circuit Layout: In order to minimize any possible distortion or leak-through, all components are mounted to terminal boards, allowing point-to-point wiring with minimum distances for the signal to travel. Therefore, clusters of necessary components are located directly under each of the ceramic tube sockets, in order to control any possible impedance losses that would otherwise degrade ultimate sound quality. Even small differences in wire length, tube location, and adjoining materials can make a big difference in the final sound quality. So these have been carefully vetted over years of work to realize the final product.
2) Power Supply: The filter capacitors, like each and every component herein, were chosen for sound quality reasons, and have been strapped to the chassis with metal C-clamps, while also using Sorbothane Isolation Pads to damp any resonances that might be coming from the metal chassis. Careful attention to detail in this area effects the precise recreation of the soundstage, downstream. And I personally vouch for the use of dedicated damping materials to isolate and voice components. Capacitors are therefore from both the United States and Germany, depending upon location within the amp.
3) Specialized Power Filtration: A capacitor multiplier circuit is used to greatly improve noise and lower ripple to the Tube input and driver stages. By individually isolating and filtering this most critical of supplies as completely as possible, the resulting amplification is clean and neutral across it's entire rated frequency response range. That means the sound quality is consistent from soft to loud; never changing character as things heat up. All too often, lesser designs simply run out of juice; clipping or distorting the tops of the waveform. But this will never happen with the SA 1, even with it's modestly rated power of 35 Watts per channel.
4) Fully Balanced Tubes: Every effort has been made to provide a rich and distortion free listening experience through the use of all differential input pairs and driver stage pairs before the ultra-linear push-pull amplification output stage. Another case of utilizing all the tricks of the trade to produce the most linear amplification from the tubes possible. And this includes KT-77, 6CA7, or EL-34 output tubes, each of which can provide the end user with an easily changeable variation on the sound; this can be helpful especially when changing speakers or setting up a system in a new room where some slight adjustment in the perspective and tonality can often make all the difference.
5) Solid Metal Cage Enclosure: Old world charm aside, the transformers, tubes, and other components located nearby inside the chassis, all take up weight and space, but must be protected. The use of a solid metal enclosure, in addition to offering physical rigidity, provides some EMI / RFI shielding for a further control over noise contamination. But there is also the added benefit of completely passive heat dissipation, thus avoiding a potentially noisy fan that other manufacturers would have chosen for convenience, instead. Here, the elegant simplicity of design keeps the thermal characteristics of all components at perfect operating temperature for the best possible sound quality (after 45 min warm-up). It is small distinctions like this that add up to genuine improvements in your listening experience.
6) Exposed Transformers: The simple look of the three transformers perched atop and back of the SA 1 means no wasted money on a grill cage; which in and of itself may make for an improvement in sound quality, in my opinion. Less can be more, and here the location at top rear also aids in naturally cooling the whole amp through convection currents around and through the chassis. Special metallic flake paint was featured on my review sample; catching the light in a way that sometimes looked like a clear night's sky filled with little stars. I might speculate that this added layer may actually damp the transformers slightly in addition to looking very pretty.
7) Ergonomic Layout: The simple truth is, the inputs are on the front panel because that's where they sound best. And, glancing backwards, we find that low voltage is towards the front panel, while high voltage is toward the rear. Not surprisingly, this is where the IEC input is located along with the speaker terminals. So, the logical segregation of low and high voltage components within the circuit design and the chassis layout of this amp naturally lowers the noise, distortion, and overall coloration of the reproduction while maximizing the available power without changing the sound of the input source. Few amps are ever given this level of attention to their layout. Yet, here it is clear as day when looking at the interior and exterior layout that something special is going on.
8) Hand-Chosen Components: Not surprisingly, after all the fineness I've discussed above that is all related to the final sound quality of the reproduction, the use of Mundorf Oil-filled capacitors as well as Cardas Silver Solder and Teflon insulated silver coated Copper chassis wire are all part of what make for a hand-made, personally designed by one person, kind of experience – it's really unique! You are not going to witness this from any big box names (like Sony or Panasonic) or very many remaining exotic brands or antiques (like older Krell and Threshold amps) because McGary Audio is presenting the very best of new and old technology and assembly techniques in pursuit of simple musical excellence. I personally have been down this road and it is the only way I know to arrive to the sound quality one is expecting – Trial & Error – until you get it right!
9) New And Old Stock Tubes: Given the various ways different tubes can impact the heart of any circuit they are utilized in, I find it exceptionally thoughtful that Mike has carefully chosen both new (such as Gold Lion – matching from Russia) and old (new old stock GE from America) vacuum tubes, again based purely on their sound quality and reliability. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, with the auto biasing feature and a little ingenuity, Mike has also made the SA 1 a candidate for tweaking through the use of different brand tubes as well as different model designations. Therefore, a KT-77, EL-34, and/or 6CA7 output tubes (likewise the input and driver tubes as well) can be substituted by the end user in order to tailor the sound to their particular requirements. One can easily expand or contract the size and shape of the soundstage, realize greater or softer dynamics, and even choose to color the sound rather than being neutral. The possibilities are only limited by your desire to experiment.
10) Lifetime Transferable Warranty: I think that says it all, particularly when most manufacturers would indeed object at the prospect. Either, one has faith in the design and the build quality or one doesn't. And from peaking inside (again, see photos) it is clear that this hand-made, point-to-point wired, uniquely thought-out and executed amplifier is a testament to what can be created and offered for sale and enjoyment by one person in the 21st Century. And when one person, who has made the product you are enjoying, all but guarantees it will operate successfully for your lifetime, That speaks volumes about the integrity of everything that has gone into this product. And the longer the SA 1 has been here in my review systems, the more solidly at home it feels as an extension of my own listening habits.
11) Classic Green With Black Or Custom Finishes: It is one thing to offer a classic looking design. But when you see the possible variations in custom colors and adjustments to the finish of the top-deck (under the tubes) and of the transformers, you will feel like you are in a top-end Enzo Ferrari dealership, where your tiniest wish is available. Special metallic paints are also a possibility (as seen on my review loan) that catch the light to reflect a myriad of colors, like a richly finished automobile exterior. Looking at McGary's website will give you a whole range of possible choices you may not have considered --- making your individual amplifier completely unique! Again, this is NOT at all like any other brand; big box or otherwise. So the feeling of purchasing something that is made exclusively for you is very compelling, indeed, in a world of largely quick and dirty products.
12) Design And Built To Last A Lifetime: Finally, each and every component has been chosen to have significant headroom, way above it's operating sweet spot. By choosing over-specified parts, each one is capable of delivering precisely on it's technical and sonic parameters. Thus providing a lifetime of sustained service that you can count on for a lifetime. And aside from the usual wear and tear that tubes often see through multiple warm-up and cool-down cycles of everyday use, you can count on each SA 1 to be hand-tested, and voiced, as well. And if the manufacturer both designs, builds, tests, and listens to their creation before shipping it out, it is his (or her) personal guarantee that each and every product meets their exacting standard of performance and excellence!
Listening Observations Global
The net effect of these colorations and distortions, regardless of whether they are intentionally in a product design or accidental due to a vagary of parts quality or build and test tolerances, can really change one's experience of listening. And as an audiophile may well signal a particular penchant or taste in overall sound palette. Typically, tubes are associated with warmer, more mellifluous sound presentation that often creates a euphonic experience highly sought after for the delightful sonic tint it gives everything. While wonderful and often musically and emotionally more inviting, solid-state (or discrete) can provide a clarity and immediacy that is tactile, brilliant, visceral and explosive; contrasting tube and solid-state sound as dichotomies (opposites) on the same ruler of reproduction characteristics would be fair.
Yet composting technologies together over the years led to IC (integrated circuits) and whole topologies laid out on chips sets (supported by discrete power supplies). This was able to provide some of the euphonic characteristics of tubes alongside the more tangible qualities conveyed by solid-state electronics. But IC based components also are governed by the same rules as the previous two are: parts quality and design are at the heart of sound quality. And the best sounding IC-based amps are just as complex and expensive pieces of gear as the best sounding solid-state designs or tube-based gain systems, for that matter. So where does Class D (pulse density modulation – again, not digital) put us? It is hard to speak of generalities with this new approach (20 years in the making as opposed to 50 or 100) because, like the previous three, it's sound is a product of many, many factors. But in the hands of the best audio design engineers, the results may well be the least colored choice. But please read on to see if you agree or not as I delve into the performance of the SA 1, with its companion McGary Audio Reference Power Chord.
Listening Observations Orchestral
Rather than the typical audiophile effect so often heard on such distinguished labels as Telarc, Chesky, Dorian, Mercury, RCA Living Stereo, and Reference Recordings, wherein the orchestral ensemble is carefully voiced so that the final audio reproduction is:
1) Layered, having some instruments sounding noticeably closer or farther away from you than others, as well as...
2) Projecting an aural soundscape which, like a holographic representation of live instruments in front of you, conveys a complete and three dimensional image as a whole and complete view.
Contrast this with most multi-mic'ed albums which can tend towards revealing the disparate elements that make up that mix since they are not necessarily intended to bear witness to reality but creative inspiration, instead. If you have your speakers set-up properly and your room treated to help not hinder the album producer and engineer's goals, and you listen with an ear toward total satisfaction, musically and emotionally, then I think it is difficult not to draw special joy when listening through the SA 1 for all the ways it allows you to hear authentically into your favorite music much more convincingly than most newer amp designs.
Of this type of music, Ben-Hur, which is also available on Tadlow Music in a recreated version as well as on Film Score Monthly CD featuring the original 1956 Stereo Score, easily demonstrates the strengths of Mike's SA 1 in ways that are delightful and meaningful. Differences in recording style and era dictate that even the same music will sound markedly different in different recordings. That's a lot of differences that most Stereo systems tend to hide since their particular lensing coloration of the sonic image makes things sound more alike than they really are. Witness that a quick review of nine albums containing some of the same music from this film all sound very, very unlike each other. The original from 1956 is actually full of depth and breadth even as the sound is a little brassy but otherwise pretty amazing and honest. The most modern version on Tadlow has flatter, more typical sound of this genre, but the tonality is much clearer and the dynamics are stupendous, wide, and enthralling. The Telarc version is as 3D, wide, tall, and dynamic as anything you will likely hear made with this sized orchestra (up to 108). This sharply contrasts with the previous two versions, particularly through the SA 1; making each a wholly different experience physically as well as emotionally.
Listening Observations: Oldies
What's really intriguing is that heard through the McGary Audio SA 1, certain viscerally felt elements stand out like never before. So rather than the flat, dimensionless versions you probably are thinking of when I say "oldies", Sinatra and Dino that remind us all of the 78 record era as these recordings sound vitally alive, immediate, and three-dimensional. "Return To Me" is always a favorite. But when you hear it revealed by the SA 1, where each instrument (and the chorus) stands out against a background of near blackness so that a physical presence is felt in the listening room, with me, you will know the haunting, visceral effect of a good stereo illusion. The individual sounds in the mix can be heard as flat discs with rounded edges, and there are spaces between each of them. Yet, the individuality of each part is uncanny – a riveting experience that changes from song to song but is wholly convincing in it's own sense of recreating these gems, anew, and alive.
Listening Observations: Newer Oldies
Immediately, we can contrast the above jazz album's sound (and that of the piano) with another favorite jazz album Authentic Dudley More, which is decidedly not audiophile, but is a great album of timeless jazz delights by faded masters, nevertheless. In any event, this trio of piano, bass, and drum kit contrasts sonically like night and day versus the Diana Krall. So consider as you listen the role and number of choices that go into the production of the sound we hear. And consider how both the sound of the recording and mix are, in fact, as significant as the Stereo playback system and it's set-up. Here, even the best playback system can't make this Dudley Moore gem sound like the Diana Krall.
Why? There is more information captured and mixed to sound more realistic in the Krall than in the Moore. And only returning to the original source tape, or the recording session (itself) and making different decisions with the Moore could possibly make things any better. If, for example, better microphones were used or perhaps a better studio to achieve higher sound quality. Or, say, far better acoustic environment to record within. Even some equalization to bring up the bass and/or a wider staging of the instruments so things sound farther apart would have helped. And these are the questions that arise for reviewers and recording engineers alike as we work and listen to the vast and timeless library of fine musical and sonic efforts. Yet the music and expression in the performances is unmistakable and vivid through the SA 1, regardless of album sonics.
Listening Observations: Contemporary
Take the opening number, "Another One Bites The Dust" by Queen, with it's clearly resolved rhythm line overlaid by a combination of vocals and effects modulations from other instruments, including a backwards played (reversed in time) piano. Now lesser remasterings and even the original LP & CD don't sound as completely live and fresh as this Steve Hoffman version. And the truth is I pay far more attention to this two CD compilation because of the improved sound quality which is vastly more three-dimensional and dynamic than any other versions. My feet instinctively couple to the beat and a toe-tapping reaction ensues that is a sure sign I'm truly enjoying the music!
Skipping ahead on CD 1 to Track 8, Devo's "Whip It" is a trip down memory lane. I remember their whacked-out video, which I still have on an early LaserDisc, and it always inspired good feelings and a big smile. Yet, here, the quality and delivery of the sound is precise, detailed, even sprawling can be used to describe aspects of this band's approach to telling a story with sound and music as the vocabulary. Even though this is a studio album, the mix generates a strong sense of space; a reverberant backing that enhances and shapes the performances into what we know. I'm delighted to say that the SA 1 amplifier easily let's one distinguish between an original issue mix, new mixes (from subsequent releases), remasterings of great quality (here), and even analog LaserDisc (FM Modulated and with CX Noise reduction), no slouch, actually – with a touch of compression that makes the mix come alive!
Lastly, CD 2 - Track 7: "Shout" by Tears For Fears contrasts with the previous two top 40 by offering both greater dynamic shading throughout the song and also demonstrating an enormous echo-space behind and around the band during the choruses. Not a wall of sound, without definition or particularity, but a complete and well thought-out unfolding tapestry of aural cues that encapsulates so much of what new songs were about each week on the charts during this period – new character, seizing the moment, and repeated emotional draw. If you choose to listen to any of the songs on this double album compilation, you can't help but be impressed by the shear variety of number one songs you may know but have never really heard, like this. And long cherished favorites sound like they were recorded yesterday when played through Mike McGary's SA 1; allowing the hidden magic within the grooves, or between the bits to come out, reach out and grab you.
And I must say that streaming high quality audio through Apple iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, Tidal, YouTube, etc., when originally encoded for best quality, produces just as musically interesting listening experiences without having the limitations of choosing from your own library. If the music and the recording have been made with care, you can't help but be immersed in emotion when the amp and speakers do their job properly and simply get out of the way.
But what if something does go wrong? Well, as I said, this is not a Sony or a Panasonic mass produced product that only comes with 90-day parts and labor warrantee. So it is likely that years down the road, if you were to experience any problem requiring a service call, Mike would be available! And quite frankly, in a design and layout that is so systematic and well considered, any competent audio repair technician can easily replace a damaged component with the right value and tolerance part, although only using the manufacturer's original choice of parts will guarantee that the sound quality remains unchanged.
Now it might seem risky to some, but I've found the best sounding gear to come from companies composed of one person. So my advice is this; if you have any questions about owning a product made and serviced by one person, call Mike up and talk to him. After all, each of these amps is made to order and since it's designed to last a lifetime, which is rare for anything these days, either you will be convinced of that fact and buy his design or not. My guess is, after talking to him, and after listening to the SA 1, you will find its internal and external quality of design and build sufficient to justify listening to it for the rest of your life. That, my friends, is quite a statement!
When I first unpacked and plugged in the SA 1, I expected to be aware of some certain aspects of its sound that might say to me "tubes", such as warmth, euphonic glow, and even a softening of instrumental and vocal timbres. Yet what I heard, particularly after a three week burn-in period, was remarkable for offering up almost none of the above mentioned colorations or qualities of sound. Rather, Mike's SA 1 delves deep into the musical and sonic treasure chest of your sources: music & gear, and presents them through your choice of speakers without much editorializing or distortion. Instead of the same-old same-old, aspects of the music you might or might not have been keenly aware are greeted to clearly and distinctly fleshed-out. Music's palpable illusion of real musicians and well crafted soundscapes are resolved like never before.
The feeling of suddenly hearing into and around your favorite music extends to all aspects of the playback experience. For example, dynamics are presented with an uncanny amount of inner detail that extends down into the silence, yet is still in perfect apparent proportion to the louder moments. And so when things get loud, they can be just as explosive as some of the best solid-state Class A amps in history, yet still offer a silky an unabashed control over even tough speaker impedance loads, like those of electrostatic panel or ribbon speakers, like Magnepan. The 1.7i quasi-ribbon speakers I have here for review sounded as good as they ever have, with tight control over bass while clearly projecting a myriad of different sized and shaped soundstages – depending upon the music and album production specifics.
Of particular note is the quality of the amplification through the SA 1 which boarders on euphonic by calling attention to hidden details while subtly enhancing the harmonic structure of the presentation. I did not find this quality of coloration to be a distraction but rather an asset since it made everything sound more immediate and to me more transported into the music. So when listening to my favorite selections during the review process (over the course of weeks), I easily lapsed into enjoyment rather than critical thinking mode; showcasing a major part of why we purchase any audio component in the first place: it makes our music sound great! Here, the level of satisfaction I received every time I turned on and spent time listening through the SA 1 easily placed it at the top of my available gear list on hand. And every time I made a new recording (since I'm a producer and engineer) and brought it back home for a listen, I was amazed at how easily I was transported to the location (venue) where I had just been recording!
If the goal of listening is to be connected as much as possible to our music, one can search wide and far, and spend far more money to get less satisfying sound in a pretty case. But the McGary Audio SA 1 only spends money in pursuit of the music, the experience of listening, not cosmetics unless you custom order them. And as money spent for sound quality, musical essence, and point-to-point, hand selected, soldered and assembled components that yield this amazing level of emotional and sonic enjoyment, you will be hard pressed into finding a better value for a sensationally moving amplification experience!