Vincent Audio SA-32 Pre Amplifier and SP-332 Power Amplifier Review
David Price samples a top-value hybrid preamplifier/power amplifier combination…
SA-32 Pre Amplifier / SP-332 Power Amplifier
£895 / £1,735 RRP
Hi-fi is returning to its hobbyist roots. Back in the nineteen fifties, enthusiasts were forced to adapt commercially available products to their particular requirements. For example, people would build their own speaker cabinets or turntable plinths. By the seventies, things were going mainstream, with thousands of similar products offered by largely Japanese, consumer electronics giants. Since the new millennium, however, we've started to see far more niche products being launched – such as valve phono stages, loudspeakers with ribbon tweeters, planar magnetic headphones, DACs with bespoke silicon rather than off-the-shelf chips, and so on.
Catering to this brave new hi-fi world is Vincent, a company whose stock-in-trade is hybrid tube/transistor amplifiers. It makes conventional-looking two-channel separates hi-fi of the sort you'd see in the seventies, but the use of tubes gives them an interesting twist. The SA-32 stereo preamplifier is a case in point. It offers the wide variety of inputs that you'd expect from a modern product, in an attractive looking case that has shades of late eighties Copland, in stylistic terms. Yet it runs four 6N16 tubes inside, located directly in front of the output.
Vincent Audio's Christian Fröhling says that “tubes are used to bring a warmer and more natural sound to our amplifiers, making them more pleasant to listen to.” The company's hybrid products ship with, “basic types [of tube] sourced in the Far East”, but he adds that people are free to experiment with more expensive variants. “The great thing is that even the standard versions should last over five thousand hours – and when one finally fails the owner can simply open up the amp and replace the worn-out valve with another of the same type.”
Despite its claims of a warm sound, the manufacturer quotes a very flat frequency response curve for this preamplifier; 20Hz to 20kHz, ±0.5 dB, with a low THD figure of less than 0.1% (1kHz, 1W) and a signal-to-noise ratio of better than 90dB. It puts out a standard 2V, so should work with pretty much any power amplifier via its RCA or XLR outputs. It's a very pleasing little unit to work, and is agreeably compact at 430x77x360mm; it weighs 6.2kg and comes in a choice of silver or black finishes. In truth, this preamp looks a little bit more high end than it feels – it doesn't have the silkiness of products from more mainstream Japanese manufacturers like Marantz for example – but there's no denying its value for money.
The matching SP-332 power amplifier is a conventional solid-state design with a tube input section; one 6N15 and two 6N16s. It's no slouch in the power stakes; the company says it's good for 150W RMS per side into 8 ohms, and 250W into 4. This means it shouldn't be bothered by any loudspeaker you can buy today. To go with this, a pair of VU meters are fitted with user-selectable coloured backlighting. Vincent calls this “timeless design”, but I'd beg to differ – it's a gimmick and more about showroom appeal (to some people) than anything else. Still, each to their own!
Should you ever begin to doubt the SP-332, you just need to pick it up. It weighs a seriously heavy 21kg, more than you'd expect from its largish 430x165x430mm dimensions. It's a really meaty thing, especially when you remember that it sells for similar money to many British integrated amplifiers that are considerably smaller, lighter and less powerful. It sports a pair of unbalanced RCA inputs, a pair of balanced XLRs and a 3.5mm for power control. Outputs comprise two stereo pairs of loudspeaker binding posts and a 3.5mm power control jack. Again, this Vincent doesn't have the lovely finish and cool design of some power amplifiers on the market, but just look at the price…
The essence of this Vincent combination is refined musicality. It goes about its music-making business in a subtle yet involving way that's really quite charming on its own terms. The brand has acquired a cult following among cash-strapped audiophiles, and listening to the SA-32/SP-332 you can see – or indeed hear – why. Tonally it's pretty smooth and even, with just a touch of silk up top and warmth down below. In the midband things aren't too in your face, but there's still a good degree of detail. It conjures up a nicely capacious soundstage and has a good reserve of power allied to decent dynamic headroom. The overall impression is of an affordable pre-power that does a lot of things really rather well.
Those with softer or more opaque sounding speakers might think the SA-32/SP-332 combo a little dull; it's not the most forward sounding amplifier that money can buy, that's for sure. Yet the better the rest of your system, the more you find yourself appreciating what this Vincent combo can achieve. It has real subtlety; for example, Tears for Fears' Head Over Heels sounded quite enthralling. More of its slick mid-nineteen eighties production came across that you'd expect at this price, with lots of lovely inner detail to the recording being pushed forward. It was surprisingly easy to discern the Roland Jupiter 8 arpeggios playing behind the lead piano, which is the sort of thing you usually only get with properly pricey amplification.
The midband is a strong point of this Vincent pre-power; there's a lot of organic detail going on yet things aren't machine-gunned out at you. Amps that do well in the midband often repeat this trick in the treble, and so it proved here. The lustrous cymbal work that pushes along Space's Magic Fly – a classic disco track of the late seventies – was clear to hear, and just a touch more velvety than I'd expected. Most amplifiers at this price will make it sound strong and crisp, but the SA-32/SP-332 combo toned it down just a touch, giving it a more luxurious feel without dulling the top end.
Bass was also most encouraging; as you'd expect from a Vincent, it was crisp and taut, but there was just a touch of warmth and sweetness that took it out of classic solid-state territory. It would be wrong to call it rich or fluffy, but still, I could sense my Yamaha NS-1000M really going to town with the sequenced electronic bass line to Beatmasters' Who's in the House? This pile-driving thirty-year-old house track is a veritable assault course for any amplifier, but the SA-32/SP-332 proved a dynamic duo. It served up a good amount of welly, letting me push the volume higher than I'd expected at this price, without being punished for it. The tonal smoothness of the midband helped here of course, plus the power amp's ability to push out large dollops of clean power into my speakers. Not only was this bassline strong and well-controlled, but it was also surprisingly tuneful too – and the overall result was a visceral yet enjoyable sound that didn't grate on my precious ears.
As with other Vincents I've reviewed over the years, this combination of tonal warmth and transient speed is an appealing one, and you never tire of it. Yet that's not the only trick up its sleeve – because it's actually very good at conjuring up a soundstage. We're not talking true high-end esoterica here – it's no Constellation Taurus – but still, the SA-32/SP-332 combo pushes out a spacious sound that fills the room. Kate Bush's Cloudbusting is an odd recording – one that often disappoints with mediocre amplification – but the Vincent pre-power got the better of it. It proved well able to convey the vast, windswept nature of this track – its sense of epic possibilities that Kate so strongly evokes – by ramming the sound right out of the speakers, to give a wide, atmospheric feel. In absolute terms, there's a slight diminution of depth perspective, but again most rivals at this price don't come close.
Quirks and foibles? This combo is hard to criticise at the price, but ultimately lacks the resolution and scale of more expensive kit – and doesn't quite have the fluidity of similarly priced valve amplifiers such as Prima Luna's EVO 200. Yet its combination of overall musicality and effortless power is hard not to like. I get to listen to all sorts of exceptionally high-end kit, yet for all its failings this Vincent combo has a fundamental musical honesty that makes it enjoyable to hear, whatever your taste in music is.
Vincent has become something of a cult amongst cash-strapped hi-fi enthusiasts, who can't stretch to true high end but still insist on serious sound. That's precisely what this SA-32/SP-332 combo offers. After you've realised this, you can forgive its slightly whimsical ergonomics and not especially great finish – that's all by-the-by. Indeed, this is a quintessential 'affordable audiophile' combination, the sort of thing that there's always been a market for, and always will be. The hi-fi world continues to morph around us, but as that old expression goes, “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose…”
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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