Vincent Audio SA-32 Preamplifier and SP-332 Power Amplifier Evaluation
David Price tries a high quality combination of hybrid preamplifier and power amplifier …
SA-32 preamplifier / SP-332 power amplifier
£ 895 / £ 1,735 RRP
Hi-Fi returns to its roots as a hobbyist. As early as the 1950s, enthusiasts were forced to adapt commercially available products to their special requirements. For example, people would build their own speaker boxes or turntable bases. Things went mainstream in the 1970s, with thousands of similar products, mostly offered by Japanese consumer electronics giants. However, since the new millennium, far more niche products have been launched – such as valve phono stages, loudspeakers with ribbon tweeters, planar magnetic headphones, DACs with custom silicon instead of off-the-shelf chips, and so on.
Vincent, a company whose trading inventory is hybrid tube / transistor amplifiers, is responsible for this brave new hi-fi world. It makes conventional looking two-channel hi-fi separates like they did 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 you would expect from a modern product in an attractive looking case with stylistic shades from Copland from the late eighties. Inside, however, there are four 6N16 tubes that are right in front of the exit.
Vincent Audio’s Christian Fröhling says that “Tubes are used to give our amplifiers a warmer, more natural sound, making them more pleasant to hear.” The company’s hybrid products come with “basic types” [of tube] sourced from the Far East, ”he adds, saying 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 if one fails, the owner can simply open the amplifier and replace the worn valve with another of the same type.”
Despite claiming a warm sound, the manufacturer cites a very flat frequency response curve for this preamp. 20 Hz to 20 kHz, ± 0.5 dB, with a low THD of less than 0.1% (1 kHz, 1 W) and a signal-to-noise ratio of better than 90 dB. It outputs a standard 2V output and should therefore work with almost any power amplifier via its RCA or XLR outputs. It is a very pleasant small unit to work with and, at 430 x 77 x 360 mm, pleasantly compact. It weighs 6.2 kg and is available in either silver or black. In truth, this preamp looks a bit more premium than it feels – it doesn’t have the silkiness of products from mainstream Japanese manufacturers like Marantz – but its value for money can’t be denied.
The SP-332 mating power amplifier is a conventional solid state design with a tube input section. one 6N15 and two 6N16. It’s not a void in the stakes of power; The company says it’s good for 150W RMS per side at 8 ohms and 250W at 4. This means it shouldn’t interfere with a speaker that you can buy today. For this purpose, two VU meters are equipped with a user-selectable colored backlight. Vincent calls this “timeless design” but I would differentiate myself – it’s a gimmick and more about the attractiveness of the showroom (for some people) than anything else. Still everyone for himself!
Should you ever have doubts about the SP-332, all you have to do is pick it up. It weighs a seriously heavy 21 kg, more than you would expect from its large dimensions of 430 x 165 x 430 mm. It’s a really meaty thing, especially when you consider that it sells for about the same amount of money as many UK built-in amps, which are significantly smaller, lighter and less powerful. It has two unbalanced RCA inputs, two balanced XLRs and 3.5 mm for power control. The outputs consist of two stereo pairs of speaker tie posts and a 3.5mm power connector. Again, this Vincent doesn’t have the nice 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 business in a subtle yet involved way that is really very charming on its own. The brand has gained a cult following among audiophiles with financial difficulties. When you hear the SA-32 / SP-332 you can see or even hear why. Sonically it’s pretty smooth and even, with just a touch of silk on top and warmth on the bottom. In the middle band, things aren’t too noticeable, but there is still a good level of detail. It conjures up a beautifully spacious soundstage and has a good power reserve, which is combined with a decent dynamic headroom. The overall feel is of affordable pre-power that does a lot of things really pretty well.
Those with quieter or more opaque speakers may find the SA-32 / SP-332 combo a bit boring. It’s not the widest sounding amp money can buy, that’s for sure. But the better the rest of your system, the more you will appreciate what this Vincent combo can do. It has real subtlety; for example, Tears of fear ‘ Head over heels sounded pretty exciting. More of its refined mid-eighties production came across what would be expected at the price, and many of the take’s beautiful interior details were pushed forward. It was surprisingly easy to spot the Roland Jupiter 8 arpeggios playing behind the lead piano. This is the kind of thing you normally only get with really expensive amplification.
The central band is a strength of this Vincent supremacy; There are many organic details, but things are not machine-directed towards you. Amplifiers that do well in the mid-range often repeat this trick in the treble range, and so it works here. The brilliant pelvic work that progresses Space is Magic Fly – a classic disco track from the late seventies – could be heard clearly and just a touch more velvety than I expected. Most amps at this price point make it sound strong and crisp, but the SA-32 / SP-332 combo just took it off a touch and gave it a more luxurious feel without tarnishing the top end.
Bass was also very encouraging; As you’d expect from a Vincent, it was crisp and taut, but there was only a hint of warmth and sweetness that got it out of the classic solid state realm. It would be wrong to call it rich or fluffy, but I could still feel my Yamaha NS-1000M really going into town with the sequenced electronic bass line Beatmasters’ Who’s in the house? This thirty year old house track is a real offensive course for any amp, but the SA-32 / SP-332 turned out to be a dynamic duo. It was a good thing, and at the price I was able to turn the volume up higher than expected without being penalized. The tonal smoothness of the mid-range helped here, of course, as did the power amplifier’s ability to push large amounts of clean power into my speakers. Not only was this bass line strong and well controlled, it was surprisingly melodic – and the overall result was a visceral but pleasant sound that didn’t impress my precious ears.
As with other Vincents I’ve reviewed over the years, this warmth of sound and transient speed combination is appealing and you’ll never get tired of it. However, this isn’t the only trick up your sleeve – it is actually very good at conjuring up a soundstage. We’re not talking about real high-end esotericism here – it’s not a Constellation Taurus – but nonetheless, the SA-32 / SP-332 combo produces a spacious sound that fills the room. Kate Bushs Cloudbusting is an odd take – one that often disappoints with mediocre gain – but the Vincent pre-power did it. It proved to be well able to convey the vast, windswept nature of this track – its sense of epic possibility that Kate evokes so strongly – by ramming the sound straight out of the speakers to create a broad, atmospheric feel . In absolute terms, there’s a slight decrease in depth of perspective, but again, most competitors don’t get close at this price point.
Quirks and weaknesses? This combo is hard to criticize given the price, but ultimately it lacks the resolution and bulk of a more expensive kit – and it doesn’t quite have the fluidity of valve amps, priced similarly to the EVO 200 from Prima Luna, might be hard not to like. I can listen to all kinds of exceptionally high quality kits, but for all of their shortcomings, this Vincent combo has a basic musical honesty that makes it pleasant to listen to regardless of your musical tastes.
Vincent has become a cult among hi-fi enthusiasts who can’t expand to the high end but still insist on serious sound. This is exactly what this SA-32 / SP-332 combination offers. After realizing this, you can forgive the somewhat quirky ergonomics and the not particularly good finish – that’s all little by little. Indeed, this is a quintessential “affordable audiophile” combination that has always been and always will be a market. The hi-fi world continues to change around us, but as this old expression says: “plus a change, plus c’est la même chose …”