The sport of high-end audio has been likened to peeling the layers of an onion at whose heart lies a reasonable facsimile of the sound of live music. The working assumption, of course, is that listeners must pay by the layer in order to draw ever closer to their goal. But every once in awhile I encounter companies whose components offer shortcuts to better sound at surprisingly reasonable prices—companies such as the German firm Vincent Audio. Some might question whether the phrases “German firm” and “reasonable prices” should be used in the same sentence, but in this case they can, because Vincent Audio’s driving passion is to build serious high-performance audio products that are eminently affordable. Two good cases in point would be the Vincent SA-31 vacuum-tube preamplifier ($499) and SP-331 hybrid-tube/solid-state, 150Wpc stereo power amplifier ($999). Like most others from Vincent, both were designed in Germany and manufactured in China (to hold production costs in check), and both exhibit unmistakable touches of Old World quality inside and out—quality you not only can see, but hear.
Based on two 6N16 vacuum tubes, the SA-31 is a linestage preamplifier that provides four analog inputs, two analog outputs, a recording output, and two old-school features—namely, a loudness compensation circuit and switch-selectable tone controls. Purists might counsel against using EQ for any reason, but I think there are contexts where the loudness function can improve perceived tonal balance for low-volume listening. Similarly, Vincent’s tone controls are subtle enough that they could be used, judiciously of course, to correct minor tonal imbalances in less-than-ideal recordings. Sadly, one modern feature the SA-31 does not provide is a remote control—an omission I came to regret as I made my umpteenth trip across the listening room to tweak volume levels. One verywell-thought-out detail is the SA-31’s power-on muting circuit, which engages when the unit is fired up, as denoted by the power light flashing on and off, and releases once tubes are warmed up and the preamp is ready to play music.
The SA-31 produces a rich, seductive sound, whose signature characteristic is a midrange that is dynamically alive and leans just slightly to the warm side of neutral. Together, these qualities help the preamp do a fine job of capturing subtle contours or inflections in both human and instrumental voices. For example, in the opening of “Casi” from Marta Gómez’s Entre Cada Palabra [Chesky] the SA-31 shows great delicacy as it captures the very soft, gently modulated sound of Gómez’s voice accompanied by a bass guitar that deliberately plays only high harmonics sans bass fundamentals. The preamp shows how the singer’s voice remains pure, steady, and clear, even though Gómez is singing at little more than a whisper level, and also draws out the ringing sound of the bass harmonics, which fill the recording space with an almost gamelan-like sound.
One of the SA-31’s greatest strengths is its ability to reproduce continuously shaded tonalities at the edges of notes—shadings that give notes their shape and substance. Perhaps as a result, this preamp presents images that have a consistently pleasing, sculptural solidity—never the flat, “color-by-numbers” quality that some solid-state preamps exhibit.
The only quality I found odd in the SA-31 was a textural discontinuity that sometimes came into play on intensely modulated upper-midrange passages. On the loudest of vocal swells—Eva Cassidy belting out “Stormy Monday” on Live From Blues Alley [Blix Street], for instance—the SA-31 momentarily exhibited a slightly hard, strained quality. This phenomenon doesn’t occur often, but it is noticeable when it does because it is out of character with the preamp’s ordinarily smooth, imperturbable sound.
The SA-31’s bass was hearty and solidly weighted, although I found the preamp did a good but not great job of capturing low-frequency transient and textural details. When I listened to the concert bass drum on “Regular Pleasures” from Patricia Barber’s Verse [Blue Note], for example, the attack of the drum sounded slightly subdued, though its ensuing “boom” and shuddering decay sounded fundamentally correct. Similarly, on Stanley Clarke’s slapped electric bass on the title track of School Days [Nemperor, LP], the sharp, percussive “pops” at the leading edges of notes were rounded-off to a degree, though the bodies of the notes had nearly ideal power and depth. The good news is that the SA-31 consistently puts a firm bass foundation under the music—never sounding anemic down low, as some affordable preamps do. But at the same time, I felt the preamp could be improved if it provided a greater degree of lowfrequency tautness and definition.