Up high the SA-31 sounded sweet, smooth, and silvery, though it was not the last word in reproduction of highfrequency details or of the “air” surrounding instruments. In practice, this turned out to be a mixed blessing. On recordings such as John Abercrombie and Eddie Gomez’s Structures [Chesky, SACD], which features the richly detailed sound of Gene Jackson’s delicately brushed cymbals and drums, the SA-31 sounded generally refined, but it also smoothed over low-level treble details to some degree. However, on recordings such as the Boulez/Chicago reading of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 [Deutsche Grammophon], whose string passages are apt to sound overly hard or wiry in the first place, the SA-31 turned potentially strident sound into approachably clean, sweet music.
It is a credit to the SA-31 that its sound invites comparisons to today’s best $1000 preamps (e.g., the Rogue Audio Metis or Rotel RCD-1082). In those comparisons, the Vincent is nearly able to hold its own, thanks to its smooth, evocative midrange, free-breathing dynamics, and bass weight and warmth. However, it comes up a bit short in the areas of top-to-bottom detail and definition and high-frequency air. But let me put these comments in perspective. I can count on the fingers of one hand the units I think might offer the Vincent serious competition in its price range (the more versatile but also more expensive NAD C 162 preamp is one of the strongest competitors that comes to mind). The SA-31 is a highly accomplished sub-$500 preamp that offers terrific bang for the buck. Just be aware that there is a tangible gap between the best that good $500 preamps can offer and the better performance that the top $1000 models have on tap.
Vincent’s SP-331 is a robust and beautifully made 150Wpc stereo power amp that uses two 6N16 tubes to drive two banks of 6 output transistors sourced from Toshiba. Let me not mince words: The SP-331 is the best-sounding sub-$1000 amplifier I’ve yet heard, and I therefore regard it as one of the sweetest deals in high-end audio today. Here’s why.
Vincent’s SP-331 amp, like its SA-31 preamp, has midrange subtlety and richness in spades. Connect the SP-331 with a sufficiently revealing preamplifier such as Rotel’s RCD-1082, and the Vincent will reward you with vivid midrange tonal colors and a delightfully holographic 3-D presentation that reveals the finely contoured edges of notes, much as the SA-31 does. But where the SA-31 eventually runs out of gas in terms of midrange detail, the SP-331 has no such limitation, revealing significantly higher levels of midrange resolution and definition than the SA-31—again, when driven by higher-resolution preamps.
The SP-331’s broader performance envelope became obvious to me as I listened to the “Wallfahrtslied/Pilgrim’s Song” from Arvo Pärt’s Orient & Occident [ECM]. The piece is structured around blocks of choral material where Pärt draws his text from the words of Psalm 121 (“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help”), which are sung very softly so that a kind of deep, reverent hush falls over the recording space. The SP-331 lets you hear that hush as it descends, as well as the solemn, earnest voices of the singers as they deliver their lines. Yet interspersed between the choral sections are sharp, angular string passages that, through many affordable amplifiers, sound jarringly strident. Through the SP-331 those string passages do not sound strident at all; rather, they are focused and almost blinding in their intensity, as if the strings are giving voice to the psalmist’s innermost fears, anxieties, and doubts as he appeals to the Lord for protection.
The SP-331’s heightened resolution extends into the bass region, too. To appreciate the full scope of the Vincent’s low-frequency prowess, check out Victor Wooten’s performance on 6-string electric bass on “Mudslingers of the Milky Way” from Béla Fleck & The Flecktones’ Little Worlds [Columbia]. The 6-string bass is a formidable instrument whose lowest fundamentals reach down to the mid-30Hz range, while its upper range ventures well up into cello territory. On the track I’ve referenced, Wooten explores much of the instrument’s range, at times playing clean, beautifully modulated subterranean notes that—through the SP-331—sounded as if they were produced by a well-tempered freight train roaring past beneath my listening room floor. Yet in an instant Wooten shifts gears to play ringing upper-register notes that sound as if they come from an electric cello that has been dabbling with performance-enhancing substances. Through all of this, the SP-331 shows a big heart and real muscle, tempered by a measure of low-frequency agility that few sub-$1000 amps can match.