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Friday, December 14, 2018

Audiophile Review!
McGary Audio SA 1
Stereo Tube Amplifier
"The Little Tube Amp That Can"


©Everything Audio Network

Brevis
Price: $3,985
Likes: very clean, smooth sonics
Dislikes: RCA jacks are on front
Wow Factor: nothing like a tube amp...
More Info: McGary Audio SA 1

by John Gatski
  I have owned more than 30 tube amplifiers since 1988, including classic amps from McIntosh, Marantz and Scott — all the way to modern units from Rogue Audio, Manley VTL, etc. And everything in between.
  What I have found is that most tube amps always sound good, if choosing the appropriately matched speaker, but they often don't meet my accuracy expectation. Warm and musical is good, but I want a piano, drum cymbals to sound like real musical instruments, not like they are run through a tone control. I also have encountered some modern tube amps that sounded strident, sterile and hard to listen to.
  I am happy to report that this modestly powered, 30 watt KT77 amp, the SA 1, from McGary Audio is a terrifically balanced sounding tube amp (within its power range) that also met my “audio realness” requirement. The SA 1 also netted that smoothness quotient that you expect from a tube amp. And it could handle most speakers to a reasonable level for my listening preferences.

Features
  Retail priced at $3,895, the SA 1 is a rated 30-watt-per-channel (RMS) low-distortion, 40-Watts Per Channel (RMS) waveform clipping (8 Ohm Load) ref: 20Hz – 20 kHz bandwidth. The open-chassis amp features a Class A/B push-pull design. The signal to noise ratio is greater than 85 dB unweighted/unfiltered and referenced to full rated output power at 1 kHz.

  After a long run of sold state amps, it was nice to hear how competitive tube amps are, in terms of an ample sonic balance of accuracy, and ease of listening. Although 30 watts does not seem like a lot of power, for most modern listening rooms, with  efficient speakers, it is plenty of power.

  Onboard connections include 4-, 8-, and 16-ohm speaker output taps with gold-plated speaker binding posts and gold-plated, RCA input connectors. My only quibble is the front-mounted RCA jacks inputs. I like 'em on the back, but vintage amps used to have them on the front. The USA-made, 13-gauge steel chassis is powder coated throughout (mint green metallic base with satin black top plate).
  You get other audio tweak niceties for your money including: ceramic tube sockets (attached directly to the chassis), point-to-point, hand-wired connections with 16-gauge Teflon-insulated, silver-plated copper wire, and Cardas silver-solder for all electrical connections with star grounding employed. A detachable IEC Pangea power cord also is provided.


SA 1 tubes made for HQ audio — and they were quiet!

  The tube complement includes two NOS General Electric input tubes (6BQ7A), two driver (6SN7GTB) vacuum tubes, four new Russian KT77 matched Gold Lion output vacuum tubes The SA-1’s self-bias tube circuit requires no manual bias adjustments and is configured for ultralinear operation to get as much power as possible from the design.
  The amp's dimensions are: depth = 13-inches, width = 17-inches, and height = 8.5-inches. The unit weight is hefty 46 pounds. The amp’s power system is the standard 120V-60 Hz/240V-50Hz (electrically configurable, please inquire if purchasing product for use outside the USA).
  McGary said the SA 1 was “electrical engineer designed and handmade in Gainesville, Virginia" with a (transferrable) lifetime warranty (excluding the vacuum tubes, which come with a 90-day warranty).
 Color options for the SA 1 amplifier enclosure, top cover plate and the transformers can be customized for an additional cost.

The setup
  I mated the McGary SA 1 with several sets of speakers including the powered, subwoofer-equipped MartinLogan Montis, a pair of Amphion Argus, Studio electric S4 and a pair of Westlake Lc8.1 bookshelf speakers. I even powered a set of James Audio outdoor speakers, with good results, in my back yard.
  On the Bach Complete Cello Suites, Janos Starker, Mercury Living Presence; those rich cello hues, the room reverb and the subtle bowing sounds were all there — with a generous sound stage that was wide and spacious.

  For digital music playback, I used several DACS, including a Benchmark DAC-3-HGC, Mytek Brooklyn II and the Prism Callia; all could handle high sample rate 24 bit as well as DSD. The D/A outputs were connected to the line-stage of the Benchmark HPA-4 with its discrete, relay control volume circuit that is as transparent as I have ever heard from a preamplifier.
  Interconnects and speaker cables were courtesy of Wireworld Platinum Series ,and all AC was routed through Essential Sound Products Essence Power cords and power strip. I let the amp burn in for two days before doing in-depth music listening. Usually, a tube failure will happen in the first couple of days, but there was nary a noise, tick pop, or obvious hiss. Just a little, down-low level hiss.

The audition
  As soon as i connected the McGary SA 1 to the Martin Logan Montis electrostatic speakers, I was hooked. Similar to Rogue Audio tube amps, this little guy has a smooth persona, but enough accuracy to satisfy picky, full-time audiophiles such as myself.
  Although the Montis is self powered in the bass, the SA 1 revealed itself with a detailed top end with an abundant midrange that is neither overbearing or recessed. On the Warren Bernhardt — So Real DSD rip, the title track’s Steinway piano exhibited that high-register note tinkle that the recording is known for and that enveloping brushed drum cymbal sound and snare hits  all came through with a warm precision.
  On the Bach Complete Cello Suites, Janos Starker, Mercury Living Presence; those rich cello hues, the room reverb and the subtle bowing sounds were all there — with a generous sound stage that was wide and spacious.
  Sure, it is not the most powerful amp, nor the cheapest, but this amp blows away many of the classic amps. Playing the amp full range through a pair of Westlake Tower 5 speakers, I finally got to hear the bass  performance. The sound via the McGary was much tighter in the bass than my vintage Macintosh MC275 when playing Pop/Rock music and bass-prominent Jazz. The old Mac was sweet, but reserved with a midbass bloom that lingered. The SA 1’s bass performance was much quicker, and dynamic.



Speaker connections and power cord ports

  In other listening sessions, I found out how versatile the McGary SA 1 is. On the QueenThe Game and the The  Grateful DeadAmerican Beauty DVD-As (remember those), the SA 1 also had much more midrange focus and top-end sparkle than the Mac with the larger Westlake speakers. The old Mac was lumpy sounding by comparison
  Even on tympani rolls from big orchestral pieces, the McGary/Westlake combo cranked loud enough for me (the low 90 dBs) level without clipping or low-bass mushiness; this is a clean tube amp — if you like to listen at typical levels. Sure it will clip if you crank it loud enough. But for small-to-medium rooms, it gets plenty loud with clean, smooth power.
  BTW, the Benchmark HPA4 HP amp/line stage is so clean and transparent that the preamp is not a factor in terms of audio color. What I was hearing was the McGary amplifier and the DAC. The McGary amp’s true character: smooth, yet present, with a delicate realness, was always there.
  If you want to couple a tube preamp to the SA 1, and you have some extra coin, I recommend the Rogue Audio RP-5 or RP-7. Both exhibit a transparency not typical of tube preamps, in my humble opinion; they are easy to listen to without undue dampening of the transients like the older tube preamps.
  I listened via my personal Rogue RP-7 preamp using the TEAC UD-503, an AKM chip based D/A converter with music streamed via a Macbook Pro and Audirvana Plus software player. I found the combo to be musically satisfying with elemental “musical ease” that did not choke off the upper end detail. Base was solid, and unbloated.


Bottoms up!

  Listening to a pair of Studio Electroic S4 bookshelf speakers with this system, my audio impression, of the Rogue preamp, McGary amp and Benchmark DAC3-HGC, was totally positive. “A nearly perfect collection of components for those who like their digital via tube playback,” my notes said.
  I should mention that I love the sound of the 6SN7 tube used as drivers in amps and preamps. Its sonic finesse is so popular that the tube was resurrected about a dozen years ago but manufactured in Russia and China. It is linear, yet smooth and clean tube. I owned a Rogue Audio Model 99 for years. However, I often had problems finding 6SN7s (including the newly manufactured ones) that stayed quiet in terms of low microhonics, pings or pops.
  These USA-NOS GE 6SN7s that Mike McGary matched for the SA 1 were incredibly quiet all through the review process. I never heard any extraneous noise, and they were vitally microphonic-free with my pencil tap test.
  As I mentioned earlier, for grins I powered a pair of James Audio OMNI129AT4-P outdoor audiophile loudspeakers with the McGary SA 1. It won’t get as loud as a big-power, audiophile solid state amp, or a professional amp designed for outdoor audio, but for moderately loud music, played in a small back yard, It sounded terrific.


  I played the The Cars debut album in hi-res via a HD Tracks download and man, did it sound good! Even with four drivers, it did not sound muddy or boated. I added a bit of Miles Davis Kind of Blue DSD music to the mix, and became more impressed with how loud and clean the McGary played in the outdoors. And it also is a testament how good things sound when you are not encumbered by the problems of indoor room acoustics. 

The verdict
  The USA-made McGary SA 1 brought me hours of musical pleasure — with all kinds of hi-res music. After a long run of sold state amps, it was nice to hear how competitive tube amps are, in terms of an ample sonic balance of accuracy, and ease of listening. Although 30 watts does not seem like a lot of power, for most modern listening rooms, with  efficient speakers, it is plenty of power.
  The SA 1 amp looks cool, is built like a tank and should bring years of trouble-free listening (you will have to eventually replace output tubes, but that is years away).


  Listening to a pair of Studio Electroic S4 bookshelf speakers with this system, my audio impression, of the Rogue RP-7 preamp, McGary amp and Benchmark DAC3-HGC, was totally positive. “A nearly perfect collection of components for those who like their digital via tube playback,” my notes said.

  Kudos to Mike McGary for bringing us a USA-made tube amplifier of this caliber; it can compete with or better many modest-powered modern tube amps, or many of the amps of yore. I was sorry to see the SA 1 go. It never missed the mark on the concentration of Classical Jazz and Acoustic solo instrument music that I listen to on any of my speakers. An Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award for sure.

    John Gatski has been evaluating consumer, audiophile, home cinema and professional audio gear since 1988. In 1995, he created Pro Audio Review, and he has written for SoundOnSound, Audio, Laserviews, Enjoy The Music, The Audiophile Voice, High Performance Review, Radio World and TV Technology. Everything Audio Network is based in Kensington, Md. Articles on this site are the copyright of the ©Everything Audio Network. Any unauthorized use, via print or Internet, without written permission is prohibited. John Gatski can be reached via email: everything.audio@verizon.net





   

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