McGary Audio

Essential Sound

Friday, June 26, 2020

Audiophile Review!
McGary Audio SA-2 Tube Amplifier
“Delivers More Power, Finesse”


Brevis...
Price:  $7,985
Likes: Magnificent sound
Dislikes: Would be quibbling
Wow Factor: Silky smooth dynamics!

by John Gatski
  I have reviewed a lot of amps in 30 years of evaluations. Numerous solid state and tube amps. When it comes to tube designs, I make I no secrets that I am fond of the quiet, quick accurate, valve designs over the overly smooth, euphonic versions. I like folks like Rogue Audio David Berning, LTA and the like.
  Two years ago, I reviewed the made-in-Virginia McGary Audio SA-1, a 30-watt powered EL 34 output stereo amp and really liked its ability to resolve Hi-Res music with a detailed, tight bass and dimensional stereo image. However, some owners said that with their speakers, the McGary sound needed some more horsepower. Hence, the McGary SA-2 Stereo Amplifier.

Features
  Retail priced at $7,985, the SA-2 is hand assembled-in-Gainesville Virginia by Mike McGary, an engineer and part-time hi-fi designer; McGary uses top-quality electronic components, circuit design, and point-to-point wiring. This is an all-new design, versus the SA-1, and McGary notes, is an all-vacuum tube design (not a hybrid) with increased power output of 80 Watts RMS per channel and self bias using KT88/KT90/KT120 tubes (no bias adjustments required) with a  20 Hz – 20 kHz bandwidth.
  The retro, red- and white-paint scheme, open-chassis hulk of a tube amp features user-adjustable (global) negative feedback control (1.5 dB-9dB range), and triode or ultralinear output mode of operation. The SA-2 can be configured in the 80 wpc, stereo mode, or switched into mono operation (monoblock) amp for power up to 160 watts (if you want to have more zip with two amps).

  In light of all the new Class D and hybrid designs in Hi-Fi amplification, its nice to see companies like McGary carrying forth the classic tube amp design that sounds so sweet. It definitely deserves an Everything Audio Stellar Sound Award.

  Connections include unbalanced (single-ended) gold sputtered RCA inputs located in front (with a diamond shaped mini-cover to conceal the connections) and Neutrik balanced XLR inputs in the rear
  There are Magic Eye vacuum tube displays for left and right output, level meters with intensity display control (high-off-low). Spec wise, the signal-to-noise ratio is greater than 85 dB (unweighted/unfiltered); referenced to full-rated output power at 1 kHz). There are speaker taps for 4, 8, and 16 ohm speaker output, via gold-plated binding posts. 


Top-mounted controls for SA-2. Adjustable feedback is novel.

  The SA-2 structure is one solid piece with American-made, 13-Gauge steel enclosure, powder coated throughout (red lollypop color base with satin black top plate), ceramic tube sockets (attached directly to the chassis), point-to-point, hand-soldered with 16-gauge, Teflon insulated, silver-plated copper wire. All electrical connections feature Cardas silver solder — with star grounding.
  According to Mike McGary, the color options for the SA 2 amplifier enclosure, top cover plate and the transformers can be customized for an additional cost just in case Red is not your thing.
  McGary recommends premium tubes for the SA-2. Tubes that McGary recommends and installed as standard include, (NOS) GE (Joint Army Navy or ‘JAN’) 6BQ7A input tubes, (NOS) GE 6SN7GTB driver tubes, and (New) Russian Genalex (Gold Lion) KT88 output tubes. 

Set up
  The biggest effort required by the McGary SA-2 was lifting the 60 pound brute onto a floor-placed, rack shelf. Oh my arms and hips love the heft of all those tube transformers and heavy build chassis! I used the McGary SA-2 in various configurations. MartinLogan Expression speakers, MartinLogan Motion 20i small tower speakers, Pass Labs SR-2 three-way’s, a pair of Westlake Tower 5s, and Amphion Argon 1 mini-monitors. Preamps included a Rogue Audio RP-7/RP-9, the ultra-transparent Benchmark LA4, and a vintage Coda High-Current bipolar output preamp.

Taps For 4, and 8 Ohms speakers; XLR input jacks are on the rear.

 Sources included Oppo BDP-205, Benchmark DAC3 HGC D/A Converter, Mytek Brooklyn Plus D/A and Mytek Manhattan II D/A converters. Turntables included Clear Audio Emotion with Benz MC cartridge and an outboard solid state preamp. All analog and digital connections connections were made via WireWorld cables and Essential Sound Products Essence II power cords and power strip.
  The biggest set up adjustment for the SA-2 is setting the user-adjustable feedback. The amount of gain is variable; feedback gain can lower distortion and improve power band response. Almost all amps have some mount of negative feedback, but the general consensus among audiophiles is less is better, especially for sold-state amplifiers.

Mr. McGary Audio himself, Mike McGary, testing audio tubes.
  In my set up and initial listening sessions with the McGary, I found the feedback control adjustment at about 3 o’clock made the amp sound its best, but it was not always audible on different kinds of music. Solo classical guitar sounded great with moderate feedback, or no feedback at all. The audibility also is complicated by whether you are in triode or ultra linear. The ultralinear mode sounds better, up to a point, with more feedback, and I think the bass is better defined on heavily processed Pop music than the triode mode. So audibility is in the ear of the beholder and variables of operation mode (ultralinear/triode) speakers, room, type of music and preference all figure in to it. The variable feedback and triode/ultra linear mode make it infinitely tweakable in its sound. It's up to the user to decide what is best for him.

The audition
  First up were the MartinLogan Expressions electrostatic speakers. As I expected, the McGary amp delivered Hi-Res audio was glorious with this set up. The Tom Jung-recorded Warren Bernhardt DSD tracks, via the Apple Macbook Pro, Audirvana Plus player software and the ultra revealing Benchmark DAC-3 HGC DAC and LA4 solid state preamp, were expansive, smooth, yet with a transient energy that was tight and quick. Cymbal splashes on the title cut had a very realistic sheen and wonderful presence, while the directional cues of the drum stick moving on the snare was nailed perfectly. That cut always impresses in the demos.
  On the Hi-Res DSD/SACD reissue of Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio - Midnight Sugar, the McGary SA-2 really cast the spotlight on this Japanese ode-to-American Jazz. The title cut, with its slow, simmering bass line and brilliant, transient-infused piano and drum kit, revealed an open, dynamic, sonic smoothness dressed up in an easy-to-listen vibe.

  Of course, the Benchmark PA4 preamp delivers the Benchmark DAC3’s decoding of this wonderful-sounding album to the McGary amp so it could do its job. As previously mentioned, I liked the 3 o’clock position on the SA-2 feedback and the ultralinear mode; triode mode on this recording seemed less dynamic to me. The studio liveness of the this album’s tracks is more obvious, to me in the ultralinear mode.
  On the Hi-Res DSD/SACD reissue of Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio - Midnight Sugar (mid-1974 Three Blind Mice label-, the McGary SA-2 really cast the spotlight on this Japanese ode-to=American Jazz. The title cut, with its slow, simmering bass line and brilliant, transient-infused piano and drum kit, revealed an open, dynamic, sonic smoothness dressed up in an easy-to-listen-to vibe. The amp’s delivery of this album, as delivered by the upstream components — the always-willing Oppo BDP-205 and the revealing Benchmark LA4 pre — never wandered into harsh territory that I have heard through other amplifiers. 
  The 2019 24-bit remix/remaster of The Beatles — Abbey Road LP also sounded aces. The increased openness of the remixed/remastered “Hear Comes The Sun” — with an increased breadth of the acoustic guitar and the luscious chorus – was absolutely gorgeous through the McGary SA-2.

  On Classical, I played the DSD remaster of The Beethoven OverturesGeorge Szell and The Cleveland Orchestra. On the three Beethoven Lenore Overtures and The Fidelio Overture (Op. 72), the Beethoven signature is paced perfectly and the SA-2 delivers the rich string textures of the CO, always brilliantly handled by the legendary Mr. Szell. Stereo imaging is spacious, yet the up-close nature of the recording reveals quite a bit of nuance, which the the SA-2 relays oh so well. Szell’s recordings of the 1950s and 1960s seemed to capture more detail than many other analog orchestral recordings of the day.
  I played numerous Pop tracks,  including a recent DSD release of Dire Straits 1978 self-titled debut and and Communiqué, my favorite DS albums. Using the Rogue Audio RP-9 and the McGary amp, along with the Mytek Manhattan II DAC and Westlake Tower 5 speakers. the remaster’s energetic, well-engineered tracks were reference in their presentation.

McGary uses premium parts throughout this impressive sounding amp.

  Fewer tracks in the mix process allows the individual dynamics to shine, and shine they do. Six-Blade Knife and Sultan of Swing crackle with energy with Mr. Knophler’s Fender Stratocatser, fingerpicked-riffs, blazing rhythm, as well as the ace drumming from Pick Withers and others in the Dire Strait supporting cast. I love the drum cymbals through the McGary.
  The 2019 24-bit remix/remaster of The Beatles — Abbey Road LP also sounded aces through the McGary, via the Clear Audio Emotion and Benz MC cartridge , the Westlake Tower 5's and a pair of Amphion Argon 1 a made in Europe, 5-inch/1-inch speaker. Both Westlake Tower 5’s an the bookshelf-sized Argons kicked out lots of sonic detail from SA-2. The increased openness of the remixed/remastered “Hear Comes The Sun” — with an increased breadth of the acoustic guitar and the luscious chorus – was absolutely gorgeous through the McGary SA-2.
  I switched over to a set of 2012 Pass Labs SR-2 three ways, which sound great in rooms that are bright, such as hardwood floors or other reflective surfaces, such as windows, counters, etc. I placed the system in my upstairs hardwood floor living room (Whew! Had to lug the 70-pound SA-2 and Pass speakers up the stairs from my typical dungeon basement listening room).
  Playing music from Frank SinatraThe Reprise Years, the synergy between the SA-2 and Pass speakers was well synchronized. Mr. Sinatra’s later-year vocal resonance, pitch and phrasing, combined with the incredible Big Band horn and percussion dynamics, was ear candy through the Rogue RP9 and McGary amp. The brass section bite was dynamic, but oh so smooth!
  BTW, for those who thought the 30-watt SA-1 didn’t have enough oomph with harder-to-drive speakers and big rooms, the SA-2 takes care of that. Through all the various speakers that I tried — loud Classical orchestral music, Rock, Big Band — I could not strain these amps. The 95 dB plus was all I could stand, but no audible clipping. Just clean as the proverbial sonic whistle.

It’s a keeper!
  I had zero issues with the McGary SA-2. A tube protection cage might be nice. And I prefer all my cable connections on the rear, but those are little niggles that have nothing to with how good the amp sounds. The feedback control can make an audible difference — if you crank it up, but my tastes tended to be of the more conservative approach — a little feedback goes along way in the listening. I did not turn it off or overly crank it up.

  I did swap in a set of original Svetlana 6550s from the 1990s, that I have been hoarding, just to compare the tubes. I then tried some J and J KT88’s as well as the stock tubes. The sound was similar among all the sampled tubes, and the bass stayed tight and the noise low. Shows you that a good design goes a long way; even with different tubes, the SA-2 always shines.

The verdict
  The nearly $8,000 price tag for an audio amplifier is not small change to spend, but the McGary SA-2 is a hand-made, USA-engineered and built, using premium parts and tubes. I think its price is not out of line for a premium, high-power, USA-made tube amp. With a top notch preamp (the Rogue RP Series is highly recommended if you are into tube pre’s), speakers, good source player and well-recorded music, the McGary SA-2 is aces. In light of all the new Class D and hybrid designs in Hi-Fi amplification, its nice to see companies like McGary carrying forth the classic tube amp design that sounds so sweet. It definitely deserves an Everything Audio Stellar Sound Award.

  EAN Founder 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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