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Reviewer: Edgar Kramer
Source Digital: Sony XA-5ES as transport; Bel Canto Design DAC 2
Source Analogue: Pro-ject 6.1 turntable with Pro-ject arm and Goldring cartridge
Preamp/Integrated: Supratek Sauvignon with NOS RCA and Sylvania tubes
Amplifier: Gryphon Tabu 2/100 power amplifier; Balanced Audio Technology VK-500 [on loan]
Speakers: Wilson Watt Puppy System 6
Cables: Harmonic Technology Magic Digital; Harmonic Technology Magic, Truthlink Silver and Truthlink; DanA Digital Reference Silver; Eichmann eXpress 6 Series 2 interconnect cable; Harmonic Technology PRO-9+ loudspeaker cable; Harmonic Technology Fantasy AC; Shunyata Research Diamondback power cords, Eichmann eXpress AC power cable
Stands: Lush 4-tier, partly sand filled
Powerline conditioning: PS Audio P-300 Power Plant
Sundry accessories: Bright Star Audio IsoRock Reference 3 [in for review], Bright Star Audio IsoRock 4 isolation platforms and BSA IsoNode feet; Black Diamond Racing cones; Stillpoints ERS paper in strategic positions around DAC, Shakti On Lines; Densen CD demagnetizer; Auric Illuminator CD Treatment
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 10'/11' h [stepped ceiling] in short wall setup, opens to adjoining office room
Review component retail: $3,500, various finishes available upon request
"He who loves not wine, women and song remains a fool his whole life long" [Martin Luther]
Back in June 2004, I had the pleasure of reviewing the superb Supratek Chardonnay valve preamplifier from the great wine-making region of Margaret River in Western Australia. If you paid attention (c'mon guys, listen up!) you would have surmised from my observations that the unit was cosmetically beautifully presented, internally elegant and endowed with high quality components and innovative circuitry and that it produced a class-transcending quality of sound that in my opinion placed it amongst the truly great modern high-end preamplifiers. To offer all of the above at $1,900 is in any audiophile's lexicon stellar value for the Rhodes Scholar dollar: Big bang for the buck, mucho valor por poco dinero!
If I had no idea as to the monetary value and attempted an intelligent stab based on my experience of this crazy audio industry and considering the above ingredients of aesthetics, build quality and sound reproduction, I would guesstimate the price of admission to be between $3,000 and $5,000. Bugger the rest, on sound quality alone it can compete on an even higher level.
So impressed was I that I just couldn't help myself - I had to have one. Of course no obsessive/compulsive card-wielding audiophile worth his valves would dive in without pondering the quintessential, archetypal question: What of the next model up? A question I diligently put to designer Mick Maloney who in turn sagaciously gave me the lowdown on the Supratek Sauvignon. Shortly thereafter, sight unseen and sound unheard I bought one to include in my reference system.
Let's check out the merchandise. The current Sauvignon's valve configuration is pretty much the same as the Chardonnay, excepting the physical location of the power supply valves. My Sauvignon's control unit has two factory-matched 6SN7 valves in addition to four 12B4s that no longer are part of the circuit although they sure look pretty. Visuals aside, Mick has high regard for the very linear and neutral sounding 12B4s. However, with the Sauvignon's extremely revealing nature they can impart an ever so slight edge or grain to high and upper midrange frequencies that in less forgiving systems or in slightly colder than neutral setups may be fatiguing.
That being said, the 6SN7 is such a magical valve that whatever the 12B4s were contributing to the neutral nature of the Sauvignon, the 6SN7s are also providing in spades but with a sweeter, bloomier and harmonically richer flavor. This has been a reasonably recent update based on input and feedback from various sources, my humble self included. In light of the above, it is worthy of admiration that a designer who has a superb product in the first place is open, astute and wise enough to intelligently accept and evaluate consumer/reviewer feedback and apply revisions when beneficial to the product. Historically, Mick does not change designs at the drop of a hat; he does however understand the concept of timely evolutionary progress. Good on ya, Mick!
The power supply has three valves atop. Like the Chardonnay, the Sauvignon has a central 5AR4 rectifier valve but where the Chardonnay had a pair of KT66s on the control unit for power supply regulation, the Sauvignon places one 6L6WGC on either side of the 5AR4. To these tired arms, the Sauvignon's power supply feels substantially heavier than the Chardonnay's, meaning the transformer, a high-quality toroidal, is of larger stock and therefore of higher capacity. As Mick explains below, the differences aren't just in the valve configuration of the power supply:
"The power supply is designed to eliminate as many electrolytic caps as possible. You can't get away from them in the tube heater supplies but there are none in the tubes' power source. Electrolytics are the singularly worst parts used in modern equipment. Most modern equipment uses up to hundreds of them but the Sauvignon has none. Not easy to do but it makes a big difference. The preamp circuit is direct-coupled from input to the output transformer, there's only one poly cap and it could be argued that it is not directly in circuit." As with the Chardonnay, Mick continues with the theme and philosophy of the preservation of phase coherence at all costs.
"The differences between the Chardonnay and the Sauvignon are quite substantial even though they share the direct-coupling concept. The Sauvignon uses a very innovative circuit that preserves phase coherence even better than the Chardonnay. But you need phase-coherent speakers/ears to hear it. It also has a different method of loading the tube plates that gives even greater bandwidth and faster transients. I think the Supratek's bandwidth and transient speed is what separates it technically from most of the tube preamps which, with their dated circuits, are just a bit too slow and romantic- nice for a while but you soon start looking at a modern girl!"
Mick also mentions that apart from the technical performance and improvements over the Chardonnay, he sprinkles a little handful of artistic design condiment that gives the Sauvignon its extra life. Pass me the chili sauce, please! Back in June I also ranted and raved about the outright beauty of the Chardonnay. Well if you thought that was a beauty...
I ordered the Sauvignon in a piano black chassis (obviously as a fashion accessory match to my WATT/Puppies) and with chrome chassis tops, transformer covers and knobs. Wow! Think timeless beauties a la Monroe, Kelly and Leigh. This thing is gorgeous! Again, as per the Chard, all controls ooze quality in their mechanical operation: assured, confident, positive. Also like the Chard, the Sauv comes standard with 2 single-ended RCA outputs, a singe balanced XLR output, a RCA loop-through home theater input (optional) and four single-ended RCA line inputs. The rotary gain switch is also present but unlike the Chard, there are no additional left/right high/low gain switches on top. My specified theater loop switch and the standard mute switch replace those. For best sound quality, I use my unit with the rotary gain switch set to the max as per Mick's suggestion because as we know, Mick is a high gain preamp, low-gain power amp kinda guy.
'Round front all we have is the glorious chrome knob for volume on the left, the central brass Supratek brand plate and input switching chrome knob on the right. Simple. Oh and guess what? I chose the $200 remote control option because I am a patate de chaise lounge lizard. An aside about the remote control and its operation for Supratek's consideration:
A. The remote looks pretty dinky and is garden-variety plastic. In no way does it match the Sauvignon nor the Chardonnay for that matter. I think most buyers would gladly pay an extra hundred for a nice aluminum piece that reflects the beauty and quality of the preamplifier. Even something along the lines of the simple yet superbly designed Sonic Frontiers remote -- if you've seen one you'll know what I mean -- is well pucker! Petty as all that may sound, I think it would complete a package that in its entirety would reflect quality.
B. A tiny blue or orange LED embedded in the mechanically actuated volume knob would give visual feedback of the volume setting from the remote control operating position. Sure you can use your ears but nevertheless, it's just an added touch that enhances user friendliness and would surely have no effect on sound quality.
Follow the yellow brick road to see the wonderful Wizard of Aus...
So, obviously the purpose of this follow-up exercise is to compare sound quality gains/losses -- if any -- between two marvelous preamplifiers from the same maker. The Chardonnay is a superlative entry-level unit that launches one on the blissful journey of the Supratek scenic road. The Sauvignon is the next one up in the three-unit range that may potentially raise a very high bar to the next level.
Are they on parallel high roads of equality or is one on a single lonely turnpike where the superior continues the journey beyond the limits of the other inferior unit? Will the Sauvignon take the baton and advance the relay on to Pluto and beyond, or perhaps to the Grange? Does the Chard (being so damn good) slap the gauntlet on the proverbial upgrade face, leaving it smarting and flushed? Can the Sauvignon improve upon anything? If so, what? How? Read on, fellow travelers.
In vino veritas
What, pray tell, do you get for the extra moolah? Apart from the above-mentioned improvements to the power supply and circuitry, you get a sound-wise development of the Chard's inherent strengths. Yes, the journey does continue linearly, with the Sauvignon maintaining the Chardonnay's qualities and then continuing on and beyond. I called these strengths of the Chard the core qualities.
One such quality being presence. The Sauvignon builds on that very natural yet immediate impression of music being in the room. Vocals, be it male or female, have a life, immediacy and realness that is quite mesmerizing and addictive. The speaker drivers need to be up to the task because, as I found with the Chardonnay, that presence is linked to awesome dynamics, transient attack and all the detail the rest of your system and the recording allows.
Which of course leads to the detail core quality I referred to back in June. If the microphone recorded it then as far as I can tell, you'll hear it. I qualify that last sentence because my playback doesn't consist of master tapes certified by the recording engineer nor was I present at the recording sessions. However based on my not inconsiderable experience with the live mixing of and exposure to amplified and acoustic instruments, the Sauvignon's presentation of detail and timbre is spot-on. This is what I call glorious midrange and top-end reproduction.
Dynamic contrast was a major strength of the Chardonnay. Here the Sauvignon is the equal, not superior. That effortlessness and total lack of compression I talked about is also a feature of the Sauvignon but it is on par with the Chard. Again voices soar and instrumental vibrancy can be -- depending on the piece of music -- overwhelmingly emotional. If Pavarotti lets fly to the point of breaking glass or wind, these two preamps track it faultlessly with nary a hint of compression. Literally no sweat.
Like its little brother or sister, the Sauvignon demands attention. It truly can be an edge of your seat presentation. Now I know this may not appeal to all audiophiles. Some may prefer a more laid-back, easy listening experience. You won't find that here unless you build a system with a taming nature consisting of an amplifier and cable combo with tight reins and a short lasso. However, all things being equal (or should I say all components near enough complimentary), the ride is an emotional one, the pony a frisky thoroughbred stallion chomping at the bit.
Don't get me wrong though, explosive dynamics, seemingly limitless headroom and an emotive, involving presentation do not in this case equate to an unsophisticated nature or an unbalanced frequency range. There's no lack of finesse here. The Sauvignon presents exquisite harmonic content of acoustic instruments and true timbre. The essence of sounds that are the make-up and determine an instrument are accurately reproduced. There is no confusing a cello for a viola or Spanish gut string guitar for a modern steel string buzzer. Consequently, as often is equated with refinement, the Sauvignon's treble is delicate, nuanced and extended. Dome, ribbon, electrostat, plasma, whatever - if well designed, your tweeters will really sing.
A mild criticism I had of the Chard (much as I looked for something for crying out loud) was its soundstage, which I found to be marginally narrower and shallower than I was used to from my previous reference preamp. I called it an Achilles heel. I should really have been less dramatic and called it Superman's cow lick hair curl, in other words nitpicking. After all, nothing is perfect. The Sauvignon improves on that soundstage size quite noticeably. The presentation of soundstage as per the Wilson trademark capacity is enormous, stable and focused. Width and depth stretch as far as your room allows and recording permitting, with instruments individually placed within a cavernous acoustic you can confidently assume reflects their positions at the studio session.
|The Chardonnay had bass quality that defied and indeed laughed in the face of the tube bass stereotype. Electric bass guitars, acoustic stand-up bass, kick drums et al were tight, detailed and extended, without the boomy colorations and lack of pace that is sometimes displayed by lesser valve designs. No Soggy Bottom Boys here. Well, the Sauvignon's bass reproduction is all of that but with added transient attack and weight. Especially noticeable on acoustic bass, the initial finger pluck is more dynamic and pronounced, the Sauvignon therefore sounding more detailed and snappy. Following the plucky leading edge, the note itself is heftier sounding, punchier and possesses a bloom or roundness that bestows the instrument with a higher sense of body and enhances the cavity sound of the instrument's wood construction. This snappiness and transient speed make for a pace-y, rhythmically potent, toe-tapping presentation. Forcefully the Sauvignon leads, blissfully the listener follows.
By the way, all subjective audio-quality comparisons were made using the same CDs as in the original review and by scrutinizing notes and observations made regarding the Chardonnay. My utter pleasure and enjoyment of the Sauv meant that I also went on listening to various other CDs in the same long sessions to relieve anxiety and placate the inevitable onset of "wonder what X, Y, and Z would sound like?" syndrome. Those impulses alone are testament to the stellar standard of reproduction and involvement the Sauvignon is capable of.
Salud, dinero y amor!
Vast as the universe of the High-End choices is, if my absolute maximum budget was around the $2,000-$3,000 mark, the Chardonnay would be my preamplifier of choice. I would be confident in its operation and reliability, proud of its aesthetics and most importantly, I would be armed with a powerful reviewing tool whilst the audiophile in me would be rapturously pleased with its sound quality. Albeit more expensive, the Sauvignon possesses the same spirit yet progresses with those attributes that amplify it (pardon the pun) to a higher plane.
|For this listener, the Chardonnay's superb audio attributes opened a clear panorama previously obscured by the murky cloud of prohibitive cost. The Sauvignon extends this vista past the corporeal limitations of preconceived value-for-money horizons and on to a transcendental performance within the stratosphere of the divine.
Hey Mick, those eyes are a'poppin' and the ears are a'prickin' again, mate!