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This review first appeared in the May 2008 issue of and can be read in its original German version here. It is herewith translated and presented to an English-only audience through a mutual syndication arrangement with As is customary for our own reviews, the writer's signature at review's end has a link below it to his e-mail should you have questions or feedback you wish to send. All images contained in this review are the property of or SAC. - Ed.

Reviewer: Ralph Werner
Sources: Analog - Acoustic Solid MPX; Phonotools Vivid-Two and SME M2 12" arms; Denon DL-103, Ortofon MC Rondo Bronce, Shelter 501 MK II, Zu Audio DL-103 cartridges; digital - audiolab 8000CD
Amplification: integrated - Lua 4040C, Myryad MXI 2080; preamp - bel canto PRe3, Funk LAP-2; power amp - bel canto M300s, Myryad MXA2150
Loudspeaker: Volent Paragon VL-2, Thiel CS 2.4, Zu Audio Druid mk4, Expolinear T-220 L Series 2 [on review], WLM La Scala [on review]
Cable: low-level - Ecosse Baton + Symphony, fis Audio Livetime, Funk BS-2, van den Hul Integration Hybrid, Zaolla Reinsilber NF; phono - fis Audio, WSS Silver Line; high-level Ecosse SMS2.3, fis Audio Livetime, Ixos 6006 Gamma, ZU Audio Libtec
Power distribution: fis Audio Livetime
Rack: Creactiv & Taoc AS-3
Review component retail price: € 4.800/pr

Honest chaps
"Sonic philosophy? I'll have you know that I am an extremely non-philosophical person, Herr Werner. The problem is, there are always people who'll turn precisely that into my presumptive philosophy!"
(Smiling): "Duly noted. True, as a term, philosophy has seen better days. How about a philosophy of enlightenment though, say from the days of Kant and Co.?"
"Kant, eh? Considering our industry, I'd be more inclined to call this the grand inquisition..."
(Cracking up): "It's not quite as bad now, is it?..."

Herr Walter Fuchs of Essen firm SAC does remain tightlipped on any personal aural beliefs he might actually hold. This seems to suit his products well, at least today's il piccolo monos as we'll see shortly. Herr Axel Schäfer, business manager of Special Audio Components, is more uncompromising yet: "Philosophy? We don't have one." That's a poignant statement. To be sure, today's general tendency for raising the word count to disguise having nothing of substance to say makes appearances also in our hobby. When it doesn't, I've got no complaints. A concise Westphalian "not here" is downright admirable in its brevity.

SAC should be familiar to career audiophiles. Fuchs, wait... now isn't he that contrarious fella from Bochum so full of unpopular opinions and breeder of heatsinked hedgehogs? Indeed. His quite affordable mono amps were quick to gain their perennial nickname for being small and bristly - and they look much the same 22 years later. SAC picked up steam in 1986 with the birth of the first hedgehog. The true beginnings
predate the bristler's launch into the mid 70s when Herr Walter Fuchs' discontent over the state of kit in his recording studio led him to develop his own microphone preamp, hum suppressors for tape decks, equalizers and power amplifiers.

By 1984, Fuchs and Schäfer had teamed up to develop the original hedgehog, the PA40. This early photo below right shows Axel Schäfer, Walter Fuchs and Thomas Werthmann. The hedgehog garnered a quick following and other products followed - a vertical class A amp nicknamed the headstone, active loudspeakers (Pegasus, Anthaeus, Cantabile), preamps, phono stages, headphone amps and more. Ditto for CDP mods to Sony, Denon and Teac players as well as OEM contracts. For analog, Fuchs designed his own deck plus matching unipivot arm. More recently, he's added a pimped-out Denon DL-103 cartridge under the Volpe label. It's safe to say that Mr. Fuchs enjoys keeping busy.

Never mind history though. Hasn't it been awfully quiet around SAC of late? No new products, nothing new in the West? Actually, SAC's got a number of projects on the burner. There's an affordable integrated, a really big power amp, a statement preamp - and larger hedgehogs. All will soon cruise the 'hood. What concerns us today though is something different - SAC's current top offering in amplification, the big piccolo monos. If that's got a wee bit of a 'white albino' ring, it's not solely due to Westphalian understatement. The piccoli/piccolos were always envisioned as "examples of a new breed of SAC amplifiers".

Tech bits
The first piccolo prototype dates back to 1998. The design has been with us then even though the current incarnation barely shares a part with the original, claims Fuchs. The overall circuit topology survives but modern parts have simply improved significantly - particularly the operational amplifiers. And a few circuit items did change. The rail voltage got bumped up by 5 volts to increase output and dynamic headroom (the differential between continuous and short-term peak power). This tweak is retrofittable to older piccolo models through a formal upgrade program. Ditto for the hedgehog.

Optically and where it matters, the piccolo cuts a profile of reason and sanity: the RCAs are quality and chassis-mounted, XLRS are Neutriks and the twinned speaker terminals for biwiring near overkill, accepting bare wire up to 50mm² in cross section and bananas. Meanwhile spade specialists (ahem, little me) need 1.5cm (!) gaps or their forks won't clear the stout posts. One size down to comply with regular spade standards would have done the job.

Being on the business end of things, those two small push buttons select between RCA/XLR inputs and standby. Engaged, the latter puts the amp in sleep mode after 5 minutes of not sensing signal but reawakens it instantly when signal returns. This avoids hard power-downs, perfect if you don't mind the small 11wpc standby power draw. Consumption scales to 60 watts at idle and 350 under max duty, all quite conservative in this power class. The power mains switch resides upfront and confirms status with three LEDs.

Each mono weighs 12kg with dimensions of 230 x 126 x 423mm W x H x D. I enjoy the slim-line look and it's practical to boot when moving these boxes closer to the speakers (hint: keep speaker cable short). One rack will accommodate a few. With the pizzazz of acrylic style panels front and sides, the piccolo is a looker for a mono amp. New test arrivals always inspire closer inspection but reading owner's manuals for monos? How complex could they be? Enter the HMS Sestetto/Fortissimo cable loom and: Power! A fat 'plopp' responded and the woofers shook. What? Ah, no output relay as Herr Fuchs had warned. Fussing about for just the perfect first record, I next heard weird noises from the speakers. A few clicks later, the piccolo amps powered down, their protection LEDs sternly reprimanding me. Huh? Better study the manual after all...

The il piccolos will drive just about anything but a few items need to be considered or they'll refuse to play. That's due to their circuit which is squarely responsible for some rather extreme performance attributes. Think wide bandwidth, steep rise times, mucho NFB and -- linked to the latter -- a nearly unbelievable damping factor of 20,000 (across the entire audio bandwidth according to SAC).

Naturally, beaucoup damping factor was innocent when the amps shut down. The high bandwidth and negative feedback simply balked at the HMS cable's
high capacitance just as the owner's manual warned they would had I read it. Such a combination can cause ultrasonic oscillations to invoke the auto-protection circuit. No sweat, I do carry more than one speaker cable brand.

While high amplifier bandwidth is universally applauded, excessive feedback -- returning a portion of the inverted output signal to the inputs -- isn't. Why NFB in the first place? For twin main reasons: to lower damping factor by lowering output impedance; and to wipe out linear and non-linear distortion artifacts via cancellation. Feedback thus makes a case for itself and yet..."it's often absurd. Folks listen to my amps and sooner than later, one will confirm: "No feedback, Herr Fuchs, correct?" When I enlighten them to the contrary with oodles of feedback, they always look spooked..." The spooky word here is 80dB worth of feedback - "more than the open-loop gain of most competitors". With the piccolos, the latter sits at a colossal 110 to 120dB.

Why the bad rep on negative feedback? Herr Fuchs thinks that myth making is the culprit but most myths do enjoy a kernel of truth, in this instance TIM transient intermodulation distortion. That can occur during steep signal pulses (so-called transients beyond mere percussion but also active during the attack phase of 'normal' sounds) when the feedback loop delays in time to insert the difference signal in the wrong spot.

To which the foxy defense offers three counter charges: a/ the influence of TIM is grossly exaggerated; b/ technically, zero-feedback amps don't exist, just those with less feedback; c/ the power of suggestion (the image of the impulse deep inside the speaker already while the poor feedback signal has barely exited the cable) is simply too compelling. The actual process is rather more involved but conclusive coverage of a 30-year dispute among amplifier designers is well beyond today's assignment.

Regardless, Herr Fuchs applies plenty of current feedback both of the local and global sort. Compared to voltage feedback, this is said to maintain constant bandwidth. A side benefit is the constant high damping factor. Output Z sans feedback divided by feedback
factor gives us the actual impedance value, here claimed to be vanishingly small. To not increase that hard-won low value, the output relay with its higher contact resistance has been sacked. That explains the funny on/off noises. Though overused by hifi journalists, the term 'uncompromised' does suggest itself. Damping factor benefits are said to go well beyond controlling woofer flutter. They also linearize impedance fluctuations across the entire audible band.

On uncompromised, "the best filter cap is no filter cap" quipped our sly fox (Fuchs in German). Thus there isn't a single capacitor in these amps' signal paths. The protection circuitry monitors for DC offset on the i/o ports. Enter resistance to fashion trends: mondo feedback; class A/B instead of A; bipolars instead of MOSFETS; evil opamps instead of discrete. Even the 450V transformer was scaled down to 330V to avoid mechanical hum. Nor will the modest 40,000µF capacitor bank per channel impress diehard freaks though they should finally cheer to 2 x 30 amperes of current capacity and rise times below 2µS regardless of load or level. Alright already - howzit all sound?

"Before I endure dozens of A/Bs, let's have fun." 30-ampere current, damping up the proverbial, turbo-charged impulse response all cried out for Marla Glen's The Cost of Freedom. At concert levels no less. "Wowie, this stuff really works." With shoe-carton-size speakers and luxurious but weak-chested amps, you'll actually have to interpolate on driving bass grooves to get the full picture. It's quite surprising how adaptable our ear/brain is at filling in things. Yet when this need disappears because those very things are real, dry as bones and massively present in the room, the darn bow-tie loosens and we relax since that subconscious brain activity stops. While deliverance of base bass needs carries questionable fringe benefits (slightly idiotic grins for one), it's solid satisfaction nonetheless.

Make no mistake, what the piccolinos deliver in the bass is among the very best amps can possibly muster. There's the dry fraction with fine differentiation but a lack of swing and energy. There's the juicy division which counters with a more soft and blurry character. A few can do both -- energy with precision, power with differentiation -- and the big SAC monos occupy that class. To what level though? Beyond room volume, things often bloat, with woofers continuing to rumble when they shouldn't, room resonances adding their own mud. Or else, everything goes bright. Not here. These amps maintain the otherworldly balance of the proverbial feather. They merely continue to load up on sound pressures as prompted. While not everyone thrives on PA levels high-end style, it's nice to have that capacity. And do the piccolos ever have it.

At the opposite end, the piccolos have an open, clear and utterly grain-free treble. What they don't do is sugar-coat or act the winking charmer who injects an extra dose of golden glimmer here and there. There's no soft focus under the guise of fatigue-free long-term fitness which really homogenizes aggressive musical elements. Nor is there extra energy in the presence/brilliance range which would boost the live illusion over the short haul but bleed the nerves over the long. Everything is pure and clean as a whistle. 'ß' turns neither 'z' nor 'sch' [the first symbol denotes a sharp 'ss' in German - Ed].

Ditto for the midband. It's transparent, realistic and without any excess as though the entire frequency range had been flea-combed and deloused of the smallest irritants. Until the SAC monos have run a bit, this is exceptionally clean stuff, albeit a tad cool. I prefer it after a few hours though that's princess-on-a-pea stuff. I've since adopted the habit of running the piccolos all day long, avoiding standby altogether. Regardless, SAC's monos paint neither in pastels nor expressionist but as realists. Actually, they don't paint. They're master draftsmen.

Still, abject tonal neutrality doesn't begin to explain why the SACs are so fascinating on voices. Besides realism and ultra-dry bass, other aspects are worth mentioning: dynamics mastered as though they were child's play; stupendous resolution; and -- sorry but factual -- soundstaging and image localization that are bloody superlative. This adds up to vocals that arise truly within a room, with well-defined timbres and sharp outlines, their tiniest of ups and downs tracked such that one questions what else could possibly exist. Perhaps an ultra-quiet rustle deep in the left corner caused by a momentarily less than careful musicians? Even that is rendered.

Such is the exalted plateau of playback here and so intense the presence that I'm not prepared to put up with anything less. Predictably, something would go amiss - inferior sorting or less lucid mids; spatial compaction or foreshortening of the stage; bass blur or treble hooding. It's always something that diminishes. What makes these monos spectacular isn't any isolated specialty but their total performance. To this listener, it leaves nothing to be desired. I'm nearly put off for admitting this but if I can't find even a single hair in the soup, why grope my scalp to procure one?

Does this make the piccolos perfect amps? Nope, that's unrealistic considering personal tastes. For one, forget valve magic. I'll bet you petrol futures that some folks will accuse these amps of too much honesty and control. Not to fret though, there's a component to suit everyone's sonic bias. SAC, explains Herr Schäfer, is all about offering the technically feasible for a fair price. That statement is about as dry as the bass of the piccolos. I'll merely add that the technical solutions here are quite sophisticated - and advise you in all sincerity to audition these black Westphalians.

SAC's il piccolo monos are true statements in transistor amps. Their total virtues are so high that they will henceforth serve as domestic references, representing a new yard stick quite up there in the clouds:
  • Fit 'n' finish are beyond reproach though not nouveau riche excessive.
  • Their sonic north is the ideal of neutrality. Nothing is spot-lit or depressed.
  • Bass is bone-dry but filled with energy and rebound. Extension is truly stygian yet always articulate.
  • Those with speakers suffering excess girth down low will naturally experience a slimming down. The monos' extreme damping factor puts an end to woofer ringing.
  • The mid- and treble bands are crystal clear or "audibly free of distortion" as a colleague put it in a different context.
  • The stage is very sizable, with depth layering a particular forté. The presentation isn't forward but laid back.
  • Image specificity is first-rate, with holographic precision that's stable and precise even during dense passages.
  • The piccolos are very dynamic and fast. Macro dynamics are a given but it's the micro dynamics that fascinate because the very smallest of fluctuations are tracked.
  • Magnification power is extreme to make it highly unlikely that these monos will ever miss a beat.


  • Retail: € 4.800/pr
  • Weight: 12kg/ea.
  • Dimensions: 230 x 126 x 423mm (W x H x D)
  • Finish: black, fascia and sides in acrylic
  • Power draw per channel: 11 watt in standby, 60 watt at ide, 350 watt at max output
  • Input impedance: 1kOhm XLR, 10kOhm RCA
  • Output: absolutely massive twin terminals for biwiring
  • Power delivery: 100 Watt into 8 Ohm, 150 watt into 4 Ohm (per side at 0,1% distortion and 10kHz)
  • Max current capability: 30 Ampere
  • Other: signal-sensing standby, no signal-path relays or capacitors
  • SAC website
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