Part I of this assessment was conducted using the S.A.Lab SUT into my Lounge Audio LCR MkIII. Although this pairing may look completely unreasonable due to the much lower price point of the Lounge MM phonostage, I'll point out that the Lounge sells direct and has been widely acknowledged as providing performance completely out of proportion with its price; and that its neutral sonic signature allowed me to easily pinpoint the contribution of the step-up transformer. I was then able to compare the S.A.Lab to Lounge’s unconventional Copla active head-amp as well as benchmark the Lounge + S.A.Lab against my Genesis Phono Gold reference. In part II, I will comment on the combination of SUT with S.A.Lab’s own Thunderbird phono and linestage. When comparing the SUT directly to Lounge’s Copla head-amp or the SUT/LCR MkIII combo to my Genesis, the very same attributes jumped at me to make a strong case for those qualities being directly attributable to the SUT.

The first striking thing was the significant reduction in surface noise particularly against the Genesis, an extremely revealing uncompromising piece. Even against the less resolved Copla it was obvious how the sharp HF dynamics generated by surface noise (the infamous clicks, pops and just plain noise) were significantly suppressed to result in a much blacker background for the music to rise from. There was a downside to this behaviour, too. Music with many sharp treble transients was tamer. This was very obvious on well-recorded
medieval strings and harpsichord. Whether on La Folia, Balalaika Favorites or Bach’s Well-tempered clavier, the conclusion was the same: the music sounded overall cleaner but on further listening less defined, energized and thrilling than through the Genesis which unleashed the raw power of the performance. This impression stayed true with both Ortofon Quintet Black and Zu-DL103 although the latter sounded brighter than typical, without necessarily more top-end dynamics.

Over the weeks listening to the S.A.Lab transformer, I was surprised by how much this purely passive component benefited from break-in. It initially sounded fairly restricted from a macrodynamic standpoint but after about 50 hours was anything but, having grown into a very colourful expansive component except for that treble mellowing effect already mentioned. The more time I spent with the SUT, the more I felt it sounded like a very well-made modern SET, i.e. not like a vintage 300B with fluffy upper bass and limited dynamics but far more akin to the very best efforts by Audio Note or my own Triode-Lab 2A3 integrated.

What stood out and made me reach this conclusion was the intensity of tonal colors produced by the SUT compared to the Copla or even Genesis; as well as massive and truly holographic soundstaging although here the Genesis was at least equal and perhaps a tad better yet. In all cases the S.A.Lab delivered that huge, intensely saturated and fluid sound I associate with triodes. And, just like most triodes, it lacked the last degree of air and dynamics on top or the ultimate punch in the bass, two dimensions where the Genesis played in an utterly different league. On Musical Chairs by Hootie and the Blowfish, not a highly energized disk to start with, it resulted in somewhat muted percussions as though they were wrapped in cloth. At the same time, voices and other instrumental textures sounded gorgeous and rich like I rarely experience. On Adele’s 25 the effect was identical - somewhat blunted percussive impacts but her voice was huge and finely textured as it is with the far more expensive Genesis.

This consistent energetic damper wasn't always negative. When listening to older classical music recordings with a lot of surface noise, the clean-up by the SUT, even if robbing a little treble energy and drive, was beneficial, especially on older Deutsche Grammophon vinyl that always sound a little hot to my ears. What you listen to and the overall quality of your record collection will likely determine if you view this mellowing aspect of the S.A.Lab as asset or liability. Also, this effect will be very cartridge dependent.

At this stage, my intermediate conclusion became that the S.A.Lab SUT was a significant upgrade over the Lounge Copla active headamp. The differences were significant across the board with a far more organic sound, richer tonal textures, greater macrodynamics and far greater ambient recovery and soundstaging all favouring the Russian, with the exception of upper frequency dynamics where I found it to come up a little short. Overall however, the far greater price resulted in incomparably superior performance. Once paired with the Lounge LCR MkIII, the now roughly $3'000 combo still fell quite short of the Genesis Phono Gold. The differences really focused on the latter's’ ability to pass on the raw energy of recordings and provide unedited microdynamics throughout the whole range. Going back to my previous analogy, the S.A.Lab despite being a passive component, sounded like a superb SET. The Genesis doesn't really have a sound. It gives an unedited rendition of the recorded event though like the SUT, it is capable of staging very broad and deep which is not typical of most solid-state components. The degree of honesty of the Genesis may not be the best choice in all systems. There is no doubt in my mind that the tonal saturation and bold sound of the S.A.Lab may be just what the doctor ordered for many leaner systems. It adds a sense of fluidity that escapes most active circuits performing the same function.

These qualities are what SUTs are known for and this one doesn't depart from the recipe. Part II of this review reports on the Thunderbird preamplifier which I paired with the SUT for a full-on S.A.Lab experience.