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Moving forward: Spending time with the Plinius SA-102 amplifier, 8200
integrated, and CD-LAD preamplifier.
I was quite happy with my system, until multiple equipment failures took away my listening privileges. While dealing with the long wait, I decided to replace everything, and set about auditioning equipment. Thinking that perhaps a simpler system would cause less trouble, I decided to try an integrated amp. I had heard good things about the Rowland, but that was a little pricey. I listened to a Gryphon Callisto 2100 and liked it, but it was also out of my price range. The name Plinius just kept popping up. This New Zealand company has developed quite a reputation for sound, looks, value, and customer happiness. The Plinius 8200 had the right pedigree, and was fairly reasonable at $3000, so I went for it. Mine arrived in silver and had impressive quality and low-key good looks.
The 8200 has plenty of inputs (all RCA) and two sets of very good quality, gold-plated speaker binding posts.Using my Empirical Audio Clarity7 spaded speaker cables and Empirical interconnects, I connected my Cary CD player to the Plinius and let it warm up for a few hours. Man, my rack looked empty! The amp (like everything else these days) has a blue LED power indicator that flashes briefly when the amp is turned on, and another indicating whether or not the amp is muted.
My first listen was to Keiko Matsui's Deep Blue. I have listened to this CD many times, and know it very well. It is soothing yet dynamic, restrained yet thrilling. Within the first few notes, I knew the Plinius was something special. The midrange came alive, with a lush fullness I had never heard from my Muse monoblocks or Bryston 4B-ST. And the highs, well, they were etched in space, with definition I didn't think a redbook CD was capable of. Each piano note hung sharply in the air until it gradually dissipated in anticipation of the next. And then there were the incredibly low-level triangles and chimes I had never noticed, so subtle as to be almost inaudible, but now clearly heard.
After many hours, I am still in awe of the 8200. I listened to Norah Jones, Loreena McKennit, Vanessa Mae, and Rachmaninov. The 8200 reproduced vocals, piano, violin, and brass with equal fidelity and effortlessness. Does this come with a price? In my system, I began to detect a looseness in the very lowest bass. I put on Madonna's Like a Virgin, and it seemed okay, brilliant in fact. Then I played Loreena McKennitt's The Visitor, and on track five, "Greensleeves," and especially track six, "Tango to Evora," I detected an irritating boominess at the bottom, which I had not noticed before. The Bryston went back into the system, and using the 8200 as a preamp, I played the same CD. The boominess was mostly gone, but so were the phenomenal midrange and the highs I loved so much.
A few people suggested that I should give the new Plinius SA-102 power amp a try. I was able to arrange a very generous trade-in allowance, and in just a week the beast arrived. The beautiful, silver SA-102 is huge! Weighing in at ninety-some pounds, it measures over 9" tall, 19 1/2" wide, and almost 16" deep. Of course, it wouldn't fit in my rack, so I was forced to sit it on the floor for the time being. It really is a well-made piece. Huge but attractive cooling fins flank both sides, with handles on front and back. There are two switches on the front, one for mute and one for switching from to pure Class A. The rear sports a ground lift switch and a configuration selector. The SA-102 can be set for XLR inputs in stereo or bridged and RCA stereo or bridged. Since I was using the 8200 as a preamp, I set it for RCA stereo.
After connecting the 306/200 and leaving the SA-102 on for an hour, I switched it to Class A and sat back. The SA-102 automatically reverts to AB after thirty minutes of standby to save energy. The amp is hardly even warm when in AB. Well, the SA-102 definitely cured the boomy bass problem! The bass was incredibly tight and well controlled. My speakers are self-built, two-way towers utilizing Scan Speak 8545 6.5" Mid/Bass and 9500 Tweeters. I don't need much bass in my small (10 X 11') room, but now I was hearing lower bass than ever before.
If the 102 was this good with the 8200, how would it sound with a good preamp? My dealer suggested the Plinius CD-LAD or M16. I couldn't immediately arrange a trade on the 8200, so I put it up for sale and kept looking. Luckily it sold quickly, and I was able to locate a demo CD-LAD locally, and it arrived the very next day. The sleek silver CD-LAD perfectly matched the SA-102. Although the owner's manual doesn't say, the "CD" designation apparently refers to this preamp being optimized for CD use. It defaults to the CD input when turned on. The unit includes XLR inputs (one for CD) and XLR outputs, as well as two sets of RCA inputs (Line 1 & Line 2) and two sets of RCA outputs. The remote is a very sexy block of aluminum with full control of everything, including balance.
I mated the CD-LAD to the SA-102 using Stealth CWS balanced interconnects. 306/200 was connected with Empirical RCA interconnects. I had been warned that the CD-LAD was not broken in, so I left it on for a day. Of course, I did play around a little to check the controls and make sure it was functioning. The balance control can be bypassed, and that's the way I left it. By the following day I was anxious to do some serious listening. This time I wanted something different, so I pulled out Burmester's CD 03, which has a diverse and esoteric collection of well-recorded music and is a real treat to sample. One of my favorites on this CD is track six, Hans Theessink's "The Planet," which features husky vocals with some weird and wonderful steel guitar. I sat in total awe as it filled the room. The guitar was real, and it was here and now. You could hear each vibration of the steel strings exciting the air, bursting forth in rich harmonics and trailing off into silence as the next one began. It ended too soon, but the next track was even better. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's "Allegro Molto" from Scheherazade is one dynamic piece of orchestral music! I'm sure my neighbors must have stopped to listen. Every instrument was truly portrayed as the room shook and then quieted, only to rise again with absolutely no distortion, no shading, and no coloration.
The next track on the Burmester CD, "Bach Orgelwerke 1," is a real burner, and the room really shuddered. I could feel the pressure of the lower notes while the mids and highs soared cleanly and elegantly through the air. By now, though, the SA-102 was making the room noticeably warm. Even the CD-LAD was pretty hotapparently this uses Class A circuitry as well. I guess my air conditioning bill is going to be a bit bigger this year.
The SA-102 seems capable of anything I throw at it. There is not a hint of harshness, brightness, graininess, or any other artifact of electronic reproduction. Its pairing with the CD-LAD is a match made in heaven. The Plinius preamp doesn't seem to add anything, but sounds far superior to its cousin, the 8200. I am fanatically happy with the Plinius gear. I look forward to many, many years of sonic nirvana. Ed Morawski