|ShengYa A10 MKII ~ $550|
The Sheng Ya A10CS is a hybrid (thermionic/solid state) integrated amplifier rated at 150 watt per channel (into 8 ohm) with the first 10 watts being pure class A. Sheng Ya claim that the A10CS MKII is a “Seriously upgraded model to the famous SV-236” (referencing the Vincent SV-236MK) with Russian made 12AX7 pre-amplification stage, Toshiba driver and output stages, high end MKP capacitors, ALPS motorized volume control and gold plated speaker output posts.
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Installed into my small room system the A10 was placed on a Stillpoints component stand. The Sino pre-amplifier tubes were replaced (based on recommendation by a local tube expert) with Electro-Harmonix 12AX7 (2009) tubes which cost around $15 each. The A10 was connected to a Cary Audio 306 SACD (Professional version) with Nordost Valhalla interconnect and to the Raidho loud speakers via Nordost Heimdall speaker cable. Power was supplied to the A10 via Nordost Vishnu loom connected to a QBase strip which in turn was pre-feed with Quantum Resonant Technology mains purification. The complete system was left running for one week before the audition started and observations were made over a five month period. Over this period the A10 was referenced against a Unison Research Unico Secondo amplifier (Italy, hybrid, ECC-83 tubes, 120 watt) and a Gryphon Diablo (Denmark, solid state, 250 watt).
As I have frequently found with hybrids the mid band is certainly its best feature, with fine expression and plenty of subtle textural detail even if its resolution in absolute terms is a bit disappointing. In Take This Waltz, Cohen’s Voice is reproduced particularly well, stepping beyond the mundane mechanics of delivery and comprehension to the impartation of emotion – love and devastation. Cohen who nowadays ‘speaks’ more than he sings, renders the potent lyrics in a voice that truly breathes, free of mechanical restraints of the recording and instilled with a natural emphasis and inflexion. Excellence in reproduction of a near spoken voice is a neat trick given that we are more critical of and more used to the sound of voices than any musical instrument. The same track played back through the Gryphon did not build upon the fine articulation of voice but did produce extra space around and behind instruments (musically and dimensionally) thereby rendering superior layering improving intelligibility and solidity.
Continuing for a moment with voice, the A10 again scored well in Taylors Chimes at Midnight, where the weighting of each piano note is so precise, its placement so clear, that the fragile balance between lyric and the instrumental underpinning is beautifully preserved and with it the emotional weight and sense of loneliness of a travelling troubadour. In this respect the A10 reminded me of Abbingdon Music Research (AMR) AM-77 integrated however, the recording which is peppered with both subtle and vivid ambient cues does confirm that the A10 is a lower definition device (compared to the AMR and Gryphon) with both resolution and transparency limited in absolute terms. Similarly, with large scale orchestral works such as Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Dance of the Tumblers, the A10 struggled to keep the instrumental acoustic boundaries in check – but then I’ve heard far more expensive amplifiers similarly struggle to avoid congestion with this work and the A10 at least delivers a convincing sense of orchestral weight which far surpassed the Unico Secondo at five times the price.
The bass is handled extremely well for a hybrid solution. So often a weak spot in hybrid design the bass avoided softness and aimlessness evidenced in the Unison Research Unico. The A10 was no softy rather the bass had punch and immediacy that whilst still far short of the Gryphon Diablo’s authoritive solid propulsiveness had good timing and weight. In White Stripes feat of Bacharach’s I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself, the A10 timed very well indeed and despite the somewhat grimy recording easily surpassed the Unico which comparatively demonstrated a vagueness to when deep bass notes start and stop. The A10’s rapid transient response and sense of impact enjoyed the same crispness as usually experienced with considerably more expensive pure solid state designs.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I keyed up ABC’s digitally re-mastered but still bloody awful 1999 album, creatively entitled Classic ABC. This album serves as my bad recording reference, noisy and grainy 1980’s synth-pop at its worst, but it nonetheless sits on the top shelf of my CD rack because hits like Look of Love, Poison Arrow and All of My Heart are all defining musical moments of 80s nostalgia for me. It takes a well sorted audio system to extract the music from the compressed mayhem and the A10 rose to the occasion delivering a highly listenable experience by seemingly focusing on the overall substance of the recording rather than the niceties of fine detail and acoustic perspective. In this sense the A10 seemed so holistically coherent that you simply don’t question what isn’t there – rather you simply revel in what is…
Guitars and plucked instruments are also well served by the A10. Valve based amplifiers are often guilty of rounding or worse blunting the leading edges of notes – not so the A10 which with Lofren’s dynamic Keith Don’t Go saw only minor softness to leading edges and only when compared against the Gryphon did the rapid fingering lose that last once of immediacy and attack. However, the A10 compensated with nicely fleshed out vocals and richer instrumental colours then the Gryphon but sans a compromise of speed and linearity of the bass as evidenced with the Unison Research Unico.
I have saved the best till last and that best comes in the form of Calypso king – Harry Belafonte. While The Best of Harry Belafonte album was digitally re-mastered from recordings that date back to the 50’s the end result is still less than wonderful with high background noise and limited dynamic range. Over the years I have used one track in particular to assess a component or a systems rhythmic abilities and that track is Day-O (The Banana Boat Song, 1955). A call and response work song it might be dramatizing the drudgery of alienated labour in the colonial produce trade – but for me it serves as a drama of another kind, the final arbiter of whether an audio component should be kept or tossed out the window. If one finds themselves less than captivated by its playback and its ability to conjure the spirit and life from this challenging recording – then keep looking would be my usual advice. The A10 absolutely nailed the playback of Day-O reproducing contagious energy and excitement with glorious rhythmic feel and swing. It simply was not possible to sit still in the chair for this, with the sonic event demanding physical response and delivering an experience so infectious and gratifyingly horripilate that at that moment I could not have given a tinkers cuss even if the amplifier was later found to be constructed from recycled Chinese television parts…
In summary then, the A10 makes no apology in trying to grab you by the music gland; has no glaring weaknesses (sonically) but perhaps is better matched to the mellow rather than the manic among us. Sonically and in the context of my playback system, the highest praise I could bestow on the A10 was that it succeeded, despite some epistemological “HiFi” short-comings – in transforming listening from a process of analysis to one of appreciation of artistic expression. Bravo.
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