July 2007Song Audio Cecilia SA-34 SB Integrated Amplifier
by Vade Forrester
St. Cecilia is the patron saint of musicians and the blind. According to her legend, she offered musical praise to God, both vocally and instrumentally. She inspired numerous works of art and music, including musical settings by Handel, Purcell, Gounod, Scarlatti, Howells, Parry, and Britten.
So when an audio manufacturer names an amplifier after a saint, it had better be heavenly, right? Well, thats just what Song Kim, president of Song Audio, has done. There have been earlier versions of the SA-34 SB integrated amplifier, one reviewed on Ultra Audio a few years ago. The $2900 USD Cecilia SA-34 SB is an all-tube integrated using a 5AR4 rectifier, two 12AX7s in the input stage, and two EL34s for power. The fact that theres only one EL34 per channel means the circuit is single-ended, which means the output tubes have to amplify the entire waveform, rather than split it into positive and negative components and route those to separate amplifier sections, as is done in push-pull amplifier circuits. Furthermore, the EL34s are strapped to run as triodes, so theres even less power available: 4Wpc to be exact. Thats not much, even for single-ended triode-strapped EL34s. Other amplifiers using similar circuits have higher power ratings. So why is the Cecilia rated at such a low power? I asked Song Kim that question, and he responded that he was extremely conservative in rating his amplifiers outputs.
The EL34 tube is a very popular output tube. It was used in the most popular amplifier ever made, the Dynaco ST70. The EL34 is still a popular tube, especially for guitar amplifiers, where it has a reputation for sounding extremely sweet in the midrange but somewhat rolled off at the frequency extremes.
All of the Cecilia SA-34 SBs tubes were sourced from Russian manufacturer Electro Harmonix, which in my experience makes very reliable tubes. Because the output tubes are self-biasing, the user can swap any other EL34 tubes for the stock ones. Tube rollers can have a field day with the Cecilia SA-34 SB. If you've always wanted to splurge on some NOS Mullards, heres your chance -- you'll only need to buy two of them. Of course, with any stereo amplifier, using matched output tubes is a good idea.
The Cecilia SA-34 SB is a compact (151/2"W x 63/4"H x 13"D and 30 pounds), attractive integrated with some thoughtful touches. The chassis is made of polished stainless steel, with a large power transformer in the center toward the rear and two smaller output transformers flanking it. Cherry-wood panels adorn the sides, giving the integrated amp a rich look. The front panel is made of clear acrylic, with a central gold volume control. Toward the right side is the on/off toggle switch, with a green LED showing when the amp is powered up. Toward the left side is another toggle switch for selecting the input. That means there are only two inputs available, which may be insufficient for some systems.
The tubes are located on top of the chassis in front of the transformers, with gold tube protectors around each tube. I guess theyre tube protectors; because they only partially cover the tubes, they dont provide a lot of protection. The protectors around the EL34s, which get quite hot, only cover the bottom half of the tube -- not much protection there.
At the rear on top of the chassis are two sets of binding posts for 4- and 8-ohm connection. Each pair has its own grounding post, although these are wired together internally. The binding posts were unfamiliar to me, but I liked them a lot; they really gripped spades firmly without requiring some torque from a wrench. On the back panel at the right side are RCA jacks for the two inputs, and at the left side are a set of RCA jacks for a line-level output. Thats a great feature, allowing you to drive a separate amp for biamping, or a subwoofer. It should be easy for the Cecilia SA-34 SB to drive a satellite/subwoofer system.
One of the Cecilia SA-34 SBs most outstanding features is that its price includes Song Audios $500 USD power cord. After seeing so many components arrive with crappy computer-grade power cords that, hopefully, a user would toss in a drawer in favor of an aftermarket cord, its very refreshing to get such a heavy-duty, heavy-gauge cord. I wish more manufacturers would choose their power cords this thoughtfully! The two-meter cord uses cryogenically treated silver-plated copper conductors, a Furutech 320 IEC connector and a 15A Furutech AC plug.
So whats lacking? A remote control, of course. Perhaps Im spoiled, but when integrated amps like the $2000 Opera Audio Consonance Cyber-10 Signature and the $1799 Raysonic SP100 show up with remotes that control not only volume but also source selection and muting, I start to expect such niceties. The Cyber-10 Signature had five inputs, rather than the Cecilia SA-34 SBs two, and the Raysonic four, but neither had line-level outputs.
User manuals can be a joke, but the Cecilia SA-34 SBs isnt. Its a five-page manual, apparently printed on a computer, with color illustrations and well-written, useful information. It lacks a specification sheet, however, which can be useful.
Although I broke in the Cecilia SA-34 SB for over 200 hours, it was listenable from the first day I placed it on the bottom shelf of my equipment rack. The Cecilia SA-34 SB was completely unfussy to set up -- just install the power tubes, connect speaker cables and interconnects, plug in the power cord, and youre ready to listen.
However, I feel duty-bound to report that I did experience some problems. The power transformer of first review sample almost came off the chassis during shipping. I think UPS gets most of the credit for this, although I wondered if the tiny self-tapping screws that held the transformer to the chassis might not have been part of the problem. The second sample had a loose ground wire that caused an annoying hum. After the ground wire was repaired, the hum was reduced, but it was still unacceptably loud -- I could hear it during quiet musical passages. Song Kim then found a way to reduce it further, and finally I could listen to the Cecilia SA-34 SB without having to try to ignore the hum. As a result, my estimation of the amplifiers sound went up a notch -- and this review took longer than normal to finish.
I was so pleased with the way the Cecilia SA-34 SB sounded through my 97dB-sensitive Opera Audio speakers that I challenged it by connecting it to my 102dB-sensitive Second Rethms. The more sensitive speakers revealed that there was still some residual hum, and although it was not as loud as before Song Kim reduced it, it would still deter me from recommending this integrated amp for use with extremely sensitive speakers like the Second Rethms.
I try not to form any opinions about a component before listening to it, but I must admit, based on the Cecilia SA-34 SBs petite dimensions and rated power, that I rather expected a wimpy sound that would drive my speakers to only modest levels. Boy, was I wrong! At normal listening levels, the Cecilia SA-34 SB had plenty of oomph to drive the relatively sensitive Opera Audio M12s. When I talk about normal listening levels, for me that means rather loud in my 20'W x 23'L x 12'H listening room, which is not the easiest space to fill.
If you want to hear Cecilia strut her stuff, just play a CD like Diana Kralls From This Moment On [Verve 80007530-02]. Youll hear a spacious sound, with ample dynamic range, accurate instrumental timbres, a wide frequency response and, best of all, vocals that seem unusually coherent and easy to follow. Although Im not Kralls biggest fan, the Cecilia SA-34 SB made her performances more interesting than they often sound with other components.
To prepare for writing a review, I usually spend a lot of time getting to know a component, playing a wide variety of music to discern its overall flavor. Then, for a couple of days, I play a series of evaluation discs that help me crystallize my views on how the component sounds. Its common to have moments during this process that help me identify some of the special attributes of the component I'm listening to. One such moment came when I was playing a Julian Bream recording, Popular Classics for Spanish Guitar [RCA Red Seal 88697-04606-2], newly reissued on SACD. The sound had a beguiling spaciousness that is supposed to be characteristic of SACDs but often isnt. The spaciousness drew me in to this 1962 recording and increased my involvement with and interest in the music. Isnt that the real justification for high-end audio to exist -- involvement and interest? Breams SACD really isnt a demonstration-grade recording of a guitar, but through the Cecilia SA-34 SB it presented the nuances of his exquisite performances very well.
The EL34 has a reputation for being a midrange tube, so I was especially curious about how the Cecilia SA-34 SB handled highs and lows. I played Kabalevskys "Overture to Colas Breugnon" by Eije Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra from the CD Bolero! [Reference Recordings RR-92CD], and the high frequencies seemed quite extended, capturing the complex, prominent percussion parts very accurately. On my favorite high-frequency evaluation cuts, "The Panther" from Jennifer Warnes The Well [Cisco SCD 2034], has tons of percussion instruments that adorn the vocal part. The coruscating chimes that open the piece demonstrate a commendable extension, capturing virtually all the chimes very-high-frequency content. Though extended, the Cecilia SA-34 SBs highs are not at all peaky, and they are well integrated with the midrange.
Bass seemed fairly punchy, but the lowest parts of the piece (which goes into the upper 20Hz range, well below my speakers capability) were just not there. When I played Jennifer Warnes "Way Down Deep" from her CD The Hunter [Private Music 01005-82089-2] at normal levels -- i.e., pretty loud -- the drums went surprisingly deep with good impact. Ive heard deeper bass from my speakers, but the Cecilia SA-34 SB captured most of it. Once, when I was in a rare headbanging mood, I cranked "Way Down Deep" way up high, driving the Cecilia SA-34 SB into clipping, which reminded me of its diminutive power rating. But that was much louder than I normally listen -- almost painful.
On most pieces, the Cecilia SA-34 SB had lots of bass energy, at least down into the upper 30Hz range. That will serve most music well. And remember, there are line-out jacks to connect a powered subwoofer if you need even more bass. Still, the Cecilia SA-34 SB had a vibrant, energetic quality with lots of jump. Music seemed to move forward steadily, and not get bogged down. I think this is what our British colleagues call PRaT (pace, rhythm, and timing), which seems to be especially valued on their side of the pond. Rock, in particular, benefits from a strong rhythmic presentation, but its important even with classical symphonic music, which can be quite boisterous.
Although the Cecilia SA-34 SB did highs well and lows surprisingly well, its real magic was its gorgeous, EL34-ized midrange. Chris Joness album Roadhouses and Automobiles [Stockfisch SFR357.6027.2] showed that the Song Audio integrated treated the male voice just as respectfully as the female. All the nuances of Joness expressive singing were reproduced clearly, and the instruments, particularly his guitar on "Jacindas Wedding March," were reproduced with vivid tonal color. Musical details emerged naturally from the mix, without resorting to an artificial boosting of high frequencies to create an illusion of greater detail. The Cecilia SA-34 SB isnt the most detailed integrated amp Ive heard, but its detail is musically rendered instead of hi-fi-sounding.
A major factor in how well any integrated amplifier portrays music is its handling of the dynamic spectrum, both macrodynamics -- how loudly and quietly it will play -- and microdynamics -- how it handles slight variations in loudness that musicians use to phrase their performances. The Cecilia SA-34 SB was quite good on both counts; with "Folia: Rodrigo Martinez" from Jordi Savall and associates La Folia [Alia Vox AV9805], it tracked the continuous microdynamic changes very precisely. On this piece, climaxes should virtually explode out of the system, and the Cecilia SA-34 SB reproduced them well. However, Ive heard them sound even more combustible with some other integrated amps that cost more and have greater output power.
To assess the Cecilia SA-34 SBs ability to drive less-sensitive speakers, I briefly connected it to a pair Soliloquy SM-2A3s, which are 91dB sensitive with an 11-ohm impedance. The Cecilia drove them to satisfying levels as long as I didnt get too frisky with the volume control. Still, high-sensitivity speakers should be most satisfactory with the Cecilia SA-34 SB, providing more dynamic range before the onset of clipping.
Soundstaging was spectacular -- one of this integrateds greatest strengths. On the Tallis Scholars recording of Allegris "Miserere," from the CD Allegri Miserere [Gimell 454 939-2], the main choir was spread out nicely between the speakers, with each section of the choir unambiguously placed and the separate solo choir clearly located some distance behind the main choir.
This was the most precise spatial presentation Ive heard from my system. I didnt even know it could depict depth so realistically!
I used my Wright Sound Company WPA3.5 mono amplifiers ($1590 per pair) and deHavilland Mercury 2 Remote preamp ($5200) for comparison -- I had no similar integrated amps on hand. Some of us reviewers don't have rooms bursting with extra equipment, but we make do anyway!
The 3 1/2Wpc Wright amps match up well with the output of the Song Audio integrated. They use a 2A3 triode output tube (a real triode, not a triode-strapped pentode like the Cecilia SA-34 SBs EL34) in a single-ended configuration. Ive tweaked the WPA3.5s fairly hard: tubes are Full Music 300B 2.5V mesh plates designed to replace 2A3s, Electro-Harmonix 6SN7s, and Bendix 6101 über-rectifiers replacing the stock 5Y3s. As a result, the amps sound somewhat more powerful and dynamic than stock WPA3.5s. Make that a lot more dynamic than the stock amps. However, they retain the pure, palpable midrange for which SET amps are famous, and have decent, if not spectacular bass extension. Because of the Full Music 300B output tubes, the Wright Sound WPA3.5s also had a bit of hum, although it was not audible at the listening position. Actual 2A3 tubes were noticeably quieter, but not nearly as dynamic.
The deHavilland Mercury 2 preamp was just back from an update at the factory, where Kara Chaffee installed her amazing new remote stepped volume control and Vcap capacitors. I used a Purist Audio Design Venustas power cord to the preamp, which sells for $1000 (and, yes, it does make that much difference), so the cost of the deHavilland/Wright/Purist combo was $7790, versus the Cecilia SA-34 SBs $2900.
All of the Wright Sound products look very utilitarian, focusing on performance rather than cosmetics; the Cecilia SA-34 SB is much prettier. For that matter, you might easily think its prettier than the deHavilland preamp, although Im partial to the latters retro styling.
I had not tried the WPA3.5s with the Opera Audio M12 speakers, so I was curious to hear how they would perform. I was very pleasantly surprised. Although rated at marginally lower power than the Cecilia SA-34 SB, the WPA3.5s drove the M12s louder without breaking up, and seemed to produce more extended treble. The Cecilia SA-34 SB produced slightly deeper, fuller bass, however.
The biggest difference between the electronics was in the level of detail they conveyed. The deHavilland/Wright/Purist combination was stunning, illuminating considerable information about the musical performances. It was as if a layer of fuzz had been removed from the sound. On the "Miserere" cut, I noted how well the Cecilia SA-34 SB placed the solo choir in a position well behind the main choir. The deHavilland/Wright/Purist combo more accurately depicted the entire soundstage, defining the space between the main choir in front and the solo choir farther back in the church, as well as the choirs themselves.
But dont forget the price difference -- the deHavilland/Wright/Purist combo costs over two and a half times as much as the Cecilia SA-34 SB, so it doggoned well should sound better. Does it sound twice as good? Well, maybe it does. But with superb soundstaging and dynamic abilities, the Cecilia SA-34 SB is especially fun to listen to with voice and small instrumental groups like jazz combos. Headbangers should probably look elsewhere, but if you like jazz or classical music, even some of the blockbuster pieces, the Cecilia SA-34 SB will be very satisfying. And you dont need a preamp or an expensive accessory power cord!
Can a 4Wpc integrated amp be a good value at $2900? Not for use with low- or even average-sensitivity speakers, but thats hardly unique to the Cecilia SA-34 SB. The same can be said of any low-powered amp, including many that cost several times the Song Audio integrateds price. But for me, the Cecilia SA-34 SBs way with voices, its microdynamic prowess, its fine portrayal of musical nuances, and its ability to portray the spatial characteristics of a recording make a performance sound so moving that they largely offset shortcomings in maximum output level and subterranean bass. And on that basis, with suitable speakers, the Cecilia SA-34 SB worked surprisingly well.
What constitutes "suitable speakers"? Well, their sensitivity cant be ultra high or hum will become a problem, and they cant be too low or the 4Wpc power output will be a problem. Id estimate speakers with sensitivity of 94-100dB would match well with the Cecilia SA-34 SB. Keep in mind that speaker sensitivity measurements are sometimes wildly inaccurate, and your room and listening habits will also be major factors.
While Im not thrilled about having been part of the R&D effort for the Cecilia SA-34 SB -- it seemed like I was sending e-mail or integrated amplifiers to Song Audio on a regular basis -- Im glad that the last modifications reduced the hum problem substantially without degrading the Cecilia SA-34 SB's performance. With the right speakers, this integrated amp can indeed produce a heavenly sound.
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