March 2006Vincent SP-T100 Mono Amplifiers
by John Crossett
Ive long considered German engineering and build quality to be among the best in the world. From cars to electric shavers to audio equipment, the Teutonic ability to design and build products that work above and beyond the call and last for years has set a benchmark by which all industries are judged. Ive never been able to afford most of the German audio gear that has caught my eye; being well built and affordable has never been foremost in the plan.
Until now. Vincent, a division of Thorens and a relative newcomer to high-end audio, has demonstrated that topflight German build quality, wonderful sound, and affordability are not mutually exclusive assets.
How did they accomplish this feat? By keeping design in-house but farming out the actual building -- under close supervision, of course -- to China. Sure, many out there think that anything built by the Chinese is of lesser quality, but theyre dead-bang wrong. All itll take is one look at the audio gear being manufactured there to see just how proficient the Chinese have become. Vincent certainly has, and its line of audio products demonstrates this. The SP-T100 hybrid mono amplifiers I received for review certainly opened my ears to the possibilities.
Nuts & bolts
The $2495 USD SP-T100 hybrid monoblocks -- "hybrid" because they use vacuum tubes in the input stage and for voltage rectification, and solid-state devices in the output stage -- are unobtrusive boxes that measure a svelte 8 1/4"W x 7 3/4"H x 15 3/4"D and weigh in at 33 pounds each. "Hybrid," "monoblock" and "$2495" are not often used it the same sentence. The amps' 1/4"-thick faceplate (available in champagne gold, silver or black) is blemished by three tiny push buttons -- the larger middle one for power, the two smaller ones on each side for speaker selection. To the inside of the two speaker-selection buttons are small LEDs that glow green when the amp is powered up.
The only other feature on the front panel is a large, round, retro-cool window through which you can get a glimpse of one of the tubes glowing radiantly. Its my educated guess that this is the 6Z4 voltage-rectification tube. The remaining three 6N6s are clearly seen in the rear of the amp when looking down through the perforated top plate. Should the glow of this window bother you, there is a dimmer switch on the back of the amp that allows you to turn it down gradually or completely off. Nice touch. The circle-type transformers have a capacity of 40,000uF to supply lots of current to your speakers, allowing the amps to handle low-impedance loads with ease. This makes the SP-T100s usable with most any speaker. They certainly drove my Magnepan MG1.6/QRs with no audible problems.
Speaking of the rear panel, its as simply laid out as the front. Centered in the middle is the gold-plated input jack. Below it is the dimmer switch, and under that is the standard three-prong IEC receptacle (a power cord is supplied, of course). On either side are the two sets of five-way speaker terminals for speakers A or B. I assume these are for biwiring, but why they are switched is a mystery not covered in the manual.
The 100W SP-T100s run in pure class A with zero negative feedback. The top panel is loaded with slots to keep the tubes ventilated, and the amps have heat sinks that run their length from top to bottom on each side of the chassis. The amps run warm, much warmer than most solid-state amplifiers Ive used. Make sure you have plenty of space above and to the sides to allow the amps to dissipate their heat.
I set the two monoblock amps on the Symposium Ultra Platform that usually holds my single Bryston amp. This setup still allowed the amps to sit about 4" apart, so I wasnt worried about any interference or heat issues. For the fun of it, I used speaker connection A for the left channel and B for the right channel. Also for fun, I kept the tube window fully lit, as I found the glow soothingly "old school."
How does one go about the task of describing the sound of a component that should have none? A product whose job, theoretically, is to simply take the incoming signal and make it louder?
In audio, things arent quite that simple. Everything -- everything -- has its own sonic signature. Take the Vincent SP-T100 amplifiers as a "for instance." How much did they affect the sound of the music? These hybrid amps add a very slight golden glow to any music I played through them. Was that addition unkind to the music? Hardly. It was actually very pleasant. Was it, strictly speaking, completely accurate? I doubt it. So what does that tell us? When youre piecing together your audio setup system, synergy is an all-important fact of life.
It took the full 150 hours of break-in time that Vincent recommended before the SP-T100s settled in and began to strut their stuff. During break-in, the amps added too much of that glow to the music. It was almost a haze, and it was a distraction. But, upon hitting that magic 150-hour total, something seemed to right the ship. One minute the Vincent amps were pleasant and inoffensive, and the next they morphed into amplifiers that offered a multitude of pleasing attributes.
Once the amps were fully broken in, my initial impression of them was that they offer a vivid, three-dimensional view of the music. Their purity of tone is seductive, especially with vocals. I love Alison Krausss voice. It has an ethereal quality that, if reproduced correctly, just floats in the space between my speakers. Her rendition of "When I Say Nothing At All" from Now That Ive Found You [Rounder SACD 11661-0325-6] is a case in point. This is a love song, and when Krauss unleashes that marvelous voice to sing it, it should touch the heart. Nay, it should almost bring a tear of joy to the eye of those happily married (or committed) audiophiles out there.
The Vincent amps handled this very, very well. They set Krauss a bit more forward than Im used to, but, thanks to those input tubes and the amps' class-A output, they imbued her with an angelic vocal quality that, in all honesty, touched me. However, the SP-T100s do add a bit too much muscle to the human voice. This can make some female vocals sound a tad too heavy and add a touch of chestiness to most male singers. The latter was welcome in some cases, however.
The SP-T100s aren't small-sounding amps, despite their modest size. They filled my listening room with a big, bold impression of whatever was fed to them. Playing big-band jazz is not something that can be skimped on sonically if you want to cover the full dynamic spectrum. The SP-T100s, playing the new stereo SACD Gil Evans + 10 [Prestige PRSA-7120-6], demonstrated this in spades. The entire front of my room was suddenly turned into the recording studio. All the musicians were there, properly sized and placed, and when they let loose, whoa baby, it was "pin me to my chair" time. What I'm describing wasnt just loudness for the sake of loudness, but it was dynamic and detailed. From the breath of the trumpet player to the snap of the drum sticks hitting the snare, all the detail I could want was there and woven into the tapestry of the music.
The Gil Evans album put another strong point of the Vincent amps into high relief -- their ability to separate instrumental lines. Each of the musicians Evans used was set in his own space. Each played his own instrument, with no blurring of the line between, say, the tenor sax and the trombone. I found that I could follow whichever musician I chose to for as long as I liked. Tonal balance was another positive attribute of these amplifiers. Each instrument was clearly rendered for what it was. They demonstrated that sense of bloom that tubes do so well. I was very impressed.
Something that Ive come to seek in top-quality audio components is the ability to differentiate recordings -- something the SP-T100s do particularly well. Each album I played, whether I was wearing my reviewer's hat or just listening for the pleasure of it, was its own animal. A good recording was reproduced as such, and a poor one was exposed. The acoustic space on a live recording such as 4 Generations of Miles [Chesky SACD 243] was clearly different from that of a recorded-in-the-studio album such as Miles Davis Kind of Blue [Columbia SACD CS 64955], which is exactly what should happen. If it doesnt, if a piece of equipment makes everything sound similar, Id question the product's resolving power, and my long-term satisfaction with it. The Vincent amps had no such problem.
Stacked up against my reference Bryston 4B SST, the Vincent amps came off very well. Both amps cost within a few hundred dollars of each other -- the 4B SST retails for $2995. The Bryston amp has triple the power of the SP-T100s, at 300Wpc, but the Vincent amps are hybrid monoblocks, and they cost $500 less to boot.
The greatest sonic difference between the Vincent and Bryston amps? Classical music was a real joy reproduced via the Vincent amps. The orchestra seemingly had a little bit of extra space between musicians. The Bryston amp came across as a bit leaner, more detailed, and sharper in focus. The Vincent amps, thanks to those input tubes, add a slight bit o' warmth to the proceedings, and that fleshes out images better.
Bass depth was close, but because theres no substitute for horsepower, the double-the-power Bryston amp went a bit deeper and with more control. That additional power also translates into a better sense of dynamic ease; the 4B SST goes from soft to loud with less apparent effort than the SP-T100s. Top-end performance was equally tight. While the Bryston amp sounded subjectively more extended, the Vincent amps offered a richer and fuller -- though slightly more subdued -- sound.
In my system, the Vincent amps seemed to impose themselves on the music just a tad more than the Bryston amp. Maybe thats those input tubes talking, or maybe the Audio Research SP16 preamp, along with the SP-T100s puts too many tubes in front of the music. Either way, the Vincent amps had the more apparent sonic signature, and probably strayed further from absolute neutrality because of it.
If youre the type of listener who buys strictly by country of build, then companies such as Vincent will forever remain a closed book to you. And thatll be too bad. In this global economy, everything you buy is made of parts from the world over -- no matter where they're all finally put together. So, expanding your options can mean many things. In the case of audio, it can add up to both excellent sound as well as large savings, especially when Asian manufacturing is part of the mix.
In the specific case of the Vincent SP-T100 hybrid monoblock amplifiers, globalization can mean owning gear that you may have felt was far beyond your means -- both sonically and fiscally. The ability to think globally will net you long-term satisfaction with these amps. Youll end up with a pair of amplifiers that will bring years of enjoyable listening, and, no matter where you live, that's quite a lot.
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