Author Topic: Sound Performance Laboratories aka SPL Audio  (Read 187 times)

blue_starfish

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Sound Performance Laboratories aka SPL Audio
« on: 20 January, 2023, 10:41:50 am »
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  • Sound Performance Laboratories or SPL Audio for short is a German manufacturer of professional audio gear. However in recent times, they have diversified into home audio with  a few products. Locally, this brand is seldom mentioned when talking about amplifiers for the home.

    Their website lists over 40 products for studio and mastering work. They make consoles, cross-overs, various headphone amplifier. The home audio range is fairly limited to just 11 pieces comprising of power amp, pre-amp, phono amp and headphone amp.   The home audio products are distributed locally here by Sky Audio in Midview City.

    The first time I encountered their products, was at the phono pre-amp at the ISSE a few years ago. It did strike me back then that the phono was good value. It was quiet, physically small but had settings for capacitance, gain impedence and gain on the front panel.  Unusual for a product at the price range.

    My next encounter with SPL Audio was totally unplanned and it was in 2022. I was at Sky Audio to audition the Dynamikks range of speakers, and heard the SPL Performer power amp by accident. Another customer had booked an audition and there was an overlap due to my long audition. At that point in time I was in the market for a good integrated, and the SPL pre/power although good sounding, was not of any interest.

    A few months later, after my search for a suitable integrated drew a blank, the SPL came into my radar as it was compact pre/power combination. Size and price wise, the pre/power was smaller and lower respectively to the very good integrateds from Pass, Gryphon and Vitus. It was also attractive that the SPL duo ran a lot cooler than the above integrateds. To cut the story short, I ended up buying the SPL Audio Elector analog pre-amp, and a Performer S1200 power amplifier after a home audition.

    My owner's review of the products will soon follow.

    Bloody Chowbotak

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    Re: Sound Performance Laboratories aka SPL Audio
    « Reply #1 on: 21 January, 2023, 09:48:39 am »
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  • I would have seriously consideredtheir phono amp a few years back if I had not already bought the DSA
    I am a homely man. My hobbies keep me home

    BadEnglish

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    Re: Sound Performance Laboratories aka SPL Audio
    « Reply #2 on: 21 January, 2023, 10:23:39 am »
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  • Home audition is best !

    wusplay

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    Re: Sound Performance Laboratories aka SPL Audio
    « Reply #3 on: 21 January, 2023, 10:27:02 am »
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  • The amp got 6 fans!


    BadEnglish

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    Re: Sound Performance Laboratories aka SPL Audio
    « Reply #4 on: 21 January, 2023, 11:00:03 am »
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  • Seriously ?

    blue_starfish

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    Re: Sound Performance Laboratories aka SPL Audio
    « Reply #5 on: 25 January, 2023, 10:36:19 am »
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  • Using pro audio brands at home. Owner's review of SPL Elector pre-amp and SPL Performer S1200 stereo power amplifier.

    Advertising and packaging costs the manufacturer money. Getting a big magazine to review a product costs the manufacturers money either by way of payment or advertising. Eventually, the cost of reviews and advertisements in large circulation popular audio magazines  get passed to the buyers of the product. People like us, the end consumers pay for the marketing expenses when we buy the products. Pro audio brands hardly advertise outside their target market and keep their marketing costs low.

    A high ex-factory cost has an exponential effect on the sale price as the FOB price is taxed a %, and GST % added on, to increase the cost price even more by the time it reaches the showroom. Low price ex-factory attracts lower cost additions along the supply chain.

    My system needed renewal as the main components neared 10 years old. However this time round as a retiree, I could no longer freely spend nor arbitrarily increase my budget which I did in the past. I had to seek value gear. My search took me towards the pro-audio scene where it appeared that I could get a better value for the same money.

    In my mind, it was worth a try as there are brands who have roots in pro audio who have been successful at diversifying into home audio. ATC, PMC and TAD all had their roots in pro audio. My reasoning was that if the recording/mastering took place using pro audio gear, the playback using pro audio cannot be that bad. 

    I was on a quest to downsize and simplify my system.  I started by looking for smaller speakers. Wilson Sophia 3 had served me very well for 10 years. The new pair for my listening room had to be physically smaller, and should still sound good when placed near the walls. I ended up buying a pair of TAD Evolution 1TX.  It ticked the right boxes along with two competitors.  However when the time came for me to put the money down, only the TAD had stock. The other two in the midst of the logistics crunch brought on by Covid, the dealers could not commit a delivery date.

    The TADs are refined, extended at both ends, image well, and are an easy load. Having a coaxial beryllium tweeter come mid, they are absolutely transparent sounding and are able to cast a solid and wide image with layers.  Due to their extended HF,  they need a very refined treble. Plenty of quality and fast watts needed to get the most of their speed.

    My search for a good integrated to match with the TAD speakers turned out to be frustrating nine months. There are good integrateds, but the sizes are as big as my previous pre/power.  The very few that I liked turned out to be as costly than buying a pre/power of equivalent quality. Eventually, I went back to a small in physical size pre/power that did not cost me an arm and a leg to buy.  Enter the SPL Elector pre-amp and Performer S1200 power amp. This pre/power offered a good mix of compact size, high power, cool running temperature. It was priced  very reasonably. After taking into account inflation, they came to about two-thirds of my old set.

    This review is for the duo of SPL Audio Elector and Performer S1200 which I bought after a long search that started from and included the big brands of integrateds from Gryphon, Vitus, Goldmund and Pass. The Elector is a pure analog pre-amp. I auditioned the Director pre which had the addition of a DAC. However the Director added digital harshness and was a tad lacking in dynamics. Hence I chose the Elector over the Director. The Performer gives out a healthy 300 wpc. 

    The first thing that I noticed when Sky Audio's Steve delivered the goods is the packaging. The packaging is plain white boxes with a sticker. No fancy printing as the boxes are just to function strictly as protection for the product during the journey. No flight cases nor colourful boxes with colour pictures. The user manual upon opening is just a soft 60gsm A3 paper that is folded and stapled. Even the packing buffers are just foam squares and not moulded polystyrene. 

    Product wise, the looks are totally utilitarian. No gold or chrome plating anywhere, no thick aircraft grade aluminium panels, no vibration absorbing feet, no designer curves or racy lights. Even the name is printed on. The magnetic name plate with a choice of three colours is the only luxury on the power amp. The ergonomics are poor with ON/OFF switches small, and placed in hard to reach places at the back beside the power receptacle. The letterings on switches and the switches themselves are tiny, not friendly to those of us with less than good eyesight.  Although remote control function for volume control is supported, no remote control comes with the set.

    As the products are meant to be used for long hours by people who treat them as tools, the SPL items have to be durable and withstand rough usage.  Certainly they look and feel tough. No flimsy plastic switches or knobs are found in front. Rear connectors look robust.  The power amp has a fan that comes on everytime the set is turned on. Said to be to blow away internal dust. The fans are also to keep the power amp cool when things get hot and steamy. However, it never came on during my playing as the power amp stayed cool throughout. The pre got a tad warm, but never hot. 

    The SPL compromises is in the areas of looks, size casing bling and ergonomics. The casing is plain matt finished front plate. The rest of chassis is just folded matt black metal plate with ventilation holes into them. Very industrial in looks and have rugged feel. The only thing worthy to note in the looks are the twin VU meters that are more cosmetic than use to me as I do not do recordings. The input selection has been reduced to anonymous numbers of 1,2,3 to 6. There is a motorised volume control. But you provide your own RC and do the "learning mode" exercise. Steve provides his own choice of RC and the supplied RC came pre-programmed.

    The SPL came in partially run in as I had requested Steve to do so before delivering.   I plugged the SPL on a 1-for-1 replacement where the ARC Ref 5SE pre and Karan power amp used to be. The duo rests on a Finite Element rack. Straight off, the sound was not focussed and recessed with a lumpy disjointed bass that could not keep up with the mids and highs. Steve did tell me that I needed to run in the set for them for 100 hours as a guide.

    The first step I did was to add an additional level of isolation by way of Harmonix feet, on top of what the Finite Element rack already provided. The SPL gear is vibration sensitive as have basic feet and casework. Next came the tweaks to keep out RF. I live in a very hostile area with high RF pollution. An Acoustic Revive RGS24 ground conditioner and a Tiglon wallet were placed. These tweaks in combination had a big impact on the overall sound in the areas of quietness and refinement. Then went in the Ansuz Ceramic power cords into the pre and power. Some of you might think I am crazy as the Ansuz C2 power cord costs as much as the pre-amp. However the Ansuz are very quiet and good at rejecting RF that has plagued my home due to the close proximity of Bukit Timah and Bukit Batok transmitters. So far only Ansuz has been able to keep out hum. 

    My first impressions : The SPL duo is fast, quiet, fluid. Highs are refined (the TAD beryllium tweeter is very revealing) and has good bass weight/grip. The all important mids has a lovely voicing that is just a slightly warm side of neutral, similar to the ARC Ref 5SE it replaced. In  a blind test, I would have mistaken the pre/power for a tubed hybrid based on the sound. The SPL is very very quiet. I put my ears close the speakers with the volume turned up. No hiss at all with a CDP. However with phono, a slight hiss is heard. 

    The music sounds good. In fact very good to my ears. I played back album after album. No, the SPL duo did not make  my jaw drop. Instead the differences over ARC/Karan are subtle but significant. First the bass went deeper and provided a foundation for the music. Bass guitars and acoustic bass instruments featured more prominantly in the presentation. Also the stage is wider and deeper, but not taller. 

    Extended listening impressions : Outstanding areas are the refined and extended highs, and bass grip. While my Karan was a smooth operator all round, the SPL had more life and excitement to the sound. Gear at this price point have no right to be this good.

    I ran through my record collection from classics, to jazz, to pop, to blues as the hours clocked up. My listening notes recorded changes for the better with each 10 hour of run-in.  It was only  at the 130 hour mark that the sound stabilised. By now the SPL was sounding very good in all areas. Where the SPL really shines is on live recordings. Their ability to transport me into the venue of the concert is amazing. The small cues of audience noise, voices and hall ambience are more real. On the good live recordings, the audience sounds come from my right and left, exceding the speaker and wall boundaries.

    I have a self-mandated 10PM music cut-off time so as not to disturb my neighbours and family. With the SPL, I am able to breach by listening at a low level of 75dB. My normal volume is 86dB and above.  Listening at low volume is still enjoyable where it was not with the old gear. The SPL with tweaks and good power cords retains clarity, coherence, and bass weight even at low volume. Listening is still enjoyable at volume levels where a normal conversation can take place.

    A point worthy mention is that the gear runs cool. I can listen without air-con, and without need for an extended warm-up. I turn on the gear, go eat dinner and wash up. By the time I finish doing these an hour later, the gear is prepared. In these days of high power bills and a desire to lower my carbon foot-print, every bit helps

    The following albums were used to form my opinion:
    Diana Krall Live in Paris
    Chie Ayado live
    Weavers at Carnegie Hall
    Joan Baez at the Bullring
    Eva Cassidy Nightbird
    Royal Gala (Ballet)
    Norah Jones Come Away With Me
    Linda Ronstadt for Sentimental Reasons
    Jacque Louissier Plays Bach
    Casino Royale
    Poetry of the Sea
    Richard Thompson Old Kit Bag
     
    One quirk about the pre is that the volume potentiometer is non-linear. At the start of the clockwise journey, large turns yield small increase in the volume. After 2 o'clock, a small twist, give larger increase in volume. As I play my music loud, the volume knob is at 2 o'clock and beyond, which is like 70% of volume travel. At the back of my mind, the power amp pushes out a minimum of 300W and here at the pre, I am so far up. My thoughts are "where the hell are the watts?".  The watts are there, but the big jump is towards the very end of the knob position. The back ground is still very quiet and dynamics retained even close to the max position of the volume knob.
     
    Verdict : Very good pre and power combination that represent excellent value for money. Don't let the plain looks, indifferent casing, poor ergonomics be a put off.  Spend time and effort to tweak and you will be rewarded richly for the effort.  Good power cords are a must. The gear is good out of the box, awesome after run in and tweaking.

    The Good
    - very quiet
    - good bass grip and depth at all volumes
    - wide soundstage
    - pleasing tonality on warm side of neutral
    - fast and dynamic
    - refined and extended HF
    - can play at low sound volume
    - little heat generated
    - does not take a long time to warm up
    - priced well below $20,000 for pre and power

    The Not so Good
    - no balance control, phase invert, mono, mute switches
    - the remote control only adjusts the volume
    - requires plenty of tweaking to get  the most out of it
    - poor ergonomics of switch locations. Switch labels are had to read
    - have to crank up the volume knob high to get decent volume level 
    - Need to use good power cords to max the performance

    BadEnglish

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    Re: Sound Performance Laboratories aka SPL Audio
    « Reply #6 on: 25 January, 2023, 10:59:06 am »
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  • Whaaa 2 year's journey on a page!

    I like the point, power cord as expensive as amp ;D

    So total damage is well below COE cat E ?

    blue_starfish

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    Re: Sound Performance Laboratories aka SPL Audio
    « Reply #7 on: 25 January, 2023, 13:24:50 pm »
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  • Whaaa 2 year's journey on a page!

    Only a 11 month journey.

    BadEnglish

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    Re: Sound Performance Laboratories aka SPL Audio
    « Reply #8 on: 25 January, 2023, 14:08:09 pm »
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  • Only a 11 month journey.

    My bad ;D
    How small is your new cave ?

    blue_starfish

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    Re: Sound Performance Laboratories aka SPL Audio
    « Reply #9 on: 25 January, 2023, 14:38:37 pm »
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  • My bad ;D
    How small is your new cave ?

    Still the same cave. Gear downsize is in preparation to downsize home