2013 THE AUDIO BEAT
Siltech SAGA Amplification System
by Roy Gregory, April 22, 2013
There is very little new under the audio sun, and very often those things that seem new aren’t, on closer inspection, as new as they seem. It’s either been done before -- often many years earlier -- or it’s the “same old, same old” dressed in different clothes. All too often, these “developments” fail to deliver on their promise, being all about appearance rather than performance. Indeed, if the audio industry ever qualified for an innovation award, it could well be for reinventing the wheel. Which makes the arrival of something that is very definitely different -- and very definitely delivers -- the cause for some rejoicing, if only because it allows us hacks to put away the tired old clichés and descriptive retreads for a while. Because, make no mistake, Siltech’s SAGA amplification system doesn’t just look different, it’s the real deal. I for one have never come across an amplifier with separate boxes for its voltage and current gain stages -- but then I’ve never come across an amplifier that uses batteries to drive tube circuits either! But the SAGA is different for a reason; the innovative technology and topology are the direct result of the underlying philosophy and that is all about delivering genuine dynamic range. In fact, Siltech claim a total dynamic range for the SAGA system of 128dB, which should give anybody who studies measurements pause for thought -- not least because the company’s nononsense approach to engineering and technology suggests that if anything that number is slightly on the conservative side. What’s more, it’s performance that you can hear. Hook the SAGA amps up to any of the Crystal Cable speakers, designs with relatively small enclosed volumes, moderate efficiency and modest swept areas, and you are rewarded with the sort of crisp dynamics and instant response more normally associated with horn speakers -- but without all those horn issues. It’s a capability that transfers too, and having used the SAGA system with a wide range of speakers, I can report that its benefits are not just theoretical but genuinely deliverable. So, what’s inside these discretely stylish boxes to makethem stand out from the crowd sonically, musically and stylistically? The full SAGA system consists of three different boxes. The C1 Control Amplifier has been around for a few years now, but is unusual in using battery power to drive its all-tube audio circuitry. It has now been joined by the V1 Voltage Amplifier, another tube-based, batterypowered circuit, and the P1 Current Amplifier, a mains-powered, solid-state current gain stage that uses an optically decoupled power supply. Power rating for the system is 380W into 8 ohms, 760W into 4 ohms and 1250W into 2 ohms, although these are not continuous ratings (another case of Siltech’s natural conservatism coming into play). Should you need more power, the V1 can be used to drive a pair of P1s in a biamp configuration --something that I was fortunate enough to experience. In fact, if your hunger for power runs to megalomaniac-dictator proportions, use a pair of Y-adapters and you could run up to four P1s, although you’d need to have either stacked pairs or quad-ampable speakers to do it. Mind you, as a megalomaniac dictator, why wouldn’t you?
Why battery? Why tubes?
If you want to maximize dynamic range, there are two factors to consider. One is maximum level, but the other is the noise floor, the dynamic range being defined by the difference between the two -- so at first glance, tubes might not seem like the obvious choice. Except for two more things: all the dynamic range in the world is next to useless unless your amplifier can make the jump between those extremes without delay, and tubes are held by many to be quicker in this regard than solidstate devices. The SAGA is not Siltech’s first amplifier.
The highly regarded SETA was also a tube design, so the company has experience in the field. The challenge then is to make a tube circuit that is fast enough and quiet enough to deliver the performance you seek. But whilst batteries are certainly quiet, they have always been considered to be low-voltage devices, ill-suited to the high-voltage demands of a typical tube circuit. Take a look at most tube line stages; they’re built around the likes of the ECC83/12AX7 twin triode, a device that normally runs 150-250 volts on its anode. Not easy to get out of a battery! Clearly, the conventional options weren’t going to work. Instead, the C1 employs a quartet of ECC86 tubes, rare, low-microphony double triodes developed by Philips and Telefunken in the late 1950s for use in car radios. Designed to run at far lower voltages, they had a very short shelf life (just like the 8417 output tube), swept away by the incoming silicon tsunami of solid-state designs. But with small quantities of NOS examples available, they fulfilled the dual demands of low voltage and low noise perfectly, making a battery supply feasible. Of course, batteries have a long (and distinctly checkered) history in hi-fi, with companies as diverse as DNM, Jeff Rowland, Crimson, Pink Triangle and Vitus Audio (amongst many others) all taking the rechargeable route -- and eventually abandoning it after various performance, longevity and reliability issues. Meanwhile, in Japan, Final Audio Design have long offered amplifier designs that run from large boxes full of dry-cell “torch batteries,” although they too have now moved on to embrace the rather more receptive portable and headphone market. What made batteries so attractive to audio designers was their ability to provide pure DC, devoid of mains-born ripple or other interference effects. What made them so difficult to work with was also their ability to provide pure DC. In a word, they didn’t. A range of issues afflicted early battery designs, but most concerned falling performance (often through memory effects) and the reliability of auto-charging circuits. Frankly, the potential benefits just weren’t worth the potential pitfalls and servicing issues.
But batteries have come a long way in the last few years, driven by the massive surge in demand from manufacturers of mobile devices. Just think about the issues we all had with batteries in early mobile phones, both in terms of reliability and run time. Modern devices (whether phones or portable computers) are far more current-hungry yet run for far longer, and battery reliability has improved dramatically. The result is a rash of battery power supplies appearing in audio products. Currently (if you’ll excuse the pun), as well as the Siltech amps, I also have the Avantgarde XA preamp and Hartvig turntable under review, both of which use rechargeable battery supplies. Siltech have taken advantage of this surge in technological development to create a battery supply that is both utterly reliable and fail-safe in use, relying on readily available (and thus replaceable) long-life cells. These should have a life span in excess of five years. Forget to switch the unit to charge and once the batteries fall to a certain level it does it automatically, as well as offering a mains-driven mode for emergencies. I’ve had the SAGA amps in-house for months and had not a single batteryor charging-related problem, with 12 to 15 hours of use available from a single charge. Every time I’ve gone to use the system it has fired up flawlessly and delivered musically -- that’s a definite first for a battery system, and I’ve had a few. The charger is a simple plugtop unit, with interchangeable plug heads that make the C1 a genuinely universal product, irrespective of local voltage. The V1 Voltage Amplifier employs the same charger and battery technology as the C1, but why build a separate voltage gain stage? Because you can do voltage gain with batteries and tubes, something that is probably impossible for a high-current-capable gain stage, but also because it keeps the voltage gain stage completely separate from mains-born noise that would itself be amplified, increasing the noise floor and eroding the dynamic range. The V1 also offers a choice of low-gain (28dB, triode-based) or high-gain (34dB, pentodebased), but unlike with most switchable circuits common on tube power amplifiers, Siltech do not simply disconnect the grids in the pentodes to offer triode operation. Instead, there are two completely different circuits built into the V1, using either an E80CC triode or a 18042 pentode, selected by a small switch on the underside of the unit. This is not an adjustment you’ll be making often -- the difference is far from subtle and each listener and system will show a definite preference -- so it is probably the best place for it. Accidental switching with the V1 switched on will be detrimental to sound quality and tube life, so this is a setand- forget adjustment.
The power of the sun
As I’ve already pointed out, battery operation for current gain is simply not practical with existing technology. Doesn’t that mean you risk swamping the ultra-low noise floor of the C1 and V1, rather defeating the object? Well, this could be the case, except that Siltech have come up with a way of galvanically isolating the current gain stage too. Dubbed the Apollo Light Drive, this relies on another area in which technological development has been driven by forces and interests far greater than those of the audio industry. The P1 takes
AC power from the wall and uses it to drive an incredibly bright light. The output of this in turn drives a photoelectric cell that generates a floating class-A, DC bias current for the output stage, ensuring noise-free operation and a possible peak dynamic range of 145dB! Inside the chassis you’ll see massive heatsinks that work with the heavily slotted but physically isolated top and bottom plates to keep things cool, but even so, the chassis runs warm to the touch. The light drive is a self-contained unit housed in a sealed box (for obvious reasons) and positioned towards the rear of the chassis. Devoid of batteries, the P1 is actually the lightest of the three units, but don’t go thinking that that makes it less than substantial. At least part of that weight is down to the beautifully machined and finished casework, with its complex architecture and inset top plates. Undeniably stylish (at least as far as I’m concerned) the chassis design is the result of COMSOL analysis that doesn’t just ensure superb fit but also allows Siltech to refine the resonant characteristics of the structure, further reducing the insidious impact of self-generated microphony. Place any of the SAGA units on a well-designed mechanically grounded support and the benefits are immediately clear, although less so than with most of the competition. Part of that is down to the use of batteries and the resulting absence of transformers, but it also speaks well of the self-damping and mechanical grounding provided by the chassis itself.
What’s in a name?
No prizes for guessing that SAGA is an acronym -- but major kudos if you can guess what it stands for. No takers? How about Structural Analogue Gain Amplifier? Yep, I’d have come up with that acronym too. But what does it actually mean? One of the major contributors to a system’s noise floor is amplification of inherent noise in the audio circuits, or its signal to-noise ratio. Basically, the more you amplify the signal, the more times you will amplify the circuit’s self-noise. Siltech’s approach to this problem is simplicity itself. If you don’t want to amplify the signal so much, then don’t attenuate it so heavily to start with. Familiar as a guiding principle in the recording process itself, the avoidance of unnecessary amplification, amplification that will just result in later attenuation, is crucial to maintaining minimum noise floor. Siltech have simply extended that concept to the reproduction chain. So, rather than attenuating the very high input levels of modern digital sources (and a lot of current phono stages too) to bring them down to the old linelevel standard, simply to reamplify them, along with the inherent noise inevitably added by the circuit itself, the C1 simply accepts those signals without attenuation. The difference is generally around 10dB, or a twofold perceived difference in level. Of course, reamplifying the signal will increase the noise floor by that difference too -- and that is significant, both in terms of the resolution of low-level detail and dynamic range. Indeed, it’s often these shifts at the lowest levels, the ability to resolve microdynamic shifts and tiny details, which really brings a recorded performance to life. Combine this revised gain structure with the incredibly low inherent noise of the power-supply technologies used and you have the basis for truly wide-ranging dynamics and immediacy, especially as the circuits in all three boxes are free of feedback, global or local, keeping timing, leading-edge placement and arrivals crisp and precise, decay natural and uncurtailed. As high-end audio demonstrates over and over again, it’s not what you do but how you do it that matters, and there’s more, much more, than fancy powersupply technology and a neat approach to overall gain structure in the Siltech amplifier. I’ve already touched on the qualities of the chassis construction, but it’s not until you handle the Siltech units that you realize what inert really means, just how lively most chassis work really is and how deftly the Siltech cases sit between these two extremes, neither ringing along with the music nor soaking up its energy. Rap a knuckle on the SAGA cases and you’ll be rewarded not with a dull thud, but with an actual note, albeit one that’s far quieter than you expect. Each part of the case has its own tone, and it might be my imagination, but I’d swear that they’re all in harmony. The socketry is all first class, with WBT NextGen RCAs and binding posts used throughout. Internal component quality is first rate, featuring hardwired construction using Siltech’s own monocrystal silver wire. All circuitry is feedback and servo free, while the amplifier is unconditionally stable. The fact that I keep referring to “the Siltech SAGA system” is no accident. Not only do you have to use the V1 and P1 as a pair (they will not work in isolation) but using any other preamplifier risks disturbing the overall gain structure and destroying the benefits. One possible exception is the Avantgarde XA preamp, with its low-gain option and battery supply, but beyond that the choices get pretty thin on the ground -- and you’d have to ask yourself why you’d use anything other than the C1 anyway? One answer to that mightbe price; the various Siltech boxes run out at around 25,000 Euros each! But then, if you can afford the V1/P1 combination, I’m not sure the C1 would be that much of a stretch. You might be paying top dollar (Euro or pound), but then you would be buying one of the very best and certainly one of the most musically communicative amplifiers available. As expensive as it is, the SAGA system leaves you in absolutely no doubt as to its merits.
What might come as quite a surprise is just how hair shirt the Siltech system is. The C1 will accept six inputs (one balanced XLR and five single-ended RCA) and has both balanced and single-ended outputs. Other than the volume control, that’s your lot. You do get a Logitech Harmony remote control, but with functions limited to source select and level setting, it got even less use than remotes generally do chez Gregory. The V1 will accept single-ended RCA or balanced XLR inputs, and offers two pairs of outputs, both on balanced XLR. Finally, the P1 features a single pair of balanced XLR inputs and single pairs of fiveway binding posts at its outputs. Thus, to wire up a full SAGA system you will need either all balanced or a mix of balanced and single-end cables. Oddly, the latter makes most sense as none of the units employ complementary circuitry and the C1 only offers a single pair of XLR inputs. Gain is of course consistent across all inputs and outputs.
Walkin’ the walk
So, plenty of theory, how about the SAGA’s performance in practice? Well, I’ve already shown my hand on that one; this is one of the very best amplification setups I’ve ever used. It is not just that it works so well, but the manner in which it does it that really impresses. Siltech’s amp are genuinely remarkable, but what makes them so is what they don’t do (to the signal). Where so many amps sound impressive because you can hear what they bring to the party, the SAGAs redefine invisibility, leaving no identifiable mark on the signal, nor impeding its passage in any audible way. They deliver it intact, not just in terms of dynamics or detail but also in terms of presence, shape, dimensionality, sense and sensibility. If only it were a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a state-of-the-art stereo system, the entire industry, and Siltech in particular, could rest easy and wait for the orders to roll in. As that isn’t the case, and because the SAGA topology sets it apart from and renders it incompatible with the familiar expected steps on the audio stairway to heaven, it doesn’t just need to make a stronger-than-normal case for consideration; it needs a receptive and engaged customer to really appreciate what is on offer. But believe me, it is well worth the effort. These amplifiers are capable of extending the performance of almost any system, extending the warmest of welcomes as they usher recording after recording, performance after performance into your listening room. This is that rarest of audio animals, amplification that can capture not just the difference between recordings, giving each its own voice, but can capture the sense, presence and energy of the recorded event. By now it should be pretty apparent that the Siltech amps do not sound like other amplifiers; in fact, at the risk of introducing an old, old audio cliché, they don’t sound much at all. My only excuse for that is that I’m going to try and explain exactly what I mean by that hackneyed phrase. Let’s start with something tangible -- dynamic range: both the raison d’etre behind the SAGA design/topology and an honest to God, measureable performance attribute. Let’s make no bones about this: 30 seconds of exposure to the Siltech system will tell you that it is exceptionally dynamic. Thirty hours will tell you that it is more exceptional than dynamic -- and it is seriously dynamic. What sets the SAGA system apart from the crowd -- indeed, not so much apart as on a completely different plane -- is not its dynamic range per se (which is impressive enough) but the way in which it delivers it. Where you are actually aware of most amplifiers tracking or responding to the changing demands of the musical signal, each within its own set of specific limitations -- expressed in terms of how fast and how far it can go -- listening to music through the SAGA system (almost irrespective of the speakers used) you experience no such drag or delay on the signal, no “impedance mismatch” between system and listening room. The music simply appears in front of you, almost as if the amplifier has anticipated its demands and cleared the way. Whilst that is clearly impossible, there’s an undeniably natural quality to the dynamic range and expression in performances, an absence of constraint without any absence of restraint. The Siltech amps are blindingly fast -- so fast you aren’t even aware of them reacting. But they are also utterly devoid of overshoot or overemphasis, pared-away starkness or exaggeration. But best of all, they are equally deft right across the dynamic range, with microdynamic shifts mapped just as effortlessly and precisely as macro orchestral tuttis. The Yepes Concierto De Aranjuez [Alhambra SCLL14000] -- from the Decca/Alhambra cooperation that produced a whole series of great Argenta recordings -- has always been one of my benchmarks for expressive intimacy and immediacy, but never before have I been so aware of the soloist’s consummate artistry, his exquisite combination of expressive freedom and complete control, the precision of his playing, the weight and placement of each note. Not once but twice, in two completely different systems, I had the recording and the system playing it completely slip away from my consciousness, so captivating was Yepes’ playing. When the orchestral accompaniment re-entered it broke the spell. As beautifully as the overall acoustic space, the balanced and perfectly judged weighting of the band, the absolute artistry on display was rendered, as close as it was to being there (and that is very close indeed) this was still an almost holographic facsimile. But for precious moments, that façade had dropped away, so completely, so compellingly was the presence and playing of the solo guitar. And that just doesn’t happen.
Partners in crime
Time to talk a little about matching equipment. I’ll deal with source components later, because that’s a whole subject in itself, but for the moment let’s talk speakers and cables. I’ve heard these products in a number of different systems and locations, and even at shows their quality has shone through. But at home, the majority of my listening was done with two main systems. The first consisted of the mightily impressive Wilson Benesch Cardinal (review forthcoming) combined with a full loom of Nordost Odin cables from wall socket to the (multiple) speaker terminals. The second was built around the latest Crystal Cable Absolute Arabesque glass speakers and a king’s ransom worth of Absolute Dream wiring, the significance of the latter being that it extends conductor consistency (monocrystal silver) inside the electronics and speakers themselves, even so far as the signal wiring and transformer windings on the Raal tweeter. I’m extremely familiar with all these elements, having used both sets of cables in other systems and the Cardinal and original Arabesque with a number of other amplifiers, so the contribution of the SAGA electronics was clearly defined -- as was the part played by the systematic approach to setup and configuration. Pay this much attention to the niceties of hook up, use a dedicated AC feed and some top-class supports for the electronics (I used both LeadingEdge and Stillpoints ESS racks) and these products are capable of lifting system performance as a whole to a completely new level. The notion of the electronics becoming a conduit, a pipeline that just delivers the performers and their performance to your listening space, suddenly seems attainable. It’s not that the system disappears completely, that you can’t hear the character or limitations of the front-end, the speakers or the recording -- it’s just that the reproduction becomes so convincing, so engaging, that those things cease to matter. Yes, I was using the two best cable systems I’ve ever had access to. The racks are demonstrably superior to anything else I’ve used (although there is competition on the way). Perhaps most important of all, both speakers are representative of a new generation of genuinely low-coloration transducers.
But all of these things are familiar. The heart of the system, the element that has so significantly advanced the performance of these systems as a whole, is the SAGA electronics. Oh, yes -- they really are that good. One acid test for any great system is its evenhandedness; how does it handle different musical genres? The SAGA-based systems showed neither fear nor favor. Shostakovich at his most explosive? Delivered with far greater control, impact and emotional weight than you expected. Bach Partitas? Delicacy, precision, structure and shape -- and a surprising range and power. Polly Jane Harvey’s Four Track Demos [Island IMCD 170/518] have an insistent, emotionally scalding immediacy and physical presence. There’s no escaping the intensity and spurting aggression of “Rid of Me,” the literally abrasive quality of “Rub ‘Til It Bleeds.” There’s nothing nice about these songs, and the Siltech electronics delivered them in all their sweaty, spitting, bloody glory. But most impressive of all is the way the free-form, fado-esque wail of “Legs” takes on shape and purpose, transformed from the random noise produced by so many systems into a wringingly heartfelt, emotional and musical flood. These raw demo recordings, mainly just voice and sparse, guitarbased backing, may not have the ghostly realism conjured on the Yepes disc, but there’s no denying (or ignoring) their almost visceral substance and presence. These songs are not so much sung as vomited, almost wrenched forth. The SAGA never flinches from the task -- even if you might. Just wait until you hear brass through these babies: big band Basie -- hold on to your hats, coats, trousers and pretty much everything else!
There have been fast amps before, lots of them. But they’ve always bought that speed at the expense of something else, and the faster they are, the higher that cost. Generally speaking we are talking about leanness and a tendency to etch, bleaching or collapsing of the tonal palette, the emphasis of a note’s leading edge over its harmonic tail, or just downright power. Small amps are so often more agile than their larger counterparts, but there’s no getting away from the benefits of (and in many cases the absolute requirement for) considerably more power than those low-powered options provide. The Siltech amps are not just fast, they are powerful too. The paper numbers are impressive enough, if not exactly staggering, but I suspect that comes down to another example of the company’s refreshing (if over enthusiastic) insistence on engineering honesty along with the question of how you actually measure power. On the test bench there are a whole host of accepted standards. In the listening room it’s somewhat easier. Ultimately, the power rating can be assessed in terms of the ability to deliver music with a sense of physical substance and unfettered dynamic range. We know the SAGA excels at the latter; what is even more impressive is the degree to which it achieves the former. Back to P.J. Harvey-- just for a moment: These might be fourtrack demos, but the sheer physicality of the listening experience, the range of musical density, the way that “Rid of Me” grows from that naggingly insistent yet oh so quiet, rapidly repeated guitar chord, to a full-on verbal assault is nothing short of remarkable. Change tracks to Carlos Kleiber leading the Bayerisches Staatsorchester [Orfeo SACD C 700 051B] in a live performance of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and the sense of being in the presence of an orchestra, the coiled power and the baton that controls it, is breathtaking. It is also dependent on the amplifier reconstituting the acoustic space, preserving the tonal character and texture of each instrument, mirroring the actions that produce its musical energy. Rarely have I heard any system that imbues recordings with such a sense of the human effort that goes into each instrument, be it the vivid sense of bowing from the violins to the columnular piping of the woodwinds. Where massed strings so often congeal, the Siltech holds them separate as instruments and players, not creating an individual image of each, but leaving you in no doubt as to just how many instruments are in play. These are multiple instruments arrayed across their space on the stage, not just one huge violin or cello. It is uncannily close to the concert-hall experience, both in terms of the traditional hi-fi categories of positioning and perspective, but also in the listener’s relationship to the energy generated by the orchestra -- and that’s something that few if any systems I’ve heard can achieve so convincingly and consistently. If you read this review with the product names and identities eliminated you might conclude that I was describing a horn-based system, and in truth you wouldn’t be that far from the reality of what I’m hearing (via the Absolute Arabesques). The immediacy, energy and dynamic speed imparted by the SAGA system gives this 95dB-sensitive speaker exactly the sort of life, jump and impact we associate with big horn systems. It’s just that the sound lacks the coloration and disjointed quality that you also generally get from big horns. It lacks the absence of real foundation too. The Arabesques may not be the largest speakers in the world, but you’d be hard-pressed to fault the presence, scale and impact, the planted sense of musical authority they’re generating in this system. The Cardinals are down around 90dB, but they too gain a sense of life and unrestricted dynamics when driven by the Siltech amps. That almost horn-like quality, the tactile sense of musical energy, is almost addictive, so convincingly does it communicate the power and intent of the musical performance. Time to revisit Basie and Farmers Market Barbecue [Analogue Productions Pablo 2310-874], track one from the 45rpm reissue, “Way Out Basie.” The infectious chug of the opening melody has an unstoppable momentum, the double bass distinct in pitch and rhythm, with an independence, a pluck and release to each note that you normally only hear live. Basie’s stabbed chords provide perfect accents, the gently strummed guitar just as distinct as the insistent patterns of the drumming, building the track to the point where Basie calls the band to order with that sudden, solid double chord and hesitation. The power and the substance of the piano are almost shocking, the explicit pedal work revelatory, the relaxed grasp of pace and rhythmic complexity utterly natural. The brass entry is simply stunning, with that sudden direct blare of energy, the ripped air that so few systems can reproduce. As Louise, my wife, sat listening, she said, “This is way better than most live bands!” And she’s right. The system was managing to deliver so much of what is a stellar performance that it eclipsed the life efforts of lesser bands and lesser musicians. That unforced sense of pace, built on the absence of leading-edge lag or smearing, is key to the infectious enthusiasm that the Siltech electronics impart to appropriate material. Rhythmically complex pieces are navigated without drama or missteps -- unless those fumbles are on the part of the performers. Changes in tempo are traversed with an ease and grace that add to rather than disrupt the musical flow, while simple rhythms take on a solid, driving quality that gives rock music or indie pop recordings the requisite sense of solid progress and momentum. It’s not so much that these amps time, it’s more a case that timing simply isn’t an issue.
It’s just part of the rock-solid and solidly natural structure they lend to recordings. You can never improve on what comes off the source. If you bother to check, the musical references here cross format boundaries, from LP to CD and on to SACD. That’s just the discs that I’ve mentioned. If you looked at the full list of material that’s passed through the system and the SAGA electronics you’d find an even more eclectic mix: plenty of mono albums, files (mainly replayed from a Naim UnitiServe) and a host of optical discs, mass produced, ripped and otherwise. In fact, you’d notice far more digital discs than normal. What the SAGA does with a vinyl source is amazing. What it does with digital, especially the lowly CD, is even more remarkable, narrowing the gap to the black plastic alternative substantially. I have never enjoyed this quality of sound from CD, irrespective of the weird, wonderful or exotic players that I’ve used. Which forces me to, once again, reassess the current standing of the Red Book format. Just as Glass CD completely rearranged my expectations as to what one might expect from a 44.1kHz-encoded optical disc, so too has the Siltech system. The lesson seems simple: You might not be able to improve the signal once it leaves the source, but you can sure as hell make the most of every last bit of quality it gives you. Clearly we’ve been remiss when it comes to serving CD signal’s needs. The SAGA topology takes a huge step in the direction of rectifying that oversight -- delivering a massive boost to my music collection along the way. If I were a digitally inclined audiophile, that alone would be enough to give me pause for thought. If I were well-healed too, then I’d be seriously considering auditioning the SAGA system, just to determine if this idiot reviewer is overstating the case. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised -- although your wallet might well disagree! As I’ve already mentioned, I’ve tended to refer to the Siltech system in the singular, as a system, and it’s worth repeating here: It’s certainly the way I’ve achieved the best results. Feeding the V1 inputs directly from either the Wadia S7i or the dCS Paganini’s variable outputs muted the sound significantly, reducing the life and immediacy to the point that it became nothing more than an excellent version of what we already experience, rendering the extraordinary if not ordinary, then back on the same plane as other great systems. Likewise, I felt that the triode switch on the underside of the V1 had a similar impact: rendering the music nice, but removing the grip, authority and sheer physical impact that makes the SAGA one of a kind when it’s really singing. I can see that there may be systems, circumstances or listeners who might prefer that, but it wasn’t for me.
Great ideas are where you find them, and so too are great explanations. I recently conducted a series of system setup and optimization seminars at Loud And Clear, a dealer in Edinburgh, Scotland. Essentially identical to the presentations I made at TAVES last year, these went down just as well, but one response stayed in my mind. John Carroll, the dealer in question, was addressing the crowd, putting into words what we’d just shown them -- what they’d just heard: brandishing a CD he uttered the immortal words, “Something happened. Something happened and if we were lucky it was captured on this disc. Our job is to try and release that event in all its artistic glory.” That sums up the situation perfectly -- and summed up the seminar too. The systems I’ve been writing about here employ all of the techniques included in those seminars -- and a few besides. They also include significantly better (and vastly more expensive) cables, a dedicated listening room and a range of significantly superior source components. Damn right something happened: the Siltech SAGA system happened! It does a better job of audibly removing itself from the signal path than any other collection of electronics I have ever used. Just as important, it does it without removing any of the signal along the way. Talk about shortening the way -- the SAGA effectively eliminates at least half of the reproductive chain, leaving only the transducers at each end. That’s a significant observation, because if these amps have deficiencies (and I’m sure that they do) they are low enough in level that they are obscured by the character of the source, cables and speakers that constitute the rest of the chain. Beautifully built, superbly finished, stylish and conceptually elegant, the Siltech SAGA introduces a novel topology, mixes established and cutting-edge technology and does it in a genuinely cost-no-object, no-compromise form. The engineering is beyond reproach, the company extremely well established, and they’ve applied every last ounce of their accumulated knowledge to this problem. The result is a genuine stepchange in performance, a level of sonic invisibility that I’ve never experienced before and goes well beyond the level of audio party trick. There are amplifiers that are bigger and certainly amplifiers that are more powerful. There are even amplifiers (though not many) that are more expensive. But none that I’ve used at home can generate the same “they are here” presence and belief in the performance, can communicate with such intimacy, delicacy, immediacy and directness -- and do it all at once if necessary. What this system does is absolutely fundamental to increasing my enjoyment of recorded music -- and yours. If I could even remotely afford it, there’d be no way it leave this house.