For some time now I have not had a preamplifier for my audio system. I rid myself of it when I acquired a DAC that has a built-in digital volume control (within its DAC chip). At the time of that decision, it was a no-brainer: I only had my DAC as a source connected to a computer as server. I had no other sources and had no interest in adding any new sources such as a turntable, an FM radio, a CD/DVD player, or a television set. Moreover, the cost of a good traditional preamp runs into thousands of dollars, requires an expensive power cord, can be large in size, heavy in weight and requires additional expensive interconnects to use. I thus ended up saving thousands of dollars and only requiring one pair of interconnects to run my system: direct from DAC to two mono amps.
For some months I was happy as can be and quite proud of myself for having dissed my heavy and expensive preamp until the following sobering incident occurred: one day an audio company asked if I would be interested in reviewing their new DAC. I was very interested so answered in the affirmative. Then some days later, it suddenly dawned on me: While my own DAC has a built-in volume control, this new one that will possibly arrive any day now probably does not! That was confirmed to me the next day—I would not be able to use it on my system. I thus postponed any such DAC review, and decided to think more carefully and critically of my predicament. Because my main interest is in digital audio (with no plans to get a turntable), I turned to Benjamin Zwickel, owner of Mojo Audio, for advice and he kindly advised me to consider acquiring a passive preamplifier/attenuator, and mentioned some companies such as Goldpoint Level Controls, among others. After researching the situation much further, I became very interested in the Goldpoint SA2X-I Balanced Stereo Mini-V Precision Stepped Level Control. This lead ultimately to my (totally unplanned) review here.
The SA2X-I is an analogue stereo device, allows for two input source pairs (such as for two DACS) and one output pair (for amps), and all are balanced (XLR). It requires no external power supply, weighs only 1.75 pounds, and is remarkably small; only 2.3” x 6.2” x 6.6”. The step size of the stepped attenuators for controlling the volume of your sources can be made to order down to a remarkably low value of 5K all the way up to 250K. (The vast majority of other companies offer either 10K or 25K and offer no alternatives.) You need to consider what amplifiers/equipment you use before choosing the appropriate step size. The manufacturer of my Class D amps highly suggested I should go for the 5K since it would yield the least distortion (if any) for my system, and my components could easily handle it. So I did: I acquired a SA2X-I with the 5K step size. It comes in black color only but you can order it with either black or silver knobs; I chose the silver knobs. The retail price is only $592, about 1/10th the price of a decent high-end audiophile-quality preamp.
How does it Sound?
The first thing I tried doing was to use it for the volume control for my current DAC, bypassing the DAC’s own digital volume control; a cool comparison test. And a big surprise it was in the end. Admittedly, this required an additional pair of XLR interconnects. As a reviewer, however, I had several extra pairs of personal favorites on hand so at least did not have to go out and buy a new pair. But also recall: The SA2X-I requires no power cord. Great. To carry out this first test, I was advised to make sure the DAC’s own volume was set to the 100% level. With other sources with a preamp already built in, for example, a lower level is usually optimal: One general rule would be to choose it high enough so that the last step on the SA2X-I is as loud as you would ever want.
Right away the sound was exceptionally transparent, clean and with amazing clarity. But the body of the sound was completely gone; very thin sounding. I understood a lot of burn-in was needed (several hundred hours), but I was not prepared for what I learned: each ‘step’ of the attenuator must be individually burned in and there were on the order of 24 steps. Yikes! And the ones I would use the most for listening could not be used overnight for continued burning (way too loud), so it would be of little help to keep a low step setting overnight to help the burn. (Out of desperation, I almost acquired some so-called ‘Dummy Loads’.) In the end, I focused on the step value range 9–13 which represented the typical volumes I listened with, and just played lots of music with those steps for some time over the next weeks.
The increase in sound quality became downright amazing. The body/fullness came back, the bass, too, was noticeably tighter than it had been without the SA2X-I, and the incredible transparency, cleanness and clarity were glaring at me with gusto.
Result: I now permanently use the SA2X-I instead of my DAC’s own volume control. The only thing I miss is the hand-held remote volume control of the DAC—the only way I can control volume now is manually turning the step knob. Most interesting is the unexpected fun use/flexibility of the now required second pair of interconnects. I can now experiment to get different sound characteristics. For example, my current favorite is to use a pair of Waveform Fidelity GSIII (formerly known as Kaplan Cable) from the SA2X-I to my amps, and a pair of Morrow Audio MA7 Grand Reference from DAC to SA2X-I.
Direct communication with Goldpoint owner Arn Roatcap (via phone and email) clarified numerous issues and questions about the SA2X-I. He is a really down-to-earth guy with a passion for making his products of the very highest audiophile quality — without any snake oil or hype. He pointed out the extreme importance/advantage of using nickel-chromium precision resistors in his product and he does so with 0.1% thin film. The rotary switch contacts themselves are specially plated. Most rotary switches are rated for a 10,000 rotation life expectancy. The Goldpoint’s are rated for 25,000 rotations and have very thick hard-gold surface plating ensuring no static and no signal loss over a very long life of use (they estimate 20 years or more of regular use). Of course the black enclosures themselves are elegant looking and robustly designed/constructed. The rear panel connectors are the trusted Neutrik brand featuring gold- plated pins.
Using Two Sources
After plugging in your second pair of XLR source interconnects, just turn the left knob from 1 to 2 whenever you want to hear the second source. Simple as can be. I tried using two different DACs, for example, and it worked like a charm.
At $592, the SA2X-I represents extraordinary value and quality. I even enjoy the fact that I can now play around with two sets of interconnects on a given source to experiment changing sound characteristics. And I can compare two sources side-by-side—my original problem is solved.
This simple inexpensive device has caused me to completely rethink my previous stubborn insistence on not even allowing any form of sit-alone preamp in my system: I have changed my mind. I highly recommend giving the SA2X-I a try. As I am sure many others have strongly suggested to Goldpoint: Perhaps make a slightly larger unit with 3-4 input sources for those who want more than two—but for now I am as happy as can be.
Further information: Goldpoint Level Controls