Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp Review

Why doesn't anybody tell me these things?

By John J. Puccio

Well, they did. When I bought my current speakers, VMPS RM40s, the designer of the speakers and owner of the VMPS loudspeaker company, the late Brian Cheney, came over to deliver them and set them up. The first thing he said to me when he saw my equipment was, "Ditch the preamp." I told him I needed it as a switch box to handle three separate CD players. He said, "OK," and never mentioned it again. That was over a dozen years ago.

More recently Classical Candor's Tech Analyst Bryan Geyer wrote an article called "On Controlling Volume" (https://classicalcandor.blogspot.com/2019/12/on-controlling-volume.html) in which he argued for replacing one's preamp with a passive volume control and input selector. He recommended the Goldpoint products and specifically the SA4. His reasoning made sense and reinforced what I had heard previously, so I tried it out. Why didn't I do this fifty years ago?

All right, then, why have most of us seen the necessity for a traditional preamp in the first place, and why is a passive preamp a better choice? Mostly, it turns out, the preamp has always been there for convenience. It provides not only a volume control but tone controls and switching capabilities for those who need them. More important, it provides additional amplification for components that may need an extra boost to their signal. This was especially important in the old days when everybody used a phonograph.

Now, what is the advantage of a passive preamp? First, let's clear up that name: "passive preamp" is really a misnomer since there is no amplification involved, "pre" or otherwise. The SA4 is more like a straight-wire bypass, taking a signal from your CD player directly to your amplifier. Perhaps "passive volume control" or "passive switch box" is more appropriate, even though the folks at Goldpoint prefer the term "passive preamp."

Anyway, the Goldpoint SA4 two-channel stereo "passive preamp" contains no actual electronic circuitry. It does not plug in. It is simply a volume control and switch box. With the SA4 you can hook up as many as four different components, switch among them, and control their volume. That's really all it does. Thus, you eliminate the need for a pre-amplifying stage and tone controls, thereby removing the added distortion that comes along with them.

Of course, if you don't care about the purity of the sound you're listening to, you're reading the wrong article. If you can't tell the difference between the sound of a well-mastered CD and an MP-3 file, the Goldpoint is probably not for you. The Goldpoint is for people who are trying to wring the last ounce of sonic quality from their system, getting the signal from the CD player to the amplifier with as few sonic impurities as possible. Ridding your system of preamp and tone-control distortions can do this. And at a much lower price than a good preamp would cost.

Next, how does the SA4 sound? Naturally, one would expect it to have no sound of its own. After all, it's not doing anything to the signal. Even if you have a ten-thousand dollar preamp, it's still got electronics in it that are producing distortion. At a twentieth that price, the SA4 has no distortion at all. Yes, I noticed the sonic differences almost immediately. Listening to discs I had heard repeatedly over the years, the clarity with the SA4 was most definitely improved. The dynamic impact and transient response were stronger. Even the breadth of the sound stage seemed widened. Bass resolution also appeared better focused and highs discernibly extended, with the volume control seeming to track left-right balance perfectly at any volume setting.

The SA4 in its natural environment
Mind you, these were not entirely night-and-day differences. We're not going from the sound of a windup Victrola to a contemporary surround-sound system here. My old preamp was about the best-sounding preamp I had owned over a fifty-plus year life in hi-fi, a period that included Pioneer, Soundcraftsmen, Audio Research, and Integra. But the differences were there and obvious to my ear. In other words, I couldn't be happier with the SA4.

Drawbacks? None sonically. It does exactly what it's supposed to do, no more, no less. All the same, it does not provide the convenience factors I mentioned earlier. If you positively have to have tone controls, distortion be hanged, you're out of luck with the SA4. And if you have a component with a very low signal, it may not be the best choice. (Here, Bryan assures me that most modern CD players have a high enough signal to feed the amplifier and most amps have enough gain to drive the speakers.* I have three CD players hooked up, and I've yet to take any of them past the one o'clock position on the SA4's volume control knob.) If in doubt, you might want to call Goldpoint (408-721-7102 or 408-737-3920). Another possible inconvenience is that unlike a lot of new preamps, there is no wireless remote involved. Get used to it.

The only other drawback I can think of is so small I hesitate even to mention it. When you eliminate all the electronic circuitry, you don't need a very big box to house what's left. The SA4 is relatively tiny (2.3" tall  x  4.7" wide  x  7.0" long) compared to a full-sized preamp. That means it's going to look awfully small and lonely on the shelf where your old preamp used to be. Seriously, though, it also means there is less room on the back of the unit for your various inputs and output. And less room means closer spacing of the gold-plated jacks. If you have big fingers, you may find it difficult to plug or unplug things.

Oh, and before I forget, Goldpoint offers their products in a variety of configurations. You can get volume controls in one-db or two-db stepped increments. You can get units that handle just one input and output or units that switch among two-to-four inputs. You can get units with one volume control for both channels or separate volume controls for left and right channels. You can get different input and output jacks and even different knobs. There is truly something at Goldpoint for everyone's passive preamp needs.

Finally, the cost of so small a unit may seem high ($532 for the SA4 as of this writing). However, the cost of the best materials are worth the price, and Goldpoint uses only the finest materials. Besides, when you consider how much better your system will sound and how much audiophile preamps cost, the price of the SA4 may seem like a bargain.

To see the full line of Goldpoint products, visit https://www.goldpt.com/

JJP (March 26, 2020)

*From "On Controlling Volume...," cited above: "Do confirm that you can drive your system to full output directly, without the need for supplementary preamp gain. In most cases this will be true, but exceptions happen; it’s dependent on your power amplifier’s internal voltage gain and on loudspeaker efficiency. Power amplifiers exhibit different internal voltage gains. Most designs range between +23dB and +29dB; refer spec. sheet, see “input sensitivity” (or equivalent term). Power amplifiers with gain = +29dB (e.g.: 1 Vrms input produces 100 Watts output [28.28 Vrms] across an 8Ω load) are inherently capable of reaching their full rated output capability when driven by virtually any modern line level program source. Power amplifiers with internal gain ≤ +24dB fall into an area that I consider marginal for use with a passive preamp when driving low efficiency mini-monitor speakers. Try to stick with amplifiers that provide ≥ +26dB gain."

Afterthought: I don't mean to imply by this review that everyone who buys an SA4 will like the sound of their system better than before. There is always the euphonious veiling effect of distortion to consider. That is, some people may have gotten used to the masking introduced by the distortion of their old equipment, a masking that, taken away, could reveal weaknesses in their speakers, amplifier, or CD player they hadn't noticed before.

I am reminded here of a subjective reviewer years ago who praised a particular phono cartridge as one of the best he had ever heard. Other reviewers noted that said cartridge had a pronounced peak in the top end, which they found objectionable. Later, the first reviewer revealed that the speakers he was using at the time of his listening tests had a roll-off at the high end that almost exactly matched the phono cartridge's peak. Thus, the deficiencies of the two components complemented one another and produced a euphonious sound.

Such is life; nothing is perfect, not even perfection. :)

2 comments:

  1. Nice writeup there, John. Pleased to see your official stamp of approval.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Need a remote to control source. Would pay more

    ReplyDelete

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa