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|
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. :)