Nippon Hifi are sole distributors for the SoulNote brand throughout Europe and it’sthey who first contacted Hifi Pig with a view to taking a listen to one of their little SA 710 integrated amplifiers. They also do a larger amp and a CD player we’ll take a listen to later on.
Yes, me too! I’d never come across the SoulNote brand before but it appears they have a long and illustrious history spanning back several decades and have close ties to a Japanese chap by the name of Mr Nakazawa who is president of CSR in Japan (the first company to be listed on the Tokyo stock exchange by all accounts). It’s a history that involves Marantz, Superscope and Philips, plus the launch of a number of breakthrough products including Mr Nakazawa’s development of the world’s first two-body CD player (Philips LHH100) back in 1988…there are lots more products I could mention but this is a review so perhaps not the place to delve into the history books too far! Suffice to say, SoulNote was born out of the desire for Mr Nakazawa to create products free from the constraints of the “bean counters” and concentrate on delivering on sound quality for music lovers.
The SA710 isn’t a new design by any stretch of the imagination having been launched in 2008 and so I was a little intrigued having not heard of this little Class A/B beasty that boasts no negative feedback and so accepted it for review with the usual caveats.
First impressions were that it looked nice enough but nothing spectacular – it’s a black box of normal width with a power switch, input selector, a volume knob (stepped) and a quarter inch headphone socket on the front. Flipping the amp round you get a good range of inputs including three line level inputs and a balanced XLR input, a gain switch that gives about 14dB lift in its high position, some nice and sturdy speaker terminals, two variable level pre-outs and the AC input. Overall it looks decently put together.
The user manual states that the speakers must be of 8 ohms or more but I connected it to the Mummy’s (4 Ohm/94dB) anyway as these were the most sensitive speakers I had available and given the amps diminutive output I thought these the most suitable for the job in hand.
The manual talks about their being “spike pins” to allow the amp to sit on spikes but none were in the pack and so I never tried this option, though there are the threads on the underside of the amp should you fancy a go and they look to be standard fit.
Packaging is ok (single box and polystyrene protection) and adequate but I’d be happier having it double boxed if I was sending it out personally – though it arrived here in perfect condition which is saying something given the care most couriers seem to take over kit. Finish is pretty good and the volume and source selector knobs have a good and solid feel to them. On the rack it looks stylish in a minimal no frills kind of way and I sort of like the way it looks, though others will have it down as being a bit dull an lack lustre…it’s definitely quite utilitarian!
I’ll be honest and say that, given I had never heard of the SoulNote brand, I was fully expecting sending this back without review, but as I plumbed it in for the first time and turned it on there was a “crikey this sounds pretty decent” moment that happens once in a while with review kit – sometimes it’s the other way round and stuff goes straight back without a word being said other than “thanks, but no thanks”.
As mentioned, this is a 10 watts a channel amplifier but given the deep bass that came out of the speakers and the control that the amp exerts over these low frequencies you’d hardly believe it was such a weedy (on paper) amplifier. The bass notes fair bounce along and are tight, controlled and deep. In the bass department (I’m a bit of a bass head) this is a very capable amplifier to my mind and it certainly made a very positive first impression on me.
It was a bit of a revelatory experience listening to this amplifier if I’m honest and the last time I had this kind of feeling was listening to Neil Young on the Tellurium Q Iridium for the first time. I was a bit gob smacked with the SoulNote from the off. I was telling Hifi Pig colleague (Danny) on the phone about first turning it on and had goosebumps whilst talking about it – surely a good sign.
The first record I put on was Deep Dish’s “Yoshiesque Two” which is a great tech/house album that rarely fails to please but does put amp and speakers through the wringer. Tonight really was no disappointment in any way and there’s that great bass quality that I mentioned, crisp and sparkling highs and an overall balance that suggests that this is a great little amp. Sound stage is wide and there is some depth too – in no way three dimensional but pretty good. The amp is neither cold and harsh nor warm and fluffy but overall pretty neutral in its character.
It’s dynamically engaging too as on Hawkwind’s “Warrior at the Edge of Time” album and it’s able to portray the full on acid freak-out wall of sound, but also communicate minor details of the mix nicely and with a good deal of finesse that belies its modest output and relatively modest pricepoint. In some ways this amp reminded me of my much lamented 300B PSE amplifier which is high praise indeed!
As I’m writing this I’m aware I’m becoming a little gushing, but I do think this is a good amplifier and especially for the money they are asking. When I put a posting up on Facebook about us reviewing this amp a while ago there was a comment made along the lines of “10W for €1800 is ridiculous” but in hifi, as in life, it isn’t necessarily about who has the biggest willy waving rights in the Watt department and often its more to do with how those Watts are used to give a great and emotionally satisfying experience… and it’s here the SoulNote really delivers.
On the negative side I do think that you will need reasonably sensitive speakers with this amp to allow the 10 Watts to really sing (even with that 14dB boost) and if you feed it with crap it will dish out crap. But feed it good quality files through speakers that are relevant and I think many will love this amp. I’m not sure about the thing about speakers needing to be 8 Ohms either as this would suggest the amp may be unstable with more difficult loads, but I certainly had no problems with the Mummys. The emotional connection to the music (and isn’t that what hifi is all about) with this amp is really at a high level, but in the grand scheme of things that doesn’t add up to a whole hill of beans in the reviewing game…you want to know how it actually sounds don’t you?
I played a lot of techno and house music through this amplifier as I simply loved the slam and overall feel with this genre, but being able to play one kind of music does not a great amplifier make! Roy Harper’s “Flat, Baroque and Broke” was on next and there are not a lot of negative comments to be made – again I was pleasantly reminded of my 300B amp. It’s very smooth in the midrange but seems to be delivering the power across the frequencies fairly evenly and without a great deal of effort – it just doesn’t seem to get in a flap and get all flustered even when pushed to pretty loud volumes. There’s a good degree of openness to the music too which I liked with instruments sitting in their own space in the mix.
“Acoustic guitar sounds wonderful” I wrote in my notes, but there is a tiny bit of brittleness to the very top end but you do have to listen out for it. There is good amount of detail to the sound that does again belie this amps relatively modest price-point. There is an “in the room” experience on the tune “I Hate the Whiteman” with the level of detail being very high but without being too in your face and overwhelming. Vocals are well portrayed being clean and relatively lifelike with only a little colour being added by the amp and the main vocal being slightly forward in the mix. The midrange frequencies are a certainly a strong point of this amplifier.
Soundstaging isn’t overblown or exaggerated and what you get overall is a natural and organic sounding amplifier. There is little in the way of this amp feeling at all over analytical and things have an unforced feel to them which I enjoyed a lot.
On acoustic music there is good space around instruments and a delicacy to the way instruments are portrayed. The sonic image doesn’t get blurred with complex music as the Onix amp we recently reviewed had a slight tendency to do, but then you don’t get the same degree of oomph you got with the Onix… though the SoulNote does have more control in the bottom end and this leads to a pleasantly engaging punchiness – it just doesn’t go as low as the Onix I didn’t think.
At high volume (but without clipping) the very top end gets a bit brittle as I mentioned, but listening at low levels you get a good balance of the frequencies and also good insight into the sound. The midrange does dominate a little at these volumes, but there is still that feeling that everything is represented properly. Lovers of late night listening sessions will really enjoy this amp I think!
The headphone output is adequate and a useful addition to proceedings, but isn’t going to win any prizes with those dedicated to headfi. It goes loud and it is powerful, driving the three pairs of cans I had to listen to with ease – it just doesn’t seem to have the same level of intimacy and openness that the amplifier itself brings to the table. Most occasional headphone users will find it more than sufficient for their needs I think!
It goes without saying that I really enjoyed my time with this little amplifier and if what I’ve said in the course of the review appeals to you and you’re in the market for a well put together, great sounding amplifier that doesn’t cost a fortune then try and get a listen to it. You’ll need to have relatively sensitive loudspeakers though. Price wise I think it punched slightly above its weight and I stand by my comments comparing it to my 300B PSE amplifier.
It does all genres pretty well (no classical music listened to i’m afraid) with its strong points being an open, detailed sound that you can listen to for hours on end. It has a strong midrange and good punchy and tight bass. The very top end does give way a little, but this was a minor negative point in an overall sea of positives.
The little SoulNote is pretty basic in its facilities, but more than adequate for listening to music but it has no AV facilities and no remote control.
What this amp does in conclusion is just get on with the job of playing music and as such it will appeal to those people that love music rather than the kit that the music is played on and for this I recommend it.
Build Quality – 8/10
Sound Quality – 8.5/10
Value for money – 8.0/10
Overall – 8.2/10
Price when reviewed – €1799
Recommended for listeners looking for a no frills yet reasonably specified integrated amplifier that delivers an effortless sound at both high (if you have the right speakers) and low volume without breaking the bank.
Author – Stuart Smith