McGary Audio SA-1E Amplifier | REVIEW

McGary Audio SA-1E

The story of the McGary Audio SA-1E power amplifier starts with a somewhat chance meeting. Knowing of my obsession with all things vinyl, Mark Sossa of Well Pleased AV informed me that I should meet a man who goes by the name of Dr. Vinyl. According to Mark, Dr. Vinyl is a turntable setup guru. In my usual annoying know-it-all way, I informed Mark thanks, but I have all that covered. Yeah, right.

Words and Photos by Dave McNair

Not long after I climbed down from my high horse, I decided to get touch with Dr. Vinyl (known to his friends as Jose) and learned he would soon be passing through my area. Jose and I agreed to have a meet and greet at mi casa. It was then that we plugged in a McGary Audio SA-1 he had brought along for a client demo. I was immediately impressed by the sound. I was also impressed by Jose’s deep knowledge of hi-fi and his enthusiasm for all things analog. When Jose informed me there was another newer model, the McGary Audio SA-1E (website) that sounded even better, I was like send me that sucker!

A few weeks after meeting Jose and getting an intro taste of the McGary elixir, a big box showed up at my place. It contained a large Pelican-style case containing the amp and tube boxes surrounded by custom-cut foam. Niiice.

In case y’all wondered, the E stands for especial, owing to some circuit and parts changes to the existing SA-1 design. I’m happy to confirm that after living with and doing a lot of listening to the SA-1E, it is indeed quite special.

I’m no stranger to vacuum tubed electronics. Like many audiophiles, I appreciate what the best designs can do to transform the listening experience from something great to especial. The McGary SA-1E (at $6,600 USD) does exactly that.

McGary Audio SA-1E

Born Free – McGary Audio SA-1E

The day the McGary Audio SA-1E arrived, I put everything else on hold while I fitted the tubes and plugged the thing in.  I might have waited a bit to let it warm up, but I basically dove right in. Daaaang. Imaging for DAYS. Harmonic goodness that fleshed out all the little inner details. Not soft nor smeary but definitely not the slam I’m used to with my reference Pass Labs XA-200.8 monoblocks—but hey, the McGary is only about 30 watts per side. I was kind of surprised it had as much meat as it did when asked to power a pair of Acora SRC-2s. The Acoras are reasonably efficient on paper at a conservatively rated sensitivity of 92.5 dB but shouldn’t they need a lot more power to sound their best? Yes and no. I’ll go into this later.

Whenever I receive a component that really sounds impressive, I like to talk to the designer. The back story and inside tech talk is one of the things I most enjoy about reviewing hi-fi gear. My lengthy phone conversation with Mike McGary did not disappoint.

It was no surprise to me that Mike’s story is one I hear repeated with only minor variations. Small audiophile-oriented companies started up by folks that are driven with a lifelong passion for music and the gear to reproduce recordings. I won’t retell his story because our own John Richardson did an excellent job of that in his review here of the original SA-1. John also did a great job reviewing the McGary Audio SA-2, linked here.

However, I will talk some about tech stuff that Mike and I discussed concerning the SA-1E and tube amps in general. I don’t know if anyone can say for sure what the reasons are for why tube amplification often sounds so special. I do think we can talk about what makes one tube amp sound better than another, given outward similarities.

McGary Audio SA-1E

To whit: on paper and visually, the McGary Audio SA-1E is about the most tried and true example of a medium-powered stereo vacuum tube power amplifier. Dual pentodes per channel running class A/B, a pair of input and driver tubes with a power supply transformer and output transformers. And the SA-1E has a very simple and classic chassis design—one of the countless spawns of the venerable Dynaco Stereo 70.

But those surface elements are where most similarities to the SA-1E and other amps end.

The SA-1E runs in Ultralinear class A/B mode with a smidgen of feedback (9db). The amp uses a capacitor multiplier circuit for input and driver stages to minimize noise and hum. It also runs differentially once the signal passes the input tubes.

I’m not trying to be coy when I say that Mike hipped me to several of the design elements responsible for the secret sauce that make his SA-1E sound so amazing—but I promised not to share too much. Let’s just say the classic look of this amp is almost a cover for the innovative tech that Mike has employed to create MORE from seemingly LESS. Mike is also adamant about unnecessary complications in a tube circuit. Keep things as simple as possible and let the tubes do what they do. And find or make a KILLER output transformer to couple those toobs to the speekahs.

This approach may not result in specs that rival solid-state, but boy can it sound good. I tend to agree, having experienced this same situation in pro audio gear. A circuit should be just complex enough to control certain parameters but be simple enough to allow Elsa the Tube Lion to Run Free. Makes me downright teary.

McGary Audio SA-1E

Let Me Roll It To You

One of Mike’s design innovations, one that I can’t tell you about, allows the McGary Audio SA-1E to auto-bias a large variety of different tube types. It does this in an elegantly simple way. This circuit is not only responsible for maintaining correct bias for different tube types, but it also has an influence on the sound.

Dr.Vinyl, probably sensing my fascination (obsession, addiction?) to listening for small differences in audio gear, sent me a veritable treasure trove of different tube types to experiment with. I’ve done some tube rolling in the past but nothing as fun and eye-opening as what occurred with the McGary SA-1E.

Shipped from McGary, the SA-1E had a compliment of four Tung-Sol 7581A (mil spec 6L6GC) power tubes: a pair of 6H1P-EV input tubes, and a pair of NOS GE 6SN7GTB driver/phase splitter tubes. I listened to this stock selection off and on for a week or so before Jose’s care package arrived. I say off and on because my listening room is currently doing double duty as my mastering studio. So I use Pass Labs XA-200.8 amps daily for that task. Then, some mornings or nights, I powered off the Pass’ and powered on the McGary.

McGary Audio SA-1E

Initially, I felt like the bass was good on the SA-1E but when I tried the quad set of Sophia Electric KT-88s it was a whole different story. Deep, massive, low-frequency goodness was in abundance. Then to make matters more interesting, when I went back to the 7581s the bass was far more fleshed out than my initial impressions. I can only surmise that the amp needed to be on for an extended period of time to find its footing.

I also want to make clear that even though I found a surprising variance to the sound when swapping out different tubes, the McGary sounded phenomenal with any of them. I think that indicates great design and execution with this amp.

In addition to the 7581s and KT-88s, I also tried some Sophia Electric EL-34s, Tube Amp Doctor 6L6GCM-STRs, and a set of Electro-Harmonix KT-90s. I also swapped the GE 6SN7-GTBs for a pair of NOS RCA 6SN7-GTBs. Whew. That’s a lotta rollin’. But since I basically live for this kinda thing, it was all good.

McGary Audio SA-1E

Songs For The Glass

So how does the McGary Audio SA-1E sound?

Because I did so much tube rolling, I pretty much stuck to playing two or three records for evaluation purposes. Then, later on, I allowed myself the pleasure of random spins. I did some listening to digital sources—but playing records on my TW Acustic Raven LS fitted with a Charisma Audio Signature One cartridge (reviewed here) and Cardas Audio Beyond phono cable were what curled my big toe, the most.

I chose Peter Gabriel’s Up (on 45 rpm) and Hayley Williams’ Petals For Armor as my primary tube rolling comparison jams. I like both these albums for the same reasons: great dynamic range, modern, huge-yet-controlled low end, lots of spatial information, and loads of instrumental textures. Delicate AND slamming. These are exactly the kind of recordings that tell me everything I wanna know about a component. Plus I love the tunes, which is nice when you have to listen to the same songs over and over.

I played side B and D when using Up to listen. Side B has the songs “Sky Blue” and “No Way Out”. Side D consists of “My Head Sounds Like That” and “More Than This.” In my opinion, it’s some of Gabriel’s most inspired work. “Sky Blue” contains absolutely gorgeous sounding lead AND backing voices. “No Way Out” is one of my low frequency reference tracks in part, because of the sheer number of discrete bass instruments that are woven together by mixer Tchad Blake into an impressive brew of low-frequency tones. By my count there are maybe five or six different bass parts. These parts come in and out, get panned here and there, and at times combine into a stew that pressurizes my listening room like nothing else. When I test a component using these tracks, I pay close attention to the way it presents the overall feel with special attention to how the lows are handled. It tells me a lot. 

The McGary SA-1E laughed at me while playing “No Way Out” and the equally difficult track “More Than This.” I heard gobs of detail and defined edges around all the complex instrumentation and vocals in these tracks, and simultaneously deep waves of low end energy pounded my room effortlessly. It was easy to delineate all the various colors that Peter and Tchad use to paint a compelling low-end picture, trad-sounding electric bass, Tony Levin’s Chapman Stick, synth basses, and acoustic upright, plus left-hand piano lines were all there in bold relief. Don’t even get me started on the low end of the percussion instruments. Damn.

Playing Petals For Armor by Hayley Williams with the McGary Audio SA-1E in the system was loads of fun. I use side A a lot because of the variety of tunes, styles, and sounds. Producer Taylor York and mixing engineer Carlos de la Garza help present Hayley’s personal, confessional tunes on this record in quite a compelling manner, IMO. This record is all about catchy melodies and captivating grooves that almost hide the sometimes serious subjects in the lyrics of her songs. I’ve always loved albums that can be listened to on different levels depending on your mood. This is one of those.

The McGary Audio SA-1E did a phenomenal job of reproducing the crystal clear top end contained on most of these mixes. Plenty of speed and detail without sounding edgy. I actually heard some things I hadn’t previously been aware of when using the McGary amp. All the little vocal bits and instrumental parts that were meant to be discovered but not steal attention away from the vocals and the grooves were presented by the SA-1E in an especial way. 

After methodically changing tubes over several listening sessions a few things emerged.

The KT-88 was the most instantly impressive. Lots of wow factor. Uber detail and massive low end. Big and wide but a smidgen of edge in the midrange. The 6L6GC had the tightest low end, decent detail, and a moderately engaging midrange. The EL-84 was possibly the smoothest sounding with a very nice midrange and decent but unexceptional low end. Good detail but not quite in the league of the KT-88. The KT-90 was okay, but nothing really stood out for me. Solid all around, but no exceptional attributes. Maybe a bit dry sounding compared to the other tube types. But if all I had heard was a set of KT-90s, I’d still love the sound of the amp.

And this leads me back to the beginning, the 7581. With the McGary Audio SA-1E fully burned in, the 7581s were the bizness. Big, phatt low end, ultra-detailed yet super smooth midrange and top-end. Layers upon layers in the imaging department. Other than the EL-34s, the 7581s had the least amount of glare on upper-midrange rich, dense musical passages.

I did swap out the driver tubes but maybe I was burned out from the excessive tube rolling or maybe there wasn’t a big difference because I didn’t really hear enough to quantify. It might have been that third double latte of the day that ruined it, I don’t know.

McGary Audio SA-1E

I should also mention that for any tube choice, the amp was whisper quiet. Using a VAC Master Preamplifier and the McGary Audio SA-1E for an all vacuum tube system, noise was never remotely an issue. When I put my head close to the tweeters I could just hear a bit of tube hiss with its spectral content tilted towards the lower end of the frequency spectrum. Just like a super quiet record. I need a little of that kind of noise to be happy. Oh, and the transformers were dead silent.

I can also talk about meaningful differences to the Pass XA-200.8 monos. I have come to really love the sound of the Pass amps on my Acora SRC-2 loudspeakers (reviewed here). The Pass amps have a way of delivering low end and controlling the woofers in the Acoras that I find extremely satisfying. Huge and hella tight. The amps are transparent enough to get out of the way and deliver everything I want to hear in the way of space, detail, tonal nuances, and just about anything that is part of a great sounding recording. Their wow factor is of a more subtle variety–they stay completely calm and composed on even the most brutally complex and dense passages of a recording. Near zero glare and grain without sounding overly smooth and artificially forgiving.

The McGary SA-1E in many ways is almost the direct opposite. It doesn’t control the low end in quite the same way as the Pass amps, although it’s never boomy or ill-defined. It’s a big, luscious celebration of bass that is very textural in its own special manner. I don’t know for sure, but I doubt it’s simply a power thing, 200 watts vs 30 or so watts. The KT-88 allows the McGary to put out a bit more like 40 or so watts, but who’s counting? No, I think what I hear has more to do with a well-executed transformer-coupled vacuum tube design vs a modern solid-state design.

The McGary consistently pulled me into the music with its seductive midrange and treble texture that seemed to illuminate and define instruments and voices in a way that was beyond just frequency response hocus pocus. There was a dynamic aliveness, especially with small dynamic contrasts, that I found very appealing. And that imaging. OMG. Off the charts spatial mojo. There was also a sense when playing loud, dense, and bass-rich passages, that the amp was really working for it. I’m not talking about distortion or hearing the amp run out steam, no it was more like the satisfaction when I redline my 438i and hear the turbo get all throaty as opposed to puttin’ my foot down in Linda’s electric i3. The i3 might even be faster in a 0-50 but it doesn’t have the same going-for-it sensation the 438i has.

When pushed, the McGary Audio SA-1E never got ugly or felt overly constrained but it does give out a slight vibe that it’s workin’ fo that monay. And for me, that contributed to an exciting listening experience.

Other Stuff – McGary Audio SA-1E

I certainly found the McGary Audio SA-1E to be visually appealing with its powder-coated midnight blue hint-of-metal-flake with satin black top plate finish. Very high-end auto paint in appearance. And that backlit McGary script with the amp turned on is sooo cool. Add in some ceramic with silver contact tube sockets, gold plated binding posts and input jacks, a solid feeling rocker switch for powering it up (with a delayed soft start to increase tube life), and Bob’s your uncle.

Have I mentioned that I love this amp? And it’s $6,600 USD. Whuuuut? Oh Lord, I don’t need another amp. Maybe I do. Well, it only has single-ended RCA inputs and I’m kind of a balanced input dude. Maybe I should go all single-ended and embrace the simpler signal path that usually goes with that? I don’t know.

Closing Time – McGary Audio SA-1E

No, I didn’t do my usual try multiple amps on a speaker or multiple speakers on an amp for an all-bases-covered appraisal. I just didn’t feel the need to. It’s more than obvious the SA-1E will slay on a very efficient speaker and equally obvious that if you have low efficiency or very hard to drive speakers that you like to play loud, this may not be your jam.

But if the SA-1E sounded as stellar as it did with its 30 something watts pounding their little hearts out on the Acora SRC-2s, it begs to be considered by a larger group of audiophiles. The kind of folks that love hearing every dynamic and textural nuance of their favorite recordings. A massively vivid portrayal of anything you feel like playing. And it effin’ rocks, so there’s that.

If you’re looking for something like this to give you that ticket to audio nirvana, trust me, go hear one. Highly recommended.