When I first installed the SPL Performer s1200 power amplifier into my main system a few months ago, I was a little worried. The Lab12 Integre4 integrated amplifier had just left the building, and I had grown quite fond of it—so much so that I genuinely thought about buying it. The Lab12 had reminded me how much I love tube integrated amplifiers and, well, here was a German-made 300wpc solid state power amplifier from a company known mainly for its pro audio products. It wasn’t that I thought I wouldn’t like the SPL Performer s1200, I just knew there was going to be a period of adjustment.
To be honest, I hadn’t heard that much about SPL (Sound Performance Lab) before the company joined the ever-growing Focal Naim America distribution juggernaut along with other brands such as Thorens, Musical Fidelity and IsoAcoustics. Both Grover Neville and Dave McNair know SPL from their pro audio products—the consensus between the two was “good stuff, highly respected.” But here’s where I embarrass myself just a little—I was first drawn to SPL because of its looks. I saw it in Chicago, at AXPONA 2022. I saw it in Munich. Neat, clean looks with lots of color.
The $7,500 SPL Performer s1200 is the company’s flagship stereo power amplifier in their Professional Fidelity line, which is their code for home audio. (The other categories are separated into “Studio” and “Mastering” for the pros.) The s1200 offers that 300wpc into 8 ohms, and 520wpc into 4. Still, it’s a compact yet dense amplifier, close to a cube in shape, beautifully finished with high parts quality inside and out. There are two other power amps in the line-up, the smaller s800 and the m1000 monoblocks.
When I talk about its great looks, however, I’m talking about color. You can get SPL gear with one of three colors of faceplates—red, black and silver. In addition, there are three colored metal insets for the faceplates, the same three anodized colors, and you can mix and match. It appears that you get all three colors of insets no matter the faceplate you have chosen, so it’s not a one-time choice. The insets pop on and off with ease thanks to a strong neodymium magnet, so you can change the amp to suit your mood.
I’m not really a “red” person—I’d never want a red car, for example—but I would choose that color in a heartbeat if I was purchasing this amp. My SPL Performer s1200 came with the silver faceplate, and I tried all three inserts and quickly chose the red, which runs just slightly on the darker side of the spectrum toward purple. Yes, I would go with a red faceplate, too, because when I first noticed the SPL line in the Focal Naim North America room at AXPONA, the red SPL line dominated the room. It’s simply gorgeous gear—amps, preamps, phono stages, headphone amps, external crossovers and DACs, small and compact but still projecting a look of gleaming industrial strength.
But this isn’t a beauty pageant, obviously, and there’s much more to explore with the SPL Performer s1200.
Inside the SPL Performer s1200
The SPL Performer s1200 stereo power amplifier arrived on a pallet, which I thought unusual for such a compact amplifier. It is a compact and dense amp, weighing in at a seemingly reasonable 63 pounds, and then I had a flashback to my importing days. Dense and heavy gear, especially when smaller, will simply destroy the packing materials from the inside out if left to roam through the wild world of international shipping without a pallet as an escort. Sitting on my equipment rack, it looks suave and svelte. But it’s a solid hunk of metal and it needs to be shipped with care–there are even two transport screws on the bottom of the amp for shipping purposes.
The Performer is a solid-state class AB design, which is undoubtedly a common approach for amp circuits. What SPL adds to the mix is their proprietary VOLTAiR technology that keeps the amplifier performing more consistently at the frequency extremes. There are separate stages for power and voltage, and each stage has its own negative feedback path which keeps feedback from the transducers from “interacting with the input stage.” VOLTAiR is designed to keep the amp from operating in a critical stage—it’s always relaxed, open and optimal.
I’ll let SPL explain the VOLTAiR technology in greater depth:
“The 120V technology is our reference technology. The 120V technology is unique in the world. It operates at a DC voltage of 120 volts. This is four times that of IC-based semiconductor op-amps. In our Professional Fidelity series, we refer to this unsurpassed technology as VOLTAiR technology.
“The 120V technology works with +/-60 V. To be able to handle such a high voltage, we have developed special proprietary operational amplifiers that can operate with a DC voltage of +/-60 V: the SPL 120V SUPRA operational amplifiers. This high voltage would destroy conventional components and operational amplifiers.
“By the way, the “120V” in the name of the technology has nothing to do with the local mains voltage from the mains power socket. This is about the operating voltage inside the device with which the audio signals are processed. The mains voltage from the mains power socket is transformed to the required secondary voltage in the device’s internal linear power supply with toroidal transformer. Rectifiers convert this AC voltage into DC voltage required in the audio device.”
The rear panel of the SPL Performer s1200 is neat and clean, but it does feature a couple of interesting additions. First, there’s a simple switch to activate either XLR or RCA input connections. I installed the amp without looking at the owner’s manual, and of course this was the first problem I had to solve. (I used RCAs for the preamp since my Pureaudio Control preamplifier doesn’t do XLR.) User error, in other words.
The second feature on the rear panel of the SPL Performer s1200 is very interesting. There are two little knobs, one for each channel, that allows you to trim the input sensitivity in 0.5 dB steps. SPL explains the addition of this feature:
“In contrast to a panorama potentiometer in a preamplifier, this trim switch is the more audiophile solution. The optimal operating range of the loudspeakers and preamplifier can be perfectly adjusted this way.”
The s1200 has a protection circuit that activates for DC power and for overheating. It’s been a long time since I’ve triggered a protection circuit on an amp since I keep my listening sessions civil, but I actually did shut down the Performer once. I’m not even sure how it happened, but it might have been caused by switching on a fan in the other room. (Yes, I use power conditioners.) I unplugged the amp, let it sit overnight, and in the morning everything performed flawlessly. The incident was not repeated during the review period.
As I mentioned in the review of the High Moon Hifi Speaker Company’s High Desert monitors, the SPL Performer s1200 was the amplifier that lit up those speakers from Texas. The High Moons have a warm, soft balance that wasn’t an optimal match with the warm, soft sound of the Lab12 Integre4—it was the only speaker in my stable that didn’t fall under the Integre’s spell—and the sheer power and precision of the SPL seemed to liberate those SEAS drivers and wake them from their slumber.
The finest speaker match I found, however, was with the next pair of two-way monitors to grace my listening room—the Credo EV 350 Reference monitors that I flipped over at AXPONA 2022. I don’t want to give away too much about the Credos yet, except that they are a very small monitor that delivers a very big sound with very deep and well-defined bass. Most audiophile bookshelf speakers must sound “big for their size” in order to compete in today’s marketplace, a point I’ve made repeatedly, but the EV 350s blow that distribution curve to bits—and at a relatively modest price of $7,000/pr USD.
The SPL Performer s1200, in fact, was the heart of a very new and very different system that I’m enjoying through the summer: Pear Audio Blue Kid Howard turntable with Cornet2 tonearm; both the ZYX Ultimate Airy X and Van den Hul Crimson XGW Stradivarius cartridges; the Van den Hul The Grail, Allnic Audio H-6500 and Pureaudio Vinyl phono stages; the Pureaudio Control preamplifier; and finally, the amazing little Sparkler Audio S515 “Ballade” CD player. I recently spoke with another audio reviewer about how our ever-evolving systems go through highs and lows, and this is a system that’s been a remarkable high so far this year.
SPL Performer s1200 Sound
My first impression of the sound of the SPL Performer s1200 was that of supreme neutrality, but I quickly realized I had spent so many months with the Lab12 Integre4. So while the SPL might have sounded neutral at first, that was only in comparison. Over time, I noticed more about the sound of the Performer s1200. I noticed it had a personality all its own.
During my time with the SPL, I noticed that every pair of speakers imaged with considerable finesse. I was busy making blanket statements about how well the Credos imaged, and how well the Sparkler Audio CD player imaged, and it took awhile to connect that specific strength to the SPL. I must not pay enough attention to the contributions an amplifier can make toward imaging—that always seems to be the domain of the transducers. But after several system switches, I concluded that the SPL Performer s1200 was an imaging monster.
What made this sense of imaging so special was the extra “pop” the SPL brought to the proceedings. By pop, I mean detail that jumps out at you and perhaps brings an extra layer of sound that you haven’t heard before. If a recording was heavy on percussion, I felt drawn toward the places where sticks and mallets and fingertips struck these instruments, and I heard more of the flesh against drumskins, more of the echoes that a hard stick can produce when it collides with wood. Complex music came alive and was well-sorted by the time it reached my ears. (I think they call that coherence.)
In addition, the SPL Performer s1200 really coaxed the High Moons and the Credos to deliver just a bit more bottom end than the other amps I had sitting around. The Credos are downright alarming in the way they can deliver the lowest frequencies in my listening room with confidence and even a bit of swagger. It’s an attitude that makes you sit up and say, “Oh, I didn’t expect that from you.”
Finally, my one word for the SPL Performer s1200 power amplifier was stable. Usually, calling an amp stable is a very specific thing regarding its smooth operation. In this case, I’m referring to a stability in the overall sonic presentation—soundstaging, imaging and dynamics were anchored firmly and fixed precisely. That added a natural and relaxed feeling to the music on top of that neutrality, and I could focus on it and say, “This is the SPL sound.”
I imagine this is closely tied into the VOLTAiR design, which keeps the SPL Performer s1200 humming along contentedly night and day. Open, relaxed, effortless sound—that was the gift of the SPL no matter which speakers were connected.
As I mentioned, the SPL Performer s1200 power amplifier led me to complicated, energetic music due to its superb ability to create large, well-organized and relaxed spaces. I’ve been infatuated with the jazz drumming of Florian Arbenz for the last couple of years—he’s one of those drummers who has a varied kit and isn’t afraid to extract a wide variety of sounds from it. On his new album Vulcanized: Conversation #4, with bassist Francois Moutin and sax player Maikel Vistel, Arbenz is on fire, moving about with a sense of constant invention, and with the SPL in the system I was able to make sense of it all every single second. Yes, there have been times in the past when Arbenz gets behind the wheel, floors it and sprays asphalt into my face. But here, I could sense his body movements along with each strike of his sticks, and I understood what was happening. Well, most of the time.
Another wonderful recording that brings out the best of the SPL Performer s1200 is Kane Mathis’ beautiful and feathery Geminus. This is another exotic jazz trio, with Mathis jumping between an oud and a kora, so half of the songs have Middle Eastern influences, and the others have that ethereal Celtic feel brought on by an instrument that sounds very similar to a harp. There’s no mistaking the differences between the two string instruments, but I did feel like I was reading a primer on the two in terms of timbre. The oud has that slightly papery, banjo-like decay, and I could see it clearly in his lap throughout the album.
I’m also reminded of my friend Bob Clarke, of Profundo, who often uses a grand piano to evaluate changes to his system. On 2L Recordings’ new solo piano work from Jan Gunnar Hoff, Home, I was easily swept away with the dynamics and size of the keyboard, all the decay, all of the directions those notes decide to fly in that big Norwegian church. This last pairing says a lot about the tonality and energy of the SPL Performer s1200, as well as those diminutive Credo EV 350 Reference monitors—a small monitor that can capture just about every piece of information from that big piano in a warm space.
There was a lovely consistency in the way the SPL power amplifier was so organized and precise, but in a way that allowed the music to move and breathe and exist without a hint of stress. The transition between the Lab12 and the SPL went far smoother than I predicted because both amps, and their disparate circuitry, had far more in common when it came to pure musicality. The Performer doesn’t just sound big and relaxed—it offered a very balanced and natural delivery of all types of music.
SPL Performer s1200 Conclusions
If the Lab12 Integre4 integrated amplifier confirmed that, deep down, I’m still a tube amp guy, did my time with the SPL Performer s1200 change that perspective? In a way, it did. There’s a flip side to having a tube amplifier in my system—the warm sound, the immediate emotion connection I make with a wider swath of music, and of course the irretractable coolness of those glowing valves. Plus, the Integre4 had 65 watts per channel, so I was never challenged by a hard-to-drive loudspeaker while it was in the system.
The SPL Performer s1200, however, provides a different set of strengths that are equally desirable, such as the ability to drive any transducer with ease. 300 watts per channel from a beefy class AB amplifier is a set-it-and-forget-it enterprise—you’ll never worry if this amplifier is up to the task. It’s stoic and formidable at the same time.
The SPL VOLTAiR circuit technology, however, introduces the idea that a lot of power doesn’t necessarily mean a powerful, authoritarian type of sound. Since VOLTAiR keeps the SPL Performer s1200 power amplifier operating within an optimal range from top to bottom, the amp keeps its cool. That comes out in the overall sound of this amp, which is both neutral and relaxed, open and natural without any noticeable colorations.
On top of all that sonic goodness, the SPL Performer s1200 stereo power amplifier is a beautiful and compact power amp that makes a great visual statement—not something you ordinarily get with a solid-state power amplifier. I happen to think that SPL’s preamplifiers are also very attractive—which you’ll see when John Richardson reviews the SPL Elector in the coming weeks. As for me, I consider SPL to be an unexpected and rewarding new find among audio brands in 2022, and I hope to hear more.