Pioneer is one of the more interesting Japanese brands, and – if you aggregate the quality of its products over time – one of the most impressive. Since 1937 when it was founded by Japanese engineer Nozomu Matsumoto, it has never failed to originate and innovate in consumer electronics. Neutral observers would say its golden years for hi-fi were from 1973 to 1982 – the period from which the SA-9500 comes.
Its early products centred around loudspeakers, but by 1962 – shortly after floating on the Tokyo Stock Exchange and changing its name from Fukuin Denki to Pioneer Electronic Corporation – it was making stereo systems. What followed was a ‘purple period’ of great tape recorders, turntables and tuners going all the way up to 1982, when Pioneer launched its first LaserDisc player. It other notable things it did were superb in-car hi-fi systems, for which it was briefly the market leader, and class-leading DVD players and Plasma TVs.
The SA-9500 comes from a time when two-channel hi-fi had the company’s almost undivided attention. Launched in 1975, it was arguably the high watermark for Pioneer’s stereo equipment manufacturing. The penultimate in the range of integrated amplifiers, it was a redoubtable bit of kit that weighed a chunky 16kg. Much of this was down to the huge amount of power the amp put out by the standards of the day. Eight metal cased NEC bipolar transistors (four per side, paralleled up and DC coupled) put out a claimed 130W DIN into 4 ohms, equating to 2x 80W RMS. A huge frame-type mains transformer and two vast 18,000uF Elna smoothing capacitors made this possible, along with no small amount of heatsinking. By mid-seventies standards, this was an immensely powerful amplifier, even if it’s fairly routine now.
Two line level inputs, one phono (with variable cartridge loading) and two tape monitor circuits were fitted, along with switching for two pairs of speakers. Bass and treble controls with switchable frequencies were standard, complete with a defeat switch, and there was the obligatory – for a nineteen seventies amp – subsonic filter switch to take out turntable-based rumble. All of these features were provided on a vast brushed aluminium front panel which was conspicuously more shiny than the rival Sony TA-3650! Round the back, the rear panel was a maze of RCA phono socketry. Inside, good quality passive componentry was fitted, with a good ALPS volume potentiometer.
Lovely though the Pioneer is to look at, it didn’t quite deliver the sonic goods of its British rivals. For example, the Lecson integrated amplifier sold for a similar amount of money and was altogether warmer, smoother and more sumptuous. The SA-9500 was a slightly brittle performer – sure, it was punchy and had a wonderful bottom end, but its midband was a little ‘transistory’ in the mould of many such amplifiers of the time. It sounded a little opaque and hazy, but slightly edgy across the upper midband. Treble was clean and crisp, but less well resolved than some rivals and could be a little sandpapery. In a sense, it suited the warm and sumptuous vinyl front ends of the day, but put a neutral modern source through it and it sounds unrefined by 2014 standards – today’s £350 Cambridge Audio 652A does better.
Sometimes, buying classic hi-fi brings you great sound for stupidly little money. In this case however, the £250 that a Pioneer SA-9500 will set you back on eBay will buy you a lovely bit of retro nineteen seventies kitsch, and a rather unsophisticated sound. Sure, it’s pretty punchy and brusque, but the novelty soon wears off if you’re used to a well balanced modern system. During this period, Pioneer’s tape decks and open reel machines were excellent, and it was about to launch a generation of rather fine turntables too. The matching tuner for this amp was also superb – but Pioneer’s amplifiers weren’t the company’s strong point, even it they certainly looked the part.