It’s sad that so many great names have fallen by the wayside, from Leak and Garrard in Great Britain to Micro Seiki and Sansui in Japan. The latter was one of the biggest Nipponese brands around in the nineteen seventies, with a proud portfolio of high quality, high end products with a distinctively svelte yet powerful sound. The Sansui brand still exists today, but the people responsible for the company’s classic amplifiers have long since gone.
Founded in Tokyo, Japan, in 1947, it began life producing transformers but moved into amps and tuners, and made itself a fine reputation for both, especially the former. Sansui also built some very decent turntables – the SR222/II being a case in point – and matching cassette decks for this, arguably the brand’s most accomplished range. The series spanned the 217 to the 917, with the AU-317 being first ‘serious’ integrated in the pecking order. Think of it as a sort of Japanese A&R A60, and you’ll not go far wrong.
The AU-317 was launched in 1977, and featured crisp styling that has stood the test of time far better than Sansui products which preceded it, or indeed those that followed. Its black steel casework, matt black aluminium fascia and silky switchgear lend it a rather purposeful, almost military look. Optional rack mounting handles were rare, but add visual drama. Without these, it measured a fairly compact 430x110x340mm and weighed in at a not insignificant 9.5kg.
The amplifier had a claimed 50W RMS per channel into 8 ohms, and many thought it was more in real-life conditions. Construction quality is excellent by the standards of the day; it has a complex and comprehensive circuit mounted on several circuit boards, with no less than 51 transistors, 25 diodes and 2 FETs. Two large ELNA smoothing capacitors loom large next to the chunky heatsinking for the four power transistors. Wiring is neat and everything meticulously laid out.
The first version of the AU-317 was arguably the better; aside from its fascia labelling, it’s distinguishable by its black aluminium heatsink (the mkII version’s isn’t painted), preamp-out/main-in connectors on the rear panel (which were later deleted), shielded power transformer and slightly lower voltage power supply to the power amp section. The mkII version, launched in 1980, got a small hike in claimed power output to 60W RMS per channel, but little else.
Any vintage of AU-317 is a fine thing. In its day it was one of the few Japanese amplifiers recommended by the parochial British hi-fi press of the time, despite its not inconsiderable £190 price tag. It has a punchy, clean, fast and grippy sound that is surprisingly musical for a Japanese amplifier, and also sounds more valve-like than its Nipponese competitors, many of which were either shrill or bland. It has fine imaging and a decently three dimensional soundstage; back in its day it was regarded as a powerhouse, although of course now fifty or so watts don’t impress so much…
Sansui Electric Co., Ltd. is now part of Grande Holdings, a Chinese Hong Kong-based conglomerate, which also owns Japanese brands Akai and Nakamichi. The name still appears on modern budget hi-fi separates in some markets, but doesn’t share any real DNA with the AU-317. If you want to know how great it once was, then find yourself one of these late seventies lovelies; they’re far cheaper than you’d expect for such a well built and sonically capable product; mint examples go for under £150 and middling ones are far less than that.