Such were the politics of British hi-fi publishing back in the early eighties, that you had to struggle to read about anything that wasn’t UK-made and transistor-aspirated. It may be hard to believe in today’s relatively catholic hi-fi world, but many hacks didn’t much care for valve amplifiers back then. As for the high end products of either Japan or the United States, you had as much chance of spotting one of these as Lord Lucan. To wit, here was not a happy environment for the new £1,399 Audio Research SP-8 back in 1982…
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that this brand has remained relatively obscure in the UK, despite a vast canon of past products highly regarded by those ‘in the know’. Even two decades’ ago, William Z Johnson’s Audio Research Corporation was considered by US and Japanese collectors as something of a legend. The early D150 ‘tube’ power amp was a premium-priced slice of classic audio back then – let alone now. The SP-6 was also a name to conjure with, being an extremely fondly remember thermionic preamplifier.
Enter the SP-8, which was both a volte-face and departure for the US high end manufacturer. Whereas the preceeding SP-7 had been an all transistor design (shock, horror), its successor saw the company returning – in a way – to its roots. Tubes were back, but this time it had a transistor/valve hybrid power supply. Should devotees wish to rid themselves of the ‘demon switches’ completely, Audio Research could supply the all-tube SP-10 (complete with a separate power supply) for £2,950. Let’s not forget the effects of inflation in the intervening decades between then and now – in today’s money we’re talking something in the region of £9,000, with the SP-8 coming in around £5,000.
With this in mind, you could understand the many UK hi-fi hacks who dismissed US high end as ‘overpriced rubbish’. Despite the very strong pound, the UK importer was certainly charging a pretty penny! Rubbish it was not, however. The SP-8 was a textbook example of a beautifully executed valve preamplifier. Lurking under the ‘hood’ were four ECC83 triodes, two 6DJ8 dual triodes (doing the phono and line stage duties) and one 12BH7A for the power supply. (Transistors were used for voltage regulation).
Elsewhere, battleship construction was evident everywhere you looked. Indeed, the SP-8 is an archetype for high end hi-fi construction practices – you can see where the Japanese got their ideas from. Specially selected components were used throughout, with high quality Wondercap capacitors mounted on strong PCBs with thickened tracks. Outside, beautifully turned aluminium knobs complimented a fascia panel that resembled professional ‘lab’ equipment more than home hi-fi. Round the back was a special earthing system for when the unit was rack mounted, which it was designed to be.
The front panel facilities would have been anathema to dyed-in-the-wool UK audiophiles. There were – shock horror – more facilities than just a simple on-off switch and volume control! Compared with Japanese high end however, such as Pioneer’s SPEC 1, it was an object lesson in economy – no tone controls or variable rate filtering here! In truth, it was a nice compromise. There was four line level inputs plus one phono stage for moving magnet cartridges. Add to that a volume control, balance, stereo mode selector, tape monitor and mute and that was your lot.
It sounds quintessentially valve. Interestingly, it’s a lot closer to valve preamps of twenty years later (i.e. now) than it is to those of twenty years previous (i.e. Quads, Leaks, etc.) Warm, sweet, smooth, clean, open and beguilingly musical, it’s still a fine performer on today’s terms. Strictly speaking however, you can point to a degree of coloration that strips it of tonal and textural subtleties, and a slight softening of dynamics. Indeed it sounds much like you’d imagine a classic valve preamp to sound – very engaging if a little soft round the edges. In its day however, it must have seemed incredibly detailed and open compared to the earlier British designs against which it was invariably compared. This is no big, fat, bloated exercise in euphony and sloth!
These days, you’ll find it hard to pick up SP-8s (or any other Audio Research product for that matter) on the second-hand market, but they do still surface from time to time. They benefit from not being the ‘purist’s choice’ (thanks to that solid-state power supply malarkey), and are thus considerably cheaper than SP-10s. You are still looking at well over £1,500 for a minter, however.