SA-3, 3.1, 5 and 5.1  
 

Upgrades for Counterpoint SA-3, SA-3.1, SA-5, and SA-5.1.

SA-3.1SA-5.1

 
 
 
"Mike, I wanted to share a recent experience I had where I thought I might replace my SA-5.1 with the Mcintosh C2300 preamp. The C2300 is a $6K preamp new and is still a current preamp in the Mcintosh lineup. I bought a used one from Audio Classics because they give you 11 days to listen to a purchase and return it if you don't like it and receive all of your money back minus shipping costs. The C2300 has all of the bells and whistles with 8 inputs (4 of them balanced) and lots of outputs. It also has a built in MC and MM stage and a remote that you can change MC loading on the fly. The C2300 uses six 12AX7 tubes. My salesman was none other than Frank Gow who is the son of Gordon Gow who was one of the founders of Mcintosh. To make a long story short, [my upgraded] SA-5.1 trounced the C2300. The C2300 sounds SS in comparison to the SA-5.1 and by that I mean it is flat sounding with no life. I called up Frank Gow to let him know I would be returning the C2300. Frank's response was that he was not surprised given that I had a SA-5.1. Frank said the 5.1 is a great sounding preamp and it would take a very expensive preamp in order to beat it. I don't know how expensive "very" expensive is, but it is obviously more than the $6K a C2300 costs new. This experience has just reinforced how great the design of the SA-5.1 is. And by the way, the MC input of the C2300 was absolutely horrible. The only way I could make my LPs sound half-way normal was to use the SA-2 into the MM input of the C2300 and even then it was no match for the SA-2/SA-5.1 combo. Although it would be cool to have a preamp with a couple of balanced inputs, I will be content to stick with what I have because I know how good it sounds and how hard it is to find something that will even come close."
 
-- M. Pearson, Bloomfield, IN
 
 
 
 
"I just inserted the upgraded SA-5.1 into the system and listened to some Count Basie on vinyl. I consider myself a fairly well-educated individual, and I can normally express myself pretty well, but the only word that comes to mind as I listen is, DA-AMN!!!!! I keep waiting for the sax to hit me with its spit! Job well done Mr. Elliott. Even if the preamp sounds no better after 200 hours of burn-in I'll still be happy!!! I wonder what the sound would be like with your amps. . ."
--F. Wells, Mercedes, TX
 
 
"UPS delivered my preamp yesterday and today my dreams have been realized. It seems you must know your customers well, because this is exactly what I had envisioned if improvements could be made. Everything is more lifelike -- especially in the background where silence between images can now be heard. Once-recessed tones now take on immediacy in transients and vocals. And dynamics now are startling, jumping out from my speakers, and giving a more virtual live performance in three dimensions. You have just saved my LP collection for years to come, and resparked my interest in live performances. Thank you!"
--P. Hudson, Jr., Yonkers, NY
 
"For a fraction of what a new 'high end' pre-amp would have cost me, I now have a unit that I think rivals some of the best pre-amps on the market. I can only say, anyone that has somewhat older equipment or, is looking to upgrade newer equipment, Michael does outstanding work. It's worth every dollar."
S. Schiendelman, Valparaiso, IN
 
 
(Read more of these opinions on the testimonials page.)
 
The Upgrades

Line Stage Upgrades (Standard and Premium)
Balanced Outputs (SA-5/5.1 only)
SA-3/3.1 Power Supply Upgrades (Level I, II and III)
SA-5/5.1 Power Supply Upgrades (Level I, II and III)
Phono Stage Upgrades (Standard and Premium)
    OPTION: Transformer MC Inputs
OPTION: Upgraded Power Umbilical
   Option: Upgraded Volume and Balance Controls
   Option: Better RCA Jacks

   Option: Upgraded Tubes

I designed the SA-3 in 1982 and the SA-5 in 1985. They were both revised upward to "point one" status in 1986 with the addition of automatic power-on muting circuits. Both of these preamps are superb little gems, with pure tube signal paths. Nothing new has happened in preamplifier design to make them outmoded. In fact, with some better parts they will outperform new designs.

 
In many respects, these preamps are very similar, and they share the same phono and line stage design. The essential difference between these two preamps is that the SA-5/5.1 has two line stage tubes where the SA-3/3.1 has a single tube shared by both channels; and the SA-5/5.1 uses a vacuum-tube regulator whereas the SA-3/3.1's regulator is solid-state.

 
I have developed some modifications for these preamps. Because the circuit is so similar, the pricing is pretty much the same for the two preamps.



Line Stage Upgrades -- This is the place to start: all the signals go through the line stage.

  • LSP Standard Upgrade. I replace the tube's grid bias, plate load, and buildout resistors with Caddock Tetrinox and Vishay "Naked" film resistors as needed, and Mills Non-inductive wirewound resistors, and I upgrade input and output coupling caps to TRT Dynamicaps.

Price for SA-3/5 "LSP" Standard Upgrade: $960

SA-5.1 with Premium Upgrade to Line Stage (center two tubes and parts in front of them) and Premium Phono Upgrade (outer two tubes and associated parts. (This SA-5.1 belongs to F. Wells. )
  • LSP Premium Upgrade. Just like the standard LSP upgrade, but with upgraded Jensen power supply bypass caps, Texas Components's superb TX2575 resistors, and TRT Dynamicaps. In addition, the tube's filament (heater) supply is upgraded for dramatically better sound, with FRED diodes and Nichicon KZ power supply bypass caps. This upgrade is tremendously transparent, sweet, lifelike, three-dimensional and musically involving. This upgrade also includes removing the old 9-pin tube sockets used for the audio section (three in the SA-3/3.1 and four in the SA-5/5.1 and installing gold/ceramic tube sockets.

    Price for SA-3/5 "LSP Premium" Upgrade: $1430

NOTE: The Premium GOLD Line Stage upgrade has been discontinued.

Option: Balanced Outputs (SA-5/5.1 ONLY). If you'd like to add balanced outputs to your SA-5.1, this upgrade is for you. I rebuild the line stage so that it can provide a pure-tube balanced output without using any integrated circuits or other devices in the signal path. The tube drives the XLR directly. To make room for the XLR's I remove the serial number I.D. plate and affix it to the chassis bottom. The existing RCA outputs remain connected for unbalanced operation. (This upgrade is not available for the SA-3/3.1 because the latter product has only a single line stage tube, shared between the two channels. I need one tube per channel from which to fabricate a proper balanced output circuit.)
Price to add Balanced Outs: $560
(must be done with "LSP" upgrade, Standard or Premium
Power Supply Upgrades

Power Supply Upgrades for SA-3/3.1: The power supply for the SA-3's audio circuit is transistorized, and uses very average parts and it can be greatly improved. With better parts and different circuitry it can sound liquid, sweet and smooth.

The heart of the power supply upgrade for the SA-3 and SA-3.1. This board replaces the big old slow power transistor used in the high-voltage regulator. Eight small high-speed Zetex transistors (hidden under gold-colored heatsink) provide clean, smooth power no trace of transistor edginess.
  • SA-3/3.1 Level I Power Supply Upgrade. As in the audio stage, I install far better resistors (Vishay "naked" Z-foil) and film capacitors (Dynamicaps), and upgrade the aluminum electrolytic capacitor at the output of the high voltage regulator to a Jensen electrolyic capacitor (wish we could use Continental Capacitors in this unit but it's not tall enough to fit those parts). The large, slow power transistor is removed and an entirely new regulator circuit installed. The new regulator is much more liquid-sounding, which complements the sound of the tubes, increasing musicality by eliminating transistor hashiness and grain.

    Price for SA-3/3.1 Level I Power Supply Upgrade: $1250
    Add setup fee to this price if not done with an "LSP" upgrade.)

  • SA-3/3.1 Level II Power SupplyUpgrade. Like the Level I SA-3/3.1 Power Supply Upgrade upgrade, but with additional Jensen capacitors used in the remaining critical areas.

    Price for SA-3/3.1 Level II Power Supply Upgrade: $1700
    (Add setup fee to this price if not done with an "LSP" upgrade.)

  • SA-3/3.1 Level III Power SupplyUpgrade. In addition to getting the Level II Power Supply Upgrade, I also install a Plitron toroidal transformer. You haven't heard what your preamp can do until you hear it powered by one of these incredible Plitron transformers, each one built to my specifications expressly for Alta Vista Audio! More delicate, faster highs, a cleaner background -- say goodbye to grunge!

    Price for SA-3/3.1 Level III Power Supply Upgrade (includes transformer and new transformer box for larger transformer):$2250
    (Add setup fee if not done with an "LSP" upgrade)


Power Supply Upgrades for SA-5/5.1: The power supply for the SA-5.1's audio circuit is is a pure tube regulator and it sounds very smooth. It has the potential to sound far livelier, more neutral and more transparent if the passive parts are upgraded, and some solid-state parts removed.

  • SA-5/5.1 Level I Power Supply Upgrade. As in the audio stage, I install far better resistors (Vishay "naked" Z-foil) and film capacitors (Dynamicaps), and upgrade the aluminum electrolytic capacitors, using Jensen capacitors. The solid-state constant-current source for the error amplifier tube is eliminated, removing the final source of "transistory" colorations.

    Price for SA-5/5.1 Level I Power Supply Upgrade: $1530
    Add setup fee to this price if not done with an "LSP" upgrade.)
  • SA-5/5.1 Level II Power SupplyUpgrade. Like the Level I SA-5/5.1 Power Supply Upgrade upgrade, but with additional Black Gate Powdered Graphite capacitors used the the remaining critical areas. Ceramic/gold tube sockets used for the two 9-pin power supply tubes in the audio chassis.

    Price for SA-5/5.1 Level II Power Supply Upgrade: $2200
    (Add setup fee to this price if not done with an "LSP" upgrade.)

  • SA-5/5.1 Level III Power SupplyUpgrade. In addition to getting the Level II Power Supply Upgrade, I also install a Plitron toroidal transformer. You haven't heard what your preamp can do until you hear it powered by one of these incredible Plitron transformers, each one built to my specifications expressly for Alta Vista Audio! More delicate, faster highs, a cleaner background -- say goodbye to grunge! This upgrade also includes removing the old 9-pin tube sockets in the power supply section (one in the external box and two in the audio chassis) and installing gold/ceramic tube sockets, upgraded main 500-volt storage capacitors a Mills power resistor in the high voltage filter network. In addition, the rectifier tube socket in the power supply chassis is rewired so that 6BW4 tubes can be used as well as the original 6CA4-types. A "AAAAA" rated rectifier tube is installed.

Price for SA-5/5.1 Level III Power Supply Upgrade:$2900
(add setup fee if not done with an "LSP" upgrade)

SA-5.1 with all Premium everything.

Phono Stage Upgrades

SA-3/5 Phono Stage Upgrades. What's good for the line stage is superb for the phono stage, where the using high-quality components really shines, especially in the first stage and riaa de-emphasis network where high-frequency energy levels are extremely high. Upgrading the phono stage is more costly than upgrading the line stage because it is over twice as complex, but the increase in sound purity, imaging precision, air and musicality, is readily apparent. NOTE: SA-5/5.1's were designed with high and low gain MM phono inputs. This was my attempt at the time to deal with new cartridges that were entering the market which had levels that departed significantly from the "standard" 4.7mV output level. By providing two inputs with different gains, I hoped to level out the differences. But, as we learn over and over again, whenever flexibility is added, the additional complexity has a negative sonic impact. So, unless otherwise requested, the Low Gain MM input will be disconnected and the High Gain phono input will be direct-wired and present the standard MM load of 47kohm. (Note added 10.2006)

  • Standard Phono Upgrade. I replace the MM load resistors with Vishay "naked" S-foil resistors, all the grid bias, plate load, and buildout resistors with Caddock Tetrinox film resistors and Mills Non-inductive wirewound resistors, and I upgrade all coupling and energy storage caps to Dynamicaps.

Price for SA-3/5 Standard Phono Upgrade: $1690
(add setup fee if not done with an "LSP" upgrade)

  • Premium Phono Upgrade. Just like the standard phono upgrade, but with additional Dynamicap power supply bypass caps and the far better "naked" Vishay TX2575 Z-Foil resistors. This upgrade is tremendously transparent, sweet, lifelike, three-dimensional and musically involving. Ceramic/gold tube sockets used for the phono tubes.

Price for SA-3/5 Premium Phono Upgrade: $2100
(add setup fee if not done with an "LSP" upgrade)

NOTE: The Premium GOLD Phono Stage upgrade has been discontinued.

OPTION: Transformer Step-up MC Phono Input. Natural sound with no transistor interface -- for the listener who wants the best possible sound for MC cartridges.

The SA-5, SA-3, SA-5.1 and SA-3.1 were never intended for use with low-output MC cartridges. Counterpoint had the SA-2 tube "head amp" for that purpose. The low and high-gain inputs on the SA-5/5.1 were an attempt to offer some flexibility when dealing with high and low output phono cartridges, but the phono stage in these preamps is really suitable only with the higher moving-magnet signal levels of 4.7mV or so. If you've ever attempted to use one of these preamps with a low-output MC cartridge, you know that there is really not enough gain, tube noise predominates the background, and dynamics are not great.
     This upgrade eliminates that restriction by using a pair of transformers to step up the low output of an MC cartridge to MM level, and by doing so, lets you listen to vinyl with your best MC cartridge, with pure tube sound. For this, we use transformers designed expressly for this purpose by Sowter.
     
(Click here to read more about why transformers are your best choice for MC step-up.)
Accomodate low-output moving coil cartridges with your SA-5, 5.1, 3 or 3.1 with the musically-accurate and emotionally involving Sowter 8055 MC stepup transformers. Versions available for 20dB step-up (suitable for medium-output MC cartridges), or 30dB step-up for low-output MC cartridgtes. Dead quiet, transparent and warm-sounding. (Photo of S. Kushino's SA-5.1 preamp, used with permission, note that photo shows Jensen transformers, which were used prior to switching over to the better Sowter parts.)

There are two ways your preamp can be modified to use MC stepup transformers:

1. The Flexible Approach: The "high gain" phono input becomes a dedicated MC input and is connected to the stepup transformers. The "low gain" phono input becomes your MM input. A new switch is mounted on the back to select between the MC and MM inputs.

2. The Purist's Approach. Phono cartridge signal levels are minute, and even the slightest bit of contamination on a switch's contacts can affect the sound. If you know you will not be using an MM cartridge, we can hard-wire the transformers directly to the phono stage.

Price for MC Transformer Inputs:
$320 for the transformers, and $720 for installation.

(Requires phono stage upgrade.)

Other Upgrade Options

Upgraded Power Supply Umbilical Cord.

You know how a good interconnect sounds miles better than the $2 interconnects that came with your CD player? Or how high-end speaker cables trounce zip cord? Or how a good AC Mains cord can transform the sound of your system? The same applies to the cable that connects your preamp to its power supply. New in summer of 2007 I am offering upgraded power supply umbilicals that so completely outperform the original $20 umbilical in every way possible. It's not even a close race.

Click here for more information and pricing for the Power Supply Umbilical upgrade.


Upgraded Volume and Balance Controls. TKD makes excellent feeling and sounding volume and balance controls. Once you've heard (and felt) the difference between a $7.00 volume control and a $70.00 control you'll understand why people go to such lengths to get cheap controls out of their signal path. For the "he-men" (and she-women) out there, why not have the balance control bypassed altogether? You know you don't use it, why run the signal through it?

Price to Upgrade Volume Control: $200
Price to Upgrade SA-3/3.1 Balance Control: $220
Price to Upgrade SA-5/5.1 Balance Trim Controls: $260 (pair)

Price to Bypass Balance Controls Altogether: No Charge
(add setup fee if not done with an "LSP" upgrade)

Tubes. For current recommendations for tubes for the SA-3.1 or 5.1, see the Tubes page.

 
Option: Better RCA Jacks.
The jacks on the SA-3, 3.1, 5 and 5.1 can be upgraded to use jacks with much better metallurgy. This can be done selectively: you might wish to only do your CD and phono inputs, and the main outputs. I can replace some or all of your jacks with direct-gold over copper CM1F-OFC from Sound Connections. (Above photo from SA-1000.)

Price to Upgrade RCA Jacks on SA-3, 3.1 or early SA-5 (Units without rear circuit board):
$120 for first stereo pair,
$60 for each pair thereafter.

Price to Upgrade RCA Jacks on later model SA-3, 3.1, 5, and 5.1 (units with rear circuit board through which all the jacks are soldered):
$150 for first stereo pair,
$80 for each pair thereafter.
Cost is higher due to difficulty of unsoldering old jacks from circuit board and soldering new ones on without damaging the fragile board.
(add setup fee if not done with an "LSP" upgrade)

If I can be of any further assistance, do not hesitate to contact me.

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