Another opinion on Counterpoint Amplifiers

J!m

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#1
So, back in the day, I auditioned a pair of modified B&K monoblocks, for potential purchase, as an upgrade to my system at that time. These was an audio shop here in CT that did the mods, and the modded amps received favorable reviews from the audio press. Plus, they were not stupid-expensive (just silly-expensive).

I went and auditioned them, and they sounded nice, but a big, black amplifier caught my eye... "What's that?" I asked.
"Counterpoint SA-220. But it hasn't been on for a few days and won't sound it's best 'cold'."
"well, I'm here, can I listen to it?"
"Sure!"
(see my letter at the bottom of this post, for a bit more detail of the experience)

So, they rigged it up, and, ice cold, that thing WIPED THE FLOOR with the B&K amplifiers. It was no contest. This was the same room, other components and CD, as used to audition the first amp.

So, I took it home.

Later, I acquired a second one used (for $500!) and contacted Mike Elliot (original designer) about making them monoblocks. Now, they have some bridging switches, to bring them to something like 600WPC into 8 ohms, but the noise and distortion also double when you do that. He suggested a wiring scheme to make each a balanced monoblock of "only" 440 watts into 8 ohms (see the letter at the bottom), but the real take-away is that the distortion stays at the original level! So, I re-tubbed them both, just for consistency's sake, and never looked back.

Here's some info (review) from high-endaudio.com on the counterpoint amplifiers:

COUNTERPOINT HYBRIDS
These models were all overlooked when I first put this list together. These are the finest amplifiers, overall, for the money, that I have ever heard. Every single model they made is a Reference, except those from their First Generation.

The models I consider References are the: SA-12, SA-20, SA-100, SA-220 and (all) the Natural Progressions. All these models have similar strengths and weaknesses. They all have exceptional detail and musical information for their power ratings. They are the perfect choice for those audiophiles who need both power and "musicality", and don't want to pay "big bucks" for it. (They embarrass most of the more expensive amplifiers from Krell, Levinson etc.) Their weaknesses are not serious for their price point; a small, though noticeable amount of dryness and thinning of timbres (or loss of low-level information).
Counterpoint is now out of business. This is a tragedy considering that many other manufacturers, who made inferior and/or overpriced components, are still around. Fortunately, the original founder and designer of Counterpoint, Michael Elliot, is still in business to repair and update most of the models, but he is not "cheap". (See the "Links" section to reach him.)

For those who can't afford the expensive updates by Michael Elliot, all the above models can be improved by simply replacing the (now obsolete) coupling capacitors along with some judicious "tube rolling".


Caveat: The SA-20 model, unfortunately, used very rare MOSFETS that can't be replaced, so make absolutely certain that it's working properly. It can still be "updated", by Elliot, even if it breaks (or is broken) down, but at a much higher price.

They/he like them, rated "Class C upper" in their listings. And I believe the SA-220 used the same output devices. Mike told me he would buy hundreds of them, and then they bench-matched them into sets, for amplifiers. They also did an extensive "burn-in" before shipping, to be sure they remained stable. So, even if you find some NOS devices, chances are, The amp would not be stable once repaired...

More Counterpoint fan-boy stuff, from the same site:

...This person also had the "top of the line" Krell preamplifier, the (four-chassis) KRS Balanced. At the time, it was one of the most expensive preamplifiers in the world ($10,000). If that wasn't enough, an earlier version had received rave reviews from both Harry Pearson and David Wilson (of Wilson speaker fame) in The Absolute Sound. Despite this person's skepticism, my friend next brought over his own Counterpoint SA-9 phono preamplifier to directly compare to the big Krells. The Counterpoint had a few minor modifications, mainly coupling capacitor replacements, along with some judicious tube rolling (my friend's specialty). We all really looked forward to that "shoot-out"; the best tube preamp versus the best transistor preamp! However,...
It didn't take long to pick "the winner", and it was unanimous. The Counterpoint "wiped the floor" with the Krell. There was simply no comparison between them. The difference was so huge*, the Krell's owner was almost in shock ("How can this be!?"). More to the point, he ordered the Counterpoint SA-9 the very next day (our listening session was on a Sunday).
*The Counterpoint was much more natural, less electronic and mechanical, with a noticeably lower sound-floor, and with all of the additional musical information which comes with that critical advantage, as well as having more natural body. Any Krell sonic advantages were negligible (deep bass) and musically superficial by comparison.

...I tried it [Krell KSA-50] on a wide variety of speakers, but the only area where it truly excelled was in the bass. It had another positive trait though, it was not "offensive", in the sense of adding objectionable and irritating sounds, but it did subtract a noticeable amount of musical information, which other amplifiers, even some that were much less expensive, would pass on. The Counterpoint SA-12 and SA-20, to give just two examples, were noticeably superior to the Krell in overall performance.


(NOTE: SA-12 and SA-20, were improved later and became the SA-120 and SA-220. The amplifier itself is the same; some protection circuitry was added and other minor changes, as I recall from my conversations with Mike Elliot in the late 90's.)

And, my claim to internet fame: My letter (which begins at the quotes)...

Counterpoint SA-220 Power Amplifier

Decades ago, I was a Counterpoint dealer. I felt at the time, and still do, that they were a highly innovative and value-priced company. I was very sad when they closed down, and I've been on a "mission" since then to ensure that they will never be forgotten. Recently, a long-time reader sent me an email with information that may prove useful for the owners of some of their excellent amplifier models. Here it is, with some minor editing and my bold:

"...My current system consists of a Rega Planar 3 into an Aragon 47k; A Theta Data into an Aragon D2A; those feed the Perreaux SM6 preamp which feeds the pair of Counterpoint SA-220s (as detailed later). Speakers are Thiel CS 2.2s.


Back in the late 80's/early 90's, I bought (new) one of the Counterpoint SA-220 amps. It was from a retailer in CT (I can't remember their name) in a converted old house. So they had several listening rooms, set up in a real house. That was a cool concept that worked well.

Anyway, I went there to audition a pair of B&K monoblocks, which they had modified. At the time, that was the 'hot set-up' as reviewed by Stereophile, whom I was subscribing to at the time. They had them warmed up and ready to go for me, in a small room. It was wide, but the system was across from a couch on the long wall, so distance to speakers was small-ish. (I recall it twice as long as wide)

I brought my (still) reference CD of Robbie Robertson's first record (1987) and listened. It sounded good- certainly better than the Hafler amp I was using at the time. But there was a big, black amp on the rack, sitting cold and idle. So I asked about it. 'That's a Counterpoint. Very nice amps but they require us to sell so many units per month to retain dealer status, an we don't operate like that.' Long story short; I auditioned it, ice cold (only allowing the requisite warm-up mute period) and W O W was I blown away. Yes, it was a bit more (they did discount is slightly to move it), but it was another plane of existence. Same system and room otherwise- just the amp changed, Night and day.

Fast forward a few years and after a move, it wasn't working. So it went back to Mike Elliot for repair. It was an inexpensive repair (broken wire connection) and came back STILL not working- same connection from the transformer was a hair short, and would break during transport vibrations. I fixed it myself with his guidance, and it has been fine (including a couple moves) since. I added some silicone o-rings on the tubes because I got them free from work, and I had the top open anyway. Did it do anything? Who knows...

As you probably know, these can be bridged to monoblocks as well. Something ridiculous like 600W into 8 ohms or something. Borderline welding power supply. Anyway, I happened across a slightly newer (than mine) second SA-220 and contacted Michael to see about possibly upgrading them both or other options which might be available to me. He let me in on a secret- I don't know if this applies to all power amplifiers, or just his design*...

I am using a Perreaux SM6 preamp (which I thought I learned about from your site years ago, but I don't see it there now**) and all the inputs are single-ended; however, it has a set of balanced outputs. From these, I had some Mogami cables made which terminate with un-grounded (shield is floated at the amplifier end) RCA connectors. Per Michael's direction, I connect the "+" to the R+ input and the "-" to the L+ input. Speakers are connected to the "red" output posts respecting similar polarity as input.

This essentially creates a 440w monoblock, rather than bridging, which as I understand bridged amps, also doubles the noise and distortion of the amp. Using this method, the noise and distortion stays where it was/is and the available output power is increased.

A little background: I'm a drummer. Have been since age six in all sorts of bands marching, concert, jazz, progressive rock etc. I have a very good understanding of how a bass drum SHOULD sound. They have a whole lot more 'life' to them than one would be led to believe. Subtle harmonics across the sonic spectrum. Point: This is the first time I have heard bass drum reproduced convincingly. I think, if one has this amp, and can find another (in good shape) wiring them this way is well worth the price of admission." (01/19)

*Caution - Make certain that the circuit of any Counterpoint amplifier is similar to the SA-220 before attempting the reader's wiring experiment.
**I was also a Perreaux dealer in the 1980s. I was impressed with how natural they sounded, especially compared to other transistor designs of their day. Even today, their power amplifiers and preamplifiers (as phono stages) are still listed as "References".
 

Lazarus Short

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#2
In the mid-1990's, I bought a used Counterpoint Solid-1. The rest of my gear was not on the same level, so I did not get the best out of it, and besides that, I never switched the switch which I think switched between class "A" and class "B." It was a dumb thing to not do, but even dumber was trading it in on a Magnum Dynalab tuner that I had the hots for.

I did look inside at the entrails, and noticed that the printed information on the output transistors had been scraped off, so I assumed then that they were a matched set.
 

J!m

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#3
That's interesting that they were scratched off. Mine are covered by plastic covers, but I think the numbers are still there. The "trick" was finding a matched set large enough to make an amp from, that was stable.

I never knew about the A-B switch; but I've never owned a Solid-1 (or Solid-2) amp either. I guess the output would drop by 75% or so, switching modes?

I presume they were like the SA series, but without the tubes. I do know they were significantly smaller in size.
 

Bob Boyer

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#4
Can't say enough about my Counterpoints (SA-5000 and NPS 400). Kick myself some days that I sold them; others I'm more philosophical and realize I don't have room any more for that much gear, the SA-5000 went through phono section 6922s like there was no tomorrow, the Exposure is a very musical integrated, Mike Elliott died a while back so upgrades directly from him are no longer possible , blah, blah, blah.

Still wish I had that one to do over again.
 

J!m

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#5
And I think if you’re careful- electrically and mechanically- they hold up just fine.

It’s really too bad they did not endure, and that Mike is gone. I’m surprised no one has gathered up enough dead ones and did some reverse engineering on them to produce new products.

An SA-220 based on j-fets, rather than the obsolete mosfets, seems like a good idea in my head…

They made a great sounding product at an acheiveable price point (sort of the way Rolex used to be). I’m somewhat out of touch with the newest stuff but other than the Schitt coming out of California I don’t know of anything that fills those shoes. Not even sure that Schiit can do it.
 

nakdoc

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#6
I really like the SA-100. I have a pair of the J-Fets from a parts amp. Not only were the J-Fets matched, but a gate resistor was chosen by some mysterious method...if you look at a couple of the same model you'll see different values 33-68 ohm.
 

J!m

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#10
That’s cool!

I guess only visible on the bottom side- I’ve been inside my amps a few times but never the underside of the boards.
 

J!m

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#14
I have heard plenty of powerful amplifiers before. I don’t know of any WOPLs nearby to hear.

My father-in-law has a ML-1 that I have heard. His system is not optimally set up so I haven’t heard it at it’s full potential. I believe that is only 50wpc despite its dog house size.
 

mlucitt

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#15
I have heard plenty of powerful amplifiers before.
Jim, although we like an occasional trip to Mach 10 (volume to 11), the real benefits of the WOPL, in my opinion, are:
1. The darkness - when the amp is at normal (or abnormal) listening levels and the CD or Vinyl goes between tracks the amp is completely quiet, totally devoid of any sound.
2. The clarity - at almost any level you can hear the bass drum kicking your shins but not wiping out the splash cymbal or the percussion bar chimes, no muddiness whatsoever.
3. The separation - play Led Zeppelin "Whole Lotta Love" for the studio left to right fade and you will hear sounds you have never heard before, the guitar player is really on Stage Left and the bass player on Stage Right, you can almost point to them.
4. The power - there is so much power reserve in that massive copper and iron transformer, there is almost nothing like it, when the audio signal demands huge dynamic range (think about the cannon shots in the "1812 Overture") it is there, in massive amounts.
5. The accuracy - notes are reproduced the way they were originally made, there is a complete lack of noise, distortion, or color; just the pure sound.

With a proper source and some decent speakers, properly placed, I feel that the WOPL can hold up to any other amplifier currently available at any price. But that is just me and my McIntosh, Marantz, Pioneer, Sansui, Rotel, Denon, etc. experiences.
 

J!m

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#17
As much as I like mine, I have a hard time recommending them. Because if/when they need repair, it’s a huge expense or a scrap job.

They are wonderful when working well but there are plenty of failure stories, and I also had a failure- but it was a very easy fix in my case.

The tubes are virtually non-critical. Tube “rolling” does very little in these amps. Mike suggested the cheap Sovtek tubes, which I used to be a dealer for, and they sound fine. Very fine. I added silicone o-rings to them because I had them free from work. I doubt they did anything.

I purchased heavier-gage power cables for the amps (I think the originals are 18-gage?) but haven’t installed them. You have to pull the bottom off the amp and it’s not a simple “cord swap” job as we are all used to.

SA-220s are heavy. Counterpoint made their own transformers, and made them heavy. It’s about 6x6x6 in these, flanked by four beer can caps. That’s right up front so these are really front-heavy. Enough that I had to rework my audio rack because it wanted to fall forward with the amp on the bottom shelf.

Tje case does not look great but actually is! It’s a steel box, with the screen-printed (not engraved) aluminum face, but the steel inner box is copper plated prior to paint. I’m not sure if the SA-20 has this or not. The big difference is the addition of the safety circuit from -20 to -220.

I love mine and hope to get them up and running again soon. I may test the waters with my old Kenwood system, and see if my son destroys that first…
 

Elite-ist

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#19
I had the opportunity to use the infamous Larrt WOPL 1000 (hot-rodded 700 B) courtesy of Doug - a member here. There should be a thread in the forum about my experience with it. Astounding performance!

DSC09355_zpsfc5db600.jpg

1d01f372-3172-4184-8853-d555e756b683_zpsrcwnumeu.jpg

Nando.
 

J!m

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#20
I always liked my amp. But, when I got a second one, it was a revelation. Everything else remained the same but all of a sudden, the clarity, channel separation and raw power of everything was just there.

Carrol Shelby: “There’s no replacement for displacement.” I NEVER get even 1/3 into it, so it’s just a massive (room heater) no, yes, but, … effortless. No congestion on congested passages. Hard to explain, but if you’ve been on stage with a band, it’s like that.

At the same time my speaker Cables are about 2 feet long so the damping factor increased as well. It all just fell into place.

Now, these are class AB amps as is typical for such high output amps. But, I think as I run them now, they spend most of their time in class A with a shit-ton of headroom and reserve for those cymbal crashes and low B bass notes. It’s just sounding like musicians are in the house. Like, I’m in the kitchen and Diana Krall is playing in the living room. Hearing all sorts of stuff never heard before.

I do miss it

Now, if I can get this set up in the (yet to be built) basement room, which is wider and longer than the living room… the low frequencies will open up further. These Thiels are not super-low but I have no desire for adding a sub either. A bigger room will really do these justice, especially if I can get them further into the room (which is a problem upstairs). At least they are white oak, so not offensive looking, but they are tall speakers, and not slender but at least not massive.
 
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