Gear Review: SMSL PA-50 Mini Amplifier

SA-50-exterior-(1)-0714For the entirety of my various careers I’ve been inordinately keen on solutions in the form of small pieces: widgets, adapters and assorted doo-dads.

Often my keenness for such pieces has been greater than my love of large, shiny, expensive flagship products, or even complete systems as a whole; with me showing more love for cables, wall plates, and adapters than amplifiers, receivers, and displays.

In that context, this gear review isn’t so much about the unit itself, but the underlying theme of finding a solution.

For an embarrassing amount of time the sound system in my weight room has been a cheap old JVC desktop microsystem.

How old? It has a cassette deck in addition to a CD player.

The one nod to modernity was plugging a Knoll DC6BT Bluetooth dongle into the Aux jack so that I can stream iTunes from my phone, but from a sonic, not to mention aesthetic perspective the whole thing was lacking.

Speakercraft-CRS-ONEs-0714At the same time, in the bottom of my Old Gear Closet I’ve had a surplus pair of SpeakerCraft CRS-ONE in-ceiling speakers sitting there, new in their boxes, gathering dust.

My problem was bad sound (and an ugly JVC unit sitting on a shelf) in my weight room, and the solution was obvious: install the in-ceiling speakers I’ve got, and actually use them.

But as they say, every solution has two problems.

The first is that I need more amplification than the little desktop system could provide, and that space in the weight room is extremely limited, so none of the full-size stereo receivers or amplifiers in my collection, at least not without MacGyvering an install that would end up looking hideous.

SA-50-interior-0714So that means a half-rack or smaller stereo amplifier. Which brought me to the second problem: all the half-rack sized audiophile amps from brands I know run $300 or more.

Despite the fact that my wife and I spend a lot of time in that room, it felt hard to justify that kind of expense. So I bided my time, sent my message out to the universe and waited for a solution to present itself.

The universe answered me in the form of some gear reviews by my friend/colleague/vague business acquaintance, CE industry writer and die-hard audiophile Steve Guttenberg (no relation to the star of the Police Academy films) where he actually found that a number of ridiculously cheap solid state digital amplifiers from China delivered credible audio performance.

basic-manual-is-basic-0714A cheap amp? From China? How could this be?

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Since Steve is an industry pro, and knows his stuff, I trust his judgement, and went looking, settling on an SMSL SA-50, a 50-watt x2 stereo amp that’s widely available on Amazon. I paid $83 Canadian. You in the United States can probably find it for less.

Once it arrived it was a simple matter to clean off the shelves that used to hold the JVC unit and its little speakers, install speaker enclosures between the joists, run lines of in-wall 16/2 and cut out space for a retro nose-plate to run the speakers back to the amp location.

I’ve done this once or twice, and I’ll admit that some days I kind of miss it.

In the context that it’s less than $100, the SA-50 is surprisingly well built, the interior is well-laid out, and it’s circuits have a clean, orderly topography. On the outside the CNC-machined faceplate gives it a clean simplicity and a solid appearance.

about-as-elementary-an-install-0714 It’s worth noting that because the whole unit is built to be small the screw-on speaker wire terminals are miniature, something you don’t really get a sense of in pictures. 14-gauge speaker wire would be pushing it, and 12-gauge wouldn’t fit.

The manual itself doesn’t tell you much. Half of it is in Chinese, and the English instructions focus on warning you over and over not to short the speaker terminals.

But then you already knew that. Also, it’s a stereo amp with one input, a power button, and a volume control knob; how much instruction do you really need?

So how does it sound?

In one word: tremendous.

It doesn’t even need qualifying statements such as “Well, for an $80 amp it’s pretty good.” Or “Not bad for under $100.”

Driving a pair of high-quality built-in speakers it’s both musical and solid. In fact, it pounds. Playing Rob Zombie’s Dead City Radio (And The New Gods Of Supertown) – a frequent flier in my training playlist, with the knob at the 3 o’clock position I measured a peak on my SPL meter of 99db with no sign of clipping.

Not bad for a tiny system.

The takeaway from this review isn’t so much that good things come in small packages, or that AV pros should give everything up to futz around with small systems. Rather, if there’s any lesson here it’s that you need to keep your eyes and mind open for finding solutions where you might not expect them,