A 2-channel integrated design with an optional Bluetooth dongle, Paul Rigby reviews this diminutive amplifier
It’s good to see a budget amp priced under £500 on the market. We need more budget products like this, I wonder if the hi-fi industry too often aims higher in terms of price points to reap a profit-margin sweet spot. So thumbs up to IOTA for releasing the SA3.
This Class AB amplifier arrives in a steel chassis. It pumps out 45W into 8 Ohms but is smaller than your average integrated, spanning just 435 x 59 x 240mm yet still weighing in at a respectable 6.3kg.
The front is low key and rather minimal as most of the acreage appears to be taken up by the output window, offering information such as volume and source messages (this can be switched off, if required). You’ll find a large volume/selector knob on the right. Tone/balance controls can be accessed here although my review was conducted with these in the ‘off’ position. It sits alongside a 6.35mm headphone socket plus a flat, square power button on the far left.
The rear offers fivve sets of RCA sockets, a built-in MM phono amp, Record outs, Pre-amp outs and outputs for a subwoofer.
A built-in Wolfson DAC offers optical and coax inputs while trigger sockets allow you to control this box with other IOTAVX equipment via the included and very usable remote. A typical IEC power socket means that your cable can be upgraded if you wish. Something I would heartily recommend.
An Extension Port is fitted to take the optional Bluetooth dongle (on sale now from the company website for £25). In use, you need to press the Extension Port button to access Bluetooth, when operating the remote.
You can use the SA3 in mono mode (bridged for 100W into 8 Ohms) and you can hook it up to a power amplifier (such as the IOTAVX PA3).
I started with Mike Oldfield and his Platinum (Virgin) LP from 1979. I played Into the Wonderland, featuring vocals by Wendy Roberts. A sweet, beautifully melodic and slightly melancholic, low key ballad.
Playback from the SA3 was intriguing. In some ways, the amplifier sounded like the budget design it is – this was not a bad thing but an expected thing, as I say. That is, the front to back aspect of the sound, the depth and 3D qualities, the layering and the rich depth of detail that you hear on more expensive models was not there. The SA3 offered a surface area of sound, as if the sound had been laid onto a canvas and projected from that point. Again, a situation that I found familiar in this class of amplifier and so nothing to gripe about.
Within the upper midrange, there was a slight – only slight – emphasis. I don’t mean that the upper mids were at all bright, what I’m getting at is that the vocals, for example, were pushed right up close to the ear, as it where. In effect, the amplifier had a solid state personality. This removed a touch of subtlety, giving the music a slightly ‘in yer face’ feel but that also meant that bass had an added punch. Each strike was noted. Bass never entered into hiding via the SA3.
What did surprise me though was how the soundstage was constructed in terms of left and right. That is, the breadth of the soundstage and how the music was arranged. Arranged in a broad and wide-angled manner, the sound was infused with space and air across the midband. This meant that the synths, guitar, percussion and the rest had plenty of room to manoeuvre but also plenty of room in between each other. When you get this sort of soundstage and this sense of space then your ears are more likely to hear the edges of the sound while the personality of the instruments were clear and more believable.
So, what I’m referring to are things like: the beginning and stopping of notes, how much force was given when a guitar was strummed, how long the reverb tail travelled from a cymbal strike…information on that scale began to emerge.
Again, let’s not forget, this is a budget amplifier so the design won’t give you too many of those goodies but the SA3 offered a measure and that was a real bonus for a £400 amplifier. These subtle effects added to the maturity of the sound and gave the music a greater complexity.
I quickly listened to the built-in phono amplifier which was reasonable. Nothing special but useful for those on a low budget. It’s good enough to get to started but grab an external phono amplifier as soon as you can.
I then turned to Bluetooth, inserting the included dongle into the rear of the amplifier and connected that to my iPhone 8 via automatic pairing. That is, once selected, the SA3 looked for your device without any pairing button being pressed on the SA3. The SA3 then listed the device on its own output screen.
During play, I was surprised at the quality of the lossy file, especially as it was being streamed – neither being conducive to high quality sound output. Yes, the upper mids were dynamically short, treble was rolled off and bass was soggy but the music as a whole was perfectly listenable. What I expected to hear was a series of bright upper mids but that never occurred which was a relief. The SA3 subdued the lossy file’s basic instinct to harshness.
Part of the reason for the admirable output from the Bluetooth dongle was the SA3’s wide-screen nature. That broad soundstage pulled apart the stream and infused it with air, cushioning the lossy file and extracting as much from the data as possible in the process.
I ended by inserting my Astell&Kern AK120 DAP into the optical port on the rear and played Andrew Gold’s That’s How I Remember You from Spence Manor Suite, ripped at 16bit/44.1kHz.
The music used every measure of space across the broad soundstage to produce a detailed, airy presentation with delicate cymbal strikes, complex background vocal harmonies, relaxed yet organic drums and wonderfully delicate tambourine taps. The listening experience was nothing short of a joy.
Playing So Far Away from the Dire Straits’ album, Brothers in Arms at 24bit/88.2kHz showed how that master from this release was a touch compressed but the naturally wide soundstage from the SA3 helped to largely negate the problematic elements, especially around the percussion. The synth runs, backing vocals and lead guitar were infused with detail, delivered by that spacious soundstage.
That compression effect was largely negated when listening through the built-in headphone amplifier too. Largely because the latter added a touch of warmth to the presentation, enhancing bass and rolling off the upper mids a tad. The intimate nature of the headphones did allow the ear to pick up plenty of detail, though. A case of swings and roundabouts, you might say.
Based upon a relatively small footprint, the size of the SA3 will attract those looking for a low-key physical hi-fi presence. The generally impressive sound output will also appeal to everyone else. The useful feature count provides added value for money while the expansive sound speaks of sonic luxuries. There’s plenty to like from the SA3: easy to use, well designed and with a great sound output, this is an integrated amplifier that should be high on your demo list.
IOTAVX SA3 INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER
Tel: 01642 232188
GOOD: broad soundstage, spacious mids, value for money, external Bluetooth
BAD: slight ‘solid state’ emphasis
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