Steven Stone’s Super Budget Components: Sabaj, Semibreve

Steven Stone’s Super Budget Components: Sabaj, Semibreve

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This “budget” series exists in large part because, at PMA Magazine, we believe that more people should be allowed to enjoy quality audio, not just the well-heeled. We also believe that these products offer the sort of performance that will encourage people to join our hobby and become lifetime consumers of quality audio gear manufactured both abroad and locally.

Prices listed in US$.

Pride of ownership plays a big part in the premium audio marketing paradigm. Ad copy for six, five, and even four-figure-priced audio gear routinely stress their exclusivity and extensive R&D. Obviously, this line of marketing works, otherwise audio firms would not have embraced it over thirty years ago.

But for me, times have changed. I no longer get that spurt of endorphins when I look at the “high-end” gear I still own—yes, it’s money well-spent, but on many of my larger purchases from the past, the annual depreciation was almost the same as what I currently spend yearly for new gear.

When I discover a component priced well under four figures that performs well, that excites me. Those are the kinds of products that raise the bar for everyone. The following three components are all recent acquisitions of mine that, so far, have proven to be well above average in looks, features, and, most importantly, sonics. So, let’s begin with two new words for the day: Sabaj and Semibreve.

Sabaj A20a 2022 Power Amplifier

$199

The Sabaj A20a 2022 (I’ll explain the component name later) looks like someone took a big ‘ol rack-mountable class-A power amplifier and zapped it down to ¼ size, making it hard for me, the user, to not to feel Gulliverlike in its presence. Instead of a Texas Instruments, B&O ICE, or Tripath power module, the Sabaj A20a employs an Infineon chip from Germany. That’s different. I’ve heard only one other power amplifier that uses this device, and that’s the Sabaj A20, which sports completely different cosmetics and a somewhat dissimilar feature set. It’s been discontinued for about two years now. Mine currently powers a pair of small bookshelf Tannoy loudspeakers in my bedroom.

I’ve known about the A20a version for a while, but I kind of held a grudge against it since it replaced a unit I liked so much that I regretted not buying another. But I got over it.

I bought two A20a amplifiers from the HiFi Express website. I bought their “Slight Cosmetic Damage offer” versions for $159 each with shipping. The website had a picture of the supposed damage, which was a minor dig or a mark somewhere on the chassis, but I couldn’t find any imperfections on the ones I received other than a couple of millimeters of minor scuffing. They could have passed for no-apologies “new”.

So why did I buy two? To use in bridged mono mode. The Fosi ZA3 I reviewed in an earlier installment can be used in mono mode as well, but the Fosi is not a true bridged circuit topology. The Fosi gains its power boost when in mono mode through additional power supply capabilities when designating the entire supply to one channel instead of two. The Sabaj does a true bridging circuit, where it employs both channels, which results in more substantial power gains from 170W to 350W.

I’ve set up my pair of Sabaj A20a amplifiers in mono mode via their balanced inputs, which is the only way to connect them for monophonic operation, tethered to my Spatial X-2 loudspeakers in my main system. I would compare the Sabaj A20a’s sound to the one I get from LSA Warp One power amplifier, which uses a Texas Instruments chip. Both deliver a “just the facts, ma’am” presentation with precise lateral imaging and excellent top-to-bottom clarity. Both also sip power rather than guzzle it.

I can’t vouch for the Sabaj A20a 2022’s long-term reliability since my units are too new. Looking through the Internet, it seems early versions had an issue with a “red light of death”. Current production will hopefully be more reliable. This would not be the first time I’ve seen issues with early production samples. Quite a few of Topping’s first runs also had higher failure rates. But my previous-generation Sabaj A20a power amplifier has been doing fine, being on 24/7 for almost two years, so that portends well for the current 2022 version.

Sabaj A20D 2022 DAC

$399

If you do some searching on the Internet, you will discover extremely detailed technical analysis of the Sabaj A-20D 2022 (there is also a new 2023 version with slightly improved S/N specifications). Through any Audio Precision test setup, the Sabaj A20D DAC measures impeccably. It also delivers a relatively complete feature set with multiple filters, DSD, MQA, balanced XLR and single-ended RCA outputs, remote control, an easily readable display, and a solid metal chassis with miniature rack handles.

I’ve had my sample for about nine months. I’ve done blind matched-level A/B tests with it versus my two primary DACs: the Topping D90SE and Gold Note DS 10+. In all my tests, I found it impossible to discern any meaningful sonic differences between them on both commercially available music and on my own live recordings.

Is there anything I don’t care for about the Sabaj A20D 2022? The remote is the same one used by other Sabaj components, so some buttons don’t work. Also, a common problem with DACs that include an i2S input is that it’s not clear what will and what will not constitute a satisfactory source connection to this input.

Sabaj components have better international distribution than many Chinese brands. You can find the A20D 2022 (and 2023) on many sites. As with any electronic component, I would (and did) choose the vendor with the easiest return and warranty policies, just in case.

Semibreve DA50 DAC

$248.33 – $314.86 (the price wobbles)

If you do a survey of all new chip-based DACs being currently manufactured, the vast majority use an ESS DAC chip. One reason for this is that ESS’s principal competitor, AKM, had a fire that knocked out its production for more than a year. In the interim, DAC designers were forced to design their new products using ESS chips. Since AKM has now resumed production of DAC chips, I went looking for a DAC with new AKM parts inside. One of the few currently available is the Semibreve DA50. Yes, it’s an odd name, sort of French; the English translation could be “half brief?” Anyway, it’s a name.

The DA50 uses the AKM AK4191 chip combined in tandem with the AK4499 EX one. Its USB input is from the Italian firm, Amenero. My Roon app even recognizes the DA50 as an Amenero DAC. With a signal to noise ratio of 127dB, and 130 dB dynamic range, all with 0.0001% distortion, the Semibreve manufacturer’s specifications are basically a gnat’s fingernail away from SOTA (State Of The Art). The interior layout photos show a clean, logically laid-out design.

Semibreve ergonomics get a B+. Some features, such as the ability to change the color of the lights around the volume knob are superfluous fluff, but not included is the ability to turn down the display’s brightness. On the plus side, the remote control had good range; I got over 12 feet away with no issues, and a wide angle of acceptance. The DA50 also includes multiple filter options and upsampling choices.

Sonically, I’d rate the Semibreve DA50 as reference-quality. It’s sufficiently transparent so that I’m never aware of it. What I hear is the music and the way the music was recorded, mixed, and mastered. I’ve tried all the filters and upsampling options. To my ears, none are substantially better or worse than the others and my choices have been dictated far more by the music being played than by any intrinsically best settings for my entire signal chain.

As far as availability goes, the Ali Express shop where I bought my DA50 has, as of today, 994 pieces available, so unless some retailer decides to buy them all, re-badge, and flip them, the Semibreve DA50 should be around for a while. I’m very tempted to buy another one.


More from this series:

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