MITCHELL & JOHNSON SAP201V INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER/DAC
A curious name with a curious history, but what a great little amplifier!
Badge engineering is common in the automotive industry, where instead of manufacturing their own vehicle, a car maker will buy a model from a competitor and simply attach its own badge. So here in Australia, the Holden Nova was actually a Toyota Corolla and the Ford Laser a Mazda 323. This practise was once also common in the audio industry, most infamously with Lexicon’s BD-30 Blu-ray player, which was a re-badged Oppo BDP-83.
The Mitchell & Johnson SAP201V that is the subject of this review is just such a re-badging exercise, but with a bit of a twist, because Paul Mitchell and David Johnson were for many years the official British distributor for Sansui, during which time they traded under the name Sansui UK and sold the Sansui SAP201V, a slim-line integrated amplifier with a MM phono stage and a built-in DAC. Two years ago, Mitchell and Johnson changed their company name from Sansui UK to Mitchell & Johnson and also changed the badges on their Sansui products. According to Mitchell & Johnson, the badged models bearing the Mitchell & Johnson logo are: ‘updated and improved versions, with real improvements and features.’ (But when I quote ‘Mitchell & Johnson’, I am referring to the company itself, because Paul Mitchell is no longer at Mitchell & Johnson.)
None of the improvements made or the features added to the SAP201V seem to have affected its exterior one whit. It has the same four line-level inputs plus moving-magnet phono stage as the Sansui, together with the same built-in DAC, although it’s certainly a very good DAC: Wolfson Micro’s tasty 24-bit/192kHz WM8761.
Inputs are selected via the push-buttons on the front panel below the display, which from left to right, are Line-In, Phono, CD, Net Player, Aux and TV. It was here that I noted a difference between the original and the badged versions. Sansui’s amplifier had ‘Tuner’ on the front panel where Mitchell & Johnson’s has ‘Net Player’ and Sansui’s had ‘Tape’ in the position Mitchell & Johnson’s has ‘TV’. A further pushbutton to the right selects between optical and coaxial digital inputs.
There is no USB input. The large rotary control to the right of the front panel display is named ‘Control’ because although it is the Volume control, as you’d expect, it also does extra duty as a bass and treble tone control. (Though I’d query the grammatical skills of whoever decided on the terminology ‘Press to Function’.)
When used as a volume control, the volume you set is indicated visually in the display both by a dB display, which rather weirdly goes from –80dB to –5dB, and by a series of open square boxes along the bottom of the display whose length increases with increasing volume. That is, the louder you’ve set the control, the more boxes there are across the bottom of the display. While I was perfectly happy with the dB read-out, I for some reason found the row of boxes to be visually jarring.
The power button at the far right turns the unit on, with the accompanying LED glowing red to indicate standby mode, and blue to show the unit is actually operating. Standby mode can only be accessed from the remote control, though if you don’t have access to the remote for any reason, you can defeat standby by turning the amplifier off with the power switch, waiting five seconds and then turning it back on.
The remote control is one of those low-cost ‘credit-card’ style remotes that uses a CR2025 lithium button battery. Mitchell & Johnson supplies the CR2025 battery separately from the remote, which means you have to install it yourself, but this does at least afford you the opportunity to check the battery’s ‘useby’ date. The remote also controls Mitchell & Johnson’s CDD201V CD player.
The rear panel of the SAP210V is nicely laid out, but all the RCA connectors have nickel-plating rather than the more usual gold-plating. The speaker terminals, on the other hand, have a very high-quality gold-plated finish. Nice. Also nice was that the labels that identify which connector does what are printed ‘upside down’ as well as ‘right-way up’, so you can easily read them no matter whether you’re hanging over the amplifier from the front, or looking directly at the rear panel.
Note that despite the fact the front panel no longer has a ‘Tape’ function, the rear panel still has ‘Record Out’ sockets.
Internally, it appears that Mitchell & Johnson has used a different power transformer to the original Sansui, or encased the Sansui one in an isolating shield. I couldn’t tell which because of the shield. The output devices appear to be identical to the original (one pair of Toshiba 2SC5198/2SA1941 bipolar transistors per channel), and the smoothing capacitors also appear to be the same (four 4,700μF 50-volt electrolytics).
IN USE AND PERFORMANCE
Getting Mitchell & Johnson’s SAP201V up and running is straightforward, as you’d imagine, so I didn’t need to use the manual, but I would imagine that some people, unless they’d been told it had bass and treble controls, might not realise this, because although the unit comes with a product liability statement in thirty different languages, it doesn’t come with a printed manual. You have to download one (as a pdf) from Mitchell & Johnson’s website. I can see the advantages of this, in that it keeps costs down and means that M&J can ensure it’s always providing an up-to-date manual, but in the absence of a printed manual I would have liked one provided with the unit on a CD or a stick.
Because I was a bit slow getting some music playing after connecting the SAP201V I discovered one of its operational quirks straight away, which is that it automatically mutes itself after about 20 seconds of not detecting an audio signal, and shows a large MUTE in the display. If this happens you don’t actually have to do anything because the instant the amplifier detects a signal it instantaneously de-mutes itself. I’d never run across this functionality before and was puzzled as to why it was necessary. My only thought was that it was to make it impossible for owners to hear any amplifier noise through their speakers when they were not listening to music.
You can, of course, mute the amplifier deliberately using the dedicated ‘mute’ button on the remote control, which is also used to un-mute the amplifier.
However if you have muted the amplifier manually, it will also automatically un-mute itself if you move the volume control on the amplifier itself up or down, or touch one of the volume buttons on the remote. This is exactly what should happen with a muting circuit, yet only one in one hundred amplifiers has a mute circuit that operates correctly, so well done Sansui… or, rather, Mitchell & Johnson.
The second operational quirk I noticed pretty-much straight away was that I had to turn the volume control a long way up to get a decent level of sound from my speakers, such that the SAP201V’s display was showing –21dB. This isn’t really significant, because it makes no difference at all to the amplifier’s performance, but it does mean that if you’re constantly adjusting volume for any reason, you may have to do a bit more knob-twiddling than usual depending on the output voltage of your ancillary components. In view of this, I have to say that I was totally satisfied with the smoothness and accuracy of the front panel volume control knob. I wasn’t so happy with the remote control, or the buttons on it… but then I’ve never been a fan of credit-card style remotes.
The sound from the SAP201V was clean and tight, with the amplifier delivering a balanced sound across the audio spectrum, without favouring any part of the audio band. This was particularly obvious across the midrange, where the vocal of Alexandra Oomens was delivered completely impartially on the track Some World Far From Ours on Sally Whitwell’s beautiful album ‘I Was Flying’. Oomens’ polished, professional soprano vocal was delivered by the SAP201V with what I thought was just a hint of added warmth to the sound that imbued it with a richness that I very much enjoyed.
Because I was a bit slow getting some music playing after connecting the SAP201V I discovered one of its operational quirks straight away, which is that…
The sound of the piano accompaniment (played by Whitwell herself) on the other hand was like a delicate gossamer thread winding through the lyric and delivered with studio-like accuracy. The beautiful warmth of the SAP201V’s sound is also apparent with the choral pieces on ‘I Was Flying’, such as She Walks in Beauty, but I was absolutely captivated by the sound of the Acacia Quartet and Whitwell’s piano on Winter Love. Not only captivated by the sound, but also absolutely enchanted by the music, which is simply superb. Whitwell is well-known for her interpretations of the work of Philip Glass and Michael Nyman, but ‘I Was Flying’ shows she should really be concentrating exclusively on her own compositions, because she’s an extraordinarily talented composer. (She’s also a wonderful pianist, of course, but there are lots of wonderful pianists, and not so many wonderful composers…)
The exceptional piano reproduction of the SAP201V caused me to pull out Friedrich’s Gulda’s amazing performance of Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier from 1972 and the SAP210V responded with fabulous delivery of the sound and the work itself, with the tempos sufficiently slow that it’s easy to appreciate the mastery of both the composer and the pianist and the wonderful tonal abilities of the SAP201V.
Although amplifiers with built-in DACs may have been fairly rare when the SAP201V was introduced, that’s not really the case these days, with many budget-priced amplifier including DACs. That said, I found the performance of the SAP201V’s digital inputs to be a cut above the average, with excellent decoding through either the optical or coaxial inputs, though at a pinch I’d suggest the optical input sounded the best.
I trialled the SAP201V with a variety of loudspeakers and found that although it worked marvellously well with high-efficiency speakers (those with nominal sensitivity ratings of 87dBSPL and above) and with such models was able to deliver satisfyingly high volume levels without any audible cues that it might be approaching the limit of its power output capabilities, it was not as happy trying to deliver the same high SPLs with low-efficiency loudspeakers, with the dynamics not quite fully realised during crescendos in such situations.
When it was released to the UK market the Sansui SAP201V was priced at £299 to compete in the ‘budget’ sector, where it was deliberately positioned to undercut Marantz’s PM6004 (selling at £310) and Yamaha’s A-S500 (selling at £330) which were at that time the two best-selling ‘budget’ amplifiers in the UK.
The combination of circuit changes and the effects of inflation mean that Mitchell & Johnson’s 2017 version of the SAP201V is more expensive than Yamaha’s A-S501 and Marantz’s PM5005 and almost twice the price of Yamaha’s entry-level AS-201, so it’s now positioned well out of the area in which it was originally intended to compete. That it can still do so is testament to the design.
The sound from the SAP201V was clean and tight, with the amplifier delivering a balanced sound across the audio spectrum.
Readers interested in a full technical appraisal of the performance of the Mitchell & Johnson SAP201V Integrated Amplifier should continue on and read the LABORATORY REPORT published on page 22.
Power Output: Single channel driven into 8-ohm, 4-ohm and 2-ohm non-inductive loads at 20Hz, 1kHz and 20kHz. Mitchell & Johnson SAP201V Int Amplifier.
Power Output: Both channels driven into 8-ohm, 4-ohm and 2-ohm non-inductive loads at 20Hz, 1kHz and 20kHz. Mitchell & Johnson SAP201V Int. Amplifier
Power Output: Single and both channels driven into 8-ohm, 4-ohm and 2-ohm non-inductive loads at 20Hz, 1kHz and 20kHz. Mitchell & Johnson SAP201V Int Amplifier.