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Electro-technical graduate Dragan Solaja and I had crossed paths before -- I'd reviewed his SA-1 tube preamp -- but never met in person. At the Munich 2008 High-End show, Alex of Raal Ribbons and his close friend Rainer Weber of RWA Akustik Systeme impressed upon me that through a custom commission from Rainer, Dragan had let loose on an ultra performance preamp which really delivered. Rainer's previous preamp of choice was the Belles 21 A. Solaja Audio's answer to the challenge would be called the SA-R, an unprepossessing, battery-biased, tube rectified, C-L-C tube regulated design with a single output tube, Teflon tube sockets and dampers, ELMA stepped attenuator, Mundorf silver/gold hookup wiring, WBT NextGen connectors and more.

As an acoustician by training whose business it is to tame rooms into audiophile submission and bliss, Rainer's 20+ years of experience were apparently ill-prepared for the performance gap he faced when Dragan dispatched his brand-new SA-R. Even an older solid-state Burmester got trounced. On the strength of this demo alone, Rainer then commissioned Dragan for a statement amplifier that's currently in R&D.

Dragan also makes double C-core amorphous transformer volume controls with separately floatable primary and secondary grounds. These TVCs aren't listed on his website and available by special order only. "The SA-TVC1 is with remote control. Well, the interesting thing is that I wind my own transformers to not depend on suppliers. My transformers use proper primaries and secondaries and thus aren't autoformers. The transformer cans are filled with a natural material, not epoxy. In direct comparisons with Stevens & Billington and SAC Thailand, my TVC sounded better. Of course that's only the opinion of the people who conducted the comparisons. One of them is Aljosa Vornsek from Slovenia who owned a preamp with S&B trannies. Gordam Paunovic alias Anubisgrau said the same. He had the Bent preamp, the Music First preamp and the Prometheus Audio preamp from Malaysia. I also received a very good review from Patrik Klangersted of Audioprophile-Sweden who owns Audio Consulting's Swiss Silver Rock. Of course that was better than mine but it should be, with silver wire, double C-cores, wooden case, C-37 lacquer and a much higher price [Dragan's is 1800 euros]."

But back to the SA-R. "It has plenty of tubes in the power supply. There is a 5Y3 vacuum tube rectifier, a 6S19P series stabilizer, an EF86 as control element and a 6P14P as parallel stabilizer. Condensers for anode filtration are from Mundorf's MCap and TubeCap series. Also there is a choke for the anode filtration. I use Teflon sockets for all vacuum tubes with gold-plated pins. The power supply is very important for me (well, not just for me of course) and I believe that a good and well-executed power supply is half the secret to good sound. So there are two toroids for my power supply, one for the heater supply and the other for the anode supply.

"The other half of good sound is the choice of vacuum tubes. I like Russian vacuum tubes and as you noticed, I use them. My choice is the 6N30 and I have nothing new to say about it. This tube in my configuration has incredible sound. It is a matter of implementation and choice of working point, plate supply, bias and so on. The SA-R has only one stage of amplification. I take the signal from the anode through a Mundorf silver/gold/oil coupling cap. I also use Mundorf silver/gold solid-core wiring for the signal path. I experimented with various wires, capacitors, vacuum tubes, sockets, power supplies and so on. My final choice is Mundorf for caps and signal wire. I also like the sound of battery bias and I use it again. Some good things should not be changed."

Pricing for this preamp is 3700 euros. If Alex and Rainer were right about its performance,
this had the earmarkings of a sleeping giant. Just the kind of promise needed to hit the campaign trail of audio sermonizing and see for myself. Needless to say, hearing it in both Nenad's and Alex's systems during our Serbia visit, I couldn't possibly be expected to render judgment. How to pick out the SA-R's specific contributions from the overall mix of electronics and room interactions I encountered? I'd need to request a unit to review in my own rig.

So that's what I did for 2009. But not quite. You see, Dragan was hard at work finalizing his flagship preamp for the Raal Ribbon exhibit at RMAF. In two boxes, it will essentially combine his TVC and SA-R, i.e. use remote-controlled transformer-based attenuation followed by a single active tube gain stage with tube rectification and stabilization. Having always wondered about such a beast but never heard one, here was my chance. Hence I pounced.

But as a consumer by proxy, I also pressed Dragan to leave his neo-communist drab leanings. Tart up at least the face plate and control knobs of his plain black boxes to communicate their upscale sonic ambitions well before being turned on. I'd otherwise fear for their commercial success. While you could rightfully blame the Chinese for having seriously raised cosmetic expectations in the lower-priced hifi realms, consumers now have a right to expect substance and sex, content and wrapper when they decide where to invest their hard-earned coins. I had told Dragan much the same when I reviewed his SA-1. Whether he can overcome his innate asceticism in that regard remains to be seen. If he can't, it'd be a shame if he were overlooked for it. But recognizing reality only to insist on idealism is, in the commercial realm, a quite Quixotic undertaking. You can afford it if you're lavishly retired. If you're trying to eke out a living however, it's most advantageous to minimize or eliminate any a priori objections someone might raise to your products.

To press the point, I made Dragan a deal. I'd happily review his statement preamp - but only if it was cosmetically less boring than his present SA-R. After all, two years have passed since my review. The dragon still hasn't turned on the fire to breathe life into his aesthetics. Perhaps a bit of friendly coercion will do the trick? I've made a slot in next year's review calendar in case it does. A TVC/tube preamp is just too cool a prospect to not sample at least once in your life...

Solaja Audio website