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SAE Mk One Preamplifier World Premier Review:  A New Solid-State Benchmark!

09-01-2023 | By Robert H. Levi | Issue 129

With its strikingly intense blue-lit lettering and elegantly smooth finished black metal case, this uniquely featured and performing preamplifier is designed and assembled right here in Southern California. This is not your father's SAE, and it surprised this seasoned audiophile and reviewer from the moment I activated the on button.

I placed this solid-state preamp in my all-tube reference system directly substituting it for my tube preamp to focus any sonic changes. From the first Qobuz Hi-Rez stream to the first LP, extraordinary definition bathed in smooth musical nuance filled the room. This made for an audiophile experience I will long remember.


(Note the ground-breaking S/N Ratios and Distortion)

  • Frequency Response: @1V Output+/- 0.05dB 20Hz -20kHz
  • Distortion (Main): @17.5V Output+/- 0.05dB, 20Hz -20kHz
  • Distortion (Subwoofer): @1V Output <0.008% 20Hz -20kHz
  • Gain: @17.5V Output <0.091%
  • S/N Ratio: Output (Unity Gain) 20Hz -1 kHz <0.09% Single-Ended (RCA) 13dB, Balanced (XLR) 19dB. @1V Output, 20Hz-20kHz >120dB. @1V Output, 20Hz -20kHz >130dB, "A" Weighted. @17.5V Output (Maximum), 20Hz -20kHz >118dB. @17.5V Output (Maximum), 20Hz -20kHz >130dB, "A" Weighted. 1V Output 19/20kHz 1:1 <0.009%. @17.5V Output (Maximum) 19/20kHz 1: 1 <0.09%. @1V Output, 20Hz -20kHz >112dB. @17.5V Output (Maximum), 20Hz -20kHz >124dB
  • Width -19"
  • Height -5-5/8"
  • Depth -15-1 /4"
  • Weight - 22.4 lbs. Net, 28.1 lbs. Shipping


(4) XLR -Fully Balanced Stereo Left/Right Inputs
(4) RCA-Single-Ended Stereo Left/Right Inputs
(1) IEC-C13 Power Cable Input


(1) XLR -Fully Balanced Stereo Left/Right Full-Range Outputs
(1) RCA-Single-Ended Stereo Left/Right Full-Range Outputs
(1) XLR -Fully Balanced Subwoofer Output with independent gain adjustment
(1) RCA-Single-Ended Subwoofer Output with independent gain adjustment
(1) 12V DC Trigger Control


The Mk One has four sets of balanced inputs and four sets of single-ended inputs. Additionally, there are two sets of outputs. The main outputs have one set each for balanced and single-ended. If connecting a subwoofer, use either the dedicated balanced or single-ended outputs. If using the Mk One with a 2HP-D power amplifier where you wish to take advantage of the remote turn-on, use the 12V DC trigger.

Selector Knob (Unique Feature)

The Selector knob also controls relative subwoofer gain. To activate this function, you must simultaneously press the Selector knob and turn it clockwise to increase subwoofer gain and counter-clockwise to reduce subwoofer gain. Note that you must hold the Selector knob in while turning to adjust subwoofer gain. This gain is set relative to the overall gain. Once you find the desired subwoofer output, this will change with the overall volume.

Separate muting is available for overall gain as well as the sub-woofer. Both are actionable from the well-featured remote control as are all other adjustments except the sub-woofer gain. The remote has an excellent hand feel and operates the SAE from every angle and from extreme distances.

Not only are the controls intuitive and precise on the front, but the layout of the connectors on the rear are far enough apart for the largest audiophile cables to fit comfortably.

The Reference System

  • E.A.R. Disc Master Magnetic Drive Turntable/Helius Omega Tonearms
  • Stein Music Aventurin II MC Phono Cartridge/Hana Blue MC Cartridge
  • Jorma Origo Tonearm Cables/Kubala-Sosna Emotion power cord
  • EAT Csharp Turntable and arm combination/London Reference MM Cartridge
  • RSX Beyond Phono Cables with DIN connector 
  • Zesto Audio Andros II Deluxe Phono Stage with Cardas Beyond Powercord/Balanced UITaudio PMP Interconnect

  • E.A.R. Tube DAC4 plus Transport/Balanced UITaudio PMP Interconnect/Active USB UITaudio PMP Cable/Kubala-Sosna Elation Interconnects/MAC Mini MAX WiFi as Streamer
  • SAE Mk One Preamplifier/AudioQuest Dragon Power Cord/Cardas Beyond Power Cord/Jorma Origo Power Cord /Stein Music 10 Power Conditioner
  • Marantz 10B FM Tuner/Kubala-Sosna Emotion Interconnect
  • Audeze CRBN Electrostatic Headphones/ Stax 009 Headphones/ Stax 006 OTL Headamp
  • Two E.A.R 890 Class A Tube Power Amplifiers in mono/UITaudio PMP Balanced Interconnects/Jorma Origo Bi-Wire Speaker Cables/Kubala-Sosna Elation Power Cords
  • Marten Bird Speakers/Bybee Golden Goddess Speaker Bullets on tweeter/midrange terminals
  • Room: 20' x 40' x 25'. Speakers are placed about 1/3 into the room and the sofa at about 2/3 into the room.

First of all, the new Mark One has no technical or musical relationship to the gear from the 70s and 80s. It has been designed from the ground up to meet technical levels and musical performance only today's hand-picked most sophisticated circuits and components may achieve. Jason Lord, one of the preamps designers, contributed his own ideas for enhancing imaging and surrounding quiet, which resulted in extraordinary musicality and image specificity. He revealed that the transformer at the heart of the unit was imported from Germany and is an important element in revealing the SAE's mellifluous nature. 

As I referred to earlier, from the first turn on I noticed a remarkable clarity in the system as I warmed up the components. The SAE needs to be left on all the time for maximum performance. By the second day, it had settled in and continued to excel. It runs quite cool to the touch, which was a bit of a surprise as I assume it runs in class A. It may be kept cool by circuits designed to keep it running cool. It is a fully balanced design. Other than the loss of gain, single-ended operation lost no definition with short runs. I placed the SAE on the newest Townshend Seismic Sink, without an air bladder, where my reference preamp was located. 

Overall SAE Performance

Once warmed up, the SAE Mk One is the most neutral solid-state preamplifier I have ever heard. After weeks of listening with high-resolution Qobuz, an outboard hard drive of acquired DSD and 24-bit software, phono from three different cartridges including MM, MI, and MC, and my newly restored Marantz 10B FM Tuner, I could not detect any sonic signature from the SAE. Nothing.

I even listened to all the identical sources on my Audeze CRBN Electrostatic Headphones and my Stax 009 Headphones and was unable to detect any discernable colorations or artifacts that I could assign to the SAE Mk One. Its transparency to the source was extraordinary, and possibly perfect. The speed of the preamp was outstanding and its ability to maintain layers of definition at all frequencies was stunning. Not one word of what I have just stated is exaggeration. 

The SAE Mk One made the entire system sound more alive and neutral. Frankly, I had no idea my E.A.R. 890 Tube amplifiers or Marten Bird speakers could come alive so fully and realistically until I listened with the SAE preamp. The lack of any describable character of the SAE, particularly with the AudioQuest Dragon Power Cord, is to my ears the proverbial "straight wire with gain." I have never said that before.

The SAE's imaging is pretty much perfect. When listening to my reference LPs and best jazz sources, instruments were locked in space, completely and precisely textured, and separated from other images with unsurpassed clarity. The space between instruments may just as well be "outer space" in its total quiet. The lack of stray ambiance and grain of any kind was soul-stirringly realistic. All of this silence enhanced the sense of depth and width of the soundstage, which grew larger and deeper with the SAE. 

All of this improvement, whether with rock and roll, jazz, classical, or vocals, brought the system to a significantly higher musical echelon with the ability to amplify the promise of a live performance in my listening room. 

The SAE's dynamic range appears limited only by your amplifier power and speaker design. I heard no compression of any kind coming from the SAE. Its output power also appears unlimited and maintains the ability to rock your world. This dynamic power is bathed in the most uncanny silence this reviewer has ever encountered from a preamp, whether tube or solid-state. The fun factor of using the SAE Mk One is off the chart. 

Sources and Software Listening 

I have not in 55 years as an audiophile and music lover encountered a preamp so devoid of recognizable character as the SAE. I spent the first week listening to Qobuz software and my own outboard hard drive loaded with hi-rez albums. It was obvious I had overused Mullard 6922 tubes in my E.A.R. DAC 4. I needed it with other more strident preamps but not with the SAE. To not bias the SAE review, I did not tube-roll anything.

Streaming Highlights

Listening to Lifeline from Yarlung Record gave me spatial cues I found thrilling. Vocal textural information was LP like while imaging was tighter and more in the room right than before. 

The Brahms Fourth Symphony from Reference Recordings brings a hall sound to your listening room as good as it gets. With a huge soundstage, one luxuriates in the strings and stirring bass. The layers of strings are simultaneously focused so you can hear distances between orchestra sections.

Ciaramella Dances for Yarlung Records was a thrilling example of the prowess of the SAE. I could not believe the tactile definition and intense imaging from this digital stream. This is a required reference Yarlung LP or 24/96 Qobuz buy for all libraries. If this album sounds alive, your system is on target.

Yuko Mabuchi Plays Miles Davis is another minimalist Yarlung Records recording using a single tube stereo microphone. It is amazingly realistic without the hint of smear or grain. 

Another must-own, it was a supreme example of how superbly the SAE gets out of the way of the music. The Album features four soloists in a room devoid of personality playing their best tunes in Miles Davis style. What an experience!

LP Highlights via Zesto Audio Andros II Deluxe Phono Stage

This is where the rubber meets the road. I started with the new Decca Release: Mercury, Saint-Saens Symphony Number 3, and played the entire LP on the Stein Music Aventurin II Cartridge. What a thrill! Bombast and delicacy all in one LP, this is quite a reissue. More alive and detailed than any stream, this was the total experience for audiophiles. The SAE let the Zesto Audio Andros reveal amazing definition and dynamics. Through the SAE, the Stein Music Aventurin/Zesto Audio Andros II Deluxe is a class act!

Satchmo Plays King Oliver from Analog Productions is a cherished reference LP. The vocals and trumpet playing a utter perfection and loads of fun. With the hot new Hana Blue cartridge, it is extraordinary. Incredible dynamics, more than most MC cartridges, will bring the performance to your listening environment. This is amazing definition for the low price. The SAE will focus on Satchmo unlike ever before in my experience. This was a WOW! moment.

Percy Grainger Country Gardens, a Mercury Original LP, one of my most valuable reference LPs, was fantastically played with my London Reference cartridge. The last iteration of the Decca cartridge without a cantilever, The London Reference is just plain lifelike if the playback chain is up to the task. I have never heard this album better played than with the SAE controlling the action. The stunning ultra-high definition and intense musicality pops a plenty as you just enjoy all the magnificent music in those little grooves.


Though the deep blue-lighted SAE face is beautiful, it tells you nothing. I would really love to have it say in bold letters the name of the inputs so they may be read from across the room. Also, the SAE-rich blue light has a long wavelength and is illegible from much of a distance. It would be better if it were a lighter blue or red. I would like the addition of a mono switch. Stereo does not lend itself to balancing a system in the room.

But from a purely musical perspective in recreating the live performance in your listening room, I have no quibbles with the new SAE Mk One.


The SAE Mk One Preamplifier is by far the best solid-state preamp I have ever auditioned. Its complete lack of definable character and lightning speed brings the SAE to the top of the heap. Plus, the SAE's greater than 130dBs measured level of quieting brings out musical images and soundstaging to achieve a new audiophile benchmark. The SAE completely gets out of the way of the music and operates with less of a footprint than PASSIVE. As Clint Eastwood said in Firefox, "What a machine!"

Bearing no resemblance to the SAE of old, this is all new thinking, and cutting edge at that. Congratulations to the SAE design team and bravo for actually listening to this preamp as it was created. Though expensive to many, it will be a clear bargain to those looking for the very best.

The SAE Mk One Preamplifier receives my very highest recommendation for being the closest yet to the proverbial wire with gain.

SAE Mk One Preamplifier

Retail price: $16,000


Jeffrey Yu

11407 Camden Park Drive

Windemere, FL 34786



[email protected]

Review Loan

Jason Lord, The Source AV Design Group

3035 Kashiwa St.

Torrance, CA 90505


Product photographs by Bob Levi; image processing by David W. Robinson.