Listening #88 / Tempo Electric Arthur Loesch 1.1 Control Preamplifier
The single-ended-triode movement of the 1990s may not have changed everyone's point of view, but its aftershocks endure. Low-power amps sell well. The market for high-efficiency loudspeakers is healthier than ever. Even vinyl's most recent renaissance can be linked, in part, to a rekindled interest in old tubes and technologies. Best of all: Some of the thinkers and designers who came for the Revolution decided to stay for the Great Leap Forward.
Though hardly a household name, Arthur Loesch is revered in SET circles for being among the first to rediscover the glories of hand-wound transformers and directly heated tubes, chief among the latter being the well-loved Western Electric 300B. But Dr. Loesch did something that may prove to be a greater legacy: He designed a perfectionist-quality phono preamplifier, references to which often share sentence space with the word legendary, then actually built a few of the thingssometimes for commerce, usually just for fun. (Another aftershock: designing for the love of music more than for the love of money.)
Then as now, Arthur Loesch had little enthusiasm for manufacturing, and, despite being aided now and again by able partners, examples of his preamp are thus thin on the ground. That shortage is now undergoing correction: Dr. Loesch has allowed a real company, Tempo Electric, to build and sell his preamplifiernow a full-featured phono stage with line stagealong with other of his audio designs.
Tempo Electric has existed for 10 or so years, but their ramp-up to full production was bumpy. The designer came up with various refinements, as designers often do, and set about testing them in the field. But early in the last decade, Dr. Loesch was slowed in his work by a bout with cancer. Health problems came to the fore again when Joe Levy, Tempo's founder and chief builder, needed cardiac-bypass surgery and a long period of recovery. (Musical Coincidence No.1: The world-renowned bluegrass mandolin player Frank Wakefieldwho, like Joe Levy, is a resident of Saratoga Springs, New Yorkhad cardiac bypass surgery at more or less the same time; during the therapy phase of their recoveries, Wakefield and Levy found themselves exercising every morning on adjacent treadmills.)
And as so often happens when a small company and a magazine writer try to schedule a review, Joe Levy and I exchanged phone calls and e-mails for years, to little avail. Finally, at the end of 2009, the product now known as the Tempo Electric Arthur Loesch 1.1 Control Preamplifier ($7100, base model) arrived at my doorstep (footnote 1).
Loesch is more
When talk turns to handmade, limited-edition, legendary products, I envision small, messy-looking things of decidedly rugged quality, whose manuals are nonexistent and whose shipping cartons bear such phrases as U-Haul or Little Friskies. Imagine my surprise when the Arthur Loesch 1.1 arrived in a total of four nice, new cartons: one for the tubes and cables, one for the preamp itself, and one each for its two outboard power supplies (although the preamp can also be had with just one).
When I beheld the 1.1's build quality, surprise turned to wonder. Whereas some domestic audio products impress with sheer bulk or silly opulence, this one was notable for the intelligence of its sturdy but light chassis, comprising various nicely finished aluminum panels held together with nuts, bolts, and lock washers. Metal beams span the inner width of the preamp proper, and dual-mono circuit boardsanother surprise for this hobbyist, who expected hand-wiringare suspended from them with nylon fasteners and strips of damping material. Phono sockets are low-mass WBTs (in silver), while the sturdy, six-conductor plugs and sockets for the power-supply umbilical are made by Amphenol Aerospace. (Musical Coincidence No.2: The banjo player in my band is a longtime employee of the Amphenol plant in Sidney, New York.)
Although the Arthur Loesch 1.1 preamp can be had with an onboard step-up transformer in front of its phono section, my review sample lacked that option, relying exclusively on tubes. The first phono gain stage is built around the legendarythere's that word againWestern Electric 417A miniature triode (which, you may remember, was also the tube of choice for the excellent Lamm LP2 phono preamp). Original 417As are rare and expensive, and their potential for microphony and noise are such that re-sellers often wind up having to discard at least a portion of their stock. That said: If it's true, as some say, that the first stage of an MC phono preamp must respond to signal variations the size of a single electrona colorfully useful if overly sci-fi way of putting itthen this sensitive tube, above all others, is probably the one to have.
Footnote 1: Tempo Electric LLC, PO Box 770, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866-0770. Tel: (518) 542-7004. Web: www.tempoelectric.com.