Conceptually, the preamplifier is the bottleneck in an audio system. All sources pass through it, and it influences every sound you hear. A system comprising great speakers and gutsy amplification will sound uninspired if that's the character of the preamplifier. Conversely, a great preamplifier will allow through so much information, so much of the music, that the listener can forgive the shortcomings of lesser speakers and amplifiers.
Back in 2003, while auditioning the Burmester 001 CD player ($14,000, reviewed in the December 2003 Stereophile, Vol.26 No.12), I discovered that my system sounded much better if I bypassed my preamplifier and ran the 001 directly into the power amps. I concluded by suggesting that potential customers consider building a system around the 001 itself and forgo a preamp altogether. The response from Burmester fans was immediate and unambiguous: As good as the 001 was on its own, it sounded even better run through its stablemate, Burmester's 011 preamplifier ($15,999). The pair had, they claimed, a significant synergy that I absolutely had to hear. It's hard to argue with determined German logic, and I'd begun shopping for a new preamp anyway. So here we are.
The Bryston BP-25MC preamplifier is a full-function control center with one balanced and four single-ended inputs, including one input for a moving-coil cartridge. The BP-25 is shielded in a black steel cabinet said to reduce electromagnetic interference effects. The power transformer is housed in a small external chassis, the BP-PS. The BP-25's remote control allows volume up/down, along with buttons for mute and absolute polarity. Signal switching and audio connections, including balanced and unbalanced input and output connectors, are heavily gold-plated to provide good long-term connections. A 12V AC/DC screw terminal connector on the rear of the power supply provides convenient use when used in conjunction with the remote start feature optionally available on Bryston power amplifiers.
When, on his long-running TV variety show, Jackie Gleason used to order up some "traveling music" from music director Ray Bloch, he got a live orchestra's worth. But when Gleason, a composer and conductor in his own right (he wrote his show's unforgettable theme song, "Melancholy Serenade"), actually traveled, his listening options were severely limited compared to ours. By the time the comedian died in 1987, Sony had introduced the Walkman cassette player, but Apple's iPod was still more than a decade in the future.
In August, I reviewed McIntosh's MC501 monoblock power amplifier. In terms of what I'd thought was possible from Mac, this was a revelation. Once memories and lurking preconceptions had been set aside and the amps installed in my system, the MC501 easily established itself as among the finest overall performers I have ever reviewed.
Founded in 1984 by Mark Levinson, the man responsible for the original Mark Levinson products (footnote 1), Cello has slowly become more visible within the high-end audio consumer market, as well as establishing a presence in the recording industry with very high quality microphone preamps, tape electronics, power amplifiers, and equalizers. Taking a holistic approach, Levinson offers Cello systems complete from preamplification and equalization stages through amplification to loudspeakers. He can also set up a complete recording studio for you, including the microphones, microphone preamplifiers, and tape decks. Cello manufactures their own interconnect and speaker cables, cutely called "Cello Strings." Besides marketing his products through high-end dealers, Levinson has established two showrooms, in New York and Los Angeles, dedicated to sales of Cello systems and components (as well as a few selected source components from other manufacturers).
"Desperation is the Mother of Invention." Isn't that how the proverb goes? Certainly it applied ten years ago in the case of the Philips engineers working on the development of the Compact Disc system. Given a specification that had included a 14-bit data word length, they had duly developed a 14-bit DAC chip, the TDA1540, only then to be informed that the CD standard decided upon after Sony joined forces with the Dutch company would involve 16-bit data words. (Thank goodness!)
The Placette Audio Remote Volume Control is simplicity itself: a paperback-sized black box with one set of unbalanced inputs and outputs, a toggle switch (and a remote) to change the level, and a row of LEDs that light up to indicate the relative volume level. The signal path, too, is simple, with only a stepped attenuator between input and output. But this is not just any attenuator—it's a 125-step model built entirely with super-premium Vishay S-102 foil resistors.
The Jeff Rowland Design Group has long been renowned for the exquisite quality of its chassis. The company was one of the first to promote fully balanced topologies in preamplifiers and amplifiers in the high-end market, one of the first to offer a sonically acceptable remote control, and one of the few to offer a battery power option for their amplifier line.
My last visit to Planet Halcro transformed my audio life. All but the newest readers will recall that the Australian dm58 power amplifier was Stereophile's Amplification Component of the Year and overall Component of the Year for 2002. To this day, I have yet to hear any amplifier that equals the dm58's combination of complete neutrality, harmonic generosity, lightning reflexes, and a sense of boundless power that is difficult to describe. Though some others have come close, the dm58 shines as a singular beacon of excellence among power amplifiers.
Stardate: 3087.6. Location: somewhere in the 4th quadrant. In response to Captain Kirk's orders, Mr. Sulu throws a few well-chosen levers and sliders—not much different in design and function from those used by Flash Gordon and Captain Video—to redirect the Good Ship Enterprise where no man has boldly gone before. New adventures begin immediately after the bridge crew pick themselves up off the deck and nonchalantly resume their stations.
It doesn't take much to read between the lines of Sony's discontinuation of the TA-P9000ES analog preamplifier and their introduction of the SCD-XA9000ES SACD player with IEEE1394 digital output at Home Entertainment 2003. (A similar feature from the DVD-Audio camp has been promised.) Surely, we will at long last be able to have external digital processing and DACs in our preamp or control units. In addition to the freedom to mix and match components, this opens the door to having a single digital component manage bass and channel balance for all sources, and room/speaker correction without redundant redigitization.
There's nothing groundbreaking about the technology included in Naim's new $22,400, two-box, remote-controllable, top-of-the-line NAC 552 preamplifier. Still, the inclusion of two sets of RCA input jacks is a departure from Naim's tradition of DIN jacks, and the NAC 552's programmability is unusual for a high-end two-channel audio product. And you can order RCA output jacks at no extra cost, which is how my review sample was configured.
I've spent six-odd years in a sort of hi-fi counterculture, playing with things like mono cartridges, one-box CD players, and cheap, homemade cables—and, of course, owning and listening to single-ended triode (SET) amplifiers and horn loudspeakers. But before all that, I owned components that, while more mainstream, did the job just as well in certain ways. That category included solid-state electronics (Naim, BEL, Spectral), dynamic loudspeakers of middling efficiency (ProAc, Epos, Magneplanar), electrostatic loudspeakers of very low efficiency (Stax), and even "high-end" accessories like Tiptoes and Shun Mook Mpingo discs (which I still have, although my five-year-old daughter has more or less permanently co-opted the latter for playtime use).