Tube Preamp Reviews

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Herb Reichert Posted: Jul 28, 2016 1 comments
Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Mary Oliver famously remarked, "attention without feeling . . . is only a report."

After nearly two years of prattling for Stereophile, I am finally grasping the full veracity of that statement. When I read reviews that jabber on about highs, mediums, and lows, and that rely exclusively on nonmusical vocabulary, I come away with feelings of acute cognitive dissonance. Not to mention: if a review has a lot of initialisms—ADD, S/PDIF, DXD, HDMI, etc.—my ADHD kicks in and I stop reading by the third paragraph.

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Fred Kaplan Posted: Jul 28, 2016 2 comments
When I first met Luke Manley, proprietor of VTL, he and his father, David, with whom he ran the company at the time, had recently emigrated from the UK to California. I asked Luke how he liked the West Coast. "Great," he replied. "Much better parts availability." This was about 30 years ago, when I was just immersing myself in high-end audio at a high-toned level. Our exchange gave me a taste of the obsessions ahead, though Luke Manley's single-mindedness through the decades since has been more dogged than many—and, at the same time, less dogmatic.
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Herb Reichert Posted: May 26, 2016 0 comments
This is a true story about a surprising 1W integrated amplifier—a push-pull, class-A, output-transformerless tube amp—that drove my DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93 speakers to 90dB average levels with grace, spiderweb detail, liquidity, and—unbelievably—a small degree of bass slam.
Fred Kaplan Posted: Dec 30, 2015 2 comments
A quarter-century ago, when we were just getting into wine, my wife and I took a trip to Napa Valley. At one premium vineyard, we took a taste from the $20 bottle, then, for the hell of it, a taste from the $50 bottle. The first taste was nice; the second was alarming—an explosion of flavors, a gateway to sensory delights that we hadn't known could be had from a barrel of crushed grapes. We wobbled away, concerned that high-end wine might be a dangerous hobby.
Robert J. Reina Posted: Jun 05, 2015 9 comments
For me, the highlights of any audio show are finding a room with great sound and visiting it often throughout the show, to relax and absorb a wide range of great music. At the NY Audio Show in April 2012 in New York City, it was the room occupied by the Valve Amplification Company. There, I fell in love with the sound coming through the Signature Mk IIa line-stage preamplifier, and remembered that while I'd heard many VAC products at audio shows over the past two decades, and had enjoyed the sound every time, I'd never had a VAC product in my house. I requested a review sample.
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Dick Olsher Posted: May 06, 2015 Published: May 01, 1989 0 comments
The Lazarus, a slim, quite elegant unit finished in black with red and gray legends, lived up to its advance billing: it literally rose from the dead! Out of its coffin (ie, shipping box) and plugged into the wall, it showed no signs of life. Troubleshooting revealed a blown AC mains fuse. That in itself was not a major problem, but what worried me was the root cause of the trouble. Preamplifiers as a rule are not power-hungry, so a current surge at turn-on sufficient to destroy the 250mA slow-blow mains fuse appeared symptomatic of a major circuitry failure.
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Art Dudley Posted: Apr 23, 2015 8 comments
If you look at it from a distance and squint a little, Luxman's Classic CL-38u preamplifier ($4200) could almost be mistaken for that most classic of all classic hi-fi products, the Marantz Model 7C control center. The aluminum front panels of both models have, at their centers, a row of four distinctive toggle switches, flanked on each side by four control knobs. Even more noticeable are the stylish wood enclosures—standard on the Luxman, optional on the Marantz—which make both preamps appear ready for duty at the Playboy Mansion, ca 1963, or perhaps an appearance in a Life photo essay titled "At Home with Steve McQueen."
Robert J. Reina Posted: Jul 31, 2014 4 comments
I've long been impressed by the design, construction, and sound of the tubed electronics produced by Vladimir Lamm, but I'd never had a Lamm Industries product in my house. So I asked for a review sample of Lamm's flagship line-stage preamplifier, the LL1 Signature.
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Robert J. Reina Posted: Jun 02, 2014 0 comments
When I began my journey into audiophilia, I was in awe of the Audio Research Corporation's flagship SP preamplifiers. As I sat there in the early 1980s with my modest Apt Holman preamp, all of my friends had ARC SP6Bs. By today's standards, the SP6B was colored, did not portray a realistic soundstage, and lacked sufficient gain to amplify the low-output moving-coil cartridges of the day. But it had an intimacy in the midrange that was intoxicating. (Still considered a classic design by many, the SP6B's price on the used market has remained virtually unchanged for 30 years.) Then, still in the early '80s, ARC raised the bar with the SP-10 ($3700). It had 15 tubes and an outboard power supply, and set a new standard for delicacy, drama, and authority. (John Atkinson still has the SP10 he bought in 1984.)
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Robert J. Reina Posted: Apr 07, 2014 0 comments
When Carolyn Counnas, co-founder of Zesto Audio, contacted editor John Atkinson to ask about getting the Leto, the company's tubed line stage preamplifier ($7500), reviewed in Stereophile, JA suggested that I do the job. I'd recently reviewed competing designs from Nagra and VTL (see reviews in April 2013 and June 2013, respectively) and I was thrilled—I always look forward to hearing a tube preamp from a company I'm unfamiliar with, and besides, I'd seen pictures of the drop-dead-gorgeous Leto. After nearly 30 years of reviewing all sizes and pedigrees of preamps, power amps, and integrateds, I'm weary of staring at nondescript rectangular boxes in various shades of silver and black.
Art Dudley Posted: Jan 04, 2014 2 comments
If you travel along Route 20 in upstate New York, you might see the hitchhiker my family and I refer to as the Old Soldier—so called because this slightly built man, whose age could be anywhere from 55 to 90, is always dressed in a military uniform from some long-ago campaign. When we first saw him, his topcoat suggested a recent return from Chateau-Thierry; in more recent sightings, the old man has taken to wearing the trim khakis and sharply creased legionnaire cap of the late 1940s—chronological zigzagging that made me think, at first, that this traveler was aging in reverse.
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Robert J. Reina Posted: Jun 14, 2013 0 comments
As I've lately had the pleasure of reviewing some impressive tubed components, I asked myself why I hadn't ever reviewed anything from VTL Amplifiers. My history with VTL goes back to the 1986 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago (wouldn't it be great if CES returned to that city?), where Vacuum Tube Logic cofounder Luke Manley and his father, the late David Manley, made a big splash with David's preamps and amplifiers. To publicize the fact that amps were designed and made in Britain, the Manleys wore the cheesiest Union Jack T-shirts I'd ever seen—the kind they sell in those cheap tourist traps in Piccadilly Circus. When I recently ribbed Luke about those shirts, he admitted that "They fell apart as soon as we returned home." I told him that I hoped his products were more rugged.
Robert J. Reina Posted: Apr 05, 2013 Published: Apr 01, 2013 2 comments
Branding can be powerful—a well-developed brand connotes strong images in the consumer's mind. Apple means ergonomics, elegance, ego. Fremer means analog, exuberance, fastidiousness. Rolex means Swiss-made, precision, expensive. Nagra means Swiss-made, precision, expensive.
Dick Olsher Posted: Nov 21, 2012 Published: Jan 01, 1993 0 comments
In its comparatively few years in the marketplace, the line-level preamplifier appears to have established commercial parity with its full-function big brother. That this was inevitable was clear as far back as the mid-'80s. The advent of the CD and the proliferation of digital sources argued for a modular approach to preamp design. In such an environment, line-level sources (eg, DAT, CD, even analog tape) deserve special attention.
Brian Damkroger Posted: Nov 09, 2012 6 comments
I've heard a lot of great audio components over the years, but even in that steady stream of excellence, a few have stood out as something special. These are the products that, in their day, set a new standard for performance, and many of them are ones I wish I'd hung on to. Among these products are three preamps from Audio Research: the SP3A, the SP6B, and the SP10 (footnote 1). I know I'm not alone in viewing these models as classics.