Audio Research SP9 preamplifier Guy Lemcoe 12/90 part 3
Picture, if you will, two photographic enlargements, both of which look fine from a distance. One of the blow-ups is made from fine-grain, low-speed film. The other is made from grainy, high-speed film. The enlargement made from the former film will exhibit extraordinary edge sharpness (acutance) and appear almost three-dimensional to the viewer. Every detail will be preserved. The image will appear like satin, with textures not confused by grain. It will not deteriorate as you move in for a closer look. Objects in the photo seem so real you feel you can reach out and touch them. They are tangible.
In contrast, the other enlargement will not stand up to close scrutiny. The texture is coarse, with edges of images barely discernible from the film's grain. The photo appears flat, with little suggestion of depth. Objects can be made out, but the fine detail which gives them their richness is obscured. The character of the film's emulsion competes with that of the image itself. The two become fused together, making it difficult to determine where the medium ends and the message begins. The image has become intangible. The presentation via the latter enlargement is abstract; the former, concrete. Each representation arouses different emotions in the viewer just as the recreation of the performances heard through the preamps affected this listener.
I became more deeply involved in the music presented via the Counterpoint SA-3000 than via the SP9 Mk.II. The Counterpoint had a transparency which reminded me of the SP14. The SP9 Mk.II, eminently musical though it is, lacked that clarity. For example, the rivets attached to the edges of cymbals (which a drummer friend of mine calls "sizzlers") are more easily discerned through the SA-3000 than through the SP9 Mk.II. It's a detail you don't have to focus on with the Counterpoint. They're there. With the Audio Research, however, I found myself directing my listening toward this detail in order to extricate it from the surrounding sounds.
Similarly, but at the opposite end of the musical spectrum, Gary Peacock's bass line on "Autumn Leaves" is more apparent through the SA-3000. When the trio kicks into high gear about halfway through the tune, his bass provides the foundation to the music which fuels the performance, propelling it forward with relentless energy. As the improvisation gets more and more frenzied, that bass line is heard throughout—clearly. Though the SP9 Mk.II did reveal this vital musical element, it was not apparent to the same degree, leaving me with the feeling that something was missing from the performance. I could enjoy what I was hearing through the Audio Research, but did not feel compelled to get up and applaud as the music ended. In addition...the SP9 Mk.II seemed to "hold back" on the lowest bass notes, not conveying to me the same physical "presence" of the instrument as the Counterpoint. I sensed I was listening to an instrument not firmly anchored to the floor of the stage.
Satisfied that there were real differences in the sound of the preamps' phono stages—the SP9 Mk.II struck me as mellifluous, the SA-3000, piquant—I was anxious to see if the same differences would manifest themselves through their line stages. I reached toward my modest collection of CDs and pulled out a few of my favorites. After matching levels using various test CDs, I placed Fairytales in the California Audio Labs Tercet Mk.III's drawer and sat back to listen. Fairytales, a rare blend of magical music-making with exemplary sound, features the voice of Radka Toneff accompanied on piano by Steve Dobrogosz. (This recording is/was available on the Norwegian Odin label, ODIN CD-03. If you can still find it, buy it. You won't be disappointed.) What's particularly interesting about this CD is that track 5, "My Funny Valentine," is the only analog recording on the disc. Radka's voice is well-recorded throughout the album, yet on "My Funny Valentine" alone the voice is associated with a flesh-and-blood human. It has picked up body and is characterized by a richness and warmth missing from the other tracks. The Counterpoint made it perfectly clear a change in recording technique had been made.
The differences were not as pronounced on the SP9 Mk.II. The voice was certainly warmer, but lacked that final degree of presence heard through the SA-3000. It is still seductive, just not as seductive as that heard through the Counterpoint or the SP14.
Track 7 of the Astrée CD features Blandine Verlet on harpsichord performing Louis Couperin. I often turn to this selection to reassure myself that not all harpsichords are twangy and brittle-sounding. The instrument she plays here, a Hans Ruckers II built in 1624, absolutely sparkles through the midrange. The treble is extended and resonates like struck crystal glassware. The bass is full and palpable, and sounds firmly attached to the floor. On the right system, you can hear every inner voice in the composition clearly and follow it to its end. You will also be thrilled by the vibrancy of the sound produced by this keyboard. It should "sing." It did on the Counterpoint. The instrument seemed set back a bit just to the left and behind my right speaker, enabling the hall sound to be integrated into the recording. No detail of the performance was missed. The overall effect? Stunning.