Cello Palette Preamplifier Page 2
The reference system I used for this review consisted of a Theta Data CD transport, Theta DS Pro Generation II and III D/A processors, Krell KSA-250 power amplifier, and B&W Matrix 800 loudspeakers. Mark Levinson No.26S and Krell KBL dual-mono preamplifiers (footnote 6) were used as references. Mark Levinson No.23.5, Boulder 500AE monoblock, and Cello Encore power amplifiers were substituted for the Krell at regular intervals during the five-month course of the review. A Rotel RCD-855 CD player and Krell SPB 64X D/A processor served as alternative sources. Digital interconnect between the CD transport and D/A processors was XLO interconnect and Type 4 digital cable, and Theta Digital interconnect and AT&T optical link (footnote 7).
Kimber KCAG (balanced and single-ended), Cello Strings (single-ended), and Acrotec 6N-A2010 (balanced and single-ended, manufactured by Nippon Mining Company in Japan) interconnects were used from the Theta D/A to the three different preamps. Cello Strings (balanced), Magnan Vi (balanced), Kimber KCAG (balanced and single-ended), AudioQuest Diamond (balanced), Madrigal HPC (balanced and single-ended), Purist Audio Design Maximus (fluid-filled, balanced), and Acrotec 6N-A2030 (balanced) interconnects were used between preamp and power amp (footnote 8).
My B&W Matrix 800 speakers were quad-wired with AudioQuest Sterling Hyperlitz (to midrange and tweeter drivers) and AudioQuest Clear (to each of the four woofers). All stock power cables—except the captive cables with the Theta Generation II D/A and Rotel 855—were replaced with Tiffany power cables, and all components were plugged into the six dedicated circuits I had installed in my listening room. Or so I thought...
A major faux pas
One thing you learn in the professional music business (I've been in the National Symphony for 21 years) is that artistic honesty and integrity are everything. Without it, you're just a hack. Well, I confess: I screwed up. After finishing all my listening comparisons during the preparation of this review, I went through the snakepit of cables behind my two equipment cabinets and, to my chagrin, discovered that the Mark Levinson No.26S preamp had been plugged into a non-dedicated circuit via an el cheapo power cord, going through an Adcom ACE-515 AC Enhancer. With all due haste, I reconfigured the AC connection from the No.26S with the correct Tiffany cord, into a 15 amp dedicated circuit.
What a difference! The sound was more open, more dynamic, and more listenable, lending credibility to the argument that dedicated circuits and high-quality power cables really can make a difference. I started out with a new slate. To hell with the fact that I'd already spent hundreds of hours listening and comparing the Cello with the Mark Levinson, or that my NSO colleagues had given so much of their time to help me out. They were gracious enough, after hearing about my mistake, to give me another long listening session, along with their invaluable input. All the comments on the sound of the No.26S in the text refer to it used in the correct manner (footnote 9).
Musical & sonic results
As with other high-quality audio electronics I've reviewed, the first two weeks with the Palette Preamplifier were a lost cause. The overall presentation was somewhat like green wine: raw, acidic, and two-dimensional. It was certainly listenable, but a distracting upper-midrange glare made serious auditioning difficult for anything over a few minutes. After the two-week burn-in, the sound dramatically improved. The soundstage opened up, mids and highs took on a less hard but still crystalline clarity, and the low end tightened up and became more "tuneful." Due to the unusual nature of this component, all critical listening was done with the EQ section bypassed (except where noted).
Of the various interconnects auditioned, Cello Strings and Acrotec 6N-A2030 balanced cables sounded the best from preamp to power amp, the latter being slightly more open and transparent. Both cables were extraordinary in retrieving much more spatial and harmonic information than any of the others. I also preferred single-ended Cello Strings and Acrotec interconnects between digital sources and the Palette input.
Perhaps the best way to describe the sound of the Palette Preamp is to tell you what it doesn't do. It doesn't get in the way of the music. We can all certainly hear the difference between the real thing and the facsimile. But what is the difference, and to what degree do the various electronic devices we use in our quest for sonic perfection do damage to the original source? It all boils down to the individual designer's idea of what the final result should represent. Some are more into soundstage, some into dynamics, some into harmonic accuracy, and so on. But every once in a while a product comes along that subjectively bypasses this Designer Sound Syndrome. The Cello Palette proved to be such a product. Much like the B&W Matrix 800 speaker, its lack of any specific sonic statement brought me closer to the musical truth. By comparison, my Mark Levinson No.26S preamplifier sounded colored and artificial.
The Palette was very dynamic, clear, immediate, spacious, and open. Sound "exploded past me into space," just as it does in the concert hall. But this hackneyed audiophile terminology doesn't come close to describing the sound of such an extraordinary component. Anyone who plays an instrument in an ensemble, or sings in a chorus, knows the difference between performing and listening. One can certainly be involved as a listener, but the all-encompassing emotional high one gets from being physically part of the music-making cannot be described in words. That's what the Palette achieved: a sense of total involvement with the performers, where the roles of listener and participant become one. There certainly has never been another such device, in my memory, that so successfully recreates the sense of "being there."
I'm not saying that it sounded like live music. It didn't. Nothing reproduced does. But the total lack of any electronic haze or grain, coupled with the uncanny ability to retrieve multiple layers of ambient information in good recordings, really projected the acoustics of the concert hall out into the listening room. The Palette redefined the term "transparency." The finest nuances were always clearly heard, even in the most complex passages. Individual musical lines could be followed at all times, regardless of volume or number of instruments playing. Capable of reproducing the most delicate harmonic structures, the Palette uncovered a seemingly endless variety of musical colors that made all other preamps I'd heard sound dull and lifeless.
The relationship of music to the surrounding space, and the way in which all of the various musical components interact within this space, were recreated with more realism than I had ever thought possible. Hall dimensions surrounding the performers were remarkably well delineated, to the point where I could clearly perceive the physical boundaries of the recording venue. The first such product I'd heard to totally succeed in this respect, the Palette was capable of creating a holographic image far exceeding the room boundaries. The speakers seemed to disappear, the three-dimensional image floating in space with unbelievable realism. Esa-Pekka Salonen's recording of Igor Stravinsky's ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (Philharmonia Orchestra, Sony Classical SK 45796) was so much more rewarding when heard through the Cello preamp. (This is a wonderful recording, with very wide dynamic range and natural soundstage. Sony has captured all of the necessary ingredients for a thrilling musical and sonic experience.) From the beginning of Part Two ("The Sacrifice") to the end, all of the intricate levels of dynamics and rhythms simultaneously going on were revealed with more clarity and dynamic impact than I thought was possible to capture on tape.
By comparison, the No.26S was actually more slam-dunk dynamic. It played louder (especially with a balanced signal from the Theta and Krell D/A processors), but with much less ability to track different dynamic levels simultaneously. In other words, the loudest instruments tended to obscure softer ones, making it more difficult to discern all of the musical information in complex passages. With the No.26S, my colleagues and I were more aware of there being an electronic device between the performers and our ears. The Cello, while not always as viscerally grabbing, was virtually invisible, allowing us to hear into the music, rather than at it.
The Palette's most striking achievement, however, was the way it reproduced the personality of the music, musicians, and hall acoustics. Any performer—whether of classical, jazz, rock music, or anything in between—will tell you that the space in which they perform is as important as the musical material itself. Why do you think symphony musicians prefer Carnegie, or Boston Symphony Hall? A great hall enhances the artistic effort, and we all know what a bad hall can do. Every hall has its own special sound, which, good or not, definitely contributes to the final musical result.
The same principle applies to musicians. No two performers, even in a very fine ensemble, will interpret every note the same way. Nor will they have the same tonal concept or emotional attachment to the music. Multiply this a hundredfold and the result is the brilliant sonic spectacle of a live orchestra. Perhaps one violinist is playing upbow when all of his section mates are going downbow, or the first-chair oboe has a brighter-sounding reed than the second chair, or the fourth horn is playing a Lawson instrument while his three other colleagues use Alexanders.
All of this is what the Palette preamplifier reproduced, which I've heard no other do. No more generic-sounding concert halls, instruments, or musicians. A plethora of musical colors was uncovered, the Cello extracting so much more energy and immediacy out of those tired old recordings I've heard dozens of times. Sure, lots of preamps are dynamic, colorful, sonically engaging. But the way the Palette allowed the music's humanity to speak for itself, conveying each performer's finest shadings and nuances, was where it set a new standard. It became no longer possible for me to listen for just 10 or 15 minutes. I'd be embarrassed to tell you how many orchestra rehearsals I've almost missed because I was too enthralled with my audio system to check my watch. This is a whole new experience for me, rekindling the spirit of excitement within this burned-out audiophile. I can think of no other component (except for the fabulous B&W Matrix 800s) that has made this much of a difference in my quest for the ultimate.
Other listeners have had the same reaction as yours truly. Ed Kelly, who engineers all of our NSO radio broadcasts and archival recordings (footnote 10), has found the Cello Palette useful in the playback of his master tapes; the Cello revealed more spatial information and low-level harmonic textures than any of the other preamplifiers he's heard. The Cello clearly recreated the space of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall (with all of its attendant dreadful acoustics) and the NSO's characteristics far more honestly than the No.26S, which produces a more generic hall acoustic. The latter isn't necessarily bad—in some ways it made the KC concert hall sound much better than it is—but it's certainly not accurate. The Krell KBL fared somewhat better, retrieving more natural ambience and soundstage, but added an artificially dark coloration. Members of our musicians' listening group came to the same conclusion, unanimously voting the Palette the most accurate by a large margin.
Footnote 6: My No.26 preamplifier was recently upgraded to a 26S. The original KBL stereo preamp I reviewed was sent on to Santa Fe for measurements (see Vol.15 No.4). For the past several months I've been auditioning a pair of dual-mono KBLs, which provide a significant improvement over single-unit stereo operation.—Lewis Lipnick
Footnote 7: The XLO interconnect I used for digital data was received some time before XLO offered the digital cable reviewed by JE in January 1992. Although this cable was not intended for digital use, it works extremely well. A sample of XLO's new type 4 digital cable arrived recently. So far it has delivered a clear, focused soundstage, but an emphasis in the upper midrange adds an unnatural hardness to the sound. The Theta AT&T optical link came with my updated Data transport and new Generation III D/A processor. So far, listening suggests that use of the glass-fiber optical cable yields more natural soundstaging and harmonic structures than the coaxial.—Lewis Lipnick
Footnote 8: Since the only cables used from preamp to power amp and fitted with Fischer connectors were Cello Strings, Cello provided me with a very short Fischer-to-male XLR pigtail adaptor. In this way, I could audition all of the various balanced cables with the Palette.—Lewis Lipnick
Footnote 9: As this issue went to press, however, LL discovered that the 26S's internal DIP gain switches had been inadvertently set between settings. Its sound was still not representative, therefore, and LL's remarks should be taken in this context.—John Atkinson
Footnote 10: Kelly recorded the NSO performance of Stephen Albert's RiverRun Symphony (Delos D/CD 1016), one of the most honest recordings of our orchestra available. He also engineers many of the recordings in the Elan catalogue.—Lewis Lipnick