Listening #46 Page 2
Beginning in 1975, Deneen owned and operated Paragon Audio of San Carlos, California, designing and manufacturing affordable tube electronics. Then, in 1979, he sold Paragon to ADC. After staying on to help manage the line for a short while, Deneen left audio altogether and moved back home to California: "The IBM PC had just been released—personal computers were the hot thing at the time—and I had actually spent the first part of my career as a programmer and systems analyst." It was a good move—Deneen did well enough that he could "semiretire" a few years ago, moving himself and his wife to the picturesque coastal village of Ferndale, just 90 minutes from the Oregon border.
Once there, Deneen spent his first ten months designing preamplifier circuits. "I decided that if I couldn't get beyond a 'me too' position and come up with something that wasn't already available, then I wouldn't be interested in getting back into audio," he says. "And I elected to do something where I could have fun, and could just look forward. The kind of workday I wanted was the kind where I can look back and say, 'Man, did I have fun today!'"
Deneen's sense of fun and his quest for originality came to fruition in his first BlueBerry, a tube preamplifier that stands proud of the pack not only for offering line gain, phono gain, and a decent brace of user controls all in one package, but by making that package refreshingly different from everything else: a solid wood cabinet, with an acrylic front panel done up in shades of purple, blue, and orange. Trophy boys need not apply.
The circuits are refreshing in their own ways—and completely devoid of feedback. For moving-magnet phono inputs, the signal is amplified first by a 12AT7 dual-triode tube, then sent to a passive RIAA equalization circuit before being amplified anew by a 12AX7 dual-triode. Another 12AT7, used as a cathode follower, picks up the phono signal from there, lowering the impedance and driving the volume control. Beyond that, phono and line signals alike are amplified by a single 6DJ8, grounded-cathode gain stage with 20dB of gain.
The BlueBerry's power supply is similarly clean and simple: While the heater voltages are rectified and regulated by solid-state devices, the all-important rail voltage is rectified by a 12X4 tube and left unregulated: a necessity for natural sound, according to Deneen. "Why would anyone go to the trouble of designing a beautiful-sounding, feedback-free preamp," he asks, "and then attach it to some regulated power supply?"
The only deal is the best deal
Useful features abound. The JuicyMusic BlueBerry has a pair of individual level controls, ganged with the master volume, that can be twiddled to adjust side-to-side balance. Those controls are also useful in adjusting the preamplifier's output to match the input sensitivity of the amplifier being used—which, as Mark Deneen points out, can range from 0.5V to 2.5V. The BlueBerry has no fewer than two pairs of (47k ohm) moving-magnet phono inputs. It has a Standby switch, for maximizing tube life. And, wonder of wonders, the BlueBerry has a Mono switch. Saints be praised.
Something else cool: For an extra $500, JuicyMusic will configure one of those pairs of phono inputs for low-output moving-oil use, to create a product called the BlueBerry with Cream. Deneen uses a pair of Jensen step-up transformers for the job rather than an active gain stage because he thinks trannies sound more natural. So do I.
In fact, it's Deneen's taste for natural, unconstricted, organic sound that guides his efforts, right down to his company's name. "The 'organic' thing is what we've been all about—and that's why we call it JuicyMusic. That's the characteristic I'm always looking for when I design: Does this give me the real, honest flavor of music? I mean, we're all kidding ourselves—but let's at least have a good time while we're kidding ourselves!"
JuicyMusic's website makes a point of saying they don't offer home trials per se—but they will refund the entire purchase price, less shipping, if a customer returns the unit within seven days. Thus, it seemed that I could borrow a review sample and almost—almost!—put myself in the position of the average consumer. So I did.
Deneen and I decided that my best choice would be something called the BlueBerry Xtreme: the same audio circuitry, tied to a beefier but no less tubey power supply, with much larger output coupling caps and a sprinkling of metal-film resistors for good measure. My only disappointment was that the Xtreme's faceplate is black and gray. "I'll be honest with you," says Deneen; "90% of the people who saw the styling of the BlueBerry thought it was stupid, but 10% really loved it. It's so cool to get away from the plain black box....But I kept hearing from people who said, 'I'd buy that if it were black.'"
Though it may not be as striking as the standard BlueBerry, the BlueBerry Xtreme is a fine-looking thing in its own right. The cabinet of dovetailed solid wood is the perfect complement to the low-sheen acrylic front, and I like the fact that rotary switches—with solid machined-aluminum knobs—are used for most functions instead of the usual pushbuttons. On the rear panel, all of the input and output jacks are arranged in a single horizontal row: They're mounted to the back edge of the circuit board, which is aligned with an opening on the panel. There's an IEC socket at the far end, so owners can experiment with AC cords that cost as much as or more than the preamp itself—which sells for $2290, including Cream.
Installation is straightforward: Open it up, plug in the tubes, close it back up, start playing records. The BlueBerry Xtreme does invert phase. But it also doesn't hum, heat the room, scare the cat, or make noises that blow the fuses—or the tubes—in my peerless but mildly exotic Lamm amplifiers.
Used as a line-level preamplifier with CD players or external phono preamps, the BlueBerry Xtreme sounded great—astoundingly great for the price. Its frequency balance wasn't tilted up or down, and there were no egregious colorations. It did textures especially well—like the sound of Bill Monroe's wonderfully choppy mandolin on any of a hundred different singles, or the powerful attack of Nathan Milstein's violin on J.S. Bach's Sonatas and Partitas (LP, Deutsche Grammophon 2721087)—without adding any grunge of its own. And its rhythmic performance was acceptably good, if not quite up there with the Naims and the other Naims.
The BlueBerry Xtreme was also notable for the sense of physical presence it gave to vocal and instrumental sounds on good stereo recordings. Listening to the BlueBerry, I was reminded of the great tube preamps of the early 1980s—such as the Audio Research SP6 and the Conrad-Johnson Premiere Three: It had the same caliber of spatial performance I remember hearing from those landmark designs, in which individual "images" have a chunky, three-dimensional quality. Also like those older designs—and distinctly unlike the ones that followed right after—the BlueBerry's stereo-imaging performance wasn't fussy or overcooked: It added to my enjoyment of the music, rather than supplanting it.
An example: I've never heard a more beautiful, more convincing version of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll than the one recorded in the mid-1960s by Georg Solti and members of the Vienna Philharmonic (LP, London RDN S-1, footnote 2), and I can't deny that its spatial qualities are among its charms, despite my usual antipathy toward same: the wholeness of the sonic images of the performers is remarkable on almost any system. But with the BlueBerry in place, that characteristic was taken up another notch. Even more extraordinary was Wagner's Kinderkatechismus—his wife, Cosima's, "other" birthday present—that follows at the end of the side: For two minutes and change, the BlueBerry brought some of the spatial characteristics of a children's chorus and small orchestra to brilliant, ringing life in my room.
By my reckoning, the weakest of the BlueBerry's performance areas was the timbral balance of its phono section, which wasn't as neutral as the line section alone. With my review sample of the Linn Akiva low-output MC cartridge driving its Jensen trannies, the BlueBerry sounded slightly tipped-down in the upper bass as compared with the two outboard phono preamps I tried: the Artemis PH-1 and the EAR 834P, the latter of which has earned its status as a reference for medium-priced units.
But the JuicyMusic Cream option isn't medium-priced: It's cheap—just $500. And its performance is still quite good overall: flexible and quiet, with none of the ringing or other nastiness that can make damaged records, in particular, so hard to listen to.
When I asked Mark Deneen about one other shortcoming—the BlueBerry's lack of a mute switch—his answer was refreshingly honest: "Why no mute switch? I don't know. Maybe if I had five other engineers working for me, one of them would have said, 'Hey—where's the mute?' But this is a totally human product: a one-man thing. It comes out the way it does because that's the way my brain is wired."
That's what you get from the BlueBerry: not just a great-sounding, well-engineered preamp with styling that pretends the last 25 years didn't happen, and not just a preamp that sells for roughly half of what you'd pay for a similar product at an audio salon. You get all that and the human touch, and from a decent human being at that. Mark Deneen may not let you beat him at gin rummy—then again, maybe he will, for all I know—but he will make it easy for you to buy and enjoy an audio component that's designed, built, and sold with loving care. And sounds that way.
The best deal is the real deal
The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, held annually in Ancramdale, New York, and arguably the most significant music festival of its kind in the Northeast, celebrated its 30th anniversary in July, with performances by 53 acts over the course of four hot and mostly sunny days. (I was going to count the number of G-runs played there from start to finish, but decided against it.) Among this year's headliners were the Del McCoury Band, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Steve Earle and the Bluegrass Dukes, the Gibson Brothers, the Jerry Douglas Band, Tim O'Brien and Cornbread Nation, Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers, and the consistently brilliant Dry Branch Fire Squad, led by mandolin player and national treasure Ron Thomason.
Bluegrass music on Ancramdale's Rothvoss Farm began in 1976, with a lineup that included Red Allen, the Osborne Brothers, J.D. Crowe and the New South, and the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. The formula has varied somewhat over the decades, and this year's schedule occasionally forsook genuine bluegrass for hours at a stretch in favor of what can only be called artsygrass. Still, most of the music was superb (kudos to Stereophile reader John Servies, who did the monitor mixes!), the tireless Grey Fox volunteer staff did a brilliant job of maintaining order, and a thoroughly wonderful time was had by all. Special thanks to God for the (mostly) no-rain thing.
If you want to attend next year's Grey Fox Festival—and you should—watch for details on www.greyfoxbluegrass.com.
Footnote 2: My copy is the one tacked on to the end of Deryck Cooke's An Introduction to Der Ring des Nibelungen. The recording has also been released on Wagner: Orchestral Favorites (CD, Decca 289 440 606-2).