McCormack Line Drive TLC-1 preamplifier Page 3
First up to the plate was the TLC-1's obvious competitor: its passive ancestor, the Mod Squad Line Drive Deluxe—for quite a while my reference for preamplifier non-signature. To my surprise, the Line Drive was more colored than the TLC-1 in its passive mode, its midrange sounding somewhat "squawky" in comparison. It also sounded more veiled, with less top-octave air. Dynamics and bass performance were about the same, however. When I used the TLC-1's buffered outputs, the difference was larger. There was a slight loss in space and image palpability, but the sound otherwise retained its superb transparency. More importantly, the buffered outputs had a better sense of dynamic shading. While the lows were still not as authoritative as those of the YBA 2, they were less lean, and the sense of pace was improved.
Turning to the slightly more expensive Melos SHA-1, which marries a FET output to a tubed gain stage, the sound changed considerably. I enjoyed the Melos preamp's presentation a lot, but there was no doubt that it was big and blowsy compared with the McCormack in both passive and active modes. Both lacked that ultimate clarity on bass guitar that's so important to me; but where the TLC-1's lower mids were somewhat lean, the SHA-1's were rather bloated. Yes, there was more deep bass evident, but everything sounded a little too lethargic. Though the Melos was also more veiled in the treble, with less top-octave air, it still won out in the image palpability stakes. It's that sense of "being there" imparted by tubes, I guess.
More importantly, the McCormack lacked the tubed preamp's slight upper-midrange bite, particularly in passive mode, when brass instruments in my Gerontius recording on Test CD 2 had just the right amount of blattiness. (This term, coined by J. Gordon Holt, actually describes the sound of the air in the instrument going non-linear at very high levels; it's similar to the crackle in the sound of a jet engine.) Switching to the TLC-1's buffered output made this blattiness just a smidgen too "electronic," in that it started to take on the character of white noise; the Melos went further in the same direction.
Changing to the Classé Six revealed the Canadian preamp to have both more bass and better defined bass than the McCormack. However, even in its balanced mode, there was a slight treble chalkiness to its sound compared with the buffered TLC-1, which led me to prefer the latter overall. The McCormack's output FETs are refreshingly free from treble hash and grain, rivaling the French YBA 2's line stage in that regard, and the Californian preamp doesn't have the French preamp's slightly uptilted highs. If only the TLC-1 could have the YBA's combination of low-frequency extension and definition, it would be unbeatable!
Do I still think that the preamplifier is the sonic heart of a system? Absolutely. When it comes to acting as a wide-open window to the music, the danger exists that every facility and function will detract, even slightly, from the ultimate sound quality. The task for the designer is to come up with a circuit that does the least damage to the audio signal, then add the necessary preamp functions in such a way that the purity of the signal is not compromised.
This the McCormack design team has done. It may not offer the ultimate in bass drive and extension, and the Melos SHA-1 edges ahead in image palpability, but in all other respects, the McCormack TLC-1 is one of the most transparent, least colored preamplifiers I've used. With a maximum gain of just less than unity, it may not go loud enough in systems based on insensitive loudspeakers, or on amplifiers that need more than 2V to reach their maximum output levels. It will also be inappropriate for use in systems where a cassette deck or FM tuner is an oft-used source. And, of course, it doesn't have a phono stage. Neither does it offer the currently fashionable features of remote control or balanced operation. But at $995, the McCormack is astonishing value for money. Recommended. Highly recommended. If you're looking for the best sound for the dollar in line-level preamplifiers, buy a TLC-1 right now!