Melos SHA-1 headphone amplifier John Atkinson July 1994
The main comparison preamplifier for my review of the McCormack TLC-1 and YBA 2 preamplifiers was the Melos headphone amplifier used as a line-stage. (As well as adding a third pair of inputs, Melos has made some component and wiring changes to the SHA-1 which have worried some readers that its sound might have changed. Comparing my 1991-vintage machine with a newer sample revealed, if anything, a slight improvement in clarity. Don't worry 'bout it.)
Via its CD inputs, the YBA 2's low frequencies were tight and well-defined, but lacked the lower-midrange bloom of the tubed Melos. Though this gave the Melos the advantage when it came to reproducing classical orchestral music, the YBA edged out ahead on rock music, where its cleaner low-frequency presentation and greater subjective bass extension enabled it to score big time.
On "I'm Home Africa," from Stanley Clarke's East River Drive CD (Epic EK 47489), for example, second bassist James Earl does some real deep octave-dropping in the continuo riff. Via the Melos, it was relatively hard to hear the changes in pitch; the YBA's pitch differentiation in the lowest octaves of ultra-bass was superb. I got clarity and weight—two aspects of bass reproduction that so often are mutually opposed—which combined to give an excellent sense of musical pace. The YBA's line stage also offered greater clarity in the highs, the Melos's top octave sounding a little shut-in in A/B tests. This clarity was sometimes a little too much of a good thing, however. While I would never call the YBA's high frequencies "tizzy," they were always noticeable in a way that wasn't so with the Melos.
Turning to the McCormack TLC-1 I enjoyed the slightly more expensive Melos SHA-1's presentation a lot, but there was no doubt that it was big and blowsy compared with the McCormack TLC-1 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.—John Atkinson