Nagra PL-P preamplifier Page 4
The words that bubble to the top are "clarity" and "articulation." The sense of precision and accuracy—both phono and line-stage—was overwhelming and undeniable. I don't think I've ever heard such a pristine signal from a tubed preamp before. The clear and quick gestalt was tightly woven into a rather forward-placed soundstage, on many occasions enhancing the sense that I was hearing what the mikes heard. In fact, especially on small-ensemble classical and jazz recordings, I felt that I was listening from the edge of the stage, my back to the empty orchestra seats behind. I had this sense very strongly, even when playing large orchestral and big-band selections. The presentation was intimate, close, detailed...You Are really There!
Let's start with a little Mozart from the charming new Opera Pearls in HDCD by the Omnibus Wind Ensemble (Opus 3 CD 19602 footnote 2), recorded by Jan-Eric Persson in Sweden with an AKG C-24 tubed stereo mike, a custom-built tube mixer, and taped in analog by a Telefunken M-28C magnetophon. You'll find selections by Rossini, Bizet, Wolfgang Amadeus, Nielsen, and Wagner.
My notes on the Overture to Die Zauberflöte: "an energetic pace, like a canter in the woods." The midrange was spectacular: harmonic, plush with overtone and bloom, yet the entire sonic construct was tidy and precise—not a hint of slop. Bizet's overture to Carmen was joyous and rousing. The timing was spot on, with a vengeance. It wasn't just fast on the leading edge—the entire sonic construct percolated along at a rousing pace.
Getting serious, I played the overture to Don Giovanni. Notes: "The air and space are soporific." Closing my eyes, it was easy to imagine that I was seated in a relatively small hall, right up on stage, just as a musical director might be. The clack of the woodwinds' keys kept the sense of immediacy topped up. Focus was good but not perfect—exactly what I've come to expect and enjoy in Jan-Eric's purist recordings. Notes: "Spacious with bloom, yet here rendered by the Nagra with cool recording precision." While the sonics were never warmed up in any way by the PL-P, it was fully capable of passing along the color and warmth inherent in the source.
There was, on occasion, a price to pay for this high degree of clarity and articulation. Listening to Sara K.'s "Brick House" on Hobo (Chesky JD155), I had to admit that the sound was just the merest touch dry in the highs. I considered the music and noted: "A Touch of Frost or Medium Cool. The recordist's stance, pure and simple." The sound was, overall, somewhat less juicy, round, and palpable than via the BAT VK-5i. (A fair enough comparison: the BAT preamp and matching VK-P10 phono stage cost $8k between them. Cathode-follower/feedback "sound" in the Nagra, zero-feedback plate-loaded triode "sound"—heavy filtration and no regulation—in the BAT.)
The Nagra's strength was the way it tracked the signal, bringing out all manner of inner detail. Listening to the opening of the overture to Così fan tutte, I jotted: "The decay is produced with great care and precision, nothing overlooked. Notes die a natural death in space rather than a quick one trapped in the silicon." During Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri overture, I noted: "The pace is phenomenal, majestic, soaring, driving the music effortlessly along. The way the sound develops, how it rises from the active acoustic and blooms out in the relative nearfield, is total magic. Once again, I have the strong sense of getting back to the mikes. The recording's environment is beautifully experienced, natural, and spacious."
I noticed another unusual phenomenon. Somehow, whenever I closed my eyes, everything got incredibly 3-D and palpable in a most fascinating way. The switchover when "getting dark" was more pronounced than with any other component I've heard. Perhaps this was related to the PL-P's great transparency but slightly lighter touch with imaging in comparison to the BAT and the YBA 6 Chassis.
Before warming up the phono stage, I spun a great new jazz CD: Spoon-a-Rhythm, by composer/pianist Laurent de Wilde (Columbia CK 68635). It contains intriguing original compositions, and quirky takes on such classics as Monk's "'Round Midnight." Try track 6, "Invitation." If you're looking for pitch differentiation and control, power and harmonic shading in the bass, you'll find it here. The stunning dynamics licking off the Utopias flickered my eyes; the sound was linear, full, and colorful, showing a very high order of palpability. Once again, in some mysterious way, imaging was much enhanced when I closed my eyes. The acoustic bass sounded remarkable, if, in its great precision, once again a touch dry in comparison to the BAT. Then, too, the BAT never managed quite the level of tightness and control of the Swiss product in the bottom octaves. The Nagra was a voyeur, an observer. It so scrupulously avoided imposing anything of its own on the sound that, in effect, that absence of a signature became a signature itself.
I always enjoyed the PL-P's speed and easy authority in the bass—like a sleek Mercedes 12-cylinder slowing rolling along on powerful haunches. The fast-revving "light flywheel effect" may be related to the PL-P's interesting power-supply architecture. Away from the Sturm und Drang of typical urban power grids, and with the modulometer properly set, cranking the Nagra to lease-burning spls always provided thrilling Big Musical Moments.
Fig.2 dCS 972, spectrum, DC-22.05kHz, 1kHz at -0.1dBFS, 24-bit word length (linear frequency scale, 22.5dB/vertical div.).