Placette Active Linestage preamplifier Page 2

The effects of the Placette's focus and clarity were easy to trace to individual performers—if I tried to do so—or to minute details in the recording environment. Small and low-level details were sometimes more obvious with other preamps, however, which could give simply recorded live performances more energy and life. I noted that, with Townes Van Zandt's performance of his "Pancho and Lefty" on the benefit concert recording Steve Earle/Townes Van Zandt/Guy Clark Together at the Bluebird Café (CD, American Originals SDPCD161), the Sutherland DLS infused the sound with an immediacy that better captured the live feel of the performance. Another example was Steve Forbert's Be Here Now: Solo Live 1994 (CD, Rolling Tide); other top-flight preamps often portrayed how Forbert's head and mouth interacted with the microphone in a more obviously live way than did the Active Linestage.

It was difficult to apply other audiophile criteria to the Placette's reproduction of spatial information. It didn't trade off edge definition for coherency, for example, but provided both in a way that seemed completely natural. The images and soundstage were just there. Ditto for how it illuminated the soundstage, located the boundaries and characteristics of the soundstage, and located individual voices within a chorus. When I asked myself how the Placette was doing these things, the answer was always, "I guess okay. How else would you do it?"

One of my favorite ways to show this off was to play "Chuck E.'s In Love," from Rickie Lee Jones' Naked Songs (CD, Reprise 45950-2), for musically and/or audio-savvy friends, and ask what they thought of the sound. "I don't know" was the usual answer, accompanied by a puzzled look; then "I guess okay . . . I was just listening to the music." Naked Songs, and this track in particular, have an uncanny way of putting the listener into the venue and audience—and never more than with the Placette in the system.

Nor was it very useful to try to split the Placette's performance into frequency segments. I've heard bass with more impact through other components, or with more apparent speed, depth, and detail. The bass drums on Saint-Saëns' Symphony 3, or the spectacular gong at the opening of Dead Can Dance's "Yulunga," from Into the Labyrinth (CD, 4AD 45384-2), weren't particularly impressive with the Active Linestage; but the former, and other naturally recorded acoustic instruments, sounded . . . well, natural.

The same was true throughout the frequency spectrum. Voices sounded true to life, as did violas, brass, even smartly struck triangles or cymbals. The maracas in "Yulunga" and the cymbals in the Saint-Saëns were more impressive with the VTL, for example, but to say that those instruments sounded more natural with the VTL or the Placette isn't so easy. There was a plainness and honesty to the Placette's performance that was hard to describe without simply describing the instruments themselves.

One thing that did stand out was the total absence of any texture that I could trace or attribute to the Placette. I did notice, as mentioned earlier, the slight obscuring of microdynamic nuances in comparison with the Sutherland PhD, which may have reflected the presence of a very-low-level electronic character. On the other hand, the PhD's beguiling purity sounded the faintest bit soft and liquid in comparison to the Active Linestage.

Summing up
I found the Placette Audio Active Linestage difficult to describe in terms of traditional audiophile criteria. It contributed very little to the sound itself, so descriptions of music heard through it were mostly descriptions of the other elements in the system, or of the original voices and instruments and recordings. Other preamps can sound better in some ways: better bass, more obvious detail, larger or faster dynamics . . . the list goes on.

A few of the very best preamps I've heard, such as the VTL TL-7.5 and Halcro dm10, sound better than the Active Linestage in most ways. They're even more compelling in how they connect the listener to the original performance, and how successfully they convey a work's musical essence. This begs the question: Is the goal of the equipment to best reproduce the recorded information or the recorded performance? Regardless, none of the other models could match the absolute clarity, focus, and solidity with which the Placette re-created the spatial and temporal information on a recording, or the Placette's lack of tonal coloration.

"Transparency is a tough sell," Placette owner-designer Guy Hammel recently told me, a bit resignedly. "People don't understand it, and it's not what a lot of them really want." He's right. Transparency is easy to get used to, but it's also easy to take for granted, or even set aside in favor of a component that "sounds better." Some visitors to my listening room have fallen in love with the VTL TL-7.5, others with the Sutherland DLS or the Halcro dm10, and even a few with the Sonic Euphoria. No one as yet has picked the Placette in a direct comparison, but nearly all, when the Placette was in the system, have said something like, "I never knew how good this recording was" or "This is really a great performance."

If transparency is a tough sell, transparency in a plain black box accompanied by a Sony Universal remote and costing $6995 is a tougher one. The VTL, Halcro, Sutherland, and Sonic Euphoria are all credible competitors for the Placette—not necessarily equivalent, but valid options to consider. Of these, two are more expensive than the Placette, and are also more complex, highly engineered components with much greater functionality. Two offer similar functionality to the Placette but cost significantly less. All are much more luxurious-looking, more obviously premium products. $6995 is a lot of money and puts the Placette in direct competition with outstandingly performing units from the likes of Conrad-Johnson, BAT, and Audio Research, as well as VTL's overachieving TL-6.5.

I've heard Guy Hammel described as being "a missionary for the gospel of transparency." He believes he has fully embodied this gospel in the Placette Active Linestage, which is why its design has not changed for many years and is not likely to change any time soon. "It's going to stay the same," he told me. "It's transparent. I just need to find a way to make it less expensive to build."

I agree that the Active Linestage should be less expensive. I also agree that it is transparent, or as nearly so as any preamp available today. So while I continue to audition preamps, falling in and out of love with flashy sounds and pretty faces, I think I'll keep the Placette around—not just as a baseline, but as my reference. Give it a try. Placette's 30-day refund policy makes the risk minimal, and you might just find your own audio trajectory taking a sharp turn toward transparency. Highly recommended.

COMPANY INFO
Placette Audio
682 Granite Way
Boise, ID 83712
(888) 765-3330
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