PrimaLuna DiaLogue Three preamplifier Page 2

Installation and setup
Setup? Not a lot to talk about: PrimaLuna's packaging is good enough that the DiaLogue Three can be shipped with its tubes and tube cage already in place. The only challenge in installing my review sample was lifting it clear of the carton.

I used the DiaLogue Three in my usual system, driving my Shindo Corton-Charlemagne and Fi 2A3 amplifiers. Because my system is arranged with power amps and preamps rather close to one another, I use interconnects no longer than 2m—and make up the difference with very long speaker cables, of course. Thus I can't comment on the DiaLogue Three's ability to drive significantly longer interconnects without sonic penalty, although the preamp's 2500 ohm output impedance would seem cause for some caution in that respect.

Like every other PrimaLuna product I've tried, the DiaLogue Three is equipped with the company's SoftStart circuitry, which powers up the tubes' filaments and grids before gradually applying the rail voltage. That feature and all other preamplifier functions worked without flaw in my system, and the DiaLogue Three produced only a moderate amount of heat.

A final observation: The owner's manual, though physically humble, was thorough, helpful, and clear, with useful observations on tube rolling, maintenance, and troubleshooting (not that you'll require the last two or desire the first).

I hope not to make too many published statements that stink of audio-review cliché, but I was surprised at how good this moderately affordable preamplifier sounded. More to the point, I was struck by how big it sounded—and not just big, but huge. One of the things I love best about my reference Shindo Masseto preamp is its sense of scale, and how well it succeeds at making things sound big when they ought to; the PrimaLuna DiaLogue Three was cut from the same cloth, with generous width and height, particularly with symphonic music. In Riccardo Chailly's recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Theo Verbey's orchestration of Berg's Piano Sonata, Op.1 (CD, London 448 813-2), the ensemble was satisfyingly big, and quite believable in the way its physical presence increased as the music veered into the loudest, most densely scored passages (the crescendo beginning 7:20 into the piece, for example). The Three's tonal performance with that recording was equally convincing, the PrimaLuna doing a lovely job with the sounds of the darker woodwinds (bassoon and contrabassoon), which carry some of the most important lines in this work.

On the subject of believable timbres, the DiaLogue Three sounded wonderful with the 2006 reissue of the first, eponymous album by Crosby, Stills & Nash (CD, Atlantic/Rhino R2 73290)—not the original tracks, most of which sound awful (the voices in some songs were apparently punched in so many times that they suffer a dullness that the pricey LP reissues have seemed to only accentuate), but in the four bonus cuts. With the trio's seemingly impromptu recording of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talking," the PrimaLuna succeeded in getting across the rich sounds of the voices and—especially—Stephen Stills's big old Martin guitar.

Timbral richness came without the penalty of temporal distortion. "Train Running Low on Soul Coal," a wonderful up-tempo number from XTC's The Big Express (CD, Toshiba/EMI TCOP-65717), had all the momentum and drive I expected—if not quite to Naim NAC72 preamp standards—while subtler timing distinctions, such as those throughout Mari Tsuda's 1996 recording of piano pieces by Satie (CD, JVC 6506-2), were well preserved by the DiaLogue Three.

And I'm compelled to share with you A Guilty Pleasure: I used the PrimaLuna to play my favorite ELO album, Eldorado (CD, Epic/Legacy EK 85419), and was surprised by both the superb sound and the sense of physical impact. In contrast to, say, Ringo Starr's tea-towel-on-drumhead approach (literally: that's how he got his sound toward the end of the Fabs' recording career), bandleader-producer Jeff Lynne preferred a sharp snare-drum sound and frequent use of a tambourine mounted on the hi-hat. Those effects came across with as much timbral distinction and impact as needed—yet were never too much. In fact, through the PrimaLuna, the whole of the mix was a virtually ideal combination of timbrally rich strings, percussive whap, and an openness that allowed a sonic view of the arrangements that was much clearer than usual with this recording. I was impressed.

Perhaps the DiaLogue Three's greatest departure from my ideal was its tendency to sound a bit too thick and heavy throughout the midbass, compared with the gear I use daily (which, I hasten to remind, costs four to seven times the PrimaLuna's asking price). With Nick Drake's "Time Has Told Me," from Five Leaves Left (ripped from CD, Island 422 842 915-2), the DiaLogue Three lost some of the detail and texture in Danny Thompson's wonderful upright-bass playing, and gave Drake's voice a bit more of a baritonal quality than it should have had. Much the same could be said of the deeper notes in "April in Paris," from Thelonious Monk's Thelonious Himself (ripped from CD, JVC VICJ-60170), whose deepest notes the Shindo Vosne-Romanee portrayed with greater clarity and nuance. For that matter, the Shindo also put across an even better sense of physicality and touch, in terms not only of overall force, but also of the humanness with which that force was delivered.

It's 2011, and I'm free to buy anything I damn well please, except for Cuban cigars, marijuana, or tortoiseshell guitar picks. (I'm saying that only for fun: I'm not really interested in the first two.) I can even buy Chinese-made tube electronics if I wish—or not. Either choice stands a chance of being right, depending on my budget and my point of view; the only thing that's wrong is the idea of someone else trying to make the decision for me.

Like so many people who have the opportunity to audition lots of gear—reviewers and dealers mostly, I suppose—I carry with me an idea of the sort of quality one can expect from, say, a $500 record player or a $25,000 amplifier or a $1000 pair of speaker cables. I used to have an idea of what sort of performance an audio consumer could expect from a $2600 tube preamp, but I don't anymore: The PrimaLuna DiaLogue Three, whose only major failing may be the excessive use of uppercase letters in its name, exceeded that preconception by a healthy margin.

It's simple: For the person with a taste for tubed electronics, and whose budget hews closer to Labouré-Roi than to Romanée-Conti, the PrimaLuna DiaLogue Three is a shoo-in, a must-hear, and a potential hand-me-down.

Durob Audio BV
US distributor: PrimaLuna USA
2504 Spring Terrace
Upland, CA 91784
(909) 931-0219
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