Sonic Euphoria PLC passive line stage Page 2
The PLC's presence and excellent dynamics continued up through the midrange. Individual instruments had satisfying body and solidity, and the entire presentation seemed firmly centered and anchored to the stage. Trumpets were brassy and burnished rather than shiny and thin—two beautifully recorded examples were Jonah Jones on his Swingin' 'Round the World (LP, Capitol T1237) and Louis Armstrong on Hello Dolly (LP, Kapp SC-3364). Woodwinds, particularly oboes and clarinets, were definitely made of wood through the PLC, hollow and with just the right amount of buzz.
The PLC was also dynamic at the top end of the frequency spectrum, but very coherent. On The Lonely Hours the piano's sharp transients were realistically large, but never had the sort of disconnected feel that can creep in as closely miked piano notes rise in pitch. The balance of the notes' sharp attacks and trailing bloom was correct, and shifted realistically and progressively to the former as the pitch rose. But even at the very top, attacks never lost their coherence with the rest of the note or the piano's image. Herbie Hancock's piano on Wes Montgomery's A Day in the Life (LP, CTI/A&M SP 3001) was another great example. Again, the dynamics were just right, and the notes' characters changed appropriately with frequency, their attacks becoming more prominent, the trailing bloom shorter and much more taut as the notes climbed the scales.
Grady Tate's cymbals on the Montgomery album were another example of where the PLC seemed to get the treble just right. They were precisely and solidly located in space without being at all overetched, and sufficiently detailed to paint a picture of the brushes moving in a circular path over the cymbal. Part of the realism was due to the spatial information, but an equally significant component was how clearly the PLC reproduced the subtle dynamic and pitch shadings that outlined the brushes' movement.
Another thing that I noticed, again and again, was that the PLC had a way of sorting out the components of music that sounded jumbled or had been recorded in an indifferent manner. This wasn't due to the recovery or re-creation of additional spatial detail, but because the PLC's dynamic resolution and the attendant dimensionality provided definition where my other line stages didn't. With those stages, denser passages in some multimiked classical or rock recordings could sound jumbled, the instruments seeming to tumble over each other. In most cases, the PLC was better able to sort out these passages, differentiating more clearly the myriad sounds and layers.
On the other hand, the Sonic Euphoria did not match my other line stages' transparency. The PLC delineated individual instruments, as noted, and produced solid, dimensional images, but it lacked the stunning transparency of the VTL or the Placette. The overall feel of the PLC's presentation was one of images being projected slightly out from the surrounding space. I could hear between and past the images and into the background, but the resolution and illumination dropped off quickly as the background grew increasingly opaque. With the VTL or Placette, the images were simply suspended in space or the original ambience rather than being projected out in front of a background texture. With those line stages, there was no texture or background layer—I could simply hear to the rear of the space.
The VTL, Placette, and Burmester all resolved fine-scale and inner detail a bit better than the PLC as well, particularly in the midrange and upper midrange. The clearest example I encountered of this was on Hello Dolly, where the PLC portrayed Armstrong's trumpet as an initial attack followed by a dense but relatively homogeneous tone. With the VTL or Placette, on the other hand, the notes were much more complex, evolving mixes of pitch, texture, and volume.
Looking at the larger picture, the PLC's soundstage wasn't as large or as open and airy as those of the VTL and Placette. The PLC's stage was slightly narrower, and confined to the space between the speakers. Nor was the PLC's stage quite as deep as those of the other units, or as well illuminated at the rear. It was also more trapezoidal, narrowing noticeably toward the rear of the stage, with associated reductions in the sizes of images and the spaces between them.
The PLC, VTL, and Placette were pretty similar in tonal balance. There were slight but noticeable differences between the three, the PLC being a touch warmer than the other two. It had a little more power and weight on the bottom end, and midrange instruments and vocals seemed a bit more solid and dense than through the VTL or Placette. But overall, in my room, and with the range of gear and cables I used, all three sounded pretty neutral. It was just a question of which was the best match for any particular recording. With the Sarah Vaughan album, for example, the PLC's tonal balance seemed closest to correct. Vaughan's vocals were huskier with the PLC, the trumpets sounding fuller and more realistically brassy. Conversely, on the Jonah Jones album, the PLC had a little too much warmth, and there seemed to be a gentle bump in its upper bass through midrange that made the trumpet and trombone sound more alike than they should.
Comparisons with the Placette
The Placette model that most directly competes with the Sonic Euphoria PLC is the Passive Line Stage, which combines remote input selection and volume control with multiple inputs and outputs and retails for $1595 ($300 more than a single-ended PLC, $400 less than the balanced version). I didn't have one of these on hand, but I'm told that it's sonically indistinguishable from my single-input/output Placette Remote Volume Control.
The PLC and Placette are both excellent but quite different. The PLC has a more luxurious feel and appearance, offers balanced operation, and is less sensitive to cable length. The Placette allows more precise volume control, has better channel-to-channel tracking, is supported by a lifetime warranty and "full cost recovery" upgrade program, and has more than a decade's worth of delighted customers on its résumé.
The sonic choice was between the PLC's dynamics and solid, dense images, and the Placette's transparency and resolution. Listening to more natural recordings, or ones made in a natural acoustic environment, I usually preferred the Placette. Its clarity and transparency, and the way it locked the performers and the original environment into place in my listening room, were incredible. Be it Rickie Lee Jones or Beverly Sills, if I wanted to re-create the experience and feel of a live performance, I went with the Placette.
On multimiked classical music or rock, the PLC's dynamic punch and re-creation of microdynamic shadings did a better job of sorting things out and portraying the performance as a group of instruments instead of as a wall of sound. In most cases the PLC also did a better job of conveying the music's pace and timing. If I wanted to rock out to Bruce Springsteen or be swept away by a huge orchestral spectacular, the PLC was usually my choice.
The Sonic Euphoria PLC is a great-sounding line stage and, at $1295 or $1995, an excellent value. It isn't completely transparent, but SE's implementation of the PLC's autotransformer lives up to its promise of avoiding the dynamic and bottom-end limitations of resistor-based attenuators. It also neatly addresses the latter's need for short cables, seamlessly handles balanced I/O, and has a luxurious look and feel that I associate with much more expensive gear. And like the Placette Remote Volume Control, its sonic performance is in a league completely different from that of any of the similarly priced active units I've heard over the years.
I didn't accommodate or "workaround" the PLC in any way, or try to assemble an appropriately priced system around it. I just dropped it into setups in which the only components anywhere near its price were power cords and equipment footers—and those setups didn't miss a beat. I just cued up the next record, sat down to enjoy the music, and didn't give the PLC another thought. If that's not a solid-gold recommendation, I don't know what is.