Sonic Frontiers Line 2 line preamplifier Page 2
What was so pleasurable about using the Line 2? (I'll get to the sound soon.) First and foremost, the puck-shaped remote control was a complete delight to use. Its asymmetrical layout and different-sized buttons tell you which end to aim. Flick the remote in the correct general direction (it has two LED transmitters to help your aim) and the preamp responds by brightening the display, executing the command, and then dimming the display to a less distracting level. Dimming levels and every front-panel function can be set with this cutie.
Whether I used the remote or the front-panel control, the Line 2 responded gracefully. When changing inputs, the sound was muted, the input was switched, and the volume was ramped up to the preset level. When changing volume, single pops gave 0.5dB steps and sustained pressure ramps up or down at comfortable rates. Hold the left BAL button and the right (!) channel ramps down. Switch to the right BAL button and the right channel ramps up until it equals the left; then the right-channel level stays fixed while the left ramps down. Neat!
This same graceful operation extends to the choice of phase, mono/stereo, tape monitor, external processor loop, mute, and standby. Of course, "graceful" didn't mean silent. Volume and balance changes were silently implemented, but other commands were accompanied by the crisp snap of switching relays.
Finally, there's a headphone (or, rather, HeadPhone) jack at the lower left end of the panel. The jack is powered by SF's adaptation of the well-praised HeadRoom processing circuitry. I'm told that both the blend and the proximity corrections are implemented, as this was the preferred arrangement indicated by user surveys. Just plug in your headphones and the main outputs (balanced or single-ended) are muted, and the volume is ramped up to the preset level for that input on the 'phones. Unplug the 'phones and the situation reverses with aplomb. Oh, there're also an SSP (surround-sound processor) loop and a relay trigger, for home theater environments.
While the Line 2 was great fun to play with, how it made music was the essential issue. When I first inserted it into my system, I was hoping for the reaction I'd had to the SFCD-1: a sigh of pleasure as the sweetness of the sound rolled over me. Instead, I had little or no affective response. Yes, it was deadly quiet, and there were no gross frequency aberrations. I just let it perk along for a few weeks, hoping I'd get a handle on it a little bit down the road. In the interim I listened to dozens of recordings, and swapped CD players, speakers, and amps into and out of the system. Everything seemed just fine, but I still couldn't discern the Line 2's character. So, back went my trusty Klyne 6.3.3 and back came all the details, nuances, and impact I was familiar with from my favorite recordings. After careful note-taking, I reinserted the Line 2, fully intending to document its shortcomings.
Here's the kicker: I couldn't find any shortcomings in the Line 2! As I sat there, going through my selected recordings, the Line 2 delivered everything I asked of it. For example, I use Rickie Lee Jones recording of "Dat Dere" (Pop Pop, Geffen GEFD 24426) to hear how well a system or component resolves two voices close together and singing in unison. The Line 2 revealed a natural physical separation, but not an excessive one, between Rickie Lee and Don Was. And the Eagles' recording of "Hotel California" (Hell Freezes Over, Geffen GEFD 24725), which has become ubiquitous in audio and home-theater demos, sounded a bit warmer but equally "live" compared with the Klyne. The lack of "tizz" on such recordings made me suspect that the Line 2 perhaps lacked HF extension, or that there was a graininess to its upper end. Careful listening failed to confirm either suspicion. It was simply that the Line 2 was not exaggerating anything.
Moving into the classical realm, the Hanover Band recordings of the Schumann symphonies (RCA 61931-2) have fast become my standard for natural-sounding brass in a deep and relatively reverberant acoustic. The Line 2, paired with the McCormack DNA-1(s) or the Simaudio Moon W-5, gave me all the hall space I expected, but retained the piquancy and power of the brasses without moving them forward. The mating of the Line 2, DNA-1s, and the EOS Signature was particularly satisfying on most of my classical library. If I inserted the SF Power-2, the overall sound became somewhat softer, something I attribute to the Power-2—it retained that character when paired with the Klyne or my homemade preamp. I suspect that the Line 2/Power-2 combination may be a better match with smaller speakers and/or livelier rooms. In my room, this combination worked especially well with the small but potent Ruark Equinox.