Sutherland Direct Line Stage preamplifier Brian Damkroger
I called Ron Sutherland to catch up and chat about his Direct Line Stage preamplifier ($3000). Confident that reviewing his PhD phono preamplifier for the May 2005 Stereophile had given me a head start, I jumped right in, complimenting him on the PhD and asking him to explain how the Direct Line Stage had evolved from it. Sutherland has a knack for simplifying complex technical details, but his answer was even simpler than I'd expected. How did the Direct Line Stage evolve from the PhD? It didn't. It was going to, and almost did, but in the end it didn't. The PhD and Direct Line Stage are from completely different branches of the Sutherland family tree.
To appreciate today, you must first understand yesterday
Sutherland Engineering rose to prominence in the mid-1990s, producing exquisite cost-no-object gear aimed at the booming Asian market. Their "Instrument Grade" products were gorgeous to behold, but priced beyond the reach of most audiophiles. I lusted for the PH-2000 phono preamp and the C-2000 line stage, but at a respective $6800 and $8000, they were out of my price range.
When the Asian market imploded, Sutherland retrenched, building his contract manufacturing business and consulting for other high-end companies. Being based in Lawrence, Kansas, it was inevitable that he'd connect with Chad Kassem, founder and proprietor of Acoustic Sounds in Salina, Kansas. The two formed a partnership that resulted in the Acoustech PH-1 phono stage: Sutherland designed and manufactured, Acoustic Sounds marketed and retailed.
"There was a void in the market. Nobody was building reasonably priced, good-sounding phono preamps," Sutherland explained to me. "The PH-1 was a clean-sheet design, and we put all of the money and effort into the design and components—no frills, just a simple chassis. I'd always admired products like the Dyna ST-70 and the AR turntable, and I wanted to design something like that."
But as good as the PH-1 was, it wasn't a Sutherland. It didn't have the performance and polish that Sutherland had been justifiably proud of in his earlier designs, and, more significant, "I knew that I could do better." Being one myself, I know that the phrase "it could be better" has the same effect on an engineer that a waving red flag does on a bull.
Sutherland had already produced the evidence that the PH-1 could be better in the form of the PH-2000, which Michael Fremer reviewed for Stereophile in December 1997. He then set a goal of meeting or exceeding the PH-2000's performance, as well as a high level of fit and finish, for a retail price of $3000. The result was the Sutherland PhD, another entirely new design and one of the most innovative high-end products I've ever seen. Michael Fremer and I agreed that it sounded fantastic—see —and though I can't confirm it, trusted sources have told me that it's better than the PH-2000.
The obvious next step was a line stage. Sutherland's first design, based on circuitry similar to the PhD's—including a battery power supply—"was really good, but didn't have the dynamics I wanted, and I hated the idea of putting it out when it wasn't as good as it could be. Chad and I both listen to Sutherland C-2000 preamps, and one day we were talking about it. He said, 'Look, why don't you just lift the C-2000's design?' So that's what I did."
"So the Direct Line Stage is the same circuit as the C-2000, updated and redesigned for mass production?" I had to be sure.
"That's right. I don't have a problem with using something 'tried and true'—everything doesn't have to be new. The C-2000 was a really good design, and lots of people still use and enjoy them a lot. The challenge was building it to retail for $3000. But less expensive and, in some cases, better parts are available now, and I've learned a few things. Mostly, because I do contract manufacturing, I knew how to design it for mass production. By putting the craftsmanship and detail work up front, during design, it can be inexpensive to produce and still have a high level of style and polish. It doesn't rely on hand labor to look and feel nice."
No batteries, no buttons, no switches
The Sutherland Direct Line Stage does look and feel nice. It matches the PhD's cosmetics with a thick front panel of milled aluminum, a heavy chassis of powder-coated steel, and high-quality input and output connections. The controls consist of a large, machined knob that rotates smoothly on a ball-bearing mount, and a small remote control with four buttons: Volume Up, Volume Down, Mute, and Unmute. Volume level, which is adjusted through 127 discrete steps spanning 78dB, is controlled by J-FET switches and precision resistors. This avoids the use of expensive of relays or the signal degradation caused by op-amps or a potentiometer. Even the display, a row of 16 LEDs, was chosen to minimize noise, in this case the high-frequency multiplexing noise associated with a numeric display.
The front panel has a row of four LEDs to indicate which source has been selected—but there's no selector. The Direct Line Stage senses and selects whichever input is sending it a signal and illuminates the corresponding LED. If two sources are playing simultaneously, the Direct Line Stage shows its displeasure by silently blinking between the two inputs as it patiently waits for you to make up your mind and mute the unwanted source. Not surprisingly, save for input selection, the Direct Line Stage's inputs, outputs, controls, and indicators are identical to the C-2000's, which used a microprocessor to allow a single control to toggle between volume and input-selection functions.
The Direct Line Stage's understated quality is continued inside. The circuit boards, on which Ron Sutherland spent "an outlandish amount of time and effort," are industrial art. The parts list is a Who's Who of the very best, including Vishay resistors and Wima polypropylene capacitors. A stout toroidal transformer is isolated from the board and nicely potted, and the integrated circuits are socketed for easy replacement. There are no op-amps in the Direct Line Stage—gain is provided by discrete transistors. As in the C-2000, the input stage consists of dual J-FETs. Two gain stages follow, each using bipolar devices and a class-A bipolar output stage.
According to Sutherland, the Direct Line Stage most differs from the C-2000 in its power supply, although it uses the same philosophy of maximizing the distance between signal path and power line. It's this architecture, Sutherland says, that accounts for the uncanny silence and purity that has characterized his products since day one.
The first stage of the power supply consists of an active constant-current regulator that presents a very high impedance to the incoming power. The second stage is a series of passive RC filters that smooth the DC without the problems inherent in putting active elements and feedback into the power stream. Finally, the DC is split between the load and a zener-diode shunt. This last stage regulates the voltage while letting the current vary with the demand, and presents a very low impedance to the audio circuit—the last is key to getting the dynamics that Sutherland wanted. Typical of his attention to detail is a physical layout that puts this final stage next to the audio circuitry.
A Sutherland C-2000 for $3000?
I installed the Sutherland Direct Line Stage in my system between my sources (VPI HR-X turntable and tonearm, Lyra Titan cartridge, Sutherland PhD phono stage, Simaudio Andromeda CD player) and my VTL Ichiban monoblocks driving Wilson Audio Specialties Sophia 2 loudspeakers. After a bit of experimentation, I opted for Stereovox's SEI 600II interconnects and LSP-600C speaker cables (review to come), burned everything in, and sat down to hear what the Sutherland could do.
The first thing it did was blow me away with its incredible dynamics. I was listening to Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony's reading of Saint-Saëns' Symphony 3 (CD, RCA 61387-2), and the sequence of crescendos midway through the third movement were as breathtaking as rolling thunder. The staccato brass and string passages set the tension, the strings grew and swirled around me, and the bass drum built until I could feel the pressure on my chest. Just as the intensity reached its peak, a cymbal crash split the air above the orchestra. I'd never heard these passages reproduced so intensely, or heard these sorts of dynamics outside a concert hall.
The Saint-Saëns passages also showed off the Direct Line Stage's outstanding bottom end. In addition to the bass drum's power and impact, it had superb pitch definition and a dense, complex tonal character. The Sutherland beautifully captured the way the drum's sound evolved, from the initial impact of the mallet to the round, expanding sound of the skin that paints the instrument in space, and finally the huge, echoing boom that swallows up the image and fills the hall.
Another distinguishing characteristic of the Direct Line Stage's performance was a stark clarity that made even my VTL TL-7.5 and Halcro dm10 preamplifiers sound ever so slightly hazy. This clarity was most noticeable from the midrange through the lower treble, where, in the Saint-Sans passages, the strings and cymbal crash seemed almost spotlit. Another great example was Townes Van Zandt's performance of "Pancho and Lefty" on a benefit concert CD of Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, and Guy Clark Together at the Bluebird Café (American Originals SDPCD161). The Sutherland's clarity and immediacy were obvious from the first note and sat me front-row center.
The size of the Direct Line Stage's dynamic transients contributed to this character, along with its exceptional transparency and complete absence of noise. It's also possible that the preamp's tonal balance was tipped up a bit in the upper midrange or, conversely, down slightly in the upper bass, but if so, I doubt it was by much—John Atkinson's measurements will tell the tale. In day-to-day use, the combination of the Direct Line Stage and the Stereovox cables sounded pretty neutral across the heart of the audioband.
Last May I praised the PhD for its clarity as well, but it actually sounded quite different from the Direct Line Stage. The PhD had a sense of purity—its clarity felt as if the recording artifacts had faded to nothingness, revealing every nuance of instruments' textures and tonal structures. With the Direct Line Stage, it seemed as if the artifacts were instead stripped away, leaving the music boldly and somewhat starkly displayed. The Direct Line Stage's presentation felt a bit less natural and didn't have the PhD's incredible resolution of tonal nuance and texture. What was there was right there—there just wasn't as much there.
Good recordings were spectacular through the Sutherland, but bright, hard-sounding recordings were all but unlistenable. Diana Ross's soundtrack for Lady Sings the Blues (Motown M758D) sounds thin and hard on any system, with upper-midrange crescendos that tend to screech a bit—but it's tolerable. With the Direct Line Stage in the system, I was up and looking for a different record within five minutes.
One anomaly that I wouldn't be surprised to see revealed by JA's measurements was a slight high-frequency rolloff. In Saint-Saëns' Symphony 3, the cymbal itself was beautifully rendered, but there wasn't as good a sense of the shimmer fading into the background as with the considerably more expensive VTL or Halcro preamps. Other, second-order effects, such as slight lacks of spatial and temporal precision, also suggested a top-end rolloff. Similarly, the Direct Line Stage's images were quite good, but lacked the dimensionality and edge definition they had with the VTL or Halcro. They seemed larger and slightly more vague through the Direct Line Stage, and somewhat two-dimensional. Early in Dead Can Dance's "Yulunga," from Into the Labyrinth (4AD 45384-2), there's a short maracas passage that's a great test of dimensionality. When everything clicks, it's tangible and distinct enough to be startling. The VTL and Halcro both got A's on this test, the Sutherland Direct Line Stage a B, or perhaps a B+.
Similarly, while the Sutherland's dynamic transients were huge, their leading edges weren't as sharp or precise as the other units'. The effect wasn't significant enough to make the Direct Line Stage sound slow, but music that relies on sharp transients to establish rhythm and pace was a bit dulled. The Generation Band's Soft Shoulders (LP, Nautilus NR62) lives or dies on the precision of its transients, whether the snap of a guitar string or the cutting edge of a sharp flute note. With the Direct Line Stage, the performance wasn't as electric and alive as I've heard with other preamps.
The Sutherland Direct Line Stage's resolution of detail was similar to its handling of tonal density and textures—the obvious ones were quite dramatic, but there wasn't the wealth of finer, subtler details I heard with the VTL or Halcro or PhD. For example, the surfaces and boundaries of recording environments were reproduced very well. That level of detail benefited greatly from the Direct Line Stage's clarity and transparency. On the other hand, the more ephemeral nuances that describe the air between performers weren't as obvious with the Direct Line Stage as with the PhD. It was the difference I mentioned earlier, between the electronic detritus fading to nothingness and being surgically removed.
Earth, water, fire, and air . . . are all the elements in place?
If the Sutherland Direct Line Stage and PhD are so different, the obvious question is, "How do they work together?"
Just fine, thank you very much. In fact, I couldn't help but wonder if Sutherland's first version of this line stage was a lot more like the PhD, accentuating each other's strengths—and their weaknesses. As it is, the C-2000's—er, Direct Line Stage's huge dynamics offset any meekness on the PhD's part. And although some of the PhD's purity and subtlety was lost in the pairing, the Direct Line Stage's dramatic clarity and slight spotlighting added enough verve and excitement to suggest a near-optimum compromise. Both components are tonally neutral, so that's a match. On my rack, they even look great together.
Our story reaches an end
The Sutherland Direct Line Stage is a great preamp and, at $3000, another great bargain from the team of Ron Sutherland and Chad Kassem. Its performance is very good to excellent in nearly every respect, and truly extraordinary in terms of clarity and dynamics. Compared to the Halcro dm10 and VTL TL-7.5, it's a half-step back in some areas, most notably the resolution of low-level details, the precision of notes' leading and trailing edges, and image dimensionality. The latter two might be harbingers of an upper-treble rolloff, which was also suggested by a very slight lack of extension and air. But these are minor quibbles, and manifested themselves only in comparisons with the Halcro ($17,490) and VTL ($13,500), which remain the very best preamplifiers I've ever heard. The Direct Line Stage's performance is credible at any price; for $3000, it's nothing short of incredible.
The Direct Line Stage's build quality, user interface, and cosmetics are also much better than I've come to expect for anywhere near $3000; Ron Sutherland has made some astute choices and compromises to pack in so much performance and polish. I'd like balanced operation and a numerical volume display, but I wouldn't want to pay for them—or accept degraded performance to have them for the same price. For the Sutherland Direct Line Stage to be the center of my system, I'd need a set of Record Out jacks to feed my CD recorder, but that's not a common need, according to Sutherland.
The most significant phrase in the preceding paragraphs isn't "clarity and dynamics" or "image dimensionality" or "performance and polish," but "in comparisons with...the very best preamplifiers I've ever heard." After a few listening sessions, it seemed pointless to describe and critique the Direct Line Stage in the context of similarly priced designs. Like Sutherland's PhD, the Direct Line Stage gets you into the uppermost echelon of current audio gear for a relatively sane price. Ultimately, I do prefer the much more expensive VTL TL-7.5 and Halcro dm10 to the Direct Line Stage. Both offer greater functionality and flexibility, and both outperform the Sutherland—though not in every aspect, and not by huge margins. I convinced myself that I could afford a TL-7.5 several months ago and haven't looked back, but had I encountered the Sutherland first...who knows?
I never got the opportunity to hear Ron Sutherland's cost-no-object C-2000, so I can't say if, in the Direct Line Stage, he's achieved his goal of meeting or exceeding that model's performance. What I can say is that if you're shopping for a line stage—any line stage at any price—the Sutherland Direct Line Stage should be on your audition list. And if you're even remotely considering upgrading from a model of lower or similar price, put down the magazine and pick up the phone. You don't want to miss this one.