Sutherland Engineering 20/20 phono preamplifier Page 2
From the very first cut of the first LP I played, side 2 of Bruce Cockburn's 1984 classic, Stealing Fire (LP, Gold Mountain GM-80012), it was obvious the 20/20 was something special. My first impressions were simple: that I was hearing more of everything, that that everything was better than it had been before, and that, quite possibly, this was the best analog playback I'd ever heard in my system. I got about as far as jotting down "Wowthis is incredible, but will it last? Or will it get tiring?" before I set my notepad aside and spent the rest of the evening listening to music.
It's hard to describe a component that does everything well without some sort of context. Fortunately, Sutherland's Direct Line Stage and PhD phono preamp perfectly provided that. Though neither is still in production, each is a well-known, classic product that represents earlier manifestations of Sutherland's design goals and approaches. Both are longtime fixtures in my system, and I've reviewed them in past issues of Stereophile (respectively, in January 2006, Vol.29 No.1, and January 2004, Vol.27 No.1, with Sam Tellig and Mikey Fremer respectively weighing in). Plus, most interestingly, they bracketed the 20/20's sound in many ways; to my ears, the new model sounded more like the AC-powered Direct Line Stage than like the battery-powered PhD.
Bottom to top, side to side
The 20/20's bottom-end performance seemed to combine the best aspects of the PhD and Direct while neatly avoiding the shortcomings of each. Its power, control, and vivid tonal colors reminded me more of the Direct's robust brawn than the PhD's subtler sound. On the other hand, the 20/20's ability to reproduce fine and low-level details, even at the very bottom of its range and in complex passages, was much more akin to the PhD than the Direct's more broad-brush treatment. Too often, components seem to balance power, precision, and tonal structure pretty well in the upper and midbass regions, but lose control in one or more of those areas as the frequencies drop. In contrast, the 20/20 seemed to go as low in the bass as I've heardto the very bottom of anything I threw at itwhile retaining all of the tonal and textural nuance, and all of the temporal and spatial detail and precision, that it had in the mid and upper bass.
Simple electric-bass notes, such as Fergus Marsh's on Cockburn's Stealing Fire, were authoritative through the 20/20; they felt like solid, meaty spheres, with none of the generic, one-note, electronic character they can sometimes have. On the lovely "Nicaragua," Marsh's snapping and severe bending of several notes came through the 20/20 as rich, taut, and very well controlled. In comparison, the same passages sounded a little rubbery through the PhD, as if the latter weren't quite able to keep up with the sharp changes in pitch and volume.
The 20/20's bottom end meshed beautifully with the bouncy style of jazz bassist Ray Brown; for example, listen to "Mistreated but Undefeated Blues," from his Soular Energy (half-speed-mastered LP, Concord Jazz/Belaphon LELP 111). Brown's lines sounded quicker and more precise with the 20/20, a little softer and less certain with the PhDthough still warm, wonderful, and quite natural. With large-scale classical works the 20/20 seemed to go slightly lower and with more authority than the PhD, though I never found the PhD's bottom end lackingand both did an excellent job of reproducing tonal and spatial detail.
What struck me most about the 20/20's midrange was its balance. Female singers and violins, for example, sounded as pitch-perfect and true as male voices and cellos. The same was true for different musical genres, or across vast differences in the size and scale of performances. While listening to Miles of Aisles, Joni Mitchell's incredible 1974 live album, recorded with Tom Scott and the L.A. Express (2 LPs, Asylum AB 202), I was part of the intimacy, drawn to and hanging on her every word. Conversely, when I listened to Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony's reading of Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé Suite (LP, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2150), with all its fireworks, I was swept away by the CSO's power and majesty, and felt the awe and excitement of being in Orchestra Hall. And with studio recordings, regardless of scale, I kept coming back to that theme of "more" on which the 20/20 spun its many variations. I was constantly taken aback by how much of it there seemed to be: more solidity, more richness of tonal colors, more life, more energymore of everything.
Fortunately for the 20/20, "more of everything" didn't translate into "too much of anything"but at times it came close. With some components, difficult instruments such as the flute or piccolo can sound hard and metallic, particularly as their pitch and/or volume rises. Through other gear, these instruments can be unfailingly sweet, but without enough bite to sound realistic. With the 20/20, the bite was there, and meshed well with the hollow, breathy sound of the instruments' bodies, but the balance always felt a little precarious. I always had a sense that, were there just a bit more impact, bigger dynamics, or more projection, it might be too much.
Miles of Aisles gave me the opportunity to study this balancing act from both sides now, so to speak. On one hand, Mitchell's guitar chops were spot on through the 20/20; their larger dynamics and sharper edges gave them a realistic snap and ring that made the PhD sound comparatively muted and artificial. Conversely, the portrayal of Mitchell herself felt slightly more realistic with the PhD. With the 20/20, there was a bit of pressure or tension in her voice that felt more electromechanical than real, and the breaths she took between phrases were quick and shallow. Through the PhD, there was just Joni Mitchell, relaxed and natural, her breaths slow and deepI could imagine her entire body relaxing as she took them.
The 20/20's midrange was uncolored, clear, and detailed, but it didn't quite match the PhD's uncanny transparency. With the 20/20 there was the slightest bit of grain, or maybe texture, between instruments, and tones didn't have the crystalline, jaw-dropping purity they did with the PhD. At times, I felt that a bit of low-level detail and subtlety was missing with the 20/20though I could hear this loss only in direct comparisons between the two units, and even then, the difference was pretty ephemeral.