Woodside SC26 preamplifier Page 2
I traced the SC26's initial hum problems to a faulty ECC83, which Woodside replaced with a Golden Dragon 12AX7. The SC26 was then as quiet as my solid-state preamplifiers—at least on casual listen. I detected no other tube deterioration over the several months of auditioning.
The SC26's phono section was dynamic, open, and detailed, with a rich, resonant midbass emphasis. It had little of the dark quality I heard initially with the Classé Six. Over the Quad ESL-63s, the SC26's midrange qualities were dynamic, resonant, warm, and slightly distant—a pleasing balance, although one that was somewhat less forceful than that of the Classé Six in its bypass mode.
The SC26's phono section allowed me to enjoy my vinyl collection to the fullest. The full orchestra and the Boy's Choir of Harlem present a dense, colorful sonic fabric on "Call to Arms," from James Horner's Glory soundtrack on Virgin. The SC26 conveyed a lovely, warm string tone and the full strength of the soprano voices with no strain or distortion, and rendered a good impression of soundstage depth. However, it didn't have the transparency I've heard with the Mark Levinson No.26 (non-Teflon motherboard) playing this piece.
Dynamics and good transient response were also evident with the SC26, as heard during the opening movement of the original vinyl direct-to-disc version of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet (Sheffield Lab CD 8). The SC26 captured the energy, whirlwind tempos, and dynamics of "Romeo Resolves to Avenge Mercutio's Death." I was totally involved.
That the SC26's line stage had excellent dynamics became evident in the first movement of the Earl Wild/Jascha Horenstein performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto 2 (Chesky CD2), conveying the power and majesty of the Royal Philharmonic. While the Krell did a better job of creating the width and depth of the orchestral sonic image, the SC26 was more colorful, dynamic, and involving.
The SC26 also excelled in the reproduction of solo voice. The imaging and soundstaging of Rebecca Pidgeon's "Grandmother Song" (from The Raven, Chesky JD115) was excellent. The SC26 created a palpable three-dimensional sonic image of the vocalist center-stage, evident when the piano cuts-in during the middle of the song, slightly behind and to Pidgeon's right. Although both the Krell and the SC26 well captured the dynamics and sweetness of Pidgeon's voice, the Krell was somewhat more transparent.
The bottom-end response of the Woodside was as impressive as that of the Krell. The driving bass drum and synthesizer on James Horner's Clear and Present Danger soundtrack (Milan 35679-2) were clean and solid.
This review was enriched by my experience of a chamber-music concert by the Auryn String Quartet. Michael Ende's book The Never Ending Story involves an amulet—the Auryn—that gives its owner renewed imagination and inspiration. This concert had a similar effect on me. I was twice deeply moved: once, in the third movement of Haydn's Quartet in d, Op.76 No.2 ("The Quinten"), which features a canon, and two violins playing together in octaves, followed three beats later by viola and cello. Its driving tempo has earned it its name—the "Witches' Minuet."
The second piece, Robert Schumann's Quartet in A, Op.43 No.3, was best described by Ben Sostenuto in the concert's program notes. My attention was drawn to the second movement, Assai agitato. The section labeled L'istesso tempo creates a sense of driving purpose; later, the Tempo risoluto, in Ben's words, gives "the feeling of barely controlled urgency, punctuated by a persistent syncopated rhythm."
Both the Haydn and the Schumann were played with an intensity and passion I'd never heard in a live concert. The music was greatly enhanced by the timbre of the instruments, the warmth of the resonances of the viola and the cello, the tonalities of wood and bow, and the sweetness of the violin strings. Could a tube preamplifier and electrostatic loudspeakers capture any of this beauty?
With the help of Stereophile record reviewer Carl Baugher, I located a live performance by the Lindsay String Quartet of the Haydn Quartet (ASV CD DCA 622), and a studio recording by the Joachim Koeckert Quartet of the Schumann Quartet (Calig-Verlag, CAL 50849). The Haydn recording came closer to the live experience, as it includes the usual audience rustlings, coughs, and odd noises—all of which added to the hall ambience.
The tone of violin strings was sweet with both preamplifiers. As I anticipated, the Krell KBL offered a clearer delineation of instruments and space than the SC26. The SC26, however, captured more timbre from the cello and viola, with more sense of wood and bow. Neither preamplifier gave me the thrill I heard in the live performance—the sense of intimacy or the warmth of the Auryn's instruments; but neither did I expect them to. The SC26's soundstage was wider than the KBL's, with the cello far to the left. In the balance, the SC26 sounded closer to reproducing the live experience of the Haydn.
I enjoyed the Schumann recording more, the L'istesso tempo sounding like the wonderful, swirling, dark, tormented music I heard live. With the SC26, the Joachim Koeckert Quartet's playing and the wooden resonances struck a deep emotional chord in me. What a wonderful critical listening tool the Schumann proved to be!
The Woodside SC26 is a well-designed tube preamplifier with both a built-in phono stage and built-in transformers for moving-coil cartridges. Build quality and feel of the front-panel controls equal those of other high-end preamplifiers in its price range.
The SC26 had remarkable dynamic range, and an outstanding ability to convey string timbres. Good instrumental timbre, depth of image, and user convenience are admirable product descriptors, but many audiophiles want more in the way of features. Competitive units, such as the Classé Six Mk.II, offer balanced inputs and outputs, for example.
I found that more expensive preamplifiers, such as the Krell KBL and the Mark Levinson No.26, bettered the SC26 in transparency, which is why such products receive "A" ratings in Stereophile's "Recommended Components." Still, the Woodside SC26's combination of phono section, ability to render instrumental timbre, and value place it at the very top of the "B" range. Anyone primarily interested in sound quality should definitely audition the SC26.