Sutherland Direct Line Stage preamplifier
Ron Sutherland told me that his design brief for The Direct Line Stage was to get close to the performance of "cost-no-object" line-stage preamps at a reasonable price. Not that there's anything skimpy about the Direct Line Stage, its casework, or its faceplate. This substantial unit tips the scale at 24 lbs—three times the weight of Maxik, our cat. It comes with a remote control (volume selection). The case is 12-gauge steel—that's 1/8" thick.
No skimping on the inside, either. Said Ron: "We developed a gain stage using all discrete transistors. Hermetically sealed dual J-FETs are used in the input stage, followed by bipolar gain stages and a class-A push-pull bipolar output stage. All bias currents are high enough to maintain a dynamic reserve."
For attenuation, the Direct Line Stage uses a bank of J-FET switches and a precision resistor ladder. Ron says that this is sonically neutral, with low noise and excellent channel matching. There are four RCA line-level inputs and a single pair of RCA outputs. There are no facilities for running balanced—another way, perhaps, that Ron has cut costs.
For all its apparent simplicity, the Direct Line Stage is more versatile than it might appear. As shipped, all four inputs are configured for input levels of 3V RMS or less. (Most CD players output between 2V and 3V.) If higher-level sources are used, the owner can go inside the unit and attenuate the incoming voltage for a particular input.
This is even simpler: Without opening the case, the owner can program any of the four inputs for unity gain. You diddle with the remote control and the volume knob, per the instructions. This is handy if you want to use the Direct Line Stage with a multichannel controller for home theater.
There's no on/off switch. Power consumption is 10W. If you want to turn the unit off, pull the plug. (Be sure to do so when you expect thunderstorms.) The Direct Line Stage comes with its own okay power cord; but if money burns a hole in your pocket, Acoustic Sounds can lighten your wallet still further.
Here's why (in addition to its great sound) I love the Direct Line Stage: There is only a volume-control knob. There is no knob for selecting the source component—the Direct Line Stage does this automatically, as soon as it sees a signal at the RCA input sockets. Want to play a CD? Press Play on your machine; if the CD input isn't already selected, the Direct Line Stage will switch to CD. You do have to be careful not to play two sources at the same time, which drives the Direct Line Stage nuts: clicks, blinking LEDs, etc. I don't think you can break it this way, but you can sure confuse it. But only a dummy would deliberately do this.
There are 128 volume-level settings. These comprise 31 steps of 1dB from –27.3dB to –57.3dB, and 96 steps of 0.5dB from –27.3dB to +20.7dB. This allows you to set the volume in very small increments. (When you turn up the volume, it can seem as if nothing's happening.) A visual display shows changes in the volume level, but the display has a bar graph of only 16 LEDs, so you don't see small changes. Ron says he avoided a digital volume display because of "noisy multiplexing problems."
By the way, there are no annoying clicks when you change the volume settings, and the volume control's ball-bearing mount has a very silky feel. You really didn't need that fancy casework, did you?
Ah, yes, the input impedance is 42k ohms (29k ohms when configured with attenuation) and the output impedance is 270 ohms. The maximum output voltage is a healthy 8V RMS. This is the kind of voltage your power amp likes to see, not a wimpy 2V or so directly from your CD player.
I hooked the Direct Line Stage up to my Parasound JC-1 monoblocks using the Musical Fidelity A3.5 CD player and Sony's XA-777ES SACD player. For the most part, I used now-discontinued XLO interconnects and speaker cables. XLO itself has been discontinued, alas. I do miss its founder, Roger Skoff.
I preferred the Sutherland Direct Line Stage over my old passive preamp, the Purest Sound Systems PSS 500. The Purest has no gain, and my Parasound amps, like most amps, could use some.
The Direct Line Stage did what an active preamp should do: it provided enough voltage gain, with the attendant better dynamics and superior dynamic shading, compared to most passives. The sound itself was close to neutral. If there is a better active, solid-state line stage for $3000, I haven't heard it. Specifically, I heard none of the electronic grunge, hardness, or glaze I associate with run-of-the-mill solid-state preamps. Distributor Chad Kassem claims that the Direct Line Stage compares with preamps selling for $5000. I believe him.
Drat! Todd of Audio Plus has taken away the Focal-JMlab 1027 Be speakers. Meanwhile, new speakers intended for our living room won't arrive for another two weeks. What to do?
Easy. I took the Sutherland Direct Line Stage up to my main listening room and used it with my reference Quad ESL-988 electrostatic speakers. The amplifier was George Kaye's new Moscode 401HR (for Harvey Rosenberg) hybrid: half tube, half solid-state, all music. Intermarriage is good. What a superb amp—I'll have to tell you about it, and soon. I used a bank of X-series components from Musical Fidelity.
Quads are among the most revealing loudspeakers, and my ESL-988s revealed not only the virtues of the Moscode but of the Direct Line Stage as well. Again, I thought that the midrange and treble really shone. There was a total absence of edginess. The high-frequency extension was excellent, and the bottom end was tightly defined. I could live with the Direct Line Stage quite nicely, and likely will. I could also live with the Moscode, though I have a less pressing personal need for a power amp. (At the moment, the Direct Line Stage is the only active preamp I have.)
What about the Sutherland Direct Line Stage vs the Music First Passive Magnetic that I also write about this month? They're only $500 apart, after all, and both can be had from Acoustic Sounds. I substituted the Music First for the Direct Line Stage with my Quads.
The two units sounded different, that's for sure. The Music First had a slightly more open, slightly more transparent presentation. I heard more detail, more of what was on each recording. Only a little more, mind you—I don't want to exaggerate—but getting active circuitry out of the system did seem to have its effects. The Direct Line Stage gave more extended highs; the Music First could sound a tad dull by comparison. The Direct Line Stage also sounded more dynamic; the music had more get-up-and-go. The sound was more .†.†. active.
Still, there are other things to consider. Do you want features? The Music First doesn't have any, not even a remote. Do you need more than 6dB of active gain? The Direct Line Stage is a powerhouse of a preamp. Which to choose?
I'm stumped. I'm glad it's your problem, not mine. Pick your poison, a cynic might say.
But that would be cynical. If you want perfection in a preamplification device, prepare to pay more than $2500 or $3000. Prepare to pay, say, $13,500 for a Conrad-Johnson ACT 2, the line-stage preamp I would buy if I won the lottery.
Both the Music First Passive Magnetic and Sutherland's The Direct Line Stage offer excellent value and great sound at their prices. Either way, I doubt you could do better.
I'll put it another way: If you settle for less performance than either of these products offers, your system is likely to suffer. A crappy preamp can spoil everything.— Sam Tellig