Placette Active Linestage preamplifier
But a little over three years ago, my pursuit of audio nirvana veered sharply off its previous trajectory. Placette Audio's unassuming little Remote Volume Control changed all. The experience was eye-opening and jaw-dropping, as I reported in the June 2004 Stereophile. Transparency suddenly leapt to the top of my priority list—or, more correctly, became the foundation on which any such list was to be built. What the RVC did for a system was stunning, but its functional limitations made it impractical for daily use. Its completely passive design necessitated short cables, and having only a single input would have condemned me to a hell of constantly moving cables to switch sources or compare components. What I needed was a preamplifier that provided the transparency of the RVC but the user-friendliness of a more typical line stage.
Placette Active Linestage
Placette's Active Linestage ($6995) is intended to combine the transparency of the purist Remote Volume Control with a usable, if not lavish, level of functionality—or, as Placette describes it, to be the most transparent, finest-sounding preamp available while providing a suite of features that meets most listeners' needs without adding unnecessarily to the cost.
There are five sets of inputs, two sets of outputs, and a single tape loop. All inputs are unbalanced (RCA), per designer Guy Hammel's belief that balanced operation is unnecessary, though a truly balanced unit can be custom-ordered for around 1.8 times the standard model's cost. Early versions of the Active Linestage were criticized for lacking sufficient volume resolution at low levels, so Hammel added a Dual Volume Range capability, which lowers the output by about 15dB.
The Active Linestage combines a 125-step attenuator with a direct-coupled, class-A output stage, the latter a unity-gain buffer that provides a constant, low output impedance and enough current to drive any load, regardless of cable type or length.
The Active Linestage is a true dual-mono design, with completely separate power supplies for each channel, as well as pairs of identical attenuators and output stages. The attenuator, which is common across Placette's line, functions by using relays to mechanically select from an array of discrete Vishay metal-foil resisters. Relays are notoriously noisy, so the Placette's control circuitry is maintained in an "analog sleep" mode between actions. Appreciable current is present in the control circuitry only during the switching itself. The control circuitry and relays have their own, completely independent power supply, a wall wart that feeds ±5VDC directly and only to the control board. The volume is controlled by either a front-panel toggle switch or a remote, and the setting is indicated by a stack of LEDs on the front panel that represent a binary number equivalent to the volume setting.
The input and the Tape Monitor function are selected via the remote and indicated by front-panel LEDs, as is toggling between the two output volume ranges. In a typically purist approach, the Record Out and Headphone jacks are disconnected in normal operation, to avoid their contaminating the signal. These functions are controlled by the remote as well, and again indicated by tiny LEDs on the faceplate. In another obvious selection of function over form, Placette supplies a Sony RM-V60 Universal Remote with all three of their models, rather than a dedicated, custom-built unit. I respect the integrity of this move, and the Sony worked fine, though the lack of dedicated remote seems a bit stingy for a $6995 component. After all, the remote control is the primary interface customers will have with the Placette.
The simple chassis and cosmetics are more blunt embodiments of Placette's no-frills approach. The Active Linestage is not elegant, lavish, luxurious, pretty, or even "ruggedly handsome"—it's just a plain black box. In fact, it's almost confrontational, as if challenging potential customers to actually spend their money on performance alone, instead of the thick, brushed-aluminum faceplates we all lust after, and 2-lb remotes machined from solid blocks of metal.
According to Placette, all of the money has been spent inside, on the parts—such as the 50 super-precision Vishay resistors. It's also been spent in the assembly and labor time. The Active Linestage is obviously hand-built, with nicely routed and dressed point-to-point wiring. Each run is a tightly twisted pair of individual high-purity copper wires to improve electronic noise rejection, both supported and epoxy-coated to provide isolation from mechanical noise. The theme of mechanical isolation also includes adhesively mounting individual circuit boards on Sorbothane stand-offs, which prevents the mounting screws from bypassing the suspension. The chassis itself is mass-loaded with a floor of thick ceramic tiles and rests on hemispherical feet of Sorbothane. The side panels and top plate are lined with Sorbothane to further damp airborne vibrations.
Whose transparency is the most transparent?
Placette's Remote Volume Control initiated my search for a new preamp that was, above all other criteria, transparent. I auditioned two versions of the VTL TL-7.5, the Sonic Euphoria PLC (now discontinued), the Halcro dm10, and the Sutherland Direct Line Stage. I listened to each on its own and often compared two or more, but always reestablished a baseline by reinstalling a Placette—first the RVC, and then, when it became available, the Active Linestage. All of the preamps I tested were excellent and could rightly be described as being transparent to some degree, but they varied in their presentations and other aspects of their performance.
I never explicitly listened to the Active Linestage during these auditions or analyzed its sound, but instead used it to highlight the absence of characteristics associated with the other preamps. For this review, I took the opposite tack and concentrated on what the Placette itself did—or didn't—contribute to the system's sound. Similarly, my lengthy experience with the Placette as a baseline confirmed that it did an excellent job of conveying the musical whole. So here, I will dissect and analyze.
I began by listening carefully for any tonal colorations that I could associate with the Active Linestage, beginning with solo performances such as Franz Helmerson's recital of cello works by Bach, Hindemith, and Crumb (LP, BIS LP-65), and Joel Fan's debut solo-piano recital (CD, Reference RR-106 HDCD), and progressing through small ensemble pieces to full-scale orchestral works. I could easily lock on to the imbalances and characteristics of the surrounding components—the slight warmth of my Wilson Audio Sophia 2 loudspeakers and my VTL amplifiers' extra harmonic richness in the midrange, for example—but detected no frequency anomalies that I could associate with the Placette. I listened also to a number of solo vocalists, both female and male, with the same null result. Otherwise neutral-sounding components will often favor the voices of one gender over the other, providing a bit more harmonic richness or a slight prominence. The Placette was gender-neutral.
I next focused on how the Active Linestage reproduced dynamic contrasts—their relative size and speed, how finely graduated they seemed to be, and how consistent they were across both the frequency and loudness scales. In my review of the Sutherland Director line preamplifier (September 2006, Vol.29 No.9), I commented on its spectacular reproduction of the dynamics in Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony's recording of Saint-Saëns' Symphony 3 (RCA Living Stereo 82876-61387-2): "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."
Other components—VTL's TL-7.5 Series II, for example—also drew attention to the size of their dynamic contrasts. Conversely, the Sutherland PhD phono stage reduced the size and speed of dynamic contrasts, most noticeably at the louder end of the scale. Where the PhD excelled was in its resolution of microdynamic shadings, portraying subtle nuances in a way that made other components sound crude in comparison.
The Placette fell squarely in the middle of these extremes, its dynamics sounding neither large nor small, fast nor slow, refined nor crude. Its transients were consistent across the frequency spectrum and didn't seem to vary from soft to loud passages. The Placette, however, was less satisfying than the VTL or Sutherland when the latters' more impressive dynamics better served the performance. Plus, inserting the Active Linestage into the system very slightly coarsened the signal coming out of the PhD, something that didn't happen with either the Sonic Euphoria or Placette's own Remote Volume Control, both purely passive units.
The Placette unquestionably excelled in focus and clarity. The images were locked into place on the soundstage, and the soundstage itself was huge, open, rock-solid, and perfectly focused. This precision and solidity of spatial information was consistently better than with the other preamps, and really shone with natural recordings made in diverse and dynamic settings—operas, for example. The soloists' movements in conductor Alain Lombard's recording of Delibes' Lakmé (LP, Seraphim SIC-6082), a favorite of mine, were more clearly portrayed and seemed larger and more dramatic, though the increase in size was likely an effect of the images' more precise and consistent focus. It's not hyperbole to say that the Placette fundamentally improved the way my system communicated this performance of Lakmé. When I replaced another preamp with the Placette, veils truly lifted.