Harman/Kardon Citation Eleven preamplifier
At that time we found the Citation Eleven to have a subtly grainy overall sound and a slight tendency toward what sounded like front-end stress during crescendos from Magnetic Phono inputs, but even then it was the best-sounding preamp available in or about its price class. The subsequent modifications have served only to widen the gap between the Eleven and its competition.
Our bypass tests, which evaluate preamplifier sound on the only valid basis—how little they affect the quality of sounds passing through them (with tone controls Flat, of course)—have thus far located only one other preamp that is clearly superior to the $295 Citation Eleven, and that is Audio Research's SP-3 ($600). Below that, the Citation Eleven still appears to have the field to itself.
On an absolute basis, we found the Citation Eleven to have the following characteristics:
Phono Inputs: Very subtly grainy, ever-so-slightly deficient in deep bass, but very clean, airy and detailed, with a healthy safety margin for overload from high-output cartridges. (This in fact is the most significant improvement we found between early Citation Elevens and recent production units.)
High-level Inputs: Very subtly dry, with a barely perceptible roughness, which virtually vanished when the unit's equalizers were awitched out of the circuit. Without those, the sound was still just a shade dry but exhibited no perceptible hardness, which makes this the solid-state preamplifier to beat. (The Audio Research SP-3 uses tubes.)
One useful "extra" that H/K has included in the Eleven is a 17-second time delay between turn-on and full-gain operation. During the delay period, the preamp's gain is attenuated by about 20dB, to prevent switching clicks in it or in any input sources from getting through at full strength to the speakers.
Inevitably, though, there are imperfections. We already noted the fact that the sound becomes slightly rough when the tone controls are switched in. We have excused far worse cases of distortion in multi-band equalizers in the past becasue when the equalizers were needed, their benefits outweighed their flaws, and we certainly felt the same way about the very small degradation of sound that the Eleven'e equalizer circuits introduced. Admittedly, five controlled bands are a far cry from the 10 per channel on some other equalizers, but by and large Citation's five do a better job of correcting frequency-response problems in program material then do conventional tone controls.
Our only real criticism of the Eleven's equalizer setup is the choice of center frequency for the lowermost control. The low-bass problems in most recordings and loudspeakers are centered around 40Hz, not 60Hz (which is the Eleven's controlled center). The control only makes the sound thinner or boomier without gaving any significant effect on The Range That Makes the Trouble.
The Eleven's controls do at least behave a whale of a lot better than those on the Dyna PAT-4, which was our preferred solid-state preamp (despite its own imperfections) until the Citation Eleven came along. However, we are prompted to ask once again, perhaps rhetorically, when some manufacturer who isn't shooting for the moon on price is going to take the time to exercise some judgement on such "minor" matters as control functions.
There are other problems with some Citation Elevens. One is pushbutton switches that don't stay pushed. Another is putt-putt oscillations ("motorboating") when you switch to the unoccupied phono inputs. Both are minor problems, easily remedied at the factory or at any H/K service agency, and had we reported them in an equally fine-sounding product by another company, few of our readers would be put off by it, choosing rather to take their chances (which in fact are good—the problems occur rarely).
Unfortunately, the name Harman/Kardon on a product turns off a lot of prospective buyers who recall those little horrors like the "Nocturne" and the "Ballad" that were H/K's contribution to the hi-fi marketplace back around 1960. It took years of Citation components to livs down that reputation as a schlock outfit. And in fact, H/K still makes a "secondary" line of components for people who believe the only difference between one product and another is the price. But H/K takes considerable pride in its Citation line, and reports from readers indicate that the factory and its service centers are willing to acknowledge the existence of problems when they exist—many manufacturers won't!—and have a bettor-than-average record for curing them, permanently. However, since the motorboating we noted could do some damags the first time it occurs, we would recommend keeping shorting plugs inserted at all times into the unused Mag Phono input receptacles.
So, warts and all, we recommend (with practically no reservations) the Citation Eleven as ths first choice of any audio perfectionist who values sound quality above all else but can't Justify or afford an Audio Research SP-3.