Threshold FET 10 preamplifier
Once upon a time, in the dark ages before magnetic pickup cartridges, that part of an audio system that controlled everything—input switching, volume, bass and treble—was called the control section. When the control section became physically separated from the power amp, so you could put one on a shelf and the other out of the way, the control section became a control unit. Then came the revolutionary General Electric variable-reluctance magnetic pickup, along with the need for pre-amplification and a new concept in home hi-fi: playback equalization. Ever since then, every control unit has included a preamp section, and has been known as a preamplifier or preamp unit. Until now.
The enthusiastic public acceptance of CD, and the waning of LP's popularity, is making a preamp stage superfluous for increasing numbers of audiophiles, who balk at the idea of paying $3000 or more for a full-featured preamplifier in which perhaps half of the cost may be tied up in a no-holds-barred phono preamp stage they will never use. They have continued to pay the price, grudgingly, because they had no choice. Now they are getting that choice.
I don't know who did it first, but Audio's 1986 Equipment Directory lists five "preamplifiers" which aren't—from Cello, dB Systems, Motif, Threshold, and Strelioff—but are instead dedicated high-level control units, including a line-level output buffer amp but lacking a phono preamp section. The Mod Squad's Line Drive unit (reviewed by AHC in Vol.10 No.3) even omits the output buffer amp. Undoubtedly, more such will follow, increasingly underscoring the need for a return to the old way of talking about things that control audio signals. Since some of those things no longer contain preamps, but all are signal controllers, the term "control unit" is going to have to come back into use. The alternative is to call them PWPs—preamps without preamps, which is just silly enough that it will probably catch on (sorry I suggested it!).
Then, with one unit unambiguously called the "controller," its companion piece, for the reactionary LP fringe, would, naturally, be called a "preamp." Nice and tidy! Except...What do we then call a preamp plus a controller plus a preamp, such as Threshold's FET-10? Logically, a "control preamp," which is clumsy at best. Hence my coining of the term "pre-trol," which is only a little less clumsy. If anyone has a better suggestion, I'd be happy to hear it.
Another term suffering increasing ambiguity these days is "audio." Stereophile readers automatically think of audio as music reproduced from records. But video sources also have accompanying sound (or audio), and a lot of that sound is more or less musical. So, how does one make a verbal distinction between audio audio and video audio?
In a combined music and video system, a plug or receptacle marked "audio" could be for a CD, a phono, or a video source. Threshold makes the necessary distinction by marking one input to their FET-10/H "Video Audio." This is awkwardly polysyllabic, and takes up too much label space besides. What we need is a single short, snappy word to describe this. Like "vaudio." Okay, so it's ugly sounding, but certainly no more so than eigentone, gigaHertz, or litzendraht—any one of which sounds like exotic profanity. The word "vaudio" says exactly what we want it to say—succinctly, trisyllabically, and in only six letters. (It's also a high scorer in Scrabble.) All it takes is getting used to.
Which brings us back to the Threshold FET-10. It consists of two matching units: a controller which handles only high-level signals, and a dedicated, control-less preamplifier for phono cartridges. They are identical in shape and size, designed to stack neatly one atop the other, and use identical outboard 15V power-supply boxes with enough wire in between (five feet) to allow the supplies to be placed where they won't radiate hum into the preamp unit (assuming you use it). If you don't own an old-fashioned electro-mechanical LP player, the controller is all you will ever need in order to listen happily to CDs, cassettes, open-reel tapes, FM broadcasts, video sound (vaudio), or an auxiliary. If you insist on clinging to the past, just add the preamp unit to the controller. If you don't, you pay only for what you need.
As you can see from the controller's input lineup above, it provides just about every control and all the input connections a serious audiophile could want. The only things missing are Mute, Phase Invert, and Bypass settings, whose utility for routine use is arguable. The preamp unit, on the other hand, looks like your basic Black Box (in brushed aluminum), with one pair of inputs, one pair of outputs, and nothing on the front panel but Threshold's logo medallion. The preamp, however, is much more sophisticated than it looks.
Having just rhapsodized over (and questioned) the plethora of cartridge-tailoring adjustments in the Klyne SK-5A preamplifier as though they were something unique, I now find that the FET-10 is almost as versatile as the Klyne. The Threshold also has switchable resistive and capacitive loading for the cartridge, as well as adjustable preamp gain. Available by slide switches are resistive loads of 22, 47, 100, and 1000 ohms (all for MC cartridges), and 47k ohms for MMs. Available capacitive loads are 50, 100, 150, 250, and 1000pF (1nF). Gain is selectable at 40 or 60dB by moving small plug-in jumpers. All that's missing, relative to the Klyne, is the ability to plug in resistors or capacitors that aren't provided via switch selection.