The debate over which audio component is most important in determining the quality of a system's sound is one that has been with us for decades. Recently, it came up in a conversation I had during a visit to a Manhattan high-end shop, when I was told about a discussion on the topic by Ivor Tiefenbrun (of Linn) and David Wilson (of Wilson Audio Specialties). You don't have to be a seasoned audiophile to predict their respective positions, but when I was pressed to take a stand, I paused.
When I started out on my multichannel mission in 2000, it was with an all-digital Meridian system that relied on lossy, compressed sources like the original Dolby Digital and DTS formats, or on synthesized surround based on Dolby Pro-Logic or Meridian's own TriField. With the appearance of first SACD and DVD-Audio and then Blu-ray, discrete lossless multichannel recordings became available, but there was no way to output those signals in digital form for interconnection to other components for playback or further manipulation. Most audiophiles, me included, already had analog preamps and power amps. It was only with the appearance of HDMI and the accompanying HDCP content protection that we could output those digital signals, and over a single cable to boot. Today, there are A/V receivers, some costing less than $500, and more than a handful of audiophile-oriented preamp-processors, that can accept such lossless high-resolution multichannel content as PCM, DSD, Dolby TruHD, and dtsHD Master Audio.
The AV7005 is Marantz's second multichannel preamplifier-processor and, at $1499.99, the least expensive pre-pro I've used or reviewed. The Integra DTC-9.8, which has been resident in my stable since 2007, when it cost $1600, and its successors, have since then steadily risen in price. The Marantz's predecessor, the AV8003 ($2599.99), was highly praised in many quarters. I never got my hands on one because, like a churlish child, I felt it lacked features I considered essential. Other reviewers didn't seem bothered by those limitations, or were unaware of them. The AV7005, however, looks and feels like a winner for music and home theater. I see no evidence of skimpingthe AV7005 sports such high-end features as balanced outputs, network controllability and streaming, and, of course, HDMI v1.4a for compatibility with 3D and all audio codecs.
NAD's T 187. Another pre-pro? And not inexpensive at $3000! Why do I care?
First of all, NAD has come to the forefront of established full-range manufacturers as innovators in digital audio. From their original digital preamp, the 118, which I reviewed in the July 1998 issue; to the M2 Direct Digital amp, reviewed by JA in March 2010; to the Masters M51 high-resolution DAC, reviewed last July by Jon Iverson; and their Masters M50 and M52 music-streaming devices, NAD has never simply repackaged available chips and modules, but has always gone their own way.
In my February 2000 review of Meridian's multi-talented, multichannel, multi-kilobuck Digital Theatre system, I fumed about the lack of a medium for discrete multichannel music. Even more loudly, I railed against the irresponsible mastering of many Dolby Digital and DTS discs, which place the listener in the middle of an ensemble and swirl the voices around his or her head with little concern for musical or artistic coherence.
Tone controls? I ripped them out of my Dyna PAS-3! And that was the last time I had tone controls. As a card-carrying audiophile, I wanted just what the engineer had inscribed on the recording, with as little change as possible (read: high fidelity).
There's nothing groundbreaking about the technology included in Naim's new $22,400, two-box, remote-controllable, top-of-the-line NAC 552 preamplifier. Still, the inclusion of two sets of RCA input jacks is a departure from Naim's tradition of DIN jacks, and the NAC 552's programmability is unusual for a high-end two-channel audio product. And you can order RCA output jacks at no extra cost, which is how my review sample was configured.
My very first review of a preamplifier, for British magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review in May 1984, was of the Audio Research SP-10. In my opening to that review, I wrote that, "more than any other component," a preamplifier "should approximate to the late Peter Walker's 'Straight Wire with Gain.'" By this I meant that a preamplifier should not be in the business of effecting dramatic changes, and in any case, dramatic changes are not the kind that prove to be of lasting value. However, I also wrote back then that what I became increasingly aware of while using the SP-10 "was the fact that 'neutrality' is a positive virtue rather than just an absence of aberration."
Asked how to make a guitar, the celebrated luthier Wayne Henderson offered a straight-up answer: "Just get a pile of really nice wood and a whittling knife. Then you just carve away everything that isn't a guitar." (footnote 1)
The making of a preamplifier seems more or less the opposite. You start with a simple volume control and a couple of jacks, then add whatever you think constitutes a preamplifier. Choices might include electronic source switching, line-level gain, phono-level gain and equalization, tone controls, tone-defeat switches, a balance control, a headphone jack, an iPod input, and maybe even a digital-to-analog converter with a USB receiver. The sky is pretty much the limit.
It was the strangest thing. In the fall of 2008 I was comparing Ayre Acoustics' then-new KX-R line preamplifier with no preamplifier at allI was feeding the power amplifier directly with the output of the Logitech Transporter D/A processor. (Levels were matched for the comparisons, of course, made possible by the fact that the Transporter has a digital-domain volume control.) Being a rational being, I knew that the active circuitry of a preamplifier, as well as the extra socketry and cables, would be less transparent to the audio signal than a single piece of wire. I wanted to determine by how much the Ayre preamp fell short of that standard.
A friend once described my audio ethos as "records, tubes, big amplifiers, and really big speakers"—I always picked warmth and musicality over antiseptic neutrality, even if the former came with a few extra colors in the tonal palette. Had I listed my criteria for an audio component, transparency wouldn't have been near the top, and might not have been listed at all.
The Placette Audio Remote Volume Control is simplicity itself: a paperback-sized black box with one set of unbalanced inputs and outputs, a toggle switch (and a remote) to change the level, and a row of LEDs that light up to indicate the relative volume level. The signal path, too, is simple, with only a stepped attenuator between input and output. But this is not just any attenuator—it's a 125-step model built entirely with super-premium Vishay S-102 foil resistors.
Until just recently, only companies known primarily for their surround-sound processors were producing the most advanced—and most expensive—Home Theater products. No longer. It was inevitable that traditional high-end audio manufacturers would begin producing equipment for this fast-growing market.
When I reviewed Simaudio's Moon Evolution 880M monoblock amplifier for the June 2013 issue, I communicated via phone and e-mail with the company's VP of marketing, Lionel Goodfield. When the topic of hearing the 880Ms at their best came up, I could almost imagine him shrugging as he said, "Just use it with the most transparent, revealing preamp you can find." Not surprisingly, he then went on to say that Simaudio's own Moon Evolution 850P would serve nicely in that role. My cynical side might normally have discounted any such suggestion from a marketing man, but I'd been hearing the same sort of thing from other sources. And, as it happened, there was an 850P at Stereophile World Headquarters . . .
Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the quality of the audio engineering emanating from Simaudio, which next year celebrates its 30th anniversary. In a world where the US facilities of some well-known audio brands have been reduced to a design office coupled to a warehouse for storing product manufactured overseas, this Montreal-based manufacturer, in order to keep full control over quality and hence reliability, does as much manufacturing as possible in-house, including metalwork, some printed circuit-board stuffing, and assembly. (See my photo essay starting here.)