Life used to be simple. A preamp was a phono stage, a line stage, and the controls necessary to manage a system. Sure, there were exceptions, but for the most part you could say "preamp" and everyone knew what you meant. With the rise of the Compact Disc, however, phono stages became standalone components or optional extras, and most manufacturers concentrated on the line stage and controls, pursuing the ideal of "a straight wire with gain."
Sony describes the $700 TA-P9000ES as "a pure audio multichannel preamplifier equipped with two inputs for 5.1 analog multichannel audio sources, enabling selection, volume control, and amplification." A relay with twin gold-plated crossbars switches the two six-channel sources. Then follows a class-A solid-state push-pull amplifier in discrete configuration. Separate transistors, resistors, and capacitors populate the printed circuit boards. An oxygen-free copper shield surrounds each channel to prevent crosstalk between the channels. In addition, there is a relay-controlled gain stage offering 0, +6, and +12dB amplification.
I've had the pleasure of using The Direct Line Stage Line Stage (originally called the Director) from Ron Sutherland for the past few months. This active line-stage preamp (it has no phono section) is available from Acoustic Sounds for $3000.
I anticipated the installation of the TacT Audio RCS 2.0 room-correction processor with mixed emotions—I already liked my system and room, and such a device threatened to make all my studied efforts trivial. What if one might use any decent amps and speakers, cables that were merely conductive, and no room treatment at all? And what if, on top of that, you could just put them wherever your significant other thought they looked right? What if all the magic you needed was contained in this box? Scary.
The Mod Squad Line Drive System Control Center is a purely passive stereo switching unit with a volume and balance control, five line inputs, and additional facilities for two tape decks. It allows the audiophile to replace a preamp, with its active gain stagesand resulting colorationwith a device that introduces no distortion or coloration other than that in the wiring, switches, and controls.
This product is a pre-trol. What, you may well ask, is a "pre-trol?" Well, Threshold Corp. calls its FET-10 a preamplifier, but it isn't, really. In fact, it isn't an It at all; it's a Them. Only half of Them is a preamp, and you can buy each half separately. If that sounds a little confusing, maybe it's because some of the old, familiar language of audio is starting to lose its relevance.
The Threshold FET nine/e ($2595) is the junior sibling of the FET ten/e, a solid-state preamp that has earned a rave review in March 1991 from noted tubeophile Dick Olsher (Vol.14 No.3), itself a development of the FET ten that J. Gordon Holt reviewed in September 1987 (Vol.10 No.6). Would my ears, accustomed as they are to the pitter-patter of electrons traveling through a vacuum, have a similarly positive response to the FET nine/e?
Threshold is one of the longest-surviving high-end audio companies. Founded in the 1970s by Nelson Pass and René Besne, it was acquired by a large, publicly traded corporation in 1988. This had both positive and negative results in that Threshold was then able to expand its activities, adding the cost-effective Forté line of products, but energies were drained away from cutting-edge design. Besne left the company in 1991, while Pass resigned in 1992 to pursue other interests. (These blossomed into the Pass Aleph 0 amplifier reviewed by DO in March '95, Vol.18 No.3.)
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).