Most of this column is dedicated to two hi-fi products for the massesnot from Lvov, via Vladimir Lamm, of Lamm Industries; or from Leningrad, via Victor Khomenko, of Balanced Audio Technologies; nor from any other Soviet-born audio hero. (Neither Vladimir nor Victor is on the list of "Name of Russia" contenders for greatest Russian of all time.) Nor from any consumer audio company, but from the world of professional audio. An Iron Curtain almost separates the two.
I'm old enough to remember my family's first table radio that was made out of plastic. It was cream-colored, and it sat on the rearmost edge of our kitchen table: a less-than-timeless design in its own right, destined to be discarded at the end of one era and treasured again at the dawn of another, for more or less the same reason. But in 1958, a cream-colored plastic radio looked fresh, clean, and right, and its cheap wooden predecessor seemed dowdy and sad by comparison. That would all change in later years, of course. Then it would all change again.
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."
Boulder Amplifiers, named after the Colorado town where the company has resided since its founding 23 years ago, makes some of the most elegant-looking solid-state amps around. Chassis are anodized, aircraft-grade aluminum with rounded edges, machined and finished in-house. The two models reviewed here, the 810 line preamplifier and the 860 power amplifier, each have a sleek, compact build—stacked atop each other, the two stand just over a foot high—owing to extremely efficient packing of the circuitry inside. These are the company's "entry-level" electronics, but there's nothing cheap about them—the preamp retails for $6900, the amp for $8500—and for all their economical size, they look like luxury goods as well.
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.
With the introduction of the NHB-108 stereo amplifier, Swiss-based darTZeel quickly established a reputation for pristine, hand-built quality, fanciful industrial design, and elegant circuitry—all accompanied by a healthy jolt of sticker shock. (See John Marks' coverage in his September 2003 "Fifth Element" column, followed by Wes Phillips' full review in April 2005 .) The 100Wpc (into 8 ohms) NHB-108 costs more than $18,000. A lot of change for not a lot of power, but the reviews were unanimous in praising the amp's exceptional sound quality.
Talk about going from the ridiculous to the sublime. One day I'm reviewing the $139 Sonic Impact Super T power amplifier, and the next day Krell Industries delivers their $10,000 Evolution 505 SACD/CD player, $15,000 Evolution 202 preamplifier, and their $30,000/pair Evolution 600 monoblocks.
The P-8 ($11,000) is the second of Simaudio's Moon Evolution series that has passed through my system, following on the heels of the Moon Evolution W-8 power amplifier, which I reviewed in March 2006. Fortunately, the P-8's arrival preceded the W-8's departure, so I was able to use them together as well as with other components.
Bryston describes its SP2 multichannel preamplifier-processor ($4995) as consisting of a stereo analog preamp with a volume-controlled 5.1-channel analog pass-through plus a full-featured multichannel digital audio processor, and claims that none of those functions compromises any of the others. The analog preamp is fully equivalent in features and performance to their BP26 preamp. The digital processor includes all the latest Dolby Digital, DTS, and THX modes, and is based on Texas Instruments' powerful Aureus DSP chip, which can be updated via an S/PDIF input. The digital and analog sections have independent power supplies, and there are no video inputs or functions other than a control port for the optional, external SPV-1 video switcher.
Still burning in my bank of childhood memories are misty images of the glowing green lettering on the McIntosh tube preamps and tuners that populated the windows of the audio stores that once lined lower Manhattan's Cortlandt Street. Leonard's and most of those other retailers are long gone—as are most of the audio brands that shared their windows with McIntosh, and that once symbolized the might of American innovation and manufacturing. Even the World Trade Center, the controversial complex that replaced Cortlandt Street's "Radio Row," where the hi-fi industry was born, is tragically gone.
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."
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.
Conceptually, the preamplifier is the bottleneck in an audio system. All sources pass through it, and it influences every sound you hear. A system comprising great speakers and gutsy amplification will sound uninspired if that's the character of the preamplifier. Conversely, a great preamplifier will allow through so much information, so much of the music, that the listener can forgive the shortcomings of lesser speakers and amplifiers.
Back in 2003, while auditioning the Burmester 001 CD player ($14,000, reviewed in the December 2003 Stereophile, Vol.26 No.12), I discovered that my system sounded much better if I bypassed my preamplifier and ran the 001 directly into the power amps. I concluded by suggesting that potential customers consider building a system around the 001 itself and forgo a preamp altogether. The response from Burmester fans was immediate and unambiguous: As good as the 001 was on its own, it sounded even better run through its stablemate, Burmester's 011 preamplifier ($15,999). The pair had, they claimed, a significant synergy that I absolutely had to hear. It's hard to argue with determined German logic, and I'd begun shopping for a new preamp anyway. So here we are.