You know me. I'm not perzackly an audio slut, but I am easy. When Audio Advisor's Wayne Schuurman called me to pitch the Vincent KHV-1pre tube-transistor headphone amplifier, he pretty much had me at "tube" and "headphone." But I wasn't familiar with Vincent Audio.
If any single link in the audio chain should be free of sonic personality, it's the preamplifier. Though a preamplifier's basic job description is "source selector with volume control," from hi-fi's earliest days preamps have been the designated dashboard: the more dials, switches, and lights, the better. All that control came at the cost of quiet, transparency, and tonal neutrality. Still, the quixotic quest for the mythical "straight wire with gain" continued to lead to minimalist designs, including impractical unbuffered "passive" preamps, in which cable length, thus capacitance, affected frequency response.
I'm not sure what motivated me to read the owner's manual for the Audio Valve Eclipse, but I'm glad I did: As it turns out, this line-level preamplifier has at least one distinctive feature that I would have missed otherwise.
When audio designer Ken Shindo was a little boy, his father kept an enormous collection of 78rpm records in their home in Tokyo. During the final days of World War II, the Japanese authorities did their best to evacuate the city, but the elder Shindo was steadfast: He refused to leave, for fear that the records would be gone when he returned.
I've long admired Vacuum Tube Logic's line of amplifiers and preamplifiers. Owners Luke Manley and his wife Bea Lam routinely appear at the Consumer Electronics and Home Entertainment shows with luxurious, microprocessor-controlled tube gear, soothing new music, good-sounding rooms, and a friendly, unhurried manner. Their show setups are dialed in so well that I often find myself taking refuge there, sitting and listening for hours with other Stereophile writers.
Everybody loves a bargain. No—make that: Most people love a bargain. Some just want the best, and they don't care about the cost. Some even distrust and reject out of hand any product that's not expensive enough. If you're one of these people, you might as well stop reading this review right now—the PrimaLuna ProLogue Three and ProLogue Seven are not for you. $1395 for a tube preamp? $2695 for a pair of 70Wpc tube monoblocks equipped with four KT88 tubes each? Must be based on old designs in the public domain using cheap parts carelessly assembled...
In any category of product or service, there is a gold standard—one company that epitomizes the best in its field of endeavor. Consider the Rolex watch, the Ferrari sports car, the Steinway piano, the Dunhill pipe. All of these artisanal manufacturers have spent decades, even centuries, earning their names' cachet with their histories of consistent excellence. While high-end audio boasts no names with a 60-year pedigree, such as Ferrari's—much less Steinway & Sons' +150 years—there is one firm whose storied past stretches back to the very emergence of the concept of high-end audio itself: Audio Research Corporation.
RCA's time-honored 6SN7 may be the coolest tube of all. The octal-based dual-triode has its own Wikipedia entry—something not even the 2A3 or 300B can boast—along with its own website. The 6SN7 is chunky, rugged, and handsome. Best of all, it's available, probably because people keep coming up with very good uses for it. In that sense, the 6SN7 is the Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup of the tube world.
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.
If you review hi-fi long enough, you get to the point where you've heard it all before. Actually, there are several versions of that point: One is where you've heard all the claims before, and the other is where you could have sworn you've actually heard this component before.
My opinions keep changing—more evidence of life before death, I suppose—including my thoughts on audio-system hierarchies. I used to think that preamps were among the most sonically influential components, certainly more so than power amplifiers. I'm not so sure anymore (footnote 1).
Not every audiophile needs an amplifier powerful enough to tax a small town's power grid while simultaneously draining his or her bank account. So, having quickly sold out of its ultra-limited-edition, extravagantly powered and priced combo of kWp preamplifier ($14,995) and kW power amp ($27,995) that I reviewed in January 2004, Musical Fidelity (footnote 1) set about capitalizing on the enthusiastic reviews earned by those giants with less expensive, less powerful, "real-world" replacements.
It's been 10 years since Balanced Audio Technology (BAT) introduced their first products: the VK-5 line-stage preamplifier and the VK-60 power amplifier. (I reviewed both in the December 1995 Stereophile, Vol.18 No.12.) The success of these and other BAT products has allowed designer Victor Khomenko (the "VK" of the model designations) and partner Steve Bednarski to quit their day jobs at Hewlett-Packard; they were joined by Geoff Poor as a partner to handle the sales end of the enterprise. BAT's current lineup includes several preamps, phono stages, a CD player, and tube as well as solid-state amplifiers. The top of BAT's preamp range is the VK-51SE, which costs $9000; their top tube power amp is the VK-150SE monoblock ($17,000/pair); if you want their best phono stage, the VK-P10 will set you back $8000.