A straight wire with gain? That's what a line stage is supposed to provide, but few in my experience actually accomplish it, and I'm not sure that most audiophiles would really want it that way. Some want a bit of tightening and brightening, while some prefer a bit of added warmth and richness. But whatever the preference, none of us wants too much of a good thing—the tighter, brighter line stages better not sound etchy and hard, and the warmer, richer ones better not sound thick and plodding.
The first time I heard an Audio Note preamp was seven or eight years ago, when I sampled their entry-level M1—a refreshingly musical thing that brought the same kind of color and drama to preamplification that Audio Note's more famous products brought to the driving of speakers. And the M1 cost only $1250 at the time, with phono stage. (Newcomers, please don't wince: That's awfully cheap for what it was.)
When PR guy Adam Sohmer first told me about the Fosgate Audionics FAP V1, I thought that the impressive-looking device would be the first all-tube preamp-processor—heck, the first tube anything—in my multichannel system. Then I looked closer at the user's manual I'd downloaded from Fosgate's website. Hmmm. No Dolby Digital, no DTS—just Dolby Pro Logic. Of course, the FAP V1 is Jim Fosgate's signature expression of Dolby Pro Logic, and I guess that counts for something. But the more I thought about it, the more interesting a prospect the FAP V1 seemed.
I had it all wrong. I assumed that the "SLP" in SLP-98P stood for stereo line preamplifier. But Dennis Had, Cary Audio's founder and chief designer, told me that it actually stands for sweet little preamplifier. In a day and age when acme is a word without meaning and the fighting Irish are neither, this strikes me as a risky marketing gambit—but one that may be effective if the name proves true.
Thoughts of power, domination, and audio road-rage enter one's mind when contemplating Musical Fidelity's SUV-like, limited-edition, 20th-anniversary offerings (footnote 1). (Only 75 sets of kWPs and kWs will be made.) The gleaming, brushed-aluminum, two-box, oversized, overweight Tri-Vista kWP preamp is fortress-like—the "kWP" looks as if chiseled into the faceplate by grimy, sweaty hands. Each of its boxes weighs almost 56 lbs. The unit's milled-aluminum remote control, the size of a Volkswagen Microbus and looking like something Fred Flintstone might wield, must weigh over 5 lbs. The kWP outputs more juice than many power amps: 55V, with 20 amps of peak-peak instantaneous current!
Rudyard Kipling said that "never the twain shall meet." He was speaking of East and West, but in the world of audio, his adage has most often been applied to what has been the traditional chasm between the sounds of tubes and solid-state. Tube advocates thump the tub for the timbral and spatial glow, the absence of harsh, odd-order harmonic distortions, the harmonic completeness and holistic spatiality that only fire bottles can provide. Solid-state advocates point out the superiority of their preferred gear in terms of bass depth, power and control, low noise, and ultimate detail resolution. That chasm between the characteristic sounds of tube and transistor has narrowed appreciably in the latest generations of gear, as each type of circuit has become capable of embodying some of the other's trademark characteristics. But between the camps, friendly competition continues.
What comes to mind when you think of VTL? If you're like most of us, enormously powerful tube power amplifiers are inseparable from the name. To contemplate VTL is to think of some of the finest-sounding, most potent amps ever built—from the late-1980s, 400Wpc Ichiban, the first massively powerful tube monoblock of the audiophile era, to the mighty Wotan and Siegfried amplifiers of today. All well and good, as far as it goes.
For those who frequent the audio discussion groups on the Internet, the method by which Stereophile selects products for review seems to be a continuing source of fascination and conjecture. Supporters of fledgling manufacturers—whose products these Webcrawlers just happen to own—rail against the rule that products to be reviewed in the magazine must have at least five US dealers. Some suggest that Stereophile's selection of review products is all about catering to advertisers and friends in the industry, a process that seems intended to exclude their favorite products from consideration.
Rogue Audio's Magnum Ninety-Nine tubed preamplifier is derived from the original Rogue Sixty-Six that I reviewed in October 2000. The Sixty-Six was designed to offer consumers a taste of high-end performance in a vacuum-tube line stage. By constrast, the Magnum Ninety-Nine's pedigree is pure audiophile, with a more sophisticated mu-follower circuit topology aimed at the purest expression of performance.
Over the course of several months, during which time I auditioned the Vacuum Tube Logic TL-5.5 tubed line-stage preamp with a variety of power amps and loudspeakers, I began to reassess many long-held notions about the "characters" of solid-state and tube components. Sometimes the TL-5.5 revealed its musical pedigree with all the midrange juiciness and sublime textural detail that one traditionally associates with a triode front-end, while at others it evinced a level of focus, transparency, and frequency extension I more readily associate with solid-state purity—all in a stylish package featuring a remote volume control and a full range of performance enhancements that belied its affordable price.
Unpacking and installing a new component is always cause for excitement, even if one does it with almost mechanical regularity, and the anticipation is greater when the component is from a manufacturer of almost mythic reputation. So when John Atkinson asked if I'd like to audition Nagra's new PL-L preamplifier, I feigned calm as I accepted the assignment, even while remembering those years in college radio when I had to schlepp big Ampexes and Maggies. The sexy, portable Nagras were the stuff of dreams. Finally, I thought, I'd get my hands and ears on one.
I had a wonderful audio moment the other night. It was late in the evening, after a long day. I was standing in the middle of my makeshift listening room—Trish's dining room—and in spite of the fact that we were moving in just a few weeks, I'd just unpacked and set up my combo of VPI TNT Mk.V-HR turntable and tonearm with Grado Statement cartridge and dug a box of LPs out of the stacks in the garage. I cued up Dave Brubeck's Time Out (Columbia/Classic CS 8192), and the first notes of "Blue Rondo à la Turk" froze me in my tracks.