Hovland HP-100 preamplifier
While the goal of most consumers is to find one true love of a component and stick with it for a long time, our job is to wolf-whistle or blow raspberries at the endless passing parade. It's the reviewer's job to try to remain dispassionate. However, no reviewer can listen to everything available before writing a review—a reviewer is only as "all-knowing" as the last product he or she has reviewed. I've just evaluated Audio Research's superb-sounding Reference Two line stage ($10,000). Before that, I reviewed ARC's mouthwatering Reference Phono stage ($6495, February 2000). Now along comes Hovland's HP-100, a one-box, all-tube line stage ($4995) with optional built-in MM ($5995) or MC ($6495) phono stage. I'm backing into this review slowly so I don't crack a fire hydrant.
Caps, Cables...and a Preamp?
Hovland is best known for its proprietary film and foil polypropylene MusiCap capacitors, which the company began distributing in 1991, and which more than 200 audio companies around the world now use; and for its custom tonearm, interconnect, and speaker cables, which go back to 1979. But company spokesperson Alex Crespi assured me that those products came out of research conducted by Robert Hovland and his associates while they were attempting to design tube and solid-state preamplifiers and amplifiers, projects that date back to the late '70s. At the time, Hovland's business was mainly modifying vintage gear for audiophiles and studio equipment for professionals.
So while the HP-100 is Hovland's first publicly traded audio component, it is not an afterthought, or even a natural extension of the cable and capacitor business, but the fulfillment of what's been Robert Hovland's goal all along: to bring such a product to market. Or so I was told. It's just taken "...some time to get it all right." Given the company's history of more than 20 years, that sounds like an understatement.
When I expressed my skepticism about the 20-year gap between inspiration and fruition, I was told to visualize Apple's "core team" working in a garage for 20 years and coming up with the G4 as its first product. But no sooner had Crespi and the rest of the tightknit group—Robert Hovland, CEO Jeffrey Tonkin, and design consultant Michael Garges (listening in via speakerphone)—unleashed that analogy on me, than they all chimed in almost simultaneously to assure me that Hovland was not a garage-based company, and not some hobby run amok!
With its three smooth, gleaming, chrome-plated knobs and 3/8"-thick faceplate of aluminum plated in black nickel (the same plating process used for the sinks on the Sultan of Brunei's jets) and backed by a sheet of translucent plastic that's softly backlit blue, the HP-100 exudes tasteful luxury and authoritative simplicity. More important, the heavy-gauge, polished, anodized top and bottom plates and monocoque chassis help ensure structural integrity. The stiff, heavy box feels as good as it looks, though those of conservative tastes might find it a bit Rodeo-Drive garish. If you don't like the blue glow, you can turn it off via a switch on the rear. Mikey liked it.
Under the lid are three distinct compartments: one each for the optional three-tube phono section, the three-tube line stage, and the solid-state power supply, with cabling neatly routed in between. Mounted on the chassis rear to keep signal paths short is a complex switch, meticulously hand-soldered, for selecting among eight sources. On the faceplate is a stepped attenuator switch, also hand-soldered, that is wondrous to behold. The quality of the workmanship on these hand-built parts is gorgeous.