Listening #91

At our best, audiophiles are the selfless and generous custodians of a thousand small libraries, keeping alive not only music's greatest recorded moments but the art of listening itself. At our worst, we are self-absorbed, superannuated rich kids, locked in an endless turd-hurl over who has the best toys.

Sanctimonious though it sounds, I prefer things that, by whatever method, allow me the luxury of the former, sunnier view of myself. The newest product from Fi is one of those.


It is also, as far as I can tell, the first Fi to come with an instruction sheet. "You do have to know which tube goes in which socket," says designer and builder Don Garber, "and you've got to know what the switches are for." He apologizes for the scant labeling on the metalwork: the result of a change in suppliers, itself occasioned by the steady erosion of manufacturing jobs in Garber's beloved Brooklyn. "The company that made silk screens for me went belly up a little over a year ago," he tells me. "I thought I'd found a new one, and I had them do the screen for the back panel, which came out well. Then they folded."

The real subject of our conversation is the Fi 2b, Garber's long-awaited successor to the simply-named Fi Preamplifier, a wildly loved and widely sought product. (I've turned down more than one generous offer for my own original.) In the 14 years since the Fi Preamplifier hit the bespoke audio scene of the 1990s, Garber experimented with various changes, some of which—onboard moving-coil transformers and an all-tube power supply among them—made it into various prototypes. But the 2b is the Fi Preamplifier's first commercially available replacement (footnote 1).

The earlier pre was based on an original circuit by the late Nobu Shishido, in which all voltage gain was provided by four 6DJ8 dual-triode tubes. In each channel's moving-magnet phono stage, the two halves of a single 6DJ8 were arranged plate-to-grid, followed by a passive RIAA network. The line-stage tubes were configured in series-regulated, push-pull (SRPP) fashion, to keep the output impedance as low as possible. The Preamplifier's dual-mono outboard power supply used tubes to regulate the rail voltage—after rectification by a pair of solid-state diodes—and provided a trim pot for maintaining a steady, highish rail. (Three houses and 14 years later, I've virtually never had to adjust mine at all.)

Yet the soul of the Fi Preamplifier was in its construction—or, more specifically, in its circuit layout, which some colleagues describe as one of Garber's greatest talents. (Among the nicest-sounding amplifiers to come from Wavelength Audio's Gordon Rankin was the Baby Ongaku 2A3 monoblock he created for Issue 9 of Sound Practices magazine in 1995; when it came time to lay out the circuit, SP contributor Frank Reps turned to Don Garber.)

Just as important, the Fi Preamplifier defied convention by looking unlike anything else on the market. Both the preamp and its outboard power supply measured a little less than 9" square, viewed from above, and instead of stuffing the parts into a metal box of the usual sort, Garber mounted everything on a series of rigid aluminum tiers, for optimal wire paths (the Fi was a star-ground design) and good looks.

As Garber describes it, the brand-new Fi 2b—priced at $8200 for the full line-plus-MC-phono version that I have in hand—starts where the original left off, then goes in a slightly different direction.

The 2b's gain stages are similar to those of the original Fi Preamplifier, although the new model comes with Electro-Harmonix 6922 dual triodes: functional twins of the 6DJ8. "Exotic NOS tubes? I've just never gone there," Garber says. But the new preamp marks the first time he's used certain other premium parts, in places where he's convinced they make a difference in the sound. Among the more expensive bits are Vishay nude resistors—"They come as close to disappearing as anything," Garber says—and the Teflon and tin-foil V-Caps, from VH Audio. I was surprised to hear of the latter, given Garber's long-standing skepticism about the audible differences among designer capacitors, not to mention his famous dislike of tedious phone conversations about same. But his enthusiasm for V-Caps is real: "They're made by a guy called Chris VenHaus," he says, "and I think it's all straightforward and honest, the way Chris describes his cap-making process."

Don Garber also remained keen to have a pair of onboard step-up transformers for MC phono gain, so he spent a considerable amount of time over the past few years just listening to all the commercial units available. He chose the split-primary HM-3 from Hashimoto Electric of Japan, implemented in the Fi 2b with switch-selectable inputs for low impedance (40x gain) and high impedance (20x gain). As a bonus, the Hashimoto cans are finished in a gorgeous shade of hammertone green that looks more vintage than vintage.

Footnote 1: Fi, 30 Veranda Place, Brooklyn, NY 11201. Tel: (718) 625-7353. Fax: (718) 875-3972. E-mail:


mike13's picture

Nice article on Garber's 2b pre=amp. I too received my Evolution pre amp with Don's very nice, hand
written script on the imput board. Another sign of our post industrial decline or just good caligraphy? I'm sure this deviation (hand written or silk screened) will be much debated (to warm and a peaky mid bass; yak, yak, yak!) on various site's for year's to come! Ha Ha. Anyway, thanks for the year's of good column's. Alway's a good read.

Mike P.