Solid State Preamp Reviews

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Rogier van Bakel  |  Jun 28, 2024  |  62 comments
A few summers ago, I briefly got it in my head that I could become a wine connoisseur. This was due to a very generous and unexpected gift. A local acquaintance had passed away, and his wife wanted to rid her basement of his small wine collection.

I don't know why I was chosen as the lucky recipient, but after stammering half a dozen thank-yous, I suddenly owned about 150 fine wines. A few carried four-figure price tags.

Reliably telling a Pinot Grigio from a Chardonnay isn't part of my skill set. Grape varieties, terroir, vintages? You might as well ask a toddler to become conversant in quantum mechanics. Still, I was intrigued by the bottles and amused by the ridiculousness of the situation. Me, an oenophile? I supposed I could pretend, and I did.

After opening and drinking, with my wife, a 1988 Château Léoville Barton, I wrote an over-the-top review and emailed it to a wine-loving friend for his amusement. "I beheld Hawthorn berries and beef stock along with a suggestion of blonde tobacco. Other than the obvious green walnut, there was a top note of wet Baja beach at dawn, mixing subtly with minke-whale flatulence and a hint of two-day-old scallop innards. Finally, with subsequent sips, I detected the aroma of the well-worn merkin of a Honduran sex worker. All in all, not a bad wine."

Eat your heart out, Robert Parker!

Alex Halberstadt  |  Mar 28, 2024  |  8 comments
Ever notice that the language we use to talk about sound can be pretty aggressive? Reviewers often write about amplifiers "taking control" of a speaker, possibly "ironfisted control," especially if the amplifier in question happens to be a "juggernaut." In this particular linguistic trash fire, we also find "razor-sharp transients," "hair-raising dynamics," and that ickiest of descriptors, "bass slam." If words could smell like hair gel and drugstore cologne, these might.

All this verbiage is describing brute force, which we might use to push open a heavy door. But there's another kind of force that we encounter in the world, and consequently in audio, captured in the expression "life force." It denotes a sense of vitality and presence that isn't readily perceived by the senses—something lingering just out of reach of our rational minds. This force can be experienced in the terse saxophone solos of the young Sonny Rollins, the eerie abstract paintings of Mark Rothko and Pat Steir, and the deceptively quiet poems of Elizabeth Bishop. If you've ever been drawn in by one of the squat, gouged, lopsided jars made by a traditional Japanese potter, you know what I'm talking about.

Herb Reichert  |  Jan 26, 2024  |  32 comments
I can roll out of bed and install a $10,000 phono cartridge while finishing my coffee, but I postpone DAC installations until I am in the exact right mood to handle the potential stress—especially DACs with a touch screen and a complex menu. To my delight, Ferrum Audio's new Wandla digital converter was completely stress-free to install. It took only minutes to connect the USB-C cable, the Cardas Audio Clear Beyond interconnects, and 24V DC power adapter.

Connecting the power adapter caused a power-switch symbol to appear on the front panel touch screen. The moment I touched it, I smiled like the Cheshire Cat, because I saw a USB-C symbol, a loudspeaker symbol, three dots in a box, and a volume control bargraph. That told me the Wandla recognized my chosen input and was waiting for a signal. All that remained was for my Roon Nucleus+ server to recognize and enable the new DAC, which it did without prodding or reprimand. For me, that was a wow moment, a good start to what promised to be an interesting review.

Martin Colloms  |  Dec 14, 2023  |  1 comments
Naim has comprehensively reimagined its Classic Series, which has been around for some 20 years with improvements along the way. Included in the new range of products is the 200 series, comprised of two products: the NAP 250 power amplifier, which I reviewed in the November 2023 issue of Stereophile, and the NSC 222 streaming preamplifier ($8999), which is reviewed here. A third component in the New Classic series, the NPX 300 power supply (also $8999), which is intended to be paired with the NSC 222 and other Naim components, is also considered in this review.
Sasha Matson  |  Oct 20, 2023  |  17 comments
As I was talking with an audio-retailer friend recently, he reached for a Rolls-Royce metaphor to describe the McIntosh brand. Expensive? Sure, but not as expensive as some boutique high-end products. Fast? Sure, but there are faster things—also bigger things, smaller things, wackier things, and cheaper things.

But when you look at a Rolls or a Bentley, you immediately recognize it for what it is, and you want to sit down in it. And so it is with McIntosh, except you don't want to sit down in it; you want to sit down in front of it, between the speakers of the hi-fi system it occupies.

The C12000 is McIntosh's current flagship preamplifier. It's part of McIntosh's Hybrid Drive series of products that combine tubes and transistors in interesting ways.

Tom Fine  |  Sep 01, 2023  |  9 comments
The concept of streaming digital music files over distances great (as with internet-streaming services like Spotify, Qobuz, Tidal, etc.) and small (from a home-PC hard drive, NAS, or networked music server) became mainstream only recently. But it was already brewing during the late 20th century, with people illegally downloading low-bitrate MP3 files made from CD rips and coming close to killing the recorded-music industry.

That wasn't streaming exactly, or not in the current sense, because the files needed to be downloaded, stored locally, then either played out of a computer or loaded onto a portable player, but from that point forward it was a steady march to the streaming-dominated present.

Never mind Napster—the first subscription audio "streaming" service was one you probably wouldn't think of: Audible, the audio book service now owned by Amazon, which started up in 1995. I did beta testing and editing work for early-days Audible, and around that time, I started loading up home-ripped MP3 files on a pocket-sized Rio MP3 player (which by then had replaced Audible's proprietary player), using it in place of a portable CD player. This led to experiments with a PC music library/player running Linux, controlled by a Handspring PalmOS device connected to the stereo system via a Sound Blaster 16 card.

Sasha Matson  |  Mar 31, 2023  |  1 comments
Hygge might not be the first word that comes to mind when contemplating the Primare PRE35 Prisma preamplifier, but in Limhamn, Sweden, that is how Primare likes to describe their products. It means "cozy," and it's a very important concept in the Nordic countries, almost a way of life. Another term that appears in Primare's product descriptions is lagom, which loosely translates as "not too little, not too much—just right."
John Atkinson  |  Sep 28, 2022  |  9 comments
My late father-in-law used to say that life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer you get to the end, the quicker it passes. I was reminded of that when I was asked to review Bel Canto's new e1X DAC/Control Preamplifier ($6800). It didn't seem that long ago that I favorably reviewed the Minnesota company's e.One DAC3, but Google told me that it was 15 years ago! "Other than the jitter performance via its USB input, the Bel Canto e.One DAC3 is the best-measuring digital component I have encountered," I wrote in November 2007 (footnote 1), adding that it "offers some impressive audio engineering in both the digital and analog domains."
John Atkinson  |  Jun 20, 2022  |  0 comments
Three high-performance products were subjected to second opinions and/or measurements in recent issues: Channel D's Lino C 3.3 phono preamplifier, Mola Mola's Tambaqui D/A processor, and Pass Labs' XP-32 line preamplifier.
Michael Fremer  |  Jun 17, 2022  |  108 comments
Are well-heeled audiophiles ready for a knob-free future? Gryphon Audio Designs thinks so. In contrast to Gryphon's volume knob–dominated Pandora preamplifier, the Danish company's new Commander offers nothing on its bold front panel to grab or turn.

Instead, there's a large, extra-thick, triangular glass protuberance that extends dramatically below the chassis's vertical dimension. That's where you'll find an "on/off" button, the main unit's only physical switch.

Herb Reichert  |  Jun 02, 2022  |  20 comments
I have this friend, a smart, good-looking young physicist from Argentina. Naturally, I call him "Gaucho." He lives in a glistening-white steel-and-glass apartment overlooking lower Manhattan. I visit him regularly, usually with a group of audio friends, mainly to compare recordings, drink wine, and talk hi-fi.
Jason Victor Serinus  |  Apr 29, 2022  |  18 comments
Ah, domesticity. Just when I had the reference system sounding better than ever, the husband decided to relocate his electric keyboard and music stand, which had been positioned along the right wall of the detached music room, to the dining room in the main house. His reason was rational: While I did the reviewer thing in one space, he'd be free to practice keyboard and sing in another. But what was rational to him screwed with my reference sound and drove me to the brink of irrationality.
John Atkinson  |  Mar 23, 2022  |  10 comments
I start this review with a confession. I have consistently found that when I play CDs on a transport and feed the digital data via AES3 (AES/EBU) to a D/A processor, the music has more drive, particularly at low frequencies, than it does when I send the same 16/44.1 data to the same D/A processor via my network.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Jan 28, 2022  |  62 comments
There has not been a conventional preamplifier in my main audio system for quite a while, because no multichannel preamp is available that's of high enough quality. Instead, I use the high-precision digital volume controls in my players and DACs and choose sources with a relay-based multichannel analog switch. Plus, I tell myself that no preamp can be more accurate and transparent than no preamp.
John Atkinson  |  Jan 03, 2022  |  0 comments
The January and February 2022 issues of Stereophile feature followup reviews of three products: the darTZeel NHB-18NS Mk.2 preamplifier; the Sutherland Little Loco Mk.2 phono preamplifier; and the Mola Mola Tambaqui D/A processor.