Audio Research SP14 preamplifier Page 2

The rear panel of the SP14 is neatly laid out with solid, gold-plated jacks. In traditional ARC manner, the right-channel sockets are above the left-channel ones.

With the system settled and the preamps cooking, I went about the task of selecting LPs and CDs to use in my evaluation. As I was to find out soon enough, this was not going to be an easy task. It's not that I didn't have enough source material at hand—I did. What I found happening was that with electronics of this caliber, I often sat mesmerized by what I was hearing. My yellow pad remained void of listening notes as I became lost in the music. I wanted to remove my critical listener's hat and just enjoy the opportunity to hear—really hear—many of my favorite recordings as if for the first time.

Each of the preamps I listened to unlocked nuances in the performances which had heretofore gone unnoticed. The question remaining for me to answer was which of these preamps I felt most comfortable with in terms of my own perceptions of the music they presented. Would the sound quality of, say, the Conrad-Johnson PV9 outweigh its lack of features? Would the Classé DR-6 sound as good as it looked? Would the SP14 carry on the enviable reputation its manufacturer has earned? Which of these preamps would I buy if I was pressed to make a choice?

Answers to these and other questions were slow in coming; I felt myself falling into reviewer's angst. A healthy dose of Zydeco, as performed by Clifton Chenier on his album Bogalusa Boogie (Arhoolie 1076), saved me from the gloom, and I returned to my assignment with renewed enthusiasm.

The first couple of cuts on the Chenier album (a must for anyone interested in good-time music) proved enlightening in this evaluation. The album is not an audiophile release by any stretch of the imagination, yet there are moments when the recorded sound causes one to sit up and take notice. As I listened over and over to the tunes through each of the preamps, I began to notice subtle differences in the way each handled the sound.

Cleveland Chenier playing the rubboard, for instance, was clearly standing in front of the drummer to the right of center when heard through the SP14. The spatial relationship between the two musicians was obvious, and I could perceive a certain amount of "air" around each musician. The Classé DR-6 did not make this spatial separation as obvious; both musicians seemed to occupy the same space. The PV9 maintained the spatial information but failed to resolve the timbral characteristics of the two percussion instruments. It was sometimes difficult to tell which rhythm was carried by the drummer playing the cymbals, and which was provided by the rubboard. The SP14 clearly differentiated the damped, metallic sound of the rubboard from the undamped, metallic sound of the cymbals, making it easy to follow their individual rhythms. The overall sound of the rubboard took on interesting characteristics when heard through each preamp. The Classé gave the instrument a brighter, more "tinny" sound (no derogatory connotation intended). It's as if the sound was radiated directly off the ridges in the corrugated metal, with no sensation of the body of the instrument (which hangs down like a vest over the player's chest).

In contrast, the SP14 gave me the impression of the entire instrument as it was played: the clear, ringing sound of the scraper as it is drawn over the corrugations in the metal, as well as the fuller, less resonant sound of the metal vest itself. The PV9 stood somewhere between the ARC and Classé preamps in its ability to convey this information: more pleasing to my ears than the Classé, yet not as convincing in reproducing the unique timbral nature of the instrument as the SP14. Each of the preamps served this music well; soundstaging and low-level resolution were exemplary on each. The PV9 and Classé injected a stronger bass to the performances, making the SP14 sound, in comparison, subjectively somewhat lightweight. However, as I listened repeatedly to the tunes, I felt most comfortable with the way the SP14 presented the music. It sounded "right" to my ears with each instrument, sharply focused in space on a well-defined soundstage, clearly resolved with its unique timbral qualities. Accordion, harmonica, Clifton's voice, Cleveland's rubboard, John Hart's tenor sax, the guitar, bass, and drums, all sounded "real" to me, reproduced with an ease and naturalness which I have not heard before in my system. Needless to say, there was a lot of foot-tapping and head-bobbing as I listened to the music!

Turning to music of a different culture, I cued up an early album by the Bothy Band (Mulligan LUN 007). The second song on side 1, "Fionnghuala," features a goosebump-inducing acappella vocal ensemble. The treatment of the male vocals through each of the preamps was as I had expected based on previous listening: the Classé endowed the voices with a somewhat lean character; the chestiness which usually accompanies the male voice seemed attenuated; individual vocal nuances of each singer were not as well identified with the Classé as they were on either the PV9 or SP14; overall, a more homogeneous sound—good, but lacking that last degree of finesse and believability. The PV9 excelled on this cut, giving me a very "lively" performance with perhaps the widest soundstage of the three. Subtle dynamic changes were perceived clearly; this quality, coupled with an excellent rhythmic flow, caused me to become actively involved with the performance. If the PV9 had communicated more of the chestiness of the voices, it would have been a dead heat between it and the SP14. It didn't, though, and I once again preferred the sound of the ARC product. Each voice through the SP14 had that unique quality which made it clear that a group of men was singing, spatially separated.

The third song on the side features an instrumental ensemble in a lively tune called "The Kid On The Mountain." (The flute playing of Matt Molloy is exceptional, as usual.) On this cut, the flute's sound was captured differently by each preamp. The Classé gave an overall lighter sound to the instrument, with a noticeable lack of air. The performance lacked rhythm, and subtle dynamic changes were hard to perceive. The PV9 corrected most of these failings, yet did not capture my fancy as strongly as did the SP14. The air around the flute was palpable through the SP14. I could sense the column of air vibrating through the instrument as it was played, as well as the ambient space around the performer. This cut was particularly ear-opening, as it helped me formulate my initial impressions of each of these preamps.

Audio Research Corporation
3900 Annapolis Lane N.
Plymouth, MN 55447-5447
(763) 577-9700