Audio Research SP14 preamplifier Page 3

The Classé did not sound like the solid-state product it is. Quite the contrary, it sounded more "tubey" than the C-J PV9: a dark sound with a light footprint. The PV9 impressed me with its truthfulness. It was not shy in presenting the music (sounding more solid-state than I would have imagined), yet maintained the magic heard through the best tube products. The SP14 transformed my expectations as to what can be achieved in sound reproduction at this price level. It did everything well, combining the positive aspects of the Classé and C-J into one musically involving component. At the same time, it added an element of its own, which I can only describe as a naturalness in the rendering of the often diverse elements making up a performance. Be it vocal or instrumental, popular or classical, each musical selection heard through the SP14 caused (in some instances forced) me to put down my pencil and yellow pad to listen. It was that involving.

Again changing musical gears, I slipped a Columbia recording of Charles Ives's String Quartet No.1, performed by the Juilliard Quartet (MS 7027), onto the turntable. With the SP14 in the chain, I was immediately immersed in some of the finest, warmest sound I have ever experienced from this record label. Perhaps this recording is an exception, but I usually have had to adjust my ears to the often strident, acoustically dead sound of Columbia Masterworks. The sound I heard here was different, though. The quartet literally "breathed," with outstanding instrumental timbres captured in a fairly "roomy" acoustic setting. Especially enjoyable was the sound of Claus Adam's cello. It maintained the woody quality I have come to associate with this instrument, while providing me with ample clues as to its resonating character. The sound was round and full, and I clearly perceived the "rosin on the bow."

It's enlightening to me that, as my system improves, I am able to enjoy recordings I had previously given up as hopeless. Even in the grooves of these old recordings there is beauty which can be retrieved, converted into musical signals, and enjoyed. Such is the case here, much to the credit of ARC. The performance conveyed the emotion released through the music in a fine manner, at one point reducing me almost to tears. The beginnings and ends of the notes were not confused, and the important rhythmic flow was not interrupted. Compared with the sound with the Classé in the system, it was as if several veils had been lifted, enabling me to easily approach the music. The Classé coated the music with a syrupy texture, the cause of which I hesitate to guess. Perhaps it has to do with the DR-6's timing. All I know is I felt uncomfortable with what I heard. The sound reminded me of what I remember this recording to be before system improvements. An anomaly? Perhaps. Or is this indicative of something more significant?

The PV9 again acquitted itself splendidly in presenting the music on this recording. The soundstaging was excellent, with good depth and width. I could visualize the four performers sitting in a semicircle just in front of my speakers, violins on the left, viola and cello on the right. The body of the cello had the correct resonating character, and it was easy to hear the attack of the bow on the strings. Each instrument had its unique sound, with the correct timbre. Yet, as I listened to the entire piece, I fell back on the sound of the SP14. It was not as seductive as the PV9, but offered that hard-to-define sense of "naturalness" which escaped my perception while listening to the other two units. I just could not imagine anything sounding better in the way of music reproduction. I threw everything I had in the way of vinyl at the SP14—45s, mono LPs, stereo LPs, dance singles, pseudo-stereo LPs, audiophile and non-audiophile recordings. In each instance, I sat spellbound by what I heard, not wanting to get up to do anything else. Quite satisfied with the performance of the SP14's phono section, I put my records aside and reached for my favorite CDs to listen to its line stage.

The first CD to be inserted in the CAL player was the Astrée Sampler (E 7699), a disc I urge every reader with a CD player to purchase. The music is varied, the sound is, almost without exception, marvelous, and it has served me well as a reference disc. The most striking thing I noticed when I began comparing the line stages of the three preamps was that, with the Classé and C-J, the sound quality was the opposite of what I had heard through their phono stages. In other words, the line stage of the Classé approaches the best, overshadowing the limitations I had perceived through its phono stage. Similarly, the line stage of the C-J fell somewhat short of its exceptional phono stage. The SP14, however, did not disappoint me. The sound quality of its line stage was equal to that heard through its phono stage. In short, excellent! Here, at last, was a component which could hold its own with any of the competition, not needing help from any outboard devices. Track after track on the Astrée CD revealed a musical experience which I had only read about before.

Now this experience was being communicated to me and my listening companions in my own room. From the delicate filigrees in John Dowland's lute Fantasie to the subterranean organ stops in the De Grigny, the SP14 uncovered nuance after nuance in the web of the music. The buzzing tonality of Blandine Verlet's harpsichord in the Couperin stood in stark contrast to the growling bass viol of Jordi Savall in the Tobias Hume, exquisitely captured with every detail intact. I never felt uneasy with what I heard. I could finally listen through the electronics to the music itself. Thoughts of bass extension, treble roll-off, midrange warmth, direct/indirect sound, etc., did not even enter my mind. Audiophile jargon seemed out of place now, being replaced by discourse related to the music. I related to the music in terms borrowed from the arts instead of from electronics. I was able to breathe a sigh of relief, releasing the pent-up anxiety one stores inside when allowed to relax in the presence of the real thing. The feeling was delicious!

A CD I turn to often for purely musical enjoyment is the recording of Ariel Ramirez's Misa Criolla, featuring the tenor, José Carreras (Philips 420 955-2). The musical forces include a large mixed choir along with an ensemble of South American flutes, pan pipes, guitars (charangos), and percussion. The soloist is centered on the stage with the choir spread out behind him. Further back and to the left side of the stage are the large drums and other percussion instruments. The sense of space captured on this recording is outstanding; the drums, in particular, seem placed against the back wall of the church, many feet behind the choir. The sound of those drums reverberating off the side and rear walls is spectacular. The PV9 was the champion in soundstage presentation on this disc. The sense of spaciousness it conveyed was unmatched by either the SP14 or the DR-6. In fact, if it were not for the slight accentuation of the sibilants of Carreras's voice and an overly obvious rendering of breath intakes among choir members, I would say that the C-J, on this disc, was the leader of the pack.

And yet, there it was: a slight coloration, a tilt in the response curve perhaps, which over a period of time I perceived as an etched quality. Despite this, it was obvious that there was a body attached to the solo voice. The character of that voice seemed just about perfect, with the right combination of chest and throat. In contrast, the Classé seemed to thin out everything on this recording, including the body supporting Carreras's voice. The choir behind the soloist seemed disembodied, merely voices emanating from a point behind him. The SP14 gave the soloist's body back as well as the choirs. Individuals with their feet on the ground (or risers) once again accompanied Carreras. The SP14 warmed up the sound a bit compared to the PV9, yet I never felt I was missing any information or detail as a result. I only heard a less colored rendering of the music.

At this point in my listening session I decided to retire the Classé DR-6 preamp and concentrate on the differences I was hearing between the SP14 and the PV9. These two units seemed to share a similar quality which the DR-6 lacked—magic. Whether you prefer the type of magic served up by the PV9 or the slightly different magic offered by the SP14, I feel it important to spell out the differences as I heard them in my system.

Jennifer Warnes has a magnificent voice, showcased on the CD Famous Blue Raincoat (Cypress YD 0100/DX 3182). I was only able to get the A&M reissue of the original, so please bear with me. (I've heard the original, and agree that it is significantly better. If any of our readers know where I might find a copy, please let me know.) The title tune begins with a tenor sax and bass duet which the PV9 gets absolutely right. The sax sounds as real as any I've ever heard, and the string bass has the heft and body I associate with the instrument. It's a marvelous introduction to a song which will grow on you with repeated hearings. The mystery (magic?) wears off, though, when Jennifer comes in on the vocal. Her voice has a slight edge which I do not hear on the SP14. As a result, she seems too forward in the soundstage, as if she is about to embrace you. Not that this would be an unpleasant thing, but I prefer the more seductive sound of Ms. Warnes sans the edge (I like to use my imagination).

Alas, with the attenuation of the edge on the voice, the SP14 loses something in the rendering of the sax and string bass. They just don't seem as real. In the next track, the edginess on both Leonard Cohen's and Jennifer's vocals becomes downright irritating on the PV9, much less so on the SP14. Listening to this cut, I felt as if I'd uncovered a dilemma in my own perception of what I hear. On the one hand, I liked what I heard through the C-J—up to a certain point. Beyond that point, I preferred the sound of the ARC. The dilemma is that the point is never constant, varying from recording to recording. So I must make a compromise in my expectations and in my recommendations.

As far as value goes, I have to say the ARC SP14 represents the better investment. It has most, if not all, of the features the audiophile will want. It has control flexibility which the C-J PV9 doesn't even approach. It's as well made as any component I've had the pleasure to review, and is backed by a company whose reputation for good sound and quality products is legendary. In my opinion, the sound of the SP14, via line or phono, will set new standards for the industry. I can see other companies using the SP14 as a benchmark by which to judge their own products—it's that good. It is user-friendly and attractively styled, injecting its unique form of magic into the reproduction of music to a degree I've rarely experienced before. I feel it should be included in Class A of "Recommended Components." It is a very special product.

But so is the C-J PV9. In its own way, the PV9 also adds an element of magic to our enjoyment of a musical event. Its soundstaging is beyond reproach; its ability to retrieve the finest detail in complex passages is uncanny. It is made to reproduce saxophone, string bass, male and female voice. It is convincing in its ability to portray the weight and presence of a large ensemble. Yet, to me, it doesn't represent a particularly good investment. Its lack of a mono mode switch alone eliminates it from my want list. I need control flexibility and provision for optimizing cartridge loading. Not all cartridges sound best loaded to 47k ohms (though my AudioQuest didn't seem to mind). It is a minimalist design with minimal features. If you don't need or want the control offered by the SP14, this could be the preamp of your dreams. Soundwise, keeping in mind my uneasiness with the line stage, it takes a back seat to no other product within its price range. I agree with its placement in Class B.

What started out as a single product review has turned into an unqualified recommendation for one product, a qualified one for another. When I was given the SP14 for review, I thought my task would be easier, with a clear-cut winner. I was mistaken, and perhaps a bit naïve, to so assume—it's never as easy as it seems. However, if my examination of either of these products has stimulated your interest, I urge you to try each out in your own home in your system. Insist on this when talking to your dealer. Only then will you come under the spell of the magic cast upon the listener by these products. And only then will you know whether you like your music with (C-J) or almost without (ARC) tubes.

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