Audio Research SP9 preamplifier Guy Lemcoe 12/90 part 2

As I listened further, however, I sensed a lack of the preamp's ability to render the "air" between and around the performers. As a result, their placement within the soundstage was less three-dimensional, with a compression of space similar to the effect one gets looking at a photo taken with a telephoto lens. It was only when I inserted the SP14 into the system and began comparing its sound to the SP9 Mk.II that I started to realize the differences a kilobuck or so makes in performance.

For example, on "Climbing," from avant-garde Minnesota guitarist Steve Tibbets' Safe Journey album (ECM 1270), the soundstage can sound awesome. Width and depth can extend well beyond conventional limits, noticeably stretching the boundaries of my listening room. A wide variety of instruments is scattered throughout. The SP9 Mk.II did a credible job of recreating the atmosphere of the recording venue, placing the instruments believably upon the stage. Heard alone, the sound was pleasing and exciting. When compared with the SP14, however, it was obvious the sound was compromised. On the more expensive preamp, a veil had been lifted which made the performance compelling.

On Tibbets' "Running," the rendering of the sound of the studio is obvious, presenting no problems for either of the preamps. What struck me was the differences in the way the children's voices were captured by each. The decay and echo of those voices was faster on the SP9 Mk.II and seemed to occur in the same plane. The SP14 extended the decay time and separated the echo from its source. The percussion instruments seemed closer to me on the SP9 Mk.II, as if they had been pushed out of the soundstage. The timbre of those instruments was well preserved, but the spotlighting effect of the preamp lent a "hi-fi" character to the sound. On "Climbing," I heard less control in the bass on the SP9 Mk.II than the SP14. The tabla, for instance, sounded too hollow, and the effect of the palm striking the taut head of the drum was not as pronounced.

On "The Wedding" from Phil Cunningham's The Palomino Waltz (Green Linnet SIF 1102), a slow Scots air that raises a lump in my throat each time I hear it, the SP9 Mk.II had a lighter sound than the SP14. The SP9 Mk.II's handling of the synthesizer's middle register was a bit of a disappointment. Inner voices seemed to be obscured, outweighed by the bass and treble (I kept wanting to turn up the volume to compensate). There was less separation between the tin whistle and keyboard on the SP9 Mk.II, which lessened the plaintive feeling I got when listening through the SP14. The nature of the sound of the whistle was also different on each preamp. The sound of air being pushed through the pipe was more noticeable on the SP14, as was its plangent character. The whistle on the SP14 had soul—on the SP9 Mk.II, it had some more living to do.

The sound of the cymbals on John Hiatt's "Bring Back Your Love To Me" from his recent Stolen Moments LP (A&M 75021 53101) are indicative of the differences between the two preamps. They sounded brighter, with less metal content, on the SP9 Mk.II. If the sound was a color, it would be white. The SP14 rendered the cymbals with more body and less lightness. Their color would be gray. Hiatt's voice was huskier and more mature-sounding on the SP14. The backing voices were also better-delineated spatially. On the SP9 Mk.II the singers seemed to be competing more for prominence in the mix.

The personalities of each of the Audio Research preamps became clearer to me as I continued my listening comparisons. I put my LPs away and turned to Enya's Watermark (Geffen 9 24233-2) to get a taste of the line-section performance. Again, the SP9 Mk.II was not quite a match for the SP14. The midrange was somewhat recessed compared to the bass and highs. The low-bass notes on the title tune were more ill-defined and woolly-sounding (my Acoustats never protested). The soundstage seemed less expansive, with a noticeable sense of attenuation of the cushion of air on which the instruments and voices float. The SP9 Mk.II, unlike the SP14 (which bathed the room in sound), kept me at a distance, as if a barrier had been erected between me and the music. My involvement in what was happening was lessened.

An Astrée CD (E 8706) of music for the vihuela, performed by Hopkinson Smith, proved enjoyable on each product. Both the SP9 Mk.II and its big brother captured the sound of the vihuela well, especially the sound of the leading edge of the plucked strings. The intimacy of the performance was conveyed, and the resolution of fine details was outstanding. Image specificity was excellent, with just a tad more ambience present on the SP14. So convincing and palpable was the presentation, I felt like offering Hopkinson Smith a glass of wine at the conclusion of his recital.

Having the opportunity to listen to the SP9 Mk.II alone and in conjunction with the SP14 left me with mixed feelings. It shared many positive characteristics with the more expensive product—musicality, timbral accuracy, an ability to convey the dynamics of music, and an unfatiguing presence. The SP9 is undoubtedly a good preamplifier; it just lacks the SP14's "magic."

One of my favorite Keith Jarrett trio LPs is Still Live, taped live in 1986 at Philharmonic Hall in Munich (ECM 1360/61). It's a wonderful document of the trio stretching out on a handful of standards. The digital recording captures the ambience of the hall, the enthusiastic response of the audience and the performers on stage, as well as any I have heard. It is the next best thing to being there. The miking is close-up, with every nuance of the performance revealed (including Keith's vocalizing). When heard through a system with good soundstage presentation, one gets a realistic impression of the volume of the hall, the width and depth of the stage, and the location of the performers on it.