Audio Research SP9 preamplifier Guy Lemcoe 12/90 part 4

The SP9 Mk.II moved the harpsichord forward on the stage and attenuated the sound of the hall. This difference did not bother me, as both perspectives are equally credible. What did bother me, though, was the lack of weight and warmth in the midrange. The delicate inner voicings which lend such important character to the music seemed obscured by the cling and clang of the other registers. The spectral balance seemed skewed toward the upper mids and highs. The sound left me cold and uninvolved. The instrument had lost its voice.

To confirm my impressions I ran the CD through a passive interface manufactured by Reference Line. The resulting glorious sound reminded me of the Counterpoint.

I was becoming dismayed. Did it take a recording of a solo harpsichord to expose a character of the SP9 Mk.II not to my liking? Was the SA-3000 a better preamp for sounding more like the Reference Line passive interface or the SP14? I didn't know yet, but was becoming somewhat apprehensive. Returning to the Astrée sampler (sorry to report it's out of print), I cued up track 8, a splendid recording of Nicolas De Grigny's ethereal organ music performed by Michel Chapuis. As the glorious sound of the organ filled the listening space, I sat spellbound, not believing that an organ recording could sound so good in my modestly scaled room. The boundaries of the room seemed to disappear as the sound enveloped everything. The low pedals, which usually give my Acoustats a fit, sounded as controlled as I have ever heard them. The lowest fundamentals might have been missing, but what was there seemed capable of separating the carpet from its padding! I was impressed and played the selection through three times in succession. It was with some trepidation that I disconnected the leads from the SA-3000 and connected them to the SP9 Mk.II. I didn't want to come down from my high.

Well, the descent was relatively painless, even though I missed the low-bass energy on the Audio Research and it wasn't as well-controlled. I also missed the spaciousness of the church venue in which the recording took place. After this listening session I was beginning to form definite impressions about these components. You'll have to wait for that, though, because there's one other CD I want to mention in my report.

Pedro Bacan: Alurican (Le Chant Du Monde LDX 274906). Buy this CD! If you love music with passion and fire, flamenco guitar-playing of the highest order, and a recording guaranteed to show off your system, rush down to your local CD emporium and insist they order it if not in stock. It's a treasure. (Incidentally, it was recorded by Jean-François Pontefract, of Harmonia Mundi fame.) All of the elements of stirring flamenco music are present on this disc: the guitar (which sounds as if about to be shredded in Pedro Bacan's hands), the voices, the footstomps and handclaps. Obviously recorded in a spacious acoustic setting, the palpability of the hall and the performers in it is breathtaking. The Counterpoint again recovered more of the venue's ambience than did the Audio Research. Listen to the voices and shouts of the other performers as they join in on the music-making. Their voices and handclaps should be heard bouncing off the walls and around the room. The footstomps should appear to go deep into the stage.

About five minutes into "Yerbabuena" the guitarist plays alone for a few minutes, accompanied only by an enthusiastic clapper. The silences between the notes are uncanny, as is the sense of presence. You can "feel" the volume of the recording site at this point, and easily visualize the performers sitting and standing on the stage. I hate to sound like a broken record, but the SP9 Mk.II compressed the sound and pushed it forward a bit. The recording site did not seem as spacious, and the mix of direct and reflected sound favored the former. The characteristic sound of the flamenco guitar was beautifully captured on both preamps, the metallic twang of the treble strings vibrating wildly against the fingerboard being particularly exciting. I could go on and on describing this and other recordings, but by now I'm sure you'd rather I articulate my conclusions.

The Mk.II version of the SP9 alleviated many of the problems that had bothered J. Gordon Holt and John Atkinson in their 1987 report. During the course of my listening I was never aware of a hardness to the sound; in fact, I heard just the opposite—an overall softness which tended to inhibit the sense of transparency, that see-through quality, which the best components, the SP14, for example, possess. Likewise, the sound of the SP9 Mk.II did not seem rough in any way. If anything, it tended to mollify the rough edges of the music in a way which made extended listening pleasurable, if not particularly involving. However, I did sense a lack of weight or fullness in the sound, an absence of balance between the lows and highs.

I also felt the SP9 Mk.II compressed the spatial aspects of the recording to a greater degree than either the Counterpoint SA-3000 or Audio Research SP14. In my system and with an LP source, the champion in this regard is the Vendetta Research SCP-2B. It's followed closely by the SP14, the SA-3000, and then by the SP9 Mk.II. Keep in mind the Vendetta costs more than either the SA-3000 or the SP9 Mk.II and is only a phono-preamp. However, it now serves as my reference for LP reproduction, running into a Model 2000 Reference Line interface. I've given up flexibility for sound quality.

Throughout the course of this review the preamp performed flawlessly, with no annoying system-threatening ticks, pops, or thunks as selector knobs were turned or mute switches engaged. Controls operated smoothly at all times and showed no sign of loosening, even with the repeated usage I subjected them to. On this, the SP9 receives my seal of approval. I also had no problem with its dynamic capabilities. My Acoustats are no B&W 801s, and have a relatively limited dynamic range, but the SP9 managed to raise goosebumps on the skin and hair on the back of my neck when pushed to the limit, which I did on occasion via some 45rpm dance singles (CD lovers, eat your hearts out!).

I'm hard pressed to give an unqualified recommendation to the SP9 Mk.II. The SP9 Mk.II did not seem as well served with my system configuration. I trust my front-end sources, though, and suggest that, downstream of the SP9 preamp, speakers should have a propensity toward extension and control in the bass. In particular, a speaker with a strong midrange presentation could bring the music to life. In my system, however, the SP9 just failed to come alive on most material. It was upstaged by both its more expensive sibling and by the Counterpoint SA-3000. I suggest saving your money and buying the SP14 when you can afford it (a world-class product in all respects—this one has the "magic").

Comparing these preamps and deciding which is better is like taste-testing two apples, a Granny Smith and a Golden Delicious, to determine which you would stock up on. Both apples give nourishment and pleasure, yet your gut reaction will sway you toward one or the other. Will you prefer the tart, bittersweet Granny Smith or the overwhelming saccharinity of the Golden Delicious? If your tastebuds tell you to buy a basket of the latter, you'll probably be happier with the SP9 Mk.II. Audio Research's SP14 is definitely a Red Delicious (which happens to be my favorite apple).

Good-sounding preamps for under two grand? I would place the Audio Research SP9 Mk.II close to the top in Class C (maybe Class B in another system).—Guy Lemcoe