darTZeel NHB-18NS preamplifier Page 3

Shortly before I installed the NHB-18NS, an LP reissue of Clark Terry's Color Changes arrived (Candid/Pure Pleasure). Recorded in 1960, when Terry was a member of The Tonight Show's NBC Big Band, the album includes other NBC bandmates, such as drummer Ed Shaughnessy and pianist Tommy Flanagan, as well as veteran bassist Joe Benjamin, trombonist Jimmy Knepper, and French horn player Julius Watkins. The album, perhaps Terry's best, highlights Yusef Lateef's superb wind, horn, and oboe playing in Terry's harmonically charged, color-saturated arrangements. I played it often.

In fact, Color Changes was the first record I played through the NHB-18NS (still using the Manley Steelhead phono preamp), and the differences wrought by the darTZeel were major. In addition to the aforementioned transparency, I easily heard improvements in harmonic development, image delicacy, three-dimensionality—and, especially, overall coherence, as if everything was arriving on time as never before.

Clearly, Hervé Delétraz seemed to have met his goal of "maximum transparency...along with a subjective sensation of relaxation, and a coherence of rhythm and pacing." And how! The NHB-18NS defined and delineated the difference between serenity and boredom. It always produced the former, never the latter. I understand you're not supposed to feel serene while listening to the band Tool. The NHB-18NS overlaid the music with serenity, which was induced by the absence of unwanted sonic distractions such as those caused by phase shift.

I switched to orchestral music and again heard intoxicating sound that revealed both profound instrumental delicacy and retrieval of low-level instrumental and spatial detail, with back-of-the-stage reflections becoming particularly evident without unnatural spotlighting. Well-recorded massed strings possessed the appropriate delicacy yet clarity of attack I hear live, while brasses had an ideal proportion of burnish and bite. Female voices attained a new level of naturalness and purity that combined the midband warmth of tubes with the transient clarity and cleanness of attack of the best solid-state gear. Norah Jones whistles on one track of her new album, Not Too Late (Classic Records 200gm LP/CD, Blue Note 3 74516 2), superbly recorded on analog tape at 30ips; it sounded real through the NHB-18NS.

Often, delicacy, purity, and freedom from grit and grain can be attained only at the expense of high-frequency extension and resolution.The darTZeel managed to produce grain-free purity and improved extension, resolution, and especially transparency when compared to my reference kWP—or to anything else I've heard. The dual-mono design's soundstaging was appropriately expansive and exceptionally deep.

Did the NHB-18NS wimp out on hard rock? Hardly. Nor did it sugar-coat bright, hard recordings. If anything, it revealed ham-handed equalization and, thanks to its speed and resolution, laid bare pumping compressors and other forms of studio detritus—but somehow, even when the recording news was bad, the end result was pleasurable, especially because the darTZeel didn't add "edge enhancement," nor did it seem to soften transients, even if might have imparted a slight velvety finish to the final picture.

The preamp's bass performance was fully extended, texturally supple, and harmonically well developed, but perhaps lacked the tight-fisted control found with some of the big-box solid-state competition from Krell and Boulder—though it bettered almost all tube preamps I've heard in terms of control, definition, and extension.

The darTZeel's ability to express microdynamics surpassed that of any preamplifier I've heard. Perhaps the only area where the Musical Fidelity kWP beat it was in terms of macrodynamic scaling, where, thanks to the kWP's amplifier-like output capabilities and overbuilt power supply, it may scale somewhat greater heights than the darTZeel.

The changes wrought by the darTZeel in my system were so profound that I had to wonder if it was adding colorations rather than subtracting the processing errors made by my reference. Whichever, I'm not sure it matters. Whatever the darTZeel was doing or not doing, it made recorded music, analog and digital, sound much closer to live, especially texturally and harmonically. It did so with MF's big kW amps driving the Wilson MAXX 2s, the Peak Consult El Diablos, or the Focal Electra 1037s (currently under review). It was equally convincing driving a pair of Ayre Acoustics MX-R monoblocks—and, of course, darTZeel's own NHB-108, via the proprietary 50 ohm link.

The built-in phono stage
After weeks of living with the Manley Steelhead phono preamp patched into the darTZeel, it was time to check out the NHB-18NS's own phono stage. It brought yet another level of transparency, though two stages of darTZeel circuitry in series did bring a slight diminution in macrodynamic scaling.

A case could be made that the NHB-18NS's phono stage slightly softened transients, though I could also make a case for it producing more natural, less edgy transients as well. That a built-in phono preamp could duel to a draw with an outboard one costing more than $7000 is praise enough, though if you like to play around with cartridge loading, the darTZeel phono stage probably won't satisfy you. However, every time I switched back to it from the Steelhead, music sounded more natural and less "reproduced," despite the slight loss of dynamic contrasts (and the Steelhead is not the last word in terms of dynamic contrasts). The darTZeel's phono section deserves more space, but I'm running out of it.

Inserting the NHB-18NS into my already excellent-sounding system was like being in the middle of an otherwise grand tropical vacation and suddenly having all the bugs disappear. However, whether any part of the darTZeel's singular performance strikes you as oh-so-right or just too much will in part be determined by the associated gear, especially if your cables suffer from clogged sonic arteries, or your phono cartridge is ultra-lush. In fact, when I completed the darTZeel chain by listening to phono stage, preamplifier, and power amplifier, I found the combination a bit too lush, romantic, and—especially—dynamically challenged for my tastes. Switching to the Manley Steelhead brought the preamp and amp into better balance, but it has to be said that I'm used to high-current, high-wattage amplification.

No matter how good a piece of gear, it remains one ingredient in a recipe. That said, whether its minimalist circuitry provides purity by subtracting unwanted junk or by adding pleasing colorations, the darTZeel NHB-18NS is among a handful of the finest-sounding pieces of audio gear I have ever heard. Listening through it produced the same serenity I get every time at Avery Fisher Hall, just after the conductor's baton has gone down and the music has begun.

Reviewers can't seem to win. No sooner do I make an issue of actually having bought and owning the major building blocks of my reviewing system than I hear from a manufacturer and importer complaining that, when a reviewer buys his system, he's so "invested" in it that a competing component is less likely to get a fair review. In that manufacturer's opinion, long-term manufacturer loans to reviewers are actually preferable.

That I don't agree should be proven by my conclusion that the darTZeel NHB-18NS smokes the expensive preamp in which I've already invested. But just to keep that faction happy, if Hervé Delétraz wants to give me a long-term, semipermanent loan of the NHB-18NS, I'll take it.

darTZeel Audio
US distributor: Blue Light Audio
2725 SW Sherwood Drive
Portland, OR 97201
(503) 221-0465

Archguy's picture

People love to bash Stereophile for whatever reason they may have, but this article is an example of truly superior professional writing. Entertaining and engaging while remaining incisive and informative.