Exposure XVII preamplifier Page 2

Stereophile's policy in such matters is that poor sound quality is not a reason to believe a product isn't performing as intended. Moreover, we don't notify the manufacturer when we find sonic flaws with a product; the review proceeds, and the manufacturer is apprised of the reviewer's opinion only after the review is completed, in time for a "Manufacturer's Comment" to appear in the same issue.

It's also our policy to give the manufacturer the benefit of the doubt when a product is claimed to be defective or damaged [provided there does appear to be supporting evidence. If the manufacturer claims his product is defective, but measurements indicate that everything appears to be working fine, the review stands.—Ed.]. Consequently, the XVII review was held until Exposure could send a second review sample. A closer examination of the first sample revealed a bent chassis near the power transformer, indicating that the unit probably had been dropped. The first sample also later developed an intermittently working left channel, further indicating damage.

CD listening
I started over with a replacement unit. One listen to the second sample revealed that the first sample was indeed defective. There was no trace of hum in the second sample; in fact, the XVII was extremely quiet. More important, the second sample's sonic signature was nothing like I heard from the first unit. My initial unfavorable reaction to the XVII's sound was replaced by surprise at the XVII's musicality.

Starting with the line stage, the XVII had a musical coherence that was exceptional by any standard. I immediately began enjoying the music through the XVII. The presentation tended to be laid-back, relaxed, and engaging. The music was set back slightly behind the loudspeakers, producing a more gentle and less forward rendering than most preamps I've auditioned.

Although the XVII's perspective couldn't be called analytical or incisive, the preamp nonetheless revealed a full measure of musical information. In fact, the XVII was highly resolving of musical nuances. The preamp allowed the music's fine structure to emerge, a quality that beautifully conveyed the musicians' interaction and expression. The XVII's presentation of this information was suave, sophisticated, and refined—I didn't have to listen past any sonic hype to hear the product's musical abilities. The XVII conveyed the music without calling attention to itself. In this regard, the XVII was at the opposite end of the spectrum from preamps that beat you over the head with "detail" (read: etch and hype) yet miss the musical subtleties that make the difference between a competent and an outstanding product.

Despite the XVII's overall musical quality, I was a little bothered by a trace of hardness in the mids and treble. The music lacked the lush liquidity and pure timbres that I have found to characterize the Audio Research LS5 (a product that costs four times as much as the XVII and has no integral phono stage). The XVII had a touch of solid-state hardness through the treble that was manifested as a slightly exaggerated metallic flavor on cymbals and strings. Similarly, the mids could get hard, particularly during loud passages (footnote 2). Note that these observations were made in the context of the fully balanced, all-tubed ARC LS5. I include them not to criticize the XVII—no $1500 preamp is perfect—but to put its performance in perspective.

The XVII's bass was tuneful, yet a little on the thin side compared to the LS5's warmth. The bottom end tended to be tight, focused, and full of detail rather than big, fat, and fuzzy. Bass extension and slam were moderately good; the XVII was competent but not outstanding in its ability to portray the dynamic impact of bass drum. The XVII's overall dynamic expression was excellent, but not at the level of the LS5.

Although the XVII didn't have the bloom or degree of soundstage size that characterized the LS5, the soundstage was still exceptional for a $1500 preamp. The XVII didn't cloud the soundstage with opacity, thickness, or the smeared quality that many preamps in this price range impose. Instead, there was a wonderful openness and sense of transparency that allowed the music to breathe. This openness, coupled with the relaxed perspective and subtle presentation of detail, greatly added to my enjoyment of music through the XVII.

LP listening
LP playback through the XVII was excellent—far better than I would have expected from a phono stage included in a $1495 preamplifier. The MC board was very quiet and had plenty of gain for even the AudioQuest AQ7000's lowish 0.3mV output. The presentation struck a good balance between being too forward and sounding too distant and uninvolving. As with the line stage, LP playback had immediacy without being in-your-face or aggressive.

Similarly, the treble was detailed without being analytical. The top end was smooth and natural, with very little of the brittle character one often hears from moderately priced solid-state electronics. The extreme treble sounded a little closed-in, making the presentation less open, airy, and extended than I would've liked. The music sounded a little more dark than I'm used to hearing from the Vendetta phono preamp, but not excessively so. The XVII was also somewhat less resolving of recorded detail than I've heard from other phono preamps. These qualities tended to mitigate the line stage's slightly hard sound. Moreover, the phono stage's softish treble can be a plus if you've got a peaky moving-coil cartridge—and there are lots of them out there, particularly at the price level most likely to be used with the XVII. In fact, most moderately priced moving-coils should form a synergistic match with the XVII's somewhat closed-in upper treble.

The XVII's bass was tuneful, articulate, and had good pitch definition. The extreme bottom end was a little rolled off and lacking in weight, but the midbass was round and full. The power and depth of the bottom-end punch you hear from kickdrum was ultimately reduced, but still satisfying. Conversely, plucked acoustic bass was reproduced well, with a palpability and feeling of a large, resonating instrument sitting between the loudspeakers. Check out Ray Brown's great playing on Bill Evans's Quintessence LP (Fantasy F9529). The XVII's phono section did this record justice, allowing me to hear all the subtleties of Evans's masterful performance. However, with rock and some jazz, the XVII lacked the ultimate sense of slam and power heard from the Vendetta.

Overall, the phono stage was excellent, but not quite at the level of the Sonic Frontiers SFP-1—a tremendous bargain that offers unprecedented performance for the money (see my review in Vol.16 No.9). The SFP-1 had greater liquidity, a more open and spacious soundstage, and greater resolution of recorded detail. However, it costs $1095 and must be matched to a line stage, making it considerably more expensive than the XVII.

Despite the minor criticisms, I always found the XVII musical and enjoyable. There are times when I like a product but am unable to describe in sonic terms exactly why—they're just more enjoyable to listen to. The XVII had this ability—ie, to let you forget about the product and hear the music—in spades. Although the $6000 Audio Research LS5 (and BL2) was clearly the better preamp, the XVII provided plenty of musical satisfaction.

The Exposure XVII preamplifier is a highly musical-sounding preamplifier worthy of its $1500 asking price. It has a fundamental musical rightness that transcends analytical description. The XVII's subtle and understated character conveys the music's expression without calling attention to itself. I also found the XVII rhythmically powerful, tight, and coherent, as though the music was correctly lined-up in time. Further, the phono stage sounds superb, is quiet, and has enough gain for nearly any moving-coil cartridge.

On the down side, the XVII has a trace of solid-state hardness in the mids and treble, particularly through the line stage. After listening to nothing but the pure-tubed Audio Research LS5 preamp for the past few months, my sensitivity to this form of coloration may have been heightened. This criticism is minor when considering the XVII's price; many lesser preamps—some costing more than the XVII—impose much more of a sonic signature on the music. The phono stage tended to be a bit laid-back rather than detailed and incisive, making it a good match for bright, moving-coil cartridges.

I highly recommend the XVII, particularly to those who play LPs. It offers higher musical performance than the typical $1500 preamplifier, and has an excellent phono stage to boot. If you're looking for an affordable, full-function, musical preamplifier, your search may end with the Exposure XVII.

Footnote 2: A recent article in Pro Sound News about vintage recording equipment had this to say about a particular compressor: "Yet another older piece is the Spectra Sonic 610, a '70s vintage compressor based on solid-state technology whose metallic sonic edge has gained it a following." Yikes!
Exposure Electronics
US Distributor: Fidelis Music Systems
460 Amherst Street (Route 101A)
Nashua, NH 03063
(603) 880-4434