Halcro dm10 preamplifier Steel Cage Death Match

Sidebar 1: Steel Cage Death Match, or Four Front Ends Considered

During the period I was reviewing the Halcro dm10, VTL TL-7.5 Reference, and BAT VK-51 SE preamplifiers, John Atkinson decided it would be enlightening to have me listen to these state-of-the-art contenders in comparison to the venerable Mark Levinson No.32 Reference (reviewed by Jonathan Scull in January 2000). How, we wondered, would the new boys stand up when compared not only with each other, but also with a long-term resident of Class A of "Recommended Components"? So, over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, I did just that.

All four were auditioned over the course of four days. The solid-state units were warmed up in standby for a minimum of 48 hours prior to being auditioned; the tubed units were allowed one to two hours of warmup and stabilization time before I did any listening. All comparisons were made with the same system: my regular analog rig, the Aesthetix Io Signature phono stage, Esoteric DV-50 universal digital player, Halcro dm58 amplifiers, and Focal-JMlab Nova Utopia Be loudspeakers.

Acoustic Zen Silver Reference cables were used between the Aesthetix and the individual line stages and between line stages and amplifiers. Siltech SQ-110 Classic carried the Esoteric's signal to the line stages, and LS-188 Classic speaker wire fed the Nova Utopia Be's. Shunyata's Hydra 8 was used as the power source for all front-end components. Shunyata's Anaconda power cables supplied the juice to all of the preamplifiers, and an Anaconda Vx did the honors for the Esoteric. Siltech's SPX-30 Classic AC cords were used on the Halcros.

In back-to-back listening sessions, the character of each preamp came into sharper focus. The VTL TL-7.5 Reference's strongest suit remains its complete lack of discernible sonic character. It had a vanishingly minuscule sonic fingerprint and, as noted in my October 2003 review, does everything so well that it is beyond reasonable criticism. There's nothing meaningful I can add to my earlier review comments.

The BAT VK-51 SE sounded tubier, in the best way possible, through the ultra-neutral dm58s than it did through the tube amps I used when auditioning it for review a few months back (November 2003). Through the Halcro amps, the BAT was abundantly tactile and sensuous; "seductive," in an almost physical sense, accurately describes this combination. Bass power and precision were awesome, and the BAT's enveloping, enfolding soundstage, intensely saturated tonal colors, and incredibly delicate and tactile presentation of dynamic contrasts made it a hedonist's delight.

The Halcro dm10 was dazzlingly, impossibly quiet, had majestic overall dynamic performance, and was, by a whisker, even more transparent than the VTL. But when taken strictly as a line stage, it was to my ears just enough cooler in overall character to make a difference I found important. Its precise definition of images and superb sense of space and air combined to create a striking illusion of reality, but there were times I wished that it were just a little more plush and giving.

There's no argument that the Levinson No.32 set a high standard for a number of years, but its age has begun to show. Comparatively speaking, the Levinson's backgrounds were nearly as silent as the Halcro's, and its user interface was the best of the four, which is high praise. But on the sonic report card it came up short. The No.32 sounded much darker than the tubed BAT, but without the latter's ripeness, palpability, and flat-out sexiness. The Levinson couldn't seem to generate as spacious a soundstage as the competition, and it consistently put me further away from the music, emotionally, than did the other three. It skated over the surfaces of music, albeit very stylishly, whereas the BAT, Halcro, and VTL dug into the music's substance with appreciably more conviction.

Time has marched on; while the $15,950 Levinson No.32 still has an excellent line stage, the others offer a wider performance envelope. The BAT and VTL have appreciably lower (though still very substantial) prices—$9000 and $12,500, respectively—while the Halcro offers as fine a phono stage as I have ever heard as an integral part of the package.

I can feel one of JA's steady, quiet stares directed at me and calling for some conclusions, so I must beg just a bit of forbearance and indulge in a bit of Solomonic baby-splitting. Were I forced to decide which line stage I would opt for (under the threat of having my LP collection incinerated before my eyes should I fail to do so), I would fess up and go for the VTL. It's the finest pure line stage I have heard, barely nipping the Halcro by a few thousandths of a second at the finish line of this Grand Prix. Its supreme neutrality makes it as nearly perfect a reviewer's tool as exists in the audio world. As noted above, when taken strictly as a line stage, the Halcro sounds, to me, the tiniest bit cool, being ever-so-slightly leaner than the VTL. However, if I were forced to abandon having an outside phono stage, the story becomes somewhat different: As a full-function preamplifier, the Halcro dm10 has no competition and would be my first choice.

The BAT VK-51 SE does far more than hold its own in this company, finishing hard on the Halcro's tail. While it's sometimes a little more seductive than life, this can sometimes be a fine thing, especially if one is married to somewhat lean- or bright-sounding speakers. The VK-51 SE will justifiably be the favorite of many, and I would not argue with its boosters for one second—there is plenty to fall for in its generous, appealing character. Were I a listener looking for a line stage to love strictly for itself and not a reviewer in search of perfect neutrality, I could see myself among those BAT partisans.

There are definitely systems I have heard in which each of these three stellar performers would be the first and best choice. I could have a long and meaningful relationship with each of them.

Picking among these magnificent line stages is much like picking your favorite Bond Girl—there are no bad choices, and differences in individual taste will control one's particular preference. Just because I go for Denise Richards doesn't invalidate for one second your preference for Barbara Bach or Claudine Auger. Shouldn't we all be so lucky as to have such choices?—Paul Bolin

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