Hovland HP-100 preamplifier Page 3

Let's Play!
Its design is "minimalist" and it lacks remote control, but otherwise the HP-100 is a full-featured preamp. There are a generous eight inputs, plus a tape loop and two sets of main outputs. The preamp includes a Mono button (a must-have for any lover of monophonic LPs), Mute, and a ±5dB switched silver-contact attenuator balance control (it's out of the circuit in its centered position). The balance control is there just to touch up the soundstage in an acoustically unbalanced room.

While there are two inputs labeled "CD," Hovland suggests using the tape loop for the purest sound, as it bypasses the selector switch. I tried it both ways, and the selector switch is very close to transparent; if you need a tape loop, you won't be giving up much, if anything, by going into a CD input.

I think everyone will love the feel of the knobs as they click the volume up and down, select a source, or go to Mute or Mono. The Hovland feels good!

And It Sounds Even Better!
Tube sound? Not here—unless by "tube" you mean luxurious liquidity, sensuous liquidity, wrap-around-your-eardrums liquidity, all accomplished seemingly without politeness, sluggishness, or high-frequency rolloff. When I first played a favorite recording through the HP-100, the first thing I heard was that liquidity—but accompanied by seemingly limitless high-frequency extension, supple and airy delicacy, and previously unheard-of transient resolution.

Unheard of by me—I can't speak for you. It was as if the ether had increased in pixel density. I almost wrote "ether had softened," but "soft" is not the word for the top end of this groundbreaking design. It was surprisingly fast, and could come up with the grit when grit was in the signal.

I have never heard such a fireworks-like display of high-frequency resolution and transient detail, accomplished without any grain, brightness, or edginess—yet the highs had a melt-in-my ears delicacy, transparency, and harmonic completeness. This thing killed me right out of the box—and then warmed up and got even better. I didn't have to mull over my conclusions, and you probably won't either—whether or not it meets your needs, you'll know you're in the presence of a major sonic accomplishment.

The HP-100 served the ebb and flow of music with greater grace than any tube or solid-state preamp I've heard. It breathed music with a rare effortlessness, perfectly balancing tube warmth and solid-state clarity while moving dynamically up and down the scale in both large and small steps with exceptional continuity and cohesiveness. Its incredible top-end performance gave me more confidence than ever about comparing various pressings, so I pulled out (among other things) an original six-eye Columbia LP of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, along with the vinyl reissues by Classic Records and Absolute Analogue.

Though I've heard it hundreds of times, the original pressing was a real shocker. The HP-100's microdynamic delivery of Paul Chambers' soft opening bass line on "So What" revealed it with a clarity, focus, and natural dexterity I'd not experienced before. The preamp gripped the bass with authority, but never so tightly that the delicate first touches of fingers on strings hardened or got "one-notey." And when Chambers really got going, the HP-100 responded with equal control. Tight bass from a tube preamp? Yes. Perhaps not quite as taut and punchy as my reference Ayre K-1x, but, overall, more realistic and complex—especially at ultra-low levels, where bass clarity and focus surpassed those of every other preamp I've auditioned.

I got another shock when Davis himself entered. I've never heard such a complex portrayal of his horn—tonally, spatially, and physically. The muted bite of his sound on that track tore through the air in ways that other preamps simply gloss over. The HP-100 seemed to be able to dig out and reveal tiny vibrational peaks and valleys where other preamps deliver flat lines. And it did so three-dimensionally, without etch, grain, or spotlighting. As the track played through and I continued to hear so much that was different and better, I kept saying to myself, over and over, "This is what high-end audio is all about! This isn't a new flavor, it's a whole new dish!"

The Classic reissue was quieter, perhaps more dynamic, and did a very good job of conveying the original's message, but there was more of the outline and less of the fill. It's a fact of life: 40-year-old tapes lose highs. Still, if you can't find an original pressing, the Classic does the music and the recording justice. The Absolute Analogue version just glared, and the secondhand source (they used the original UK production master) was painfully apparent.

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