Hovland HP-100 preamplifier Page 4

And the Hovland could rock. Its speed, transparency, bass control, and treble extension delivered electric music with satisfying realism: plenty of bite to cymbal splashes, lots of punch to electric bass. It wasn't at all polite, plummy, overripe, or soft, though the liquidity sometimes gave the sound a bit too much "finesse." Still, I never felt my fingers wandering toward the acoustic, jazz, or classical shelves because that's what sounded better through the HP-100.

What the Hovland did well—almost everything—served every kind of music equally. I pulled out stuff like Neil Young's After the Gold Rush (ultra-rare orange-and-yellow Reprise-7Arts label) and Eno's Another Green Word (British Polydor) and just shook my head: The HP-100 delivered the best of what my Reference Ayre K-1x does in terms of clarity and extension, and what Audio Research's Reference Two (with Reference Phono preamp) imparts tonally—but without the added plushness and richness on the bottom and the slight, subtractive politeness on top. The Hovland's tonal and spatial presentations were far more wide-open and revealing—at least with my system.

On a whim, I pulled out Herbert von Karajan's 1962 set of the Beethoven symphonies on DG and played Symphony 7. Oh! The strings!—an airy, panoramic view with a convincingly natural, three-dimensional physical bite and the kind of complex tonal textures you hear live. And the images, while focused and three-dimensional, were never hard or "glazy."

Even a rock-loving cretin like me knows that Debussy was a champ at orchestral color, and to my ears, the RCA team of producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton team hit the sonic nail on the head with Images for Orchestra (Charles Munch/BSO, RCA Living Stereo LSC-2282). The HP-100 delivered this set with full-flowered color and incredible delicacy and airiness. What an amazing balancing act the HP-100 pulled off! Bring on those Jascha Heifetz Living Stereos and get ready to melt.

To hear how the Hovland handled piano, I auditioned Byron Janis's recording of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto 1 (Herbert Menges/LSO, Mercury Living Presence; and Earl Wild doing George Gershwin's Concerto in F, Cuban Overture, and the "I Got Rhythm" Variations (Arthur Fiedler/Boston Pops, RCA Living Stereo; get a clean original, or Classic's 45rpm version). No surprises: In almost every way, the Hovland beat anything I've ever played those recordings through, particularly in the natural attack and decay of the piano. (Yes, I know—I've written that before about the Gershwin recording.) This preamp gave me a greater sensation of "you are there" from vinyl than any other preamp I've auditioned.

Okay. I've officially backed over the fire hydrant.

Easily Identifiable Negatives?
Sometimes I thought the Hovland's overwhelming liquidity was too much of a good thing—that there was more romance than was desirable. But those fleeting thoughts were always swept away by some other amazingly natural sonic stunt the HP-100 pulled off. Sometimes I felt as if the preamp's macrodynamic presentation was not quite as authoritative as the Ayre K-1x's or the Reference Two's, and that there was a slight compression in the middle of the dynamic spread—more a slight lack of punch there than anything else.

The Hovland may not have been quite as tightfistedly organized as the Ayre or the Audio Research, and it certainly didn't sound as lush and rich as the AR, but it delivered more of the natural expression of live music than either—at least with my system. I wouldn't be surprised if detractors find the highs a bit ragged. Not me.

Finally, I sometimes thought the sound was a bit lean in the midbass, and perhaps even a bit bright on top—both unusual for a tube preamp. But I'm grasping for negatives—even in the section of the review where I'm supposed to find fault, I come back to the HP-100's dazzlingly natural and incredibly supple musical presentation overall, and find myself reliving the dozens of hours of pure pleasure, not the few fleeting flashes of doubt. When John Atkinson came by to take the Hovland away for measurements, I played him the title cut from Davey Spillane's Atlantic Bridge. I don't think his enthusiastic reaction was good manners, nor do I think he would have responded quite so intensely had I had another preamp in the system.

[This was the first time I had done some serious listening to Michael's system. With the Sonus Faber Amatis driven by a Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300 power amplifier, there was a holographic intensity to the sound from LP, with what sounded like unlimited dynamic range. Even though I needed to drive back to the city, it was hard to drag myself away from the music. One interesting characteristic: what little groove noise there was via the Hovland seemed localized in a completely different plane to the music, allowing it to be perceptually discarded.—Ed.]

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