Hovland HP-100 preamplifier Page 5

Noise might be an issue for some potential phono-stage purchasers. The MC stage had an underlying hum I couldn't get rid of, and while it was inaudible under normal listening circumstances, I was bothered that it was there at all. The HP-100 is not the quietest preamp you can buy, nor did it deliver the blackest backgrounds, but it was quiet enough, and the space below the music had an unusually supple, natural quality. (I've also been using the non-Multiwave version of PS Audio's P300 Power Plant AC conditioner. While it made a definite improvement to the Ayre K-1x, for some reason it added an unwanted brightness to the Hovland.)

My biggest reservation: Over time, will the HP-100's liquidity become cloying? Will I end up craving a bit more transient edge? Or will the preamp's mellifluous splash of sound continue to create the eerie, effortless, ethereal sensation of live music—the HP-100's strongest suit?

Picayune Comparisons
Compared as a line section to the EAD DSP-9000 Mk.3 digital processor fed directly into my power amp, the Hovland HP-100 proved somewhat more transparent than the Audio Research Reference Two, retaining the direct feed's top-end clarity and extension and most of its low-bass tautness and control (though bass dynamics are not the EAD's strong suit), while slightly enriching the overall liquidity (no surprise), harmonic presentation, and spatial differentiation in ways that, to my ears, made CDs sound more pleasing. There was a slight sensation of added noise as well, though; the Ref 2 is definitely quieter. Overall, given a choice between the EAD direct out or though the Hovland, I'd opt for the Hovland, even though it's not strictly "accurate."

I also compared the Audio Research Reference Phono section to the Hovland's in two ways. I had access to four outboard step-up transformers: the Audio Note AN S6 CZ (see the November 2000 "Analog Corner"), the Lyra Arion, the one built into the Reference Phono, and an outboard version of the Hovland. I auditioned four cartridges in various combinations: the Kondo 10-J (again see the November 2000 "Analog Corner"), the Lyra Helikon and Parnassus D.C.t, and the van den Hul Colibri. I was busy.

The $5000 Audio Note was the best of the bunch. I ran it and the others through the Reference Phono's MM section, and the AN's top and bottom extension, midband smoothness, and overall vividness trounced everything else. But it costs five grand. Next best, and very close, was the outboard Hovland, which maintained the Audio Note's midband magic but cooled the vividness (at least through the Reference), and was not quite as rich yet limpid in the bass. The Lyra was somewhat more polite and not as dynamic. Comparing the Reference's built-in transformer to the Audio Note or the Hovland produced a very surprising result: the Ref's transformer was noticeably polite in somewhat rolling the highs, which softened transients and greatly reduced air, shimmer, and detail.

Last and most important was a shoot-out between the Audio Note AN S6 CZ transformer into the ARC Reference MM stage ($11,000+ in total), and the Hovland's built-in MC stage (a $1595 addition to the line-stage version, $1695 as a later add-on). The AN/ARC combo was somewhat better, but the Hovland's built-in phono section sounded similar in overall balance. It just shaved off a bit of everything. Surprisingly, I preferred the Hovland's built-in phono section to the Reference's MC input, though I was running the Ref into "alien territory" and can't account for system interactions.

The bottom line was that the Hovland's built-in phono section was superb—hardly surprising, from the comments I've already made. And it's relatively inexpensive.

This review is a love fest filled with shameless superlatives, and love is blind and can disappear in a heartbeat. But at least in my system, the Hovland HP-100 proved to be a sonic heavyweight at a relatively lightweight price. As a $5k line stage or as a $6500 full-featured preamp, its overall performance provided me with the greatest musical pleasure I've gotten from a preamp. My system sang as it never has. This came as a total surprise—I was wary of what a group of "tweakers" might come up with, sonically and otherwise.

The HP-100 is solidly built, elegantly simple, a pleasure to use, behaved flawlessly, and put on a sonic show that made me want it back in my system as soon as possible. The sound was on the romantic side, but not warm and tubey in the classic sense, and the slightly extravagant liquidity I've repeatedly called your attention to was more than offset by the unit's incredible clarity, focus, textural detail, harmonic fullness, and spatial expansiveness.

In the sonic continuum of preamps I've reviewed lately—all great products, by the way—I put the Ayre K-1x to one side and the Audio Research Reference Two on the other. Midway, but closer to the Audio Research, I put the Herron VTSP-1. The Hovland goes on the other side, closer to the Ayre. Does that help?

I've been kicked in the groin on the test bench before, and I hope it doesn't happen this time—if the Hovland measures like it sounds (a reviewer's reference shouldn't be heavily colored or measure poorly), it's coming home to stay, maybe for good. While I wait, I'm spending as much time as I can with my reference Ayre K-1x so I can make a quick, informed choice when the Hovland returns. Meanwhile, find a dealer within walking, driving, or, if need be, flying distance, and give the Hovland a listen. It's special.