Lazarus Cascade Deluxe preamplifier

The Lazarus, a slim, quite elegant unit finished in black with red and gray legends, lived up to its advance billing: it literally rose from the dead! Out of its coffin (ie, shipping box) and plugged into the wall, it showed no signs of life. Troubleshooting revealed a blown AC mains fuse. That in itself was not a major problem, but what worried me was the root cause of the trouble. Preamplifiers as a rule are not power-hungry, so a current surge at turn-on sufficient to destroy the 250mA slow-blow mains fuse appeared symptomatic of a major circuitry failure.

After describing the problem to Greg Miller of Lazarus at the recent winter CES, however, I learned that the unit was improperly fused, and that a 500mA fuse was in fact required for the Cascade Deluxe. Apparently, Lazarus's Cascade Classic design uses a 250mA fuse, so with two different fuse types circulating in the factory it was only natural (Murphy's Law) for my sample to arrive with the wrong one.

Aside from the QC implications of the above episode, there is another potential problem with this unit. I say potential because it is dependent on the AC line voltage in your area. The Lazarus will automatically go into "standby" mode and mute the outputs if AC power conditions go too low for satisfactory operation. What is too low, you ask? Well, according to Lazarus, early production was set to trip into mute at 110V—which is actually a normal line voltage for many urban areas. Fortunately, this problem can be corrected by merely tweaking a single pot. The pot is easy to find—it's the only one on the main printed circuit board, just to the left of the flat-profile transformer.

With a 500mA fuse in place, the Lazarus came to life, its two pairs of 12AX7As awash with a wholesome glow. (The tubes are mounted on a vertical sub-board, allowing them to be mounted horizontally.) The next order of business was adjustment of the phono input impedance. Because I was using Sumiko's Virtuoso DTi at the time—a high-output MC—I wanted to verify that the phono input impedance had been set to 47k ohms (supposedly the preamp's factory setting). Yet another minor irritation confronted me. I discovered that the input impedance was set to 100 ohms. This should have been easy to reset via a bank of DIP switches, except that these switches proved more difficult to manipulate compared to similar devices in other preamps. Using a thin flat-blade screwdriver, I was finally able to slide the switches into the required open/closed sequence. (A ballpoint pen also does the trick.)

With this one exception, the quality of the parts used appeared to be quite decent considering the price point. For example, gold-plated Tiffany RCA jacks are used at the phono and CD inputs and the main outputs—a really nice touch—and audiophile-grade capacitors are used in the signal path, including polystyrenes and WIMA polypropylenes in the RIAA network. (Though the volume-control pot is a relatively inexpensive component.) Both the tube heater supplies, as well as the plate voltage rails, appear to be regulated.

The hybrid designation of the preamp is due to the fact that just to the front of the DIP switches are two parallel arrays of four 2N4222 metal-can transistors, one array for each channel. These allow the tube circuit to have sufficient gain to cope with moderate-output MC cartridges without incurring too much of a noise penalty.

In addition to the phono input, a total of four high-level inputs and one tape loop are provided. By popular demand, this unit does have a power switch, although Lazarus still recommends that the unit be left on at all times unless it is to remain unused for an extended period. It is also possible to switch the Lazarus into "standby" or mute mode with a front-panel push-switch instead of leaving it fully powered, thus further increasing tube life while keeping the circuitry reasonably warmed up. A relay mutes the outputs in this condition. However, Lazarus claims that even under full-power conditions the tubes will last, conservatively, one year. Individual balance controls are provided for each channel. When not in use, these controls may be "clicked" to the off position, which takes them completely out of the signal path.

One final note: The front-panel LED is controlled by the standby switch, not, as you might expect, by the power switch. This is a bit confusing at first, but ultimately it really does not matter: it's pretty difficult to visually determine the condition of the LED anyway, it being very dully illuminated; it is best to just remember the proper switch positions.

My first sonic impression of the Lazarus was gleaned via my John Koval–modified Quad ESLs driven by a pair of Don J Cochran Delta Mode amplifiers. The front ends throughout the listening sessions consisted of the Sony PCM-F1, the SOTA Star Sapphire turntable atop an Arcici Lead Balloon, the SME Series V tonearm, Sumiko's Virtuoso DTi cartridge, and Cardas and Cogan-Hall Intermezzo interconnects. The Lazarus had already been burned-in for over a week.

One sonic idiosyncrasy that quickly became evident was the Lazarus's abnormal sensitivity to polarity inversion or absolute phase. And I don't mean this in a complimentary sense, as if the Lazarus were somehow more clearly revealing of phase errors compared to other preamps. In my experience, a polarity reversal (equivalent to a 180° phase shift) produces small but clearly audible effects. Generally, the sonic areas affected are timbral accuracy, loudness, and soundstage focus. One or more of these attributes changes for me when polarity is reversed.

I personally find voice to be the most effective instrument in locking onto the "correct" polarity. The voice box and diaphragm are much more clearly resolved with the "correct" polarity, and the vocal-tract sound appears to radiate from a fairly well-defined point in space. This specificity disappears with incorrect polarity so that the core of the voice cannot be precisely localized within the spatial outlines of the singer. In other words, the chest and voice box are homogenized, spatially diffused so that it is difficult to locate the singer's mouth.

This effect was exaggerated with the Lazarus. In fact, improper polarity brought about extreme side effects. Not only was focus affected, but the upper octaves became intolerably bright with incorrect polarity, and instrumental harmonic envelopes were rougher sounding. It became mandatory to choose correct polarity for every recording, which I did by shuffling speaker connections—something I don't enjoy much anymore after last July's loudspeaker cable survey.

If I somehow implied that the brightness of the Lazarus vanished under "correct" polarity conditions, let me correct that impression. Even under the best of circumstances, there was a noticeable residue of "tube glare" in the phono stage which affected the upper mids and lower treble. The treble was spacious and open, but treble transients were slightly out of control (read: "zippy"). With the Celestion SL600 speakers this resulted in an overly sibilant presentation. How annoying these colorations will be will depend to a great extent on the contributions of your ancillary equipment. With either a bright MC cartridge or a bright/overly etched speaker, I would be unable to tolerate this Lazarus preamplifier for any length of time.

Having gotten the bad news out of the way, I should tell you that in many respects the Lazarus performed exceptionally well. Analog program material was consistently very detailed. I had no problem, for example, clearly resolving the numerous (and very annoying) pre-echoes on Die Zauberflöte (London OSA-1397) with Georg Solti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. The soundstage was spacious, with hall reverb cleanly reproduced within stage dimensions of excellent width, depth, and realistic height perspective. Instrumental outlines were almost palpable in extent, yet tightly focused in space.

Neither did I expect this level of midrange transparency in a $1200 preamp, though the Cascade Deluxe did just perceptibly veil the soundstage—no matter how transparent the program or speaker I threw at it. Together with the aforementioned upper-octave brightness, these qualities lent the midrange of the Lazarus a clear/clean and slightly lightweight character (at least through the phono stage), the apparent tonal balance being tipped toward the treble. I'm not suggesting that the mids were analytical in nature; they were not. There was actually a hint of romantic sweetness in the air. It's just that the lower mids were a bit fluffy and lacking in heft.

Another strong suit of the Lazarus was reproduction of the bass registers—especially in the mid- and upper bass. Pitch definition was generally excellent. The body and flavor of the bass guitar on cut A2 of the Opus 3 Test Record 1 were very nicely captured, as was the timbre of the double bass on cut A1.

Complex orchestral passages did not slow the Lazarus down. There was no audible congestion or reduction in resolution level. Massed voices remained clearly resolved, and dynamic shadings maintained linearity from soft to loud.

I've left the best news for last. The line-level section of the Lazarus is much better than the phono stage, at least on the basis of the Lesley Test. Lesley, my spouse for over 20 years, is also a professional singer and, with Leigh Berry, a member of the duo "Platinum and Gold." My Sony PCM-F1 recordings of Lesley have provided me with an invaluable tool for assessing the sonic merits of audio gear. Being intimately familiar with Lesley's voice and with the recording process has given me a personal "absolute" reference for discriminating sonic differences. These master tapes have enabled me to quickly and reliably elucidate the effects of equipment under test—at least in the frequency bandwidth covered by a soprano.

Lesley's voice was clean, detailed, and focused. But most important, and in contrast with the phono stage, the tonal balance was much more natural. Much of the brightness of the phono section was gone; not entirely gone, mind you, but sufficiently reduced to the point of long-term tolerance.

As should be obvious by now, in some respects the Lazarus Cascade Deluxe will not be embarrassed by any preamp out there, regardless of cost. It is transparent, dynamic, retrieves inner detail very well, and images with excellent focus and spatial resolution. Unfortunately, the huge fly in the ointment is its tonal balance via the phono inputs. The sound is significantly bright and the treble a bit zippy, and if you fail to carefully watch signal polarity, these problems can mushroom to unbearable proportions.

Summing Up
So what do I make of these mixed findings? Relying as heavily as I do on analog program material, I find the tonal balance of the Lazarus irritating in the long run, and thus cannot recommend it. However, I will allow one exception. If you're primarily looking for a good tubed line-level section (eg, to play back predominantly CDs or tapes), then on the strength of its line-level stage the Lazarus does merit an audition.

Lazarus Electronics
8130 Coldwater Canyon
North Hollywood, CA 91605
(818) 982-6477