Nagra PL-L preamplifier Page 2

In the hope that my first sample was somehow defective, Nagra's US distributor, Audiophile Systems, Ltd., supplied another, already wrung out to their satisfaction at Home Entertainment 2002. The second unit performed, in all ways, exactly as the first. So, even though the PL-L has no turn-off transients, do observe the rules and turn the power amps on last and off first.

No Complaints
The only remaining gripe I might possibly have had about the PL-L was its lack of any tape ins/outs, but that's a reflection of its professional heritage. In the studio or recording on location, all the signal manipulation for recording will be handled by the console; the PL-L will be used only for listening and monitoring.

In that task, the PL-L was absolutely enjoyable and satisfying. Noise was never noticeable at any gain setting, and all controls worked silently and smoothly. Fed from turntable, CD, or radio, the PL-L was revealing and natural, imparting little personality or coloration of its own. How can I know that? Well, I can't know for sure, but familiar and subtle differences among sources and power amps were as distinct as I'd ever heard. To me, this means that the PL-L must be low in distortion and flat in frequency response, or else these differences would have been smeared and obscured.

I used the PL-L with both the RCA and the balanced XLR outputs and could find little to distinguish them in terms of noise. However, I did think that the direct-driven single-ended outputs were just a tad more dynamic and lively. I noted this particularly in the Menuetto of Haydn's Symphony 88, with Thomas Fey conducting the Heidelberg Symphony (Hänssler Classic CD 98.391). Those of us raised on Furtwängler's classic Berlin recording will have had our eyebrows well raised before this third movement, but in Fey's account, brass accents are notably crisp and acute. Switching from the XLR (via AudioQuest) to the RCA (via Cardas) outputs, those accents glinted even more while remaining acoustically natural. Furtwängler might disagree—his accents were less pointed, his pace more slow and playful. Still, Fey's performance is not fey at all, but a brisk, dynamic account that the PL-L, through either output, presented more crisply than the Sonic Frontiers Line-3 or the Simaudio P-5. Those preamps seemed a bit more distant, requiring greater concentration to hear the details with equal distinction. The difference between the Nagra and the others persisted when I defaulted to the balanced outputs, which made my comparisons easier.

The PL-L was not unsubtle; in terms of ambience and depth, it was the equal of the best units auditioned. On the above-mentioned Haydn and on Shaker (Chesky JD236), the follow-up to David Johansen and the Harry Smiths' successful first Chesky CD, the perception of performers placed in an acoustic space was superb. I attended one of the recording sessions for the first, eponymous Harry Smiths CD (JD196), and the illusion matched my acoustic memory of the recording venue, Manhattan's St. Peter's Church. On the day I was there, I heard a half-dozen takes of "Deep Blue Sea," and I remember the one that made it onto the disc because of Johansen's sotto voce "I want to make this one right" at the beginning. Through the PL-L, it was easy to hear how he got closer and closer to the mike as his voice got softer and softer, verse by verse. Nor was this intimacy achieved at the expense of the sense of ensemble or, indeed, of impact. Johansen and the Chesky team got it right and the PL-L revealed it all, showing how good a monitoring tool it really is.

But the biggest boot I got with the PL-L was with the arrival of the ABKCO SACD sampler, The Rolling Stones, Remastered. Now, I ain't much of a Stones fan, and I've got only one of their classic CDs, bought at my wife's insistence. However, even she, as uninterested in sound and equipment as she claims to be, found that CD raucous, muddy, and nearly unlistenable. The new stereo remastering, whether via the CD track or the full-blown SACD track, is something else. Perhaps I'm revealing the limitations of my own experience of the Stones' recordings (I have heard them live!), but I had never before heard 1) Mick Jagger's voice so present and palpable, 2) clear distinctions between the other voices and instruments, 3) decent dynamics, or 4) any sense of "air" in the acoustic. Of course, these old master tapes will always lack the richness of a modern recording. Nonetheless, via the PL-L, I probably got as close to the original session sound as is possible.

The PL-L's quickness and microdynamics were noticeable when compared to the Sonic Frontiers and Simaudio preamps. It wasn't that those models lack these capabilities, and it wasn't that the PL-L exaggerated them; it was just that the PL-L had a bit more snap. On the other hand, the SF and Sim seemed richer than the PL-L from the midrange down, but without getting a bit overripe, as the Blue Circle BC-21 does. The PL-L had excellently deep and weighty bass; my preference for the SF in this regard is very dependent on my specific speakers and room acoustics. Driving an active studio monitor with balance/EQ incorporated—or, indeed, any slightly warmer amp and speaker—would likely turn the tables regarding my preference.

These observations should not be taken to mean that the PL-L sounded "bright," independently of or in contrast to the SF and Simaudio preamps. In fact, the PL-L's combination of midbass lightness and treble smoothness only encouraged me to turn up the wick a bit more. The bigger the music—Mahler, Widor, or electric blues—the more I appreciated the PL-L for its generously clear and powerful performance.

A therapist might say that I had "personal issues" with the Nagra PL-L. It forced me to adjust my power-sequence behavior, its connection layout is the opposite of what I need, and it doesn't have nearly enough inputs for me.

On the other hand, it's practically impossible to criticize the PL-L's sound. It was so fast, balanced, and clean that any sonic personality could be inferred only in comparisons with other preamps, from which it differed only ever so slightly. Even then, I had to wonder which preamp deserved to be the reference. And the tactile pleasure of using the Nagra's controls, and its superb overall fit'n'finish, are givens.

As for the options: These days, I regard remote control as mandatory. I recommend fully balanced outputs only if you must use very long interconnects or will be using the PL-L in studios in which balanced operation is the standard.

The Nagra PL-L's small size, capable remote control, and sonic transparency commend it not only for professional monitoring, but also for home systems of the very highest quality.

Audiophile Systems, Ltd.
8709 Castle Park Drive
Indianapolis, IN 46256
(888) 272-2658