PrimaLuna DiaLogue Three preamplifier Page 2

Installation and setup
Setup? Not a lot to talk about: PrimaLuna's packaging is good enough that the DiaLogue Three can be shipped with its tubes and tube cage already in place. The only challenge in installing my review sample was lifting it clear of the carton.

I used the DiaLogue Three in my usual system, driving my Shindo Corton-Charlemagne and Fi 2A3 amplifiers. Because my system is arranged with power amps and preamps rather close to one another, I use interconnects no longer than 2m—and make up the difference with very long speaker cables, of course. Thus I can't comment on the DiaLogue Three's ability to drive significantly longer interconnects without sonic penalty, although the preamp's 2500 ohm output impedance would seem cause for some caution in that respect.

Like every other PrimaLuna product I've tried, the DiaLogue Three is equipped with the company's SoftStart circuitry, which powers up the tubes' filaments and grids before gradually applying the rail voltage. That feature and all other preamplifier functions worked without flaw in my system, and the DiaLogue Three produced only a moderate amount of heat.

A final observation: The owner's manual, though physically humble, was thorough, helpful, and clear, with useful observations on tube rolling, maintenance, and troubleshooting (not that you'll require the last two or desire the first).

I hope not to make too many published statements that stink of audio-review cliché, but I was surprised at how good this moderately affordable preamplifier sounded. More to the point, I was struck by how big it sounded—and not just big, but huge. One of the things I love best about my reference Shindo Masseto preamp is its sense of scale, and how well it succeeds at making things sound big when they ought to; the PrimaLuna DiaLogue Three was cut from the same cloth, with generous width and height, particularly with symphonic music. In Riccardo Chailly's recording with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Theo Verbey's orchestration of Berg's Piano Sonata, Op.1 (CD, London 448 813-2), the ensemble was satisfyingly big, and quite believable in the way its physical presence increased as the music veered into the loudest, most densely scored passages (the crescendo beginning 7:20 into the piece, for example). The Three's tonal performance with that recording was equally convincing, the PrimaLuna doing a lovely job with the sounds of the darker woodwinds (bassoon and contrabassoon), which carry some of the most important lines in this work.

On the subject of believable timbres, the DiaLogue Three sounded wonderful with the 2006 reissue of the first, eponymous album by Crosby, Stills & Nash (CD, Atlantic/Rhino R2 73290)—not the original tracks, most of which sound awful (the voices in some songs were apparently punched in so many times that they suffer a dullness that the pricey LP reissues have seemed to only accentuate), but in the four bonus cuts. With the trio's seemingly impromptu recording of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talking," the PrimaLuna succeeded in getting across the rich sounds of the voices and—especially—Stephen Stills's big old Martin guitar.

Timbral richness came without the penalty of temporal distortion. "Train Running Low on Soul Coal," a wonderful up-tempo number from XTC's The Big Express (CD, Toshiba/EMI TCOP-65717), had all the momentum and drive I expected—if not quite to Naim NAC72 preamp standards—while subtler timing distinctions, such as those throughout Mari Tsuda's 1996 recording of piano pieces by Satie (CD, JVC 6506-2), were well preserved by the DiaLogue Three.

And I'm compelled to share with you A Guilty Pleasure: I used the PrimaLuna to play my favorite ELO album, Eldorado (CD, Epic/Legacy EK 85419), and was surprised by both the superb sound and the sense of physical impact. In contrast to, say, Ringo Starr's tea-towel-on-drumhead approach (literally: that's how he got his sound toward the end of the Fabs' recording career), bandleader-producer Jeff Lynne preferred a sharp snare-drum sound and frequent use of a tambourine mounted on the hi-hat. Those effects came across with as much timbral distinction and impact as needed—yet were never too much. In fact, through the PrimaLuna, the whole of the mix was a virtually ideal combination of timbrally rich strings, percussive whap, and an openness that allowed a sonic view of the arrangements that was much clearer than usual with this recording. I was impressed.

Perhaps the DiaLogue Three's greatest departure from my ideal was its tendency to sound a bit too thick and heavy throughout the midbass, compared with the gear I use daily (which, I hasten to remind, costs four to seven times the PrimaLuna's asking price). With Nick Drake's "Time Has Told Me," from Five Leaves Left (ripped from CD, Island 422 842 915-2), the DiaLogue Three lost some of the detail and texture in Danny Thompson's wonderful upright-bass playing, and gave Drake's voice a bit more of a baritonal quality than it should have had. Much the same could be said of the deeper notes in "April in Paris," from Thelonious Monk's Thelonious Himself (ripped from CD, JVC VICJ-60170), whose deepest notes the Shindo Vosne-Romanee portrayed with greater clarity and nuance. For that matter, the Shindo also put across an even better sense of physicality and touch, in terms not only of overall force, but also of the humanness with which that force was delivered.

It's 2011, and I'm free to buy anything I damn well please, except for Cuban cigars, marijuana, or tortoiseshell guitar picks. (I'm saying that only for fun: I'm not really interested in the first two.) I can even buy Chinese-made tube electronics if I wish—or not. Either choice stands a chance of being right, depending on my budget and my point of view; the only thing that's wrong is the idea of someone else trying to make the decision for me.

Like so many people who have the opportunity to audition lots of gear—reviewers and dealers mostly, I suppose—I carry with me an idea of the sort of quality one can expect from, say, a $500 record player or a $25,000 amplifier or a $1000 pair of speaker cables. I used to have an idea of what sort of performance an audio consumer could expect from a $2600 tube preamp, but I don't anymore: The PrimaLuna DiaLogue Three, whose only major failing may be the excessive use of uppercase letters in its name, exceeded that preconception by a healthy margin.

It's simple: For the person with a taste for tubed electronics, and whose budget hews closer to Labouré-Roi than to Romanée-Conti, the PrimaLuna DiaLogue Three is a shoo-in, a must-hear, and a potential hand-me-down.

Durob Audio BV
US distributor: PrimaLuna USA
2504 Spring Terrace
Upland, CA 91784
(909) 931-0219

Hoser Rob's picture

Hmmm ... that sounds just like tube standby mode to me.

I applaud the fact that they have a standby mode, and that it's automated, but it amazes me why that's not more standard nowadays.  It used to be.

And with the quality of today's tubes it should be standard, especially for power amps.  Not preheating the filaments really decreases tube life.  I can't believe how much costly tube gear doesn't do this.

maury's picture

I just ordered one of these, along with the DiaLogue Severn Monoblocks. They'll be here next week, but I still have to get my speakers here so I can't try them yet!

Pete's picture

Hi there.

Thanks for the honest review.

But why do you compare so speciffically to a pre amp 4 to 7 times the price? Wouldn't it be the same to compare it to an amp of say $400,00?

And then stating the differences?

In this way, allthough I insist on honesty and realism in audioreviewing, I always get the feeling that it is still not a very good amp. That it is 'only mid range' you will buy. Or am I the only one that feels that?

Why not compare this 2,6k amp a little bit more to Tube Pre Amps of about 2 to 4k? Or heck: even up to 6 or 7k? Instead of 10 to 18k? More from an upgrader's perspective?

Of course we still all do want to know how it compares to 10 to 18k amps... But the remark about the bass remains a bit unfair I think.. Even if you 'haste to remind'... It sticks with me anyway.

Because I look for an upgrade! I come from 'lower'. I have a top class Tentlabs cd player of $4600 (please do review sometime!) and a Power Amp of about $3300.

My Pre Amp is a modified Rotel RC 995 of about $1000. So although this thing is still surprisingly good, it's still also my 'bottleneck'. I know I have some very top class speakers allready too and my room and setup are other topics of course (not bad at all).

So I'm looking for a Pre Amp upgrade: say about $2600! So I want more comparison to 2-4k amps, not speciffically to 10 or 18k amps, reviewing a 2,6k amp... 

Allthough it's a fair remark and I'm sure you meant that it is very good at it's price (which you also stated..), in my humble opinion you still end the review with a touch of 'looking downward' on this amp.. And I don't say that because I'm dutch just like the amp... But because I'm 'looking upward'...

Anyway. You're not a salesperson for Prima Luna (neither am I). So thanks for the effort and for the honest information.

Maury: how are they?

Et Quelle's picture

This thing is good looking for a pre-amp under $3,000. Why do others look like small simple metal boxes with tubes on top; AVM looks average though. If stereophile raves over it, then it I trust their opinion even though I would jump at the chance of an audition at a dealer. That tells you a lot, but half of what it will sound like with my interconnects, non thousand dollar speakers and components. The only way is to buy everything in the artice (a dream) or just buy the Dialogue 3 and see.

DLKG's picture

I hope you answer this question.  Why is it that you can get an integrated Primaluna for only a few hundred dollars more than the pre amp alone?  I've also read rave reviews about the integrateds but would I be better off with the pre amp and using my existing (Hafler Transnova)?  I guess I'm finding it hard to believe that a pre amp with a few hundred dollar amp section could be as good as a separate amp even though it's really old.  Primaluna price points makes things very confusing.  Not just that but the fact that I have not found. A dealer where I can compare the integrated and the pre amp with a separate amp.