PS Audio BHK Signature preamplifier Page 2

Other Things: The remote control is nice enough, with a plastic body, a brushed-aluminum faceplate, and backlit, tacky rubber buttons. It has a little weight to it, and can control everything in a PS Audio system (footnote 3): the DirectStream DAC, the company's new transport, and a phono preamp that, as far as I know, doesn't yet exist. All that functionality makes it a little crowded, but I much prefer this kind of clutter to the clutter of multiple remotes.

The balance control works fine. You can label the inputs. There's a home-theater bypass. And that headphone amplifier.

GHOST: Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing / To what I shall unfold
Before I received the BHK Signature, I spent months listening to digital music from Tidal via my NUC-based homebrew media server running Roon, with my PS Audio DirectStream DAC ($5995) feeding the BHK Signature Mono 300 amplifiers directly, and controlling the volume from the DAC. When the review sample arrived, I inserted it between DAC and amplifiers and left it on for a few days' break-in, with music playing and the amplifiers off. I then listened for several weeks with the BHK in the system, to form a general impression. I did some direct comparisons, too, listening to a recording with the preamp and then without.

My basic methodology for this review, then, was to compare the BHK Signature preamp to no preamp at all. This makes sense, because what a preamp ought to do, apart from changing volume and switching sources, is as little as possible. As Hamlet said, "Let be." That, anyway, is the usual thinking.


In this case, there was another reason to evaluate a preamp this way: Paul McGowan and Bascom H. King make more ambitious claims for their BHK Signature. They say that inserting the preamp in their systems—both of which seem to include the DirectStream DAC and the BHK Signature Mono 300 amplifiers, which is precisely my own current setup—actually improves the sound. With the preamp in, "the music becomes much more compelling and real," says King in an online video. Even he doesn't understand why: "It all comes down to the more general question, why do things sound the way they do? And that's something we don't have definitive answers for in most cases."

With or without preamp, this system of PS Audio electronics—BHK Signature preamp, DirectStream DAC, and BHK Mono 300s—delivered perhaps the best sound I've heard in my listening room, with deep, solid bass; delicate, pristine highs; and a vivid midrange. The preamp was exceptionally quiet. With good recordings, the soundstage was wide, deep, layered front to back, and aural images were well delineated and palpable. With good recordings, I could turn the volume way up, to much louder levels than I normally listen, without becoming annoyed or fatigued. Not sure about the neighbors.

In Act III, Hamlet starts to seem a bit unstable. King Claudius agrees to keep an eye on him because, he says, "Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go." Cat Anderson illuminates Hamlet's disquiet mind in a typically insane (typical, that is, for Cat Anderson) trumpet solo in "Madness in Great Ones," track 10 of Duke Ellington's Shakespeare tribute, Such Sweet Thunder (rip of CD, Columbia/Legacy CK 65568).

There is a certain vitality in music that is best perceived, in my experience, in the sound of a bowed string instrument played up close by a skilled musician. An instrument on a tabletop or stand is, of course, inert—dead. If I pick it up and try to play, I can make scratchy noises, but the instrument is in no sense enlivened. But when a talented player picks it up and plays, there's a tangible transfer of vitality from player to instrument. The instrument becomes, in a sense almost literal, an extension of the musician's spirit. This is true with wind players, too, and especially in jazz: They breathe spirit into their instruments; the instruments channel that spirit and give it voice.

When I listened to "Madness in Great Ones" without the BHK Signature, and with the DirectStream DAC directly feeding the BHK Mono 300s, the trombones were blatty, the rhythm section was well back in the middle of the soundstage, and Anderson's solo was nasty (in a good way) and upfront, near the left loudspeaker. Backgrounds were exceptionally quiet, with no noise. Excellent sound.

When I added the BHK Signature preamp to the signal chain and matched the levels, the music seemed quieter, more relaxed—as well as more enlivened, more lit up. More tangible energy coursed through Anderson's trumpet, something sustained at the core of the sound. To a much greater extent than before, I seemed to be hearing more than just sound—I was hearing spirit.

Forget bits and electrons and standing waves—there was a dead trumpeter in my living room, channeling the spirit of a Danish prince who is not only dead but fictional. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Another thing I noticed: Without the preamp, the various aural images—Cat Anderson to the left and upfront, Sam Woodyard's drums recessed at left of center, the other winds arrayed across the soundstage—arose precisely from different spots in my living room, and with perfect stability. When I added the BHK preamp, the music claimed a space of its own, a whole space. The stereo images were as precise as before, but they now emerged from a single acoustic, adding up to a whole musical image.


In jazz, I listen mostly to dead guys, but Bennie Maupin, who was born in 1940—and who was, most famously, the bass clarinetist on Miles Davis's Bitches Brew—is very much alive. He's an amazing player, "out" in the Eric Dolphy sense but also melodic, energetic but also reserved. He makes great-sounding albums—including Penumbra, from 2006 (CD, Cryptogramophone CG 129; 16-bit/44.1kHz, Tidal HiFi 9100697)—that let you hear every nuance of his fabulous tone. Whether it's Dolphy or Maupin, David Murray or Chris Potter, I love me some bass clarinet.

When Maupin plays bass clarinet on Penumbra (he also plays tenor and soprano sax, flute, and piano), there are times when one note is practically a symphony—like 0:50 into "Level Three," as a note fades to breath and harmonics. That's all I need, right there.

If I were asked how, in general, such effects are achieved—how music can seem livelier, and exist within a more complete, organic soundfield—I would venture that it happens when more low-level musical information is conveyed. But that makes no sense in this context: a preamp cannot add musical information. Because, very likely, it was removing nothing from the sound— I measured the BHK Signature's frequency response. It was ruler-flat from as low as I can measure to about 10kHz. By 30kHz, it was down less than 1dB — the preamp must have been adding something else—sympathetic low-level noise perhaps, the kind you don't hear directly but that affects the sounds you do hear. It's some spell woven by those frail but magical tubes—the ghost in the machine.

HAMLET: To sleep, perchance to dream
In the most famous soliloquy in all of theater, Hamlet wonders which is better: to exist, or not to exist—to be, or not to be. Dmitri Shostakovich had no such ambivalence: Late in his life, ill with polio and in constant pain, he utterly rejected death. He did it, though, in a very curious way.

Shostakovich's ideas about death found their purest musical expression in the work he called his Symphony 14. It's actually a song cycle in which he set poems by Apollinaire, Küchelbecker, Lorca, and Rilke to music for soprano, bass, strings, and an unusual percussion section: vibraphone, whip, and celesta, but no timpani. Shostakovich admired the music of Benjamin Britten; the Symphony 14 is similar to Britten's War Requiem, on a smaller scale. The recording of this work by Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmonic, with singers Karita Mattila and Thomas Quastoff, available on Tidal in MQA, is a treat (CD, EMI Classics 3 58077 2; MQA/Tidal HiFi 68735772). Just don't expect "Ode to Joy"; Shostakovich's notion of how to celebrate life was to bring senseless death into stark relief. Buck up, Prince Hamlet, things could be worse.

The song setting À la Santé sets a grim poem by Apollinaire, in a Russian translation of the original French, with modifications to make it grimmer (footnote 4). Quastoff's voice is rich, chesty, and breathy. This is a good track for testing bass, spatial separation, soundstage depth, and perhaps your tolerance for existential pain. "Farewell, farewell, songs and dances / o my youth, o young girls."

At this point I turned to a different DAC, Mytek HiFi's Brooklyn ($1995), to fully unfold the MQA version of this album, which is easily superior to the CD version even via the less expensive converter (footnote 5). I listened to À la Santé all the way through with the BHK Signature set to unity gain: "80" on the volume dial. Then I removed the preamp and connected the Brooklyn directly to the amplifiers. Although the effect was more subtle (footnote 6), I heard much the same thing I'd heard with Duke Ellington and Bennie Maupin: With the BHK Signature preamplifier in the system, the music seemed more lively, and the space in which the images were cast was more tangible; the end of my living room became a new performance space.

HAMLET: Let be
Despite what I wrote at the outset, about subjectivity, audio reviewers, and killing kings, I'll not be killing any Kings today. PS Audio's BHK Signature preamp is one of the finest audio components I've had in my home. It didn't raise the dead, but it could conjure in my listening room the spirits of dead musicians, or fine facsimiles thereof. It didn't solve my problems, but it could sure distract me from them—and, with the right recordings, even trigger catharsis or philosophical insight.

Hamlet hits a rough patch in Act III,i, and ponders whether it's better to live or to die. He goes on to botch things, and the play ends badly. But along the way he provides a tentative answer to his existential question. Paraphrasing: Pour yourself a beverage. Put on some good tunes. Sit back, relax, and be content. Whisper words of wisdom.

Footnote 3: Well, almost everything. It doesn't control my PSA PowerPlant power regenerator.

Footnote 4: La Santé, a notorious Paris prison, opened in 1867. Famously, the Roman-born Appollinaire, whose real name was Wilhelm Albert Wlodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki, spent just one night there, then made a big deal about it poetically, for which people give him shit. Shostakovich mined his text, making sure there was no hint of false suffering while carefully preserving the true suffering.

Footnote 5: There was another reason for using the Mytek Brooklyn: I wanted to make sure that what I was hearing—the improvement wrought by the addition of the preamp—was not particular to the DirectStream DAC, which has an unconventional, transformer-coupled output stage. While the impedance numbers matched up just fine, I thought it possible that I was hearing a matching issue specific to the PS Audio DAC that might not occur with a different source.

Footnote 6: Isn't it reasonable that there is less vivid life in a piece that's all about dying and death?

PS Audio
4826 Sterling Drive
Boulder, CO 80301
(720) 406-8946

Joao1's picture

Quite an esoteric review.

volvic's picture

Nice writing, read it three times. Well done Mr. Austin...keep em coming. BTW, did you ever get A/C for the apt?

JimAustin's picture

>>Nice writing, read it three times. Well done Mr. Austin...keep em coming.<<


>>BTW, did you ever get A/C for the apt?<<

No, but I'm seriously considering it. Main problem is, the only place to put one in the main living space is right behind the component rack. I'll probably need to chill the place and then turn it off for critical listening.


dmineard HT's picture

Well done. Great style. Wish more writers hit the spots you did. Thanks.

JimAustin's picture

Thank you! Much appreciated!