Viola Audio Laboratories Cadenza preamplifier Page 2

I pulled out my rainy-Tuesday-afternoon classic, Martha Argerich's recording of Ravel's Piano Concerto in G, with Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic (CD, DG 447 438-2), and cued up that monument to melancholy, the Adagio assai. As I'd expected, the Cadenza delivered the solo piano with all of the little hesitations and nuances that give the movement its pathos—but when the English horn joined in, the purity of its timbre raised every hair on the back of my neck. I just sighed...

Whoa! Sometimes, it can be a prayer.

It's hard to follow something that sublime, but such moments are the whole point of audiophilia, as far as I'm concerned—and even a blind hog can find a truffle every now and then. Even me. So I dove into the archives for Pentangle's Solomon's Seal (CD, Castle 555) and cued up "Willie O' Winsbury." Jacqui McShee's haunting solo voyage on that Child ballad was as clear as a Highlands spring—and as bracingly cold as spring in the Highlands. T'ain't much there, other than one of the purest voices ever committed to tape. The Cadenza simply got out of the way of all that simplicity.

Whoa! Sometimes, it can be a song.

Shooting a man in the middle of his cadenza ain't good form
To give the Cadenza a thorough test, it occurred to me that I ought to compare it to a top-rated preamp—such as Conrad-Johnson's ACT2 ($12,000), which I reviewed in the March 2005 issue—as well as to a perfectly ordinary mass-market design. In one of those ironies that typify the life of a Stereophile reviewer, getting my hands on a cheap'n'cheerful preamp—not the ACT2—proved to be the sticking point. I just didn't have one, so I decided to use my reference preamp, the decidedly real-world Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista, which cost around $2500 when last available. No, it isn't mass-market, but as much as I like it, it sure ain't perfect either. Besides, isn't that what a reference is for?

While I did feel that the Cadenza exhibited a particular synergy with its Viola Labs stablemate, the Symphony power amp, my use of two single-ended preamps in the head-to-head comparisons meant that I couldn't use that balanced-input-only design. Level-matched comparisons were made using the Ayre V-5xe amp, which accepts both SE and balanced inputs.

Remembering the revelations wrought by the ReBirth Jazz Band's "You Move Ya Lose," I listened to it again. Sure enough, the Cadenza made it hard, if not impossible, to listen sitting down. The music was rooted in my body (I probably don't need to tell you where). I just had to get up and move, not to mention groove.

Not so much with the Nu-Vista. That tuba line was less forcefully forward and the snare was mired deeper in the mix. The sound was more mixed together—sort of like moving back 15 rows in the hall.

This was interesting, and a point that can be argued: Which better served the music? It's an argument I've had in many a late-night bull session.

I have a friend who insists that, at its ideal, music soothes the soul as a mother's lullaby pacifies a child. Well, I'm all for that (hence my love of that Adagio assai in the Ravel concerto), but it seems to me that that particular argument cheats me of far too much musical expression. ReBirth ain't about soothing you at all, it's about making you want to boogie, even if it means that the band emits some spectacular clams along the way. The Nu-Vista let me hear those clams, but they were tamed. And tamed ain't right.

When I say that the snare drum was mired in the mix, I'm not just referring to a sonic attribute—at least, not in the usual sense of sonic. The Cadenza had "pace and rhythm," in Martin Colloms' memorable phrase. The measures—those neat little boxes the music is supposed to come in—barely contain a group like ReBirth. The individual instrumental lines may all make strict metric sense, but when they're laid out on top of one another, they weave in and out of those boxes most anarchically—they overflow, they ooze. That creates dynamic tension (sheesh, now I'm quoting Charles Atlas). I suspect that one reason the Nu-Vista's presentation sounds calmer is that it undersells that tension.

I'd hoped that the less frantic Pentangle and Ravel tracks might reveal areas in which the MF preamp would better the Cadenza, but the results were quite similar. The Cadenza sounded immediate and deeply rooted in music as a sensual experience, while the Nu-Vista seemed a step farther away. Time for the Conrad-Johnson ACT2.

Time for another Whoa! I hadn't listened to the ACT2 for far too long—what a great-sounding preamp it is. And how phenomenally different-sounding from the Cadenza. Sort of.

ReBirth had me jumping. Frazier's tuba was slamming and Tabb's snare line was skittering all around and under and ahead of the brass's second line. Oh, wait—that's pretty much what I heard from the Cadenza. But they didn't sound alike. Not at all.

The difference wasn't timbral; both preamps were quite convincing tonally. And it wasn't dynamic range; again, each had more shades between soft and BLAM! than I have adjectives. (I once worked it out: infinity minus one.)

For lack of a better word, the difference between the Cadenza and the ACT2 was in their presentations. The Cadenza had an in-your-face physicality that reminded me of being in the front row at a concert. Yes, the music is all around you, but it's what's in front of you that's so overwhelming. The ACT2 also partakes of that physical immersion in the sound, but is perhaps less direct. Not gentler, not softer, just...different.

This became more apparent with Argerich's Ravel. The Cadenza made me more aware of the attacks of her Steinway, while the ACT2 more completely integrated each attack into its bloom. That's not quite right, because it sounds as though I'm saying the Cadenza shorted the bloom, which it didn't. It was still there, but the ping of hammer on string seemed more important than the rest of the note. No, even that sounds too black-and-white, which it wasn't. These were subtle differences, and I got different things out of each presentation, which means that while they were minor, they might also mean everything.

I went back and forth, convinced that I had to prefer one to the other. But each time I'd start to think I did, I'd rest, then start over, and...No. They were different, but I couldn't call one "better." I moved on to Pentangle's "Willie O' Winsbury."

I thought I'd had problems with piano! The two preamps both delivered Jacqui McShee into my living room in holographic solidity. Perhaps the Cadenza had more facets in its crystalline clarity, but the ACT2 gave me ever so slightly more glamour on her voice. Maybe.

One thing was instructive: My long-dormant need for a remote control asserted itself while I was listening to "Willie." I grabbed the ACT2's remote to savor the laird's declaration: "If I was a woman as I am a man / My bedfellow you would have been."

That's it? That's all I can say? The ACT2 has a remote? Well, no. There are fundamental differences between the sounds of the Cadenza and the ACT2, but they don't relate to quality. I can't honestly say that one is better than the other, but I also can't say that you won't prefer one to the other. You may well—or you may end up as confused as I am. It might come down to something as simple as how you feel about remotes. Or color. Or Whoa!

Taken near the end of a movement
Or cost. $16,000 is a ton of money. Even in our housing bub—er, market opportunity, that's a down payment on a nice home. But I think we have to assume that no one seriously considering buying a Viola Labs Cadenza will have to choose between a house and a preamp. That would be silly.

But not as silly as ignoring the Cadenza if you're shopping in that exalted neighborhood. This is a fantastic preamp, as good as any I've heard—and one that sent me scuttling through my music collection for forgotten gems and new discoveries alike. If you're thinking about buying the "best" preamp out there, you'll be selling yourself short if you don't check out this one.

Disregard your intellect. Listen to your ears.

Viola Audio Laboratories
315 Peck Street
New Haven, CT 06513
(203) 772-0435