Solid State Preamp Reviews

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Jim Austin  |  May 17, 2019  |  62 comments
For those who listen with their ears and not their brain, perfectionist hi-fi offers many surprises.

A friend called me up a few weeks ago and asked if the DAC we both own had received an automatic firmware update he hadn't heard about; something had changed, it wasn't good, and he couldn't figure out what it was. His system's sound was suddenly pale and unfocused.

There had been no firmware update.

Michael Fremer  |  Mar 29, 2019  |  0 comments
Our conservative two-channel audio world doesn't easily accept change. Not that many years ago, even remote control was considered a sign of electronic moral decay certain to degrade sound quality. Today, home theater–like operating systems, with their fluorescent-screen hells and microprocessor-controlled functionality are commonplace, even in the highest of fi. Consumers accustomed to the convenience of audio/video processors now demand it on every price tier of two-channel hi-fi, though purists who think sound quality is commensurate with inconvenience can have that if they want it.
Jim Austin  |  Mar 21, 2019  |  11 comments
Like most serious pursuers of the audio hobby, I've known about J E Sugden & Co. Ltd. for years. For many of those years, though, it was easy to forget about them, and I mostly did—until, quite recently, Sugden gear began popping up at audio shows, including the 2016 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. In his report on that show, Herb Reichert described the midrange of Sugden's A21SE Signature, a pure class-A integrated amplifier, driving DeVore Fidelity speakers, as "shroom-like" and contrasted the sound with what he called class-D's "fake cocaine." That got my attention.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Jan 10, 2019  |  0 comments
Although I no longer attend the audio pageant that was once the annual Consumer Electronics Show, I now seem to be traveling more, in hopes of recapturing the excitement CES had once provided. Last May I attended High End, in Munich, and found that while it was entirely as advertised, there was, alas, not enough emphasis on the playback of high-resolution files, and hardly any attention paid to multichannel music.
Ken Micallef  |  Dec 06, 2018  |  6 comments
In the early 1990s, the Compact Disc was all the rage, and vinyl records were being executed en masse. Thirty years later, and oh, how our tables have turned. Mint first pressings of tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley's 1957 album Hank Mobley (Blue Note BLP 1568), which once could be had for $40, now bring upward of $8000. Each. Vinyl continues to enjoy a global resurgence of popularity, while CD sales have plummeted to all-time lows.

What happened? Apparently, yesterday's pops and ticks are today's "warmth," Record Store Day exclusives, and skyrocketing vinyl values. All things old . . .

Michael Fremer  |  Nov 29, 2018  |  0 comments
The digital ground seems to shift weekly. While firmware and software updates over the Internet somewhat slow the constant upheaval, when you do buy something, you just know that as soon as you plunk down your cash, something new will come along.

So, especially with preamplifiers, why not produce a design based on modules that the user can swap in and out, to custom-configure the preamp to that user's current needs while leaving room for later expansion? Why pay for six inputs' worth of stuff when at present you need only two? Upgrades? New features? No problem—swap out a module. Or, if a circuit in one module malfunctions, you can send only that module back for repairs, not the whole thing.

Kalman Rubinson  |  Nov 01, 2018  |  2 comments
Sometimes, I feel I'm two people. One, a card-carrying audiophile, is always looking for ways to optimize his enjoyment of multichannel music recordings, a purist pursuit that begins with file playback and leads to DACs, amps, and speakers, while eschewing anything that can complicate or compromise the sound. Thus, while his main system may seem elaborate to outsiders, to him it seems streamlined: NAS>player>DAC>preamp>power amps>speakers. In fact, it's possible to combine the NAS and player in a single device, if that device's CPU and RAM are capable of doing all the tasks—but these product categories continue to evolve so quickly that he prefers to keep them discrete.
Jim Austin  |  May 29, 2018  |  16 comments
In the March 2018 issue, Art Dudley admired the sound quality of Ayre Acoustics' KX-5 Twenty preamplifier, but didn't love some of its operational aspects. I've staged this Follow-Up as a putative face-off between the Ayre and my current reference preamplifier, the PS Audio BHK Signature, which I reviewed in the June 2017 issue.
Larry Greenhill  |  May 22, 2018  |  8 comments
Each equipment report in Stereophile focuses on a single audio component. When listening to a component for review, I leave unchanged all other components in my audio system. Other Stereophile reviewers experiment with different interconnects, speaker cables, power cords, or stands. As I found while reviewing Bryston's BP-173 (Cubed) preamplifier, being flexible has its rewards.

Description
My first lesson in flexibility was learning what Bryston means by "Cubed" (footnote 1). Jim Tanner, Bryston's VP of sales and marketing, explained that all their Cubed models employ an array of 12 active devices for the first 6dB of gain. Developed by the late Dr. Ioan Alexandru Salomie, this array acts as "a super-linear" input buffer to filter out audio- and radio-frequency noise, particularly anomalies that originate in the power line, reducing the overall noise and distortion to less than 0.001%.

Art Dudley  |  Feb 22, 2018  |  10 comments
The hoary question of tubes vs transistors, once certain and clear, is made ambiguous by recent products from a few solid-state specialists, not the least being Ayre Acoustics—the company that endures in the wake of the passing of its founder, the widely admired Charley Hansen. In their solid-state preamplifiers and amplifiers of the past decade in particular, Ayre has enshrined a number of technologies that are more than just variations on the audio-engineering status quo, and that appear to pay real sonic dividends.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Jan 02, 2018  |  7 comments
I have not been attending audio shows as often as I used to, and this January, for the first time in more than 20 years, I'm skipping the annual Consumer Electronics Show. My personal return on investment has become hard to justify, especially when attendance at each annual CES requires a round trip from New York City to Las Vegas, Nevada. More important, audio shows now seem focused mostly on either two-channel music playback or multichannel home theater, whereas what interests me is listening to music in surround sound.
Art Dudley  |  Jun 20, 2017  |  3 comments
"As the original L2 circuitry was virtually flawless, it was the emergence of new electronic components that opened up a possibility of [even better performance] . . ."

So begins one of two booklets—one a collection of specifications and interior photos, the other a distinctly thorough user's manual—included with the new L2.1 Reference line-level preamplifier from Brooklyn's Lamm Industries, earlier products from which have impressed me as among the best available. Indeed, coming from almost anyone else, the above quote would strike me as trivial boasting—but I know from experience that there's nothing trivial about designer and company head Vladimir Lamm.

Larry Greenhill  |  Apr 20, 2017  |  29 comments
The Mark Levinson No.526 is the first preamplifier designed by a new 12-person team led by Todd Eichenbaum, director of engineering at the Harman Luxury Audio Group's Engineering Center of Excellence (ECOE), in Shelton, Connecticut. Designed to fit the price niche between the company's least and most expensive preamps—the No.326S ($10,000) and No.52 ($30,000)—the No.526 costs $20,000.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Jul 02, 2015  |  6 comments
Most new preamplifier-processors now fall into one of two categories. First are the fully featured models, with ever-growing numbers of channels to support such immersive surround-sound formats as Dolby Atmos, Aureo3D, and DTS-X. An example is Marantz's 13.2-channel AV-8802, which replaces the 11.2-channel AV-8801—a sample of which I've owned for barely a year and use only in 5.2! The second category is that of such high-end models as Classé's Sigma and NAD's M17, which offer only 7.1 or 7.2 channels, and from which nonessential features have been trimmed in favor of audiophile-grade circuit components and construction. But if money is no object, there is a third class of pre-pro, exemplified by Trinnov's Altitude32 and Datasat's RS20i, in which no compromise is made in any of these parameters.
Fred Kaplan  |  Apr 22, 2015  |  3 comments
Transparency is a trait we all value in a hi-fi rig, and it's a concept I've long thought I understood. A system that tosses up the illusion of a clear, spacious soundstage, on which you can hear—almost see—all of the singers and/or instruments, from side to side and, especially, from front to way, way back: that's the ticket. Still, although such transparency is a sign that you've entered the realm of fine sound, it's not an absolute requirement. Tonal accuracy, dynamic range, a certain thereness that conveys the emotional heft or delicacy of music—those things come first. Without them, the most precisely delineated soundstage is like an architect's sketch of an oil painting.

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