Solid State Preamp Reviews

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Art Dudley  |  Feb 22, 2018  |  9 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  |  21 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.
Kal 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.
Michael Fremer  |  Mar 05, 2015  |  2 comments
Founded in 1984, Boulder Amplifiers is a conservative audio company that goes quietly about its business, choosing not to call attention to itself with marketing flash or acronym-laden features. Change comes slowly to such companies, which is why the just-retired 2010 preamplifier enjoyed a 17-year run.
John Atkinson  |  Nov 26, 2014  |  5 comments
The experience left me doubting my ears. After I'd performed all the measurements of Ayre Acoustics' KX-R preamplifier ($18,500) to accompany Wes Phillips's review in our November 2008 issue, I spent a weekend listening to it. To my astonishment, the sound of my system with a Transporter D/A processor feeding the preamplifier was better than when the DAC fed the power amplifier directly. Through the KX-R, images sounded more tangible, and the sound was better focused, despite the signal's having been passed through not just another set of interconnects but also through the preamp's input and output socketry, switches, a volume control, printed circuit-board traces, and active and passive parts. Logically, you'd think that having nothing in the signal path would have less of a degrading effect than so many somethings. But no, that was not what I heard, much as I would have preferred otherwise.
Michael Fremer  |  Jul 25, 2014  |  2 comments
A preamplifier is the port of entry through which you gain access to the sources you've so carefully assembled. It's also the gate through which all of your music passes. So while its sonic performance is obviously critical, you'd also better assess how it feels, how it looks, and how it operates—you're going to be in an intimate relationship with it for a long time. Before choosing a preamplifier, therefore, take some time to drive it around the block, or at least shake hands with it. Use your imagination as much as your ears.
Art Dudley  |  Apr 07, 2014  |  11 comments
Asked how to make a guitar, the celebrated luthier Wayne Henderson offered a straight-up answer: "Just get a pile of really nice wood and a whittling knife. Then you just carve away everything that isn't a guitar." (footnote 1)

The making of a preamplifier seems more or less the opposite. You start with a simple volume control and a couple of jacks, then add whatever you think constitutes a preamplifier. Choices might include electronic source switching, line-level gain, phono-level gain and equalization, tone controls, tone-defeat switches, a balance control, a headphone jack, an iPod input, and maybe even a digital-to-analog converter with a USB receiver. The sky is pretty much the limit.

Brian Damkroger  |  Dec 05, 2013  |  1 comments
When I reviewed Simaudio's Moon Evolution 880M monoblock amplifier for the June 2013 issue, I communicated via phone and e-mail with the company's VP of marketing, Lionel Goodfield. When the topic of hearing the 880Ms at their best came up, I could almost imagine him shrugging as he said, "Just use it with the most transparent, revealing preamp you can find." Not surprisingly, he then went on to say that Simaudio's own Moon Evolution 850P would serve nicely in that role. My cynical side might normally have discounted any such suggestion from a marketing man, but I'd been hearing the same sort of thing from other sources. And, as it happened, there was an 850P at Stereophile World Headquarters . . .
Michael Fremer  |  Jun 13, 2013  |  1 comments
In the early 1970s, Stereophile's founder, J. Gordon Holt—a man I used to describe, with all due respect, as having been clothed by the haberdasher to the homeless—said that Audio Research's SP-3 tubed preamplifier was "the closest thing available, in fact, to the ideal straight wire with gain" ie, it would amplify the signal without editorializng in any way. Back then, the SP-3 cost $595. Today it would cost around $3500. But TAD's C600 dual-mono, solid-state, balanced preamplifier costs more than 10 times that: $42,000.
John Atkinson  |  Mar 29, 2013  |  First Published: Apr 01, 2013  |  5 comments
It was the strangest thing. In the fall of 2008 I was comparing Ayre Acoustics' then-new KX-R line preamplifier with no preamplifier at all—I was feeding the power amplifier directly with the output of the Logitech Transporter D/A processor. (Levels were matched for the comparisons, of course, made possible by the fact that the Transporter has a digital-domain volume control.) Being a rational being, I knew that the active circuitry of a preamplifier, as well as the extra socketry and cables, would be less transparent to the audio signal than a single piece of wire. I wanted to determine by how much the Ayre preamp fell short of that standard.
Kalman Rubinson  |  Jan 04, 2013  |  3 comments
NAD's T 187. Another pre-pro? And not inexpensive at $3000! Why do I care?

First of all, NAD has come to the forefront of established full-range manufacturers as innovators in digital audio. From their original digital preamp, the 118, which I reviewed in the July 1998 issue; to the M2 Direct Digital amp, reviewed by JA in March 2010; to the Masters M51 high-resolution DAC, reviewed last July by Jon Iverson; and their Masters M50 and M52 music-streaming devices, NAD has never simply repackaged available chips and modules, but has always gone their own way.

Sam Tellig  |  Apr 25, 2013  |  First Published: Oct 01, 2012  |  1 comments
In April 1987, Anthony H. Cordesman had mixed feelings about the Mod Squad Passive Line Drive System Control Center. (Read his review here.) Introduced in 1984, the Line Drive offered volume and balance controls, five line-level inputs, and switching and monitoring for two tape decks. You didn't plug it into the wall; it provided no gain. Was it even a proper preamp? (footnote 1)

AHC demurred. "I'm not sure that I'm ready to advise anyone to take the risk of not buying a unit with a top-quality phono stage, no matter how well CD or DAT perform," he concluded, between commenting on Middle East wars.