Tube Preamp Reviews

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Art Dudley  |  Aug 24, 2017  |  5 comments
In January of 2014, some of us wondered if the sudden death of designer Ken Shindo would spell the end of the company he founded in 1977: It was hard to imagine Shindo Laboratory being led by anyone but its founder, a former Matsushita engineer who made it his life's work to study not only the designs of audio's golden age, but to learn the sound of every vacuum tube, every passive part, every circuit variation that he might reasonably press into service.
Dick Olsher  |  Jul 05, 2017  |  First Published: Oct 01, 1992  |  0 comments
Better known for their speaker cables and interconnects, The Absolute Reference Audio Labs (TARA Labs) has quietly branched out into electronics and loudspeakers. Their Passage is a line-level–only preamp. I actually favor such a modular approach to preamp design. Standing as we are at the dawn of the digital audio age, the breakup of the traditional preamp into separate phono and line-level stages represents a more flexible, cost-effective design approach.
Herb Reichert  |  May 25, 2017  |  17 comments
Everyone knows that world-class analog and digital sources are the bedrock of all fine audiophile systems. Everyone also knows that a happy relationship of amplifier, speakers, and room makes audiophiles smirk Aren't I lucky? Fewer among us are aware that the upper limit of sound quality an audio system can deliver will be established by whichever audio contraption we use to select our sources and adjust their volume.
Jim Austin  |  May 23, 2017  |  5 comments
"Let be."

Those two words, from Shakespeare's Hamlet, express an entire philosophy of life in one of the shortest sentences possible. The quotation may not be familiar, but the concept certainly is—contemporary equivalents, each with its own inflections of meaning, include: Shit happens. Let the game come to you. Keep calm and carry on. (I hate that one.) Paul McCartney wrote something similar, and only slightly less concise, in a late Beatles song.

Michael Fremer  |  Nov 23, 2016  |  12 comments
The last time I reviewed an Audio Research component—it was the VTM200 monoblock amplifier in January 2001—my hair was mostly dark brown. The wait since has been not of my choosing, but that's now flux under the circuit board. Since then, much has happened to both me and to the Audio Research Corporation, a long-lived company for which the descriptor "legendary" is well deserved.
Herb Reichert  |  Jul 28, 2016  |  1 comments
Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Mary Oliver famously remarked, "attention without feeling . . . is only a report."

After nearly two years of prattling for Stereophile, I am finally grasping the full veracity of that statement. When I read reviews that jabber on about highs, mediums, and lows, and that rely exclusively on nonmusical vocabulary, I come away with feelings of acute cognitive dissonance. Not to mention: if a review has a lot of initialisms—ADD, S/PDIF, DXD, HDMI, etc.—my ADHD kicks in and I stop reading by the third paragraph.

Fred Kaplan  |  Jul 28, 2016  |  2 comments
When I first met Luke Manley, proprietor of VTL, he and his father, David, with whom he ran the company at the time, had recently emigrated from the UK to California. I asked Luke how he liked the West Coast. "Great," he replied. "Much better parts availability." This was about 30 years ago, when I was just immersing myself in high-end audio at a high-toned level. Our exchange gave me a taste of the obsessions ahead, though Luke Manley's single-mindedness through the decades since has been more dogged than many—and, at the same time, less dogmatic.
Herb Reichert  |  May 26, 2016  |  0 comments
This is a true story about a surprising 1W integrated amplifier—a push-pull, class-A, output-transformerless tube amp—that drove my DeVore Fidelity Orangutan O/93 speakers to 90dB average levels with grace, spiderweb detail, liquidity, and—unbelievably—a small degree of bass slam.
Fred Kaplan  |  Dec 30, 2015  |  2 comments
A quarter-century ago, when we were just getting into wine, my wife and I took a trip to Napa Valley. At one premium vineyard, we took a taste from the $20 bottle, then, for the hell of it, a taste from the $50 bottle. The first taste was nice; the second was alarming—an explosion of flavors, a gateway to sensory delights that we hadn't known could be had from a barrel of crushed grapes. We wobbled away, concerned that high-end wine might be a dangerous hobby.
Robert J. Reina  |  Jun 05, 2015  |  9 comments
For me, the highlights of any audio show are finding a room with great sound and visiting it often throughout the show, to relax and absorb a wide range of great music. At the NY Audio Show in April 2012 in New York City, it was the room occupied by the Valve Amplification Company. There, I fell in love with the sound coming through the Signature Mk IIa line-stage preamplifier, and remembered that while I'd heard many VAC products at audio shows over the past two decades, and had enjoyed the sound every time, I'd never had a VAC product in my house. I requested a review sample.
Dick Olsher  |  May 06, 2015  |  First Published: May 01, 1989  |  0 comments
The Lazarus, a slim, quite elegant unit finished in black with red and gray legends, lived up to its advance billing: it literally rose from the dead! Out of its coffin (ie, shipping box) and plugged into the wall, it showed no signs of life. Troubleshooting revealed a blown AC mains fuse. That in itself was not a major problem, but what worried me was the root cause of the trouble. Preamplifiers as a rule are not power-hungry, so a current surge at turn-on sufficient to destroy the 250mA slow-blow mains fuse appeared symptomatic of a major circuitry failure.
Art Dudley  |  Apr 23, 2015  |  8 comments
If you look at it from a distance and squint a little, Luxman's Classic CL-38u preamplifier ($4200) could almost be mistaken for that most classic of all classic hi-fi products, the Marantz Model 7C control center. The aluminum front panels of both models have, at their centers, a row of four distinctive toggle switches, flanked on each side by four control knobs. Even more noticeable are the stylish wood enclosures—standard on the Luxman, optional on the Marantz—which make both preamps appear ready for duty at the Playboy Mansion, ca 1963, or perhaps an appearance in a Life photo essay titled "At Home with Steve McQueen."
Robert J. Reina  |  Jul 31, 2014  |  4 comments
I've long been impressed by the design, construction, and sound of the tubed electronics produced by Vladimir Lamm, but I'd never had a Lamm Industries product in my house. So I asked for a review sample of Lamm's flagship line-stage preamplifier, the LL1 Signature.
Robert J. Reina  |  Jun 02, 2014  |  0 comments
When I began my journey into audiophilia, I was in awe of the Audio Research Corporation's flagship SP preamplifiers. As I sat there in the early 1980s with my modest Apt Holman preamp, all of my friends had ARC SP6Bs. By today's standards, the SP6B was colored, did not portray a realistic soundstage, and lacked sufficient gain to amplify the low-output moving-coil cartridges of the day. But it had an intimacy in the midrange that was intoxicating. (Still considered a classic design by many, the SP6B's price on the used market has remained virtually unchanged for 30 years.) Then, still in the early '80s, ARC raised the bar with the SP-10 ($3700). It had 15 tubes and an outboard power supply, and set a new standard for delicacy, drama, and authority. (John Atkinson still has the SP10 he bought in 1984.)
Robert J. Reina  |  Apr 07, 2014  |  0 comments
When Carolyn Counnas, co-founder of Zesto Audio, contacted editor John Atkinson to ask about getting the Leto, the company's tubed line stage preamplifier ($7500), reviewed in Stereophile, JA suggested that I do the job. I'd recently reviewed competing designs from Nagra and VTL (see reviews in April 2013 and June 2013, respectively) and I was thrilled—I always look forward to hearing a tube preamp from a company I'm unfamiliar with, and besides, I'd seen pictures of the drop-dead-gorgeous Leto. After nearly 30 years of reviewing all sizes and pedigrees of preamps, power amps, and integrateds, I'm weary of staring at nondescript rectangular boxes in various shades of silver and black.

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