Enjoy the Music.com's Special 20/20 Award
High-End Audio Preamplification --
Steven R. Rochlin chooses the most notable products during
the past 20 years.
As Chosen By Editor & Creative
Director Steven R. Rochlin
we're awarding perhaps the most important analog audio unit. Every signal within
your system is connected to a preamplifier of some type, so you best get it
right or else nothing else matters. Whilst most preamplifiers are an active
amplification device, some are strictly passive and use specially-built passive
attenuation to get the job done. Speaking of attenuators, some use specially
configured potentiometers, others might be computer controlled, and still others
simply use a conductive trace. Furthermore, active preamplifiers use solid-state
or vacuum tubes to amplify the signal. Over the years a wide variety of
circuitry has been developed to get the signal from your source gear to the
amplifier in as pure a form as possible while having the ability to change the
electrical output to meet your system's output volume needs as it exits the
loudspeakers. And if this were not enough, some preamplifiers have a moving
magnetic or moving coil (MM or MC) phonostage). Oh, and there may be a tap loop
as well for those still using cassette tape or reel-to-reel. So you see, a
preamplifier is quite an important piece of high-end audio gear!
Editor and Creative Director for Enjoy the Music.com, it is my honor to
look back at the many thousands of preamplifiers and choose the top 20.
This month my choices are for the very best in preamplification over the past 20 years.
In case you missed it, we've already posted our Special
20/20 Award for Analog/Cartridges, Special
20/20 Award For Digital and Special
20/20 Award for Amplification. Each month i'll follow up with other product
No one said that picking up to 20 products, or 15
in this case, during
the past 20 years would
be easy. i take this task with much reflection and contemplation as have seen
and heard many devices over the years. Using
my 20/20 hindsight to decide upon 15 high-end audio preamplifiers is no easy feat!
Of course many of these products
have been superseded and no longer available as new, yet you may find them used
at very attractive pricing. High-end audio does not need to be high priced and
here is where some bargain hunters could greatly benefit. Of course some new
products will make a good showing as they are today's leading-edge creations.
With that said and in no particular order, as Editor and Creative Director of Enjoy
the Music.com here are the Special 20/20 Awards for the
most notable high-end audio preamplifiers during the past 20 years.
EAR / Yoshino 868 Tube Preamplifier With Phonostage
One of the most classic preamplifiers that has been available for
quite a few years is the EAR / Yoshino 868 vacuum tube preamplifier with
phonostage ($5795 as standard, $7595 with phonostage). The EAR 868 is a fully balanced, transformer-coupled design, offering
XLR balanced and RCA single-ended connections at input and output. There is also
a tape loop, remote control of volume, and several load/gain selections for the phonostage.
With circuitry designed by the legendary Tim de Paravicini, vacuum tube
compliment includes four PCC88 (two for linestage, two for the phonostage.
Within his review, Enjoy the Music.com's Ron Nagle says, "The EAR
868 line stage is capable of sound reproduction nearing the state of the art. It
is the phono stage that undoubtedly sets the unit as 'state of the art'....
it raises the level of performance beyond any other phono stage that
I have ever heard." See our
review of the
EAR / Yoshino 868 vacuum tube preamplifier with phonostage here.
D'Agostino Master Audio Systems Momentum Preamplifier
As a reviewer, there are those times when you first see a product
and fall in love at first sight. Case in point is the D'Agostino Master Audio Systems Momentum
preamplifier ($32,000). From the Breguet-like power meter to the copper
highlights on the main chassis, there is much to love about the styling of this
preamplifier. Since this design came from the mastermind of audio Dan D'Agostino,
you know it has the finest of pedigree and is built to last a lifetime. Like the
D'Agostino Master Audio Systems' Momentum amplifiers, the preamplifier uses complementary balanced circuit topology for maximum bandwidth and low noise. Its audio circuitry is fully
discrete. Adhering to a zero-feedback amplification design to achieve the
highest of sound quality, the volume adjustment is made through a resistor ladder governed by an optical
controller. This is said by the manufacturer to be "the cleanest, most transparent possible method of controlling
volume". Unlike many high-end audio preamplifiers, the Momentum
preamplifier has tone controls for treble and bass. A 300 VA power supply
located within a separate chassis isolates the preamplifier's sensitive analog circuitry from electromagnetic interference and noise. Separate supplies
are designed for the analog power audio circuitry and another for the control
circuitry to eliminate any crosstalk that could possibly reduce the sound
quality. There are a total of six balanced inputs plus a theater through put.
Note that all inputs and outputs are balanced XLR. To aid in custom home system
or those who design system automation, there are 12-volt trigger outputs, an RS-232 control connector
and remote iR input.
Silbatone C-102 Preamplifier
If you recall from the Special
20/20 Awards for amplifiers, i bestowed the Silbatone JI-300B as one of
my faves. Before that unit, was fortunately to have the opportunity to review
the Silbatone C-102 preamplifier ($30,000). This battery-powered unit has custom
virtually everything inside. Internal wiring is silver, naturally. My review
says, "So it seems the review above is one of those reviewer unadulterated
raves. Well dammit it all if you had this piece in your system i would challenge
you to say bad things about it. Ok, so it is three large chassis, takes up quite
a bit of physical real-estate, weights what seems like a ton and costs $30,000.
So what?!?! The end result is a unit that reproduces music beyond that of any
other pre-amplifier ever heard... and i have heard more than one cares to
mention. This is not a subtle improvement over my reference units either,
but then again all my reference pre-amplifiers price added together do not equal
the price of this unit." See
my review of the Silbatone C-102 here.
conrad-johnson ART Vacuum Tube
First introduced in June of 1996 was the original conrad-johnson ART vacuum tube stereo preamplifier that celebrated their 20 years of
success. With only 250 made available worldwide and at a price of a staggering $15,000 at the time, which probably equates to $30,000 in today's dollar devaluation (officially
converted it says $23,000). Still, has there really been over 52% of currency devaluation since only 1996? Anyway, getting back to the conrad-johnson ART preamplifier, it can not be stressed enough how uch i desired one at the time. It was without a doubt a statement piece from conrad-johnson and their gear has a reputation of being
amongst the very best. ART is short for Anniversary Reference Triode and was the realization of a line-stage preamplifier originally designed exclusively for the company's own reference use. The ART preamplifier is a true dual-mono design with completely separate right and left chassis. As best i can recall, no other manufacturer at the time offered separate chassis for right and left channel for the preamplifier. Sure we have
monoblock amplifiers, yet a monoblock preamplifier?!? The unit features input selection and level adjustment by microprocessor-controlled relays, which was also quite revolutionary at the time. There is a special data link that connected the two chassis to enable a single set of controls to operate both channels. Level and balance had a staggering 100 steps of approximately 0.66 dB per step. Again, a revolutionary design at the time, and in some ways still true nearly 20 years later. One could go on and on about the design details, yet the proof was in how it reproduced music and on this note it was world-class. Every
reviewer, every single
one, who had this unit was in awe. Frankly, i'm still impressed by this design today, and you can't say that about many
preamplifiers. For the record, around 1999 i was able to get enough cash
together and bought the conrad-johnson LS17
preamplifier, with my review appearing here.
Convergent Audio Technology (CAT) SL1 MKII
The CAT SL1 MKII ($6950, phonostage adds $1000) is one of those nearly vintage preamplifiers that will have a following for probably.... forever. Headed by Ken Stevens and having some
reliability problems with earlier models, the MKII held strong. With nearly 17 years of design
expertise with the first version, the then new MKII brought about design developments to further the sound
quality. Like most high-end preamplifiers, there is a separate chassis for the power supply and another for the analog preamplifier stage. Vacuum tube compliment for a unit with optional phonostage included three 6922s and a pair of 12AX7s. As good as the stock tubes might have been at the time, many owners found that using new old stock (NOS) further extended the performance of this design. Am sure somewhere right now
someone is probably listening to their CAT SL1 MKII, and perhaps had it modified
with better connectors and other bits. And remember kids, power caps dry out so
replace those too.
Naim Audio Statement NAC S1 Preamplifier
The word 'Statement' could be translated in many ways, yet it always comes down to expressing one's opinion in an ultimate, irrevocable way. So if a company calls a product using this particular word, one has to be damn sure of what one is doing. Naim Audio's Statement NAC S1 preamplifier (£57,000) is an excellent example. Designing a top reference, flagship, most expensive – whatever one chooses to call it – product is a huge undertaking for any manufacturer. Our review included a pair of matching NAP S1 monoblocks. Our reviewer said, "I could keep writing about different aspects of the sound and summarize each paragraph with sentence that would say something like it's the best differentiation of... I've ever heard, or one of the best, or unbelievably good, and so on." You can
Enjoy the Music.com's review of the Naim Audio Statement NAC S1 preamplifier
with matching NAP S1 amplifier at this link.
Pass Laboratories X0.2 Preamplifier
Bringing on the three-chassis design, with monoblock preamplification stage and another chassis for the power supply, Pass Laboratories' X0.2 ($10,000)
brought about a completely new circuit topology with traditional construction representing thirty five years of design. This patented design integrates power MOSFET and JFET devices in a simple Class A topology to "deliver the finest sound possible" says Pass Labs. The Super-Symmetric gain circuitry used in the X0.2 is unique within this 2006 design and minimizes the number of components in the signal path. Pass Labs' X0.2 stereo preamplifier employs a patented new type of volume control that provides over 60dB of range, with claims of distortion and noise being at 1/10th and the dynamic range (100 times the previous state-of-the-art in active attenuation). The individual gain channels connect to the power supply control unit with four cables and to each other with an optional cable. As a balanced design, both XLR and unbalanced RCA is available for each of the five inputs, tape lop and two sets of stereo outputs.
Frequency response was an ear-filling 2Hz to 100kHz with a staggeringly low 0.003% THD @ 2V. There is so much more that could be said about this incredible design, yet as food for thought let me says that this is a 75 pound
Audible Illusions Modulus 3B Preamplifier
If you're seeking a great vacuum tube stereo preamplifier at reasonable pricing the Audible Illusions Modulus 3B ($3495) is the
successor to the 3A. Upon opening the chassis you can see where your money goes to within this design. Improvements over the previous design made by Audible Illusions includes a more pure signal path, using film and foil or Teflon capacitors within the signal path, using relays instead of
switches, an improved volume attenuator and a beefier power supply. Tube compliment is four 6922 / 6H23EB triodes within this Class A design. Speaking of designs, here we have John Curl proving once again his
genius in circuit creation and implementation. using the KISS method, there is a single gain stage with no buffers or cathode followers. Since the original 3A began life in 1983, it is far outside our 20 year limit, yet is also an excellent
design worth investigating as they sold over 18,300 units! Thus the more recent Audible Illusions Modulus 3B makes the grade within
Enjoy the Music.com's
Special 20/20 Awards. Oh, and before i forget, it also has an excellent phonostage that can handle both MM and MC cartridges.
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