World Premiere Review!
Let's face it, the year 2020 with the coronavirus pandemic has sucked. In addition to the tragic loss of life, health, and financial security for many people, most of us have been unable to easily connect with loved ones. Now, what we always considered normal activities have been completely shut down. For the past few years, my dad and I have been season ticket holders for the Austin Symphony Orchestra. That meant, for nine wonderful Saturday evenings a year, we would meet up, have a meal together, then go to the Symphony. It was a great way to reconnect and enjoy our shared passion for music. With the advent of the pandemic, all that was shut down. So instead of that, I have been trying other ways to stay connected with my dad. The Aric Audio Unlimited II Preamplifier has helped me in that effort.
Many readers of Enjoy the Music.com have already become familiar with Aric Audio through Dwayne Carter's excellent review of the Alpha 300B push-pull amplifier. Like David Berning, Nelson Pass, and the late Don Garber, Aric Kimball puts all of his equipment together himself. Call me a mystic, but I feel there is special energy given to a piece of equipment when one person designs and makes it themselves.
The Unlimited II is a thoughtfully designed preamplifier that has some great features. The heart of the Unlimited II is its tube-rectified power supply. This power supply uses an over-sized transformer, a 5U4GB rectifier tube, two OD3 regulator tubes, a choke, and a hybrid film/electrolytic power supply filter section. In addition, the Unlimited II uses DC on the heaters. This over-designed power supply makes the Unlimited II super quiet. It also leads me to the second part of the preamp, the small-signal tubes. The Unlimited II uses a pair of nine-pin of the 12__7 family.
Aric supplies a pair of NOS 12BH7 tubes with the Unlimited II, but since it's a regulated tube supply, any members of that small-signal tube family can be used. These tubes have different amplification factors. To accommodate these different tubes, the Unlimited II has, in the back, an output level to control set the maximum gain. As I said, very thoughtful.
The Unlimited II has four sets of inputs and three sets of outputs. The Alps volume control is motorized for remote use. The selector switch has a great solid feel, as does the power switch. Overall, the Unlimited II inspires confidence with its solid build.
One of the optional features on the Unlimited II is a solid-state MM phono stage, which I requested. I wanted to spin some old vinyl and what better way to do that than with a nice new preamp?
This leads me back to how I began this review. A couple of years ago, I inherited my dad's record collection. He and my mom were downsizing into a senior apartment, so a bunch of stuff wasn't going to make the trip with them. I acquired several large boxes, which ended up sitting in the garage. A couple of times I thought about digging into them, but the prospect always seemed so daunting. If your garage looks like mine, you'll know what I mean.
This past fall, I started to become interested in the music of Stravinsky. For many people, Stravinsky's compositions signify the end of the Romantic Period in classical music. His early ballet scores almost seem to be a harbinger of the chaos of WWI, the great depression, and WWII. Maybe I was attracted to this music in a new way by the disruptive events of 2020. Who knows? I had listened to some of his music online, but save for the CD of "The Firebird", I had no physical media. I mentioned this to my dad in a phone call and he told me he went through a big Stravinsky phase and had a pretty good collection in vinyl.
A few days later, I tunneled my way into my garage and pulled out a stack of platters. I'm so lucky because my dad always took great care of his records and I knew they would be in excellent condition. Excited at my newfound bounty, I decided to make good use of my time. I would become familiar with one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century, and evaluate the Unlimited II.
Before we begin, let me make clear that my vinyl front end is quite modest. I have an old Yamaha turntable that I have tweaked over the years married to the Sumiko Rainier MM cartridge. Before I played any of the records, I used LAST deep cleaner and record treatment on them. I have been a fan of LAST for many years and their products do make a difference in the sound and durability of records.
I thought it would make the most sense to present the records in the approximate order in which the main compositions were written, but I skipped any of the platters containing choral works. I have never felt that Stravinsky had a great feel for the human voice. That's just my preference. Now, let the adventure begin.
Igor Stravinsky was a complete unknown until he wrote the score for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes presentation of The Firebird. The music quickly made Stravinsky the toast of Gay Paree and was the first wave of a new kind of music. My dad's vinyl of this was by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Loren Maazel [Decca Records DL79978]. This album was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon and is the stereo pressing. The performance of The Firebird is a classic, solid, and assured, and the recording is first-rate, with excellent inner detail. The dynamics are a little compressed, but we'll give them a little slack here. They were still getting the hang of this whole stereo-LP thing. The surface noise is a little noticeable in this old pressing, but because the Unlimited II is so dead quiet, none of the details are obscured. On the second side is a symphonic poem, Chant Du Rossignol (Song of the Nightingale) from later in his career. At first, this seems like an odd pairing because of the stylistic differences, but they do go well together. Overall, a very nice record.
Flush with the success of The Firebird, Diaghilev gave Stravinsky free reign to put to paper whatever his feverish brain could create. Stravinsky rewarded Diaghilev with Petrouchka. This ballet shows Stravinsky pushing into more uncharted territory with more percussive rhythms and unconventional chord structures. My dad bought a real gem of this one, the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Monteux [RCA LSC-2376]. Not only is it a Living Stereo shaded-dog, but it's also conducted by the man who conducted the first concert performance in 1914. This record is chock full of dynamics and the Unlimited II brings them out in full glory. Also extraordinary on this album is the tone of the instruments, especially the strings. Those engineers at RCA really knew what they were doing. A highly recommended disc.
While Stravinsky was working on Petrouchka, he was also working on a ballet about ancient pagan rituals. This, of course, was Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). Like Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, Louis Armstrong's Potato Head Blues, and Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode, it's one of those revolutionary pieces that changed the path of music. The record of this in my dad's collection is the venerable performance by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Bernstein [MS 6010]. I don't have any statistics on this, but it wouldn't surprise me if this was the best-selling version of all time. Bernstein had just taken over the reins of the NPO, and his infusion of youthful energy resulted in definitive performance. When listening to this through the Unlimited II, the orgiastic violence jumps right off the vinyl. Maybe the NPO didn't get all the notes right, but the energy wins the day.
Following Rite, his wife's tuberculosis, and the Russian Revolution, Stravinsky ended up in Switzerland. It was there he started to veer completely from romantic tonalities and entered his "neoclassical" period. The first major piece of this period was L'Histoire du soldat (The Soldier's Tale). In my dad's collection is a great recording of this piece conducted by the composer himself (ML 4964). Included with L'Histoire du soldat on this disc are the Octet for Wind Instruments and Symphonies of Wind Instruments. All three of these pieces come from the same time period, and employ ensembles of seven to eight musicians. They are austere works of music that are nothing like he had written before. Stravinsky recorded these with the Northwest German Radio Orchestra in October 1951. Yes, it is in mono. Did I mind? Not in the least. Despite its age, this is a brilliantly clear record with very little surface noise. The platter itself must be over 200 grams. Listening to this record with the Unlimited II, I was able to dig deep into the clashing chords and interesting harmonics in these intricate pieces. It was a great experience.
Stravinsky was always one to resist being pigeonholed. No composition is a better example of that tendency than his one-act ballet Pulcinella. Written at almost the same time as ultra-modern pieces in the previous disc, Pulcinella is a one-act ballet based on early 18th-century comic libretto and music. Instead of looking forward, he was looking backward on this one. It is both classical and modern at the same time. My dad's record of this is by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic [Columbia MS 6329]. This performance is joyful and playful and a pleasure to hear. On the other side of this disc is Stravinsky's Concerto for Piano & Wind Orchestra. He wrote this piece with the sole intent that he would perform it exclusively, and therefore, make some extra money. This is one of my favorite piano concertos of all time, but unfortunately, this is not a great performance.
For this piece to work, the soloist and the orchestra must be in perfect synchronization, like a fine Swiss watch. This rendition feels unrehearsed and disjointed. On top of that, the sound is quite lacking. All the instruments seem to be quite distant from the microphones, especially the piano, which sounds more like a small upright from Westworld than a concert grand. What explains this total discrepancy between these two sides of the same record? I'm guessing the piano concerto was recorded first before the full orchestra showed up, probably in the morning.
Maybe Lenny and company tied one over the night before and just weren't feeling the music yet. Also, the sound engineers might have already had the mikes set up for a full orchestra and didn't feel like messing with them for the smaller ensemble. Who knows? I wish I could go back in time to see what happened that day.
Next in the collection is a recording by Charles Much and the BSO [RCA LSC-2567] of his three-"deal"-ballet Jeu de cartes (Card Game). This is a great example of Stravinsky's neoclassical style of composition. This album is another "shaded dog" and a real winner in terms of sound and performance. On the other side is Poulenc's Concerto in G minor for Organ, Strings, and Timpani which is also a winner.
Lastly, we come to a hidden gem, Stravinsky's Symphony in C and Symphony in Three Movements directed by Ernest Ansermet and performed by the L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande [London CS 6190]. To be honest, I didn't have high hopes for this album when I pulled it out of the pile. I own quite a few London label records from the 1970s, and, to be honest, they sound muddy and compressed. This album is nothing of the sort. It is clear, with great tone on all the instruments, especially the strings. The ambiance of Victoria Hall in Geneva is enveloping. The playing of these two favorites is beautiful and inspired. The entire orchestra is playing-as-one on these tricky pieces. I learned that Ansermet was a real champion of 20th-century music, especially that of Stravinsky. This record proves that point. Listening to this album was a truly transporting experience. This is why we start this hobby in the first place: to connect with music.
As you can probably tell, I had a great time listening to my dad's old records. As far as I can figure out, he bought most of them before I was born. Over the course of my listening sessions, I had the opportunity to talk to my dad over the phone about these old records. It brought back a lot of good memories for him and it was interesting to hear his opinions. I really miss going to the concerts with him and I hope we can resume our concert-going next Fall. Let's keep our fingers crossed.
But wait, you say, "What about the Unlimited II?" I guess that's the point, isn't it? The Unlimited II does what a good preamp should do, help present the music without imparting anything extra. I found it to be extremely quiet and neutral in its presentation. The add-on phono stage helped me listen to vinyl in a new way with my humble analog rig. I enjoyed listening to all kinds of music with the Unlimited II. It always made me feel more in touch with the performers and their intentions. The remote volume control made it so easy to hit that sound-level "sweet spot". The Unlimited II gives you tremendous value for your money and I would heartily recommend it to anyone looking for a reasonably-priced preamplifier. Now I can only hope I can start listening to live music with my dad again.
Inputs: Four stereo line level
Outputs: Two line\
Output: 300 Ohm using the 12BH7 (600 Ohm using 12AX7)
Gain: 17dB using 12BH7 or 12AU7
Input Impedance: 100kOhm
IEC power cord connection (cord included)
Warranty: Two years
Dimensions: 8" x 12" x 2.5" chassis (tubes, knobs, and transformer not included).
Price: $1350, moving-magnet (MM) phono stage adds $275