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
EMM Labs Pre2 Preamplifier
So what makes a great preamplifier such as the EMM Labs Pre2 ($15,000)? First, it should have the right inputs and outputs to match the requirements of the rest of your system. Balanced inputs and a couple of unbalanced inputs are generally more than enough, plus a balanced and an unbalanced output and some kind of tape loop. For fans of multi-channel audio, you can synchronize multiple Pre2 preamps together using a serial cable with the others as slaves of the first. Designed by EMM Labs' Ed Meitner, this is a pure line-level
preamplifier sans his (also) brilliant DAC design. "Don't think for a moment the Pre2 is adding dynamics to any of these fine recordings, and it certainly isn't creating detail that isn't already in the recording or building a better three dimensional space than was captured in the studio," says Enjoy the Music.com reviewer Phil Gold. "What is does is simply to lose less information along the way than the JC2 or any other preamplifier I've reviewed. I can't tell you that it's perfect, but on the other hand I can't fault it either. It's the purest and most accurate component I have had the pleasure of listening to (so far)."
See Phil's review of the EMM Labs Pre2 preamplifier
ModWright Instruments SWL 9.0SE Preamplifier
ModWright Instruments SWL 9.0SE preamplifier ($2495) was so impressive we reviewed it... twice! This exciting preamplifier is the first product to be designed and manufactured from scratch by Dan Wright, whose ModWright operation has for years been a leading source of high-quality modifications that turn moderately priced gear — CD players especially — from mass-market marques such as Sony and Pioneer into performers that frequently outdo the high-priced spreads. This is true with both both sound quality and, especially, in price versus performance. Using a pair of 5687 vacuum tubes it offers an outstanding frequency response from 17Hz to 100kHz! Todd Warnke said, "Further, the refined sound is matched by superb build quality and easy to use controls. In fact, the only real imbalance is the overall quality you get for the bucks spent. Here the SWL 9.0 SE is off the charts, offering performance that is far superior that of its price peers. And that brings us back to introduction of this article when I posed the price/performance ratio of most current gear as the Achilles heel of audio." If that we're enough, Senior Editor Wayne Donnelly says "The SWL9.0SE is easily the best preamplifier I have heard anywhere near its price. In fact, I urge any audiophile looking for a superior line stage to compare Dan Wright's impressive creation against competitors costing three or four (or even more) times its price. It's a winner, and I'm hanging on to this one. There's always room at my place for a great preamp!" You can see
Wayne's review of the ModWright Instruments' SWL 9.0SE preamplifier here
and Todd Warnke chimes in with his review
Slagle Autoformer Volume Control Modules
Representing the passive preamplifier approach within Enjoy the
Music.com's Special 20/20 Awards is the Slagle Autoformer Volume Control Modules ($350). Sure i could go on about the many reviewers who were in awe of this purely passive design, or how it retails for under $400, yet few audiophiles seem to have tried the passive approach. It begs the simple question.... Why?
Enjoy the Music.com's Senior Editor Dick Olsher says "In search of the perfect volume control – that's an appropriate subtitle for this article. And it should be your primary concern, especially if your front end is restricted to a CD player. In that case, line level is a nominal 2V – plenty of signal to redline typical power amps with an input sensitivity between 1 and 2 V." Dick concludes by saying, "The sonic benefits of the Slagle AVC accrue from the elimination of an unnecessary electronic gain stage and replacement of resistive attenuation from the signal path. Bottom line: a superb volume control and the best $350 investment in audio!" Read
Dick Olsher's review of the Slagle Autoformer Volume Control Modules
First Watt Model B1 Buffer Preamplifier
Let's say you didn't quite want to go fully passive with a preamplifier yet still keep costs down to nearly a bare minimum. What if i told you there's a Nelson Pass designed preamplifier available for $1000. From the
genius mind of Nelson Pass comes the First Watt Model B1 buffer preamplifier. According to Nelson, "Passive volume controls do have to make a trade-off between input impedance and output impedance. If the input impedance is high, making the input to the volume control easy for the source to drive, then the output impedance is also high, possibly creating difficulty with the input impedance of the power amplifier... If you put a buffer in front of a volume control, the control's low impedance looks like high impedance. If you put a buffer after a volume control, it makes the output impedance much lower. You can put buffers before and after a volume control if you want. The thing here is to try to make a buffer that is very neutral. Given the simple task, it's pretty easy to construct simple buffers with very low distortion and noise and very wide bandwidth, all without negative feedback." So what are the results? During his review, Dick
Olsher says "Don't let its modest appearance fool you: this is one fantastically effective buffer stage. And it's not about to leave my reference system any time soon. I'm still laughing out loud over this one — a DIY product that succeeds wildly in bringing the listener a significant step closer to the source. In hindsight, that should not be surprising as the B1 buffer stage eliminates unnecessary gain stages between the source and power amp. A powerful demonstration of the "simpler is better" principle, or more accurately, less gain - less sonic pain."
Read Dick's review of the First Watt Model B1 buffer preamplifier
Coincident Statement Line Stage
While any award list has the obvious components you've read about
time and again, yet what about those secret sleepers? Lovers of vacuum tubes might not have used the truly beautiful 101D. Not sure why as it proves its
merits within the Coincident Statement Line Stage ($5000). The two large 101D tubes are about the size and shape of a standard incandescent light bulb and give off a gentle glow. This two-chassis
design includes a 40 pound separate power supply to mate with the 30 pound linestage. There are two unbalanced RCA inputs and balanced XLR, with outputs being both RCA and XLR. We're not quite sure how Coincident gives you so much for $500, yet we're surely not complaining either. "When I first heard the Statement Line Stage I knew it was a very special piece," says reviewer Rick Becker, "But it took some playing and tweaking to learn how good it really is. You can't build a world class system with a plug 'n' play mentality. As a replacement for a full function preamp it will force you to re-think your front end, yet it also offers flexibility for bi-amplifying as well as a balanced source and balanced amplifier. The seldom seen (but not outrageously priced) 101D tube is the crown jewel of this design and it will give you a high degree of exclusivity in audiophile circles. Sonically, the Statement is a thoroughbred with Triple Crown potential, a serious assault on the State of the Art at a price that should recalibrate "value" in the high-end. It may very well be the finest piece ever to have come from the mind of Israel Blume. I expect it will remain my reference for many years to come."
Becker's review of the Coincident Statement Line Stage here.
Einstein The Tube Mk. 2 Line Preamplifier
Ok, you love tubes and we get that as they're cool.. and hot
:) But what if you really loved tubes. i mean the type high-end audio lore is made of where a manufacturer throws any sense of restrain and just goes for broke. That's precisely what Einstein's The Tube MK. 2 line preamplifier ($18,400) does! It uses (as i start counting them on the chassis) two, four, six, ten,
eighteen, nineteen. Yes, there really are 19 tubes, 18 of them being E88CC/6922 dual triodes and one ECC82 dual triode. As we all know, tubes can deliver an extremely
wideband frequency response and here we are offered 2Hz to 300kHz. This fully balanced design employs dual-differential, is dual-mono, plus has separate power transformers for each channel. The volume control is outside the signal path (WTF, how can that be?). Einstein places the volume control outside the signal path as it acts as a shunt, thus reduces impedance with lower volume settings. Senior Editor Wayne Donnelly said "I really wish this thing didn't cost so much. It's not that I begrudge the Einstein folks their money; it's just that $18,400 is a pretty tough nut for most listeners, including myself, to crack. But I am busily turning over every financial rock and looking under every metaphorical mattress to scrape together the scratch to avoid having to send this baby back. I have to believe that love (and lust) will find a way!"
Read Wayne's review of the Einstein The Tube Mk. 2 line preamplifier
Merrill Audio Jens Phonostage
Vinyl junkies take note as Merrill Audio's Jens phonostage preamplifier moving coil (MC) cartridge amplifier
($15,499) is truly a unique high-end audio product. As the results of seven years in constant grassroots development, it evolved and was refined. Critiqued at every step during
development, the long seven year wait has been rewarded with a truly world-class MC phonostage. It became the most revealing, hyper-detailed phonostage amplifier I have experienced.
It is like listening to the vinyl's mother
stamper rather than a copy eight generations later. It transmits clues of stage
dimensionality voice and instrumental harmonic overtones and even the nature of
the space the recording was made within. Most writers might say a performance
with detailing like this is layered over a "black
background". But actually what they are referring to is the
component amplifiers noise floor.
This is a type of purity in that the device whatever it may, be lets the audio
signal flow unchanged and unaffected by the power that amplifies the recorded
information. The vanishing low levels of the Merrill Audio Jens phonostage noise
floor showcases why it took so many years, and so many ears, to perfect this
moving coil phono amplifier. See
Ron Nagle's review of the Merrill Audio Jens phonostage preamplifier here.
And that rounds out Enjoy the Music.com's
Special 20/20 Award for preamplification. From the very familiar and known
legends to some surprises and sleepers.... we got all the bases covered here. If you
somehow missed part
one for preamplification click here. Sure prices are all over the place
from a few hundred dollars to many thousands, yet there's a great high-end audio
product for every music lover's budget. If you missed our previous
Special 20/20 awards, please see our pages that tout the best in Digital,
Each month we'll be adding another category so remember to visit our Special
20/20 Awards homepage as we add to this incredible list. As always, in the end what really matters is
Enjoy the Music,
Steven R. Rochlin
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