the brotherhood to compare four tube pre-amplifiers against the new solid-state
Jaton pre-amplifier. About two dozen tweaking audiophiles of the Suncoast
Audiophile Society met in a member's home. An audio club is an ideal
alternative to few local dealers and distant trade shows. It allows extended
listening sessions with multiple components. All listeners in this shoot-out
were middle-age men. Half of the members seem to be doctors. There are 18
audiophile groups in the United States. The listeners used most of Enjoy
the Music.com's criteria to mark impressions. See "Our
Reviewing Standards page.
Showing just how much the room and speaker placement influences the sound, we did not use multiple categories for soundstage. All of the pre-amplifiers seemed more alike than dissimilar in that regard. Only one was noticeably better than the others were. We warmed up the pre-amplifiers before listening to them. I used an analog Radio Shack SPL meter to set the first track to slow, C-weighted peaks in the mid 70-dBs.
The host's system has improved considerably over the last few
meetups in his custom, dedicated, listening room. The enclosed room is 18 by 24
feet, with an intentionally uneven ceiling that narrows slightly towards rear
wall. There was a couch with three seats, a row of three chairs behind it and
standing room for three-five people behind the chairs. Most of the listeners
rotated seats, except for this reviewer, who stubbornly kept to his center spot
in the second row. The host's main speakers were Canton towers. His
multi-channel set-up used an Anthem D2v processor with a stack of seven Bel
Canto Ref 1000 amplifiers. His player was the silver Oracle 1500 Mkii spaceship.
He had both RCA and XLR Nordost Frey interconnects.
The group listened to a few minutes of half-dozen songs in one
The music selection was arbitrary; the largest guy in the room
had the "clicktatorship" with playlist and remote controller. Subjective
impressions are entirely my own though, not the group's rankings. I compared
each unit to the previous one. There was a consensus about the best sounding
pre-amplifier and an overwhelming favorite. The Conrad Johnson was first
pre-amplifier reviewed and thus became the baseline reference.
Art Audio VPS
It took Jaton four years to design and manufacture a complete
stereo chain with player, amplifiers and loudspeaker. The RC2000P model is
analog input only. The RC2000S model is a 2.1 channel version. It has a stereo
DAC built-in and controllable sub-woofer signal outputs. ($1500)
The Operetta has clean, simple fit and finish. It is just another black box, with a shining blue read-out panel and sapphire eye. The tonality of the Jaton pre-amplifier was very good, balanced and not noticeably striking or lacking. The only solid-state, and the least expensive, unit in the shoot-out, the Operetta provided details and felt solid. It has no colorations or bloom of the tube units. It had no noticeable anomalies. Though these features make tube amplifiers less accurate, it also makes solid-state ones less engaging. Reviewers had a hard time describing the sound of the Jaton pre-amplifier. The word is neutral. The Jaton is a Swiss amplifier of neutrality.
Compared to the tube pre-amplifiers in this brief shoot-out,
the Operetta not only did not embarrass itself; it held its own. Nobody
said anything seriously critical of it. Read that line again! Don't make light
of it. Sometimes that is all that some tweaking audiophiles are looking for: a
unit that gets out of the way of the music. Everybody was very impressed with
its performance. I double and tripled checked the price on several occasions.
Many listeners thought it was a very good value for the money. If you do not
want your pre-amplifier to contribute to your stereo's sound, this is a unit to
consider. The stand-by knob on the front panel acts like a quick power switch;
one touch and the warmed-up unit is ready to rock.
Cary SLP 98
The Cary is nimble and dynamic. Most importantly, this unit got everybody's feet tapping to the music! Although I scored it with minuses in the sub and mid-bass (I am a bass loving man; see my EnjoyTheMusic bio*), I gave it pluses for high frequencies, imaging and most importantly, musicality. Though I thought it was too polite, with its soft bass, the result was still delectable, without large weaknesses and distracting anomalies. I felt like a teenager discovering music all over again. However, perhaps the Cary was a tad too enthusiastic about notes. Maybe it rushed the follow-through, but I did not note its decay as below average. It might appear thin-bodied; more like an upright than a grand piano.
As tweaking audiophiles know, in this hobby, it is possible
for the pizazz heard in the store to sound grating once the equipment is at
home, but in this system, in this home, in this shoot-out, I give the Cary four
Blue Notes for Enjoyment and Value for the Money; it is above average.
Audio Research Reference Five
Compared to the Cary and the others, the Ref 5 had more muscular definition to its tone; it was more like a well-rounded super car than a little sportster. A Vette may do nothing wrong, but it holds no surprises. The Miata is not in the Vette's league, but is surprisingly fun. The Ref 5 had no disturbing artifacts. It was more like a grand than upright piano. I bet its waveforms are fairly square. It made music sound natural. The tubes had but 1,200 hours on them, but one participant thought newer tubes might make Ref 5 sound more like the Cary.
Audio Research LS2B Mark II
Yet both the LS2 and the Ref 5 handled orchestral music as well as any dream system I've heard at AXPONA*. It had noticeable soundstage, separation, definition and sustain with multiple instruments hitting crescendos. Both easily showed the weaknesses of older recordings, not rudely, but by clearly showing off their enormous capabilities with higher quality, newer ones. (I need a new reference stack!)
On Enjoy the Music.com's grading scale, five Blue Notes "are the very best regardless of price." Therefore, unless impedance, phasing or something else is a synergistic mismatch, I think the Ref 5 is five Blue Notes for Enjoyment! I was stunned at its level of realism and competence compared to the other pre-amplifiers in this brief shoot-out.
Solid-State Compete Against Tubes?