The world of Super Audio Exotica is filled with legendary products. While some, like Quad loudspeakers, are of modest pricing, there are others that have prices equal to dreamy Italian sports cars. As someone who has enjoyed for years the Audio Note Ongaku (reaching retail pricing of near $70,000) there are music reproduction experiences few people have a chance to enjoy. In today's marketplace of high prices only for the sake of "shock" marketing and press coverage, it can be confusing to separate the wheat from the chaff. A responsible reviewer would forgo the marketing hype to find the true ultrahigh-performance products. This brings us to the very unique and amazing $30,000 Loth-X Silbatone C-102 vacuum tube pre-amplifier.
The Sum Of The Parts
While this is not my first venture into battery powered devices (see Final Labs review), the Silbatone C-102 employs a huge and intricate battery system to power the unit. To quote the C-102 literature "We are called Sil-BA-tone because we believe that battery operation is the only way to achieve the full potential of amplifier performance. No amount of circuit refinement can make conventional AC power supplies competitive with the pure, stable DC power provided by batteries." While i was the very first audiophile reviewer to praise the benefits of balanced power (Furman IT-1220 as reviewed in Ultimate Audio Vol. 1, No. 4) long before "audiophile approved" type devices such as PS Audio and the likes reached mainstream only a few short years ago, it is now time to take power to a new level per se.
The big unknown is in the quality of the electrical power reaching your components. Bill Gaw (rightly) gushes endlessly about the benefits of clean power. This has given ye ol' power filter companies, electric cable companies and of course the electrical outlet companies something to sell products for. Now what if you could eliminate all those guys? Gone are the AC electrical cables! Away with you plug guys. See ya later alligator power filter beasts! Bring on the batteries and do away with depending on Enron and the likes. Of course this is easier said than done... if you are to take the battery concept to the limit.
Silbatone's implementation of carefully charging and controlling the battery power consists of a 100% analog circuit. Once the included rechargeable battery system is fully powered, over forty hours of musical bliss can be enjoyed until it is time for a recharge. For those like myself who seem to enjoy virtually endless musical pleasures, when the battery reaches near exhaustion the unit switches to trickle charge mode for uninterrupted delight. Upon turning the C-102 pre-amplifier off, the batteries are recharged automatically. A complete charge takes ten hours. Expected life of a set of batteries is five years and Silbatone uses common and relatively inexpensive sealed rechargeable type batteries.
The Silbatone C-102 is actually a thee box vacuum tube pre-amplifier. The left box the power charging unit with centrally located power button. The top right unit is the signal stage while the bottom right unit is the hefty battery piece. Speaking of heft, in total this pre-amplifier weighs in at just over 130 lbs! The chassis of each piece is made from impressively thick precision machined aluminum. Enough writing about the power and chassis, the tasty bits lay inside the analog section.
Seen here is the internals of the analog signal section. Some of the circuitry is so innovative that Silbatone has several world patents pending. Each and every part was carefully decided upon through critical listening tests. In fact some parts are completely custom made for Silbatone! As we are talking Super Audio Exotica; silver foil caps, custom silver micas, custom wirewound resistors, silver Litz internal wiring, and premium silver RCA jacks give a hint to how extreme this design truly is. To once again quote the Silbatone literature "Current fashion played no role in our specifications. In fact, most audio engineers wouldn’t recognize many of the fancy capacitors and resistors that we use, but a lot of them are custom made, high-performance units, which are more rare, expensive, and better sounding than the brands of passive components famous in hi-fl circles." The main circuit board is, naturally, Teflon while the buttons and knobs are as smooth as silk.
In the picture above you can se the phono section on the left with the main analog amplification and controls on the right. Being a vacuum tube amplification design, three 12AX7 support the phono stage while two 12AY7 are used within the main analog stage. Silver step-up transformers are available for those who use MC (moving coil) cartridges. Of course MM cartridges are also supported yet do not need the added gain that MC cartridges necessitate. My review unit included the MC silver step-up transformer that worked impressively well with Clearaudio's wood body Insider Reference Gold.
The front panel, from left to right, includes a power button, input selection knob, upper monitor button, lower mute button, and lastly separate left and right 52-step volume controls. On the rear of the C-102 pre-amplifier as seen below are (left to right) XLR output, two stereo sets of RCA output, black main output attenuation, grounding post, battery power cable input, monitor input via RCA/XLR, four line level inputs via RCA, another ground post and finally the MC and MM cartridge input with cartridge input selection.
Let The Music Sing!
The mid and deep bass was so crystal clear as to make me highly suspect any normal AC powered unit... Does the 120 volt system (or 60+/60- as in my balanced power setup) leave some form of residue that alters the analog signal? Could there be a type of "beat" that inflicts itself into the signal chain? Not sure what the answer is, though with the Silbatone C-102 pre-amplifier there was such high quality pitch and harmonic precision and transparency that one does not need "golden ears" to hear it. From Miles Davis The Great Prestige Recordings vinyl box set to my alter ego Prodigy Fat Of The Land compact disc. From acoustic bass to fast-paced synth... It was a revelation.
As for the highs, they seemed to flow endlessly upward with not a hint of anything other than silky smoothness yet with plenty of meticulous intelligibility. On my copy of Pink Floyd The Division Bell [Columbia C64200] the opening piano notes with hall ambient effects seems to gracefully climb into the stratosphere. Both macro and (especially) micro dynamics were rendered well beyond that i can ever recall... including when i has the aforementioned Audio note Ongaku. While the Ongaku was an integrated amplifier, let me state the C-102 was mated with my fave Wavelength Audio Cardinal using Kimber Kable Select all silver KS 1030. Loudspeakers were the Avantgarde Acoustic Duo 2.0 wired with Nirvana cable.
Of course we all know that almost 70% of acoustic music is within the midrange and here we have top-flight performance. While not as much a eye opener as the frequency extremes, the C-102 is no slouch. Clarity, clarity, clarity. Not just note to note but also within the harmonic structure. Not lush nor edgy sounding precision, it was all simply there. Soundscaping, that is the complete 360o sound, was compete. While front soundstage was wide and deep, avoiding the narrowed rear stage some products produce, the Silbatone pre-amplifier gave a wholly complete experience when source material dictated. You know the experience when your entire room so completely disappears that you want to knock on your back yard neighbor's door and apologize for the orchestra's percussion section that now sounds as though it is within their kitchen!
Music recorded in "Q-Sound" such as Roger Waters Amused To Death on vinyl [Columbia 468761 0] become the type of musical ecstasy that reminds me why one would put up with the virtually endless headaches and heartbreaks from being professionally involved within this industry. While i have heard this album more times than one cares to admit in public, here it was in full glory beyond what even i felt was within the vinyl grooves. So this album is not an "audiophile approved minimal mic'ed acoustic recording". Frankly i could care less when the music sounds this good!
As for a proper audiophile recordings such as Direct Master Series 45 rpm direct to disc vinyl Beethoven Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 Appassionata by Ikuyo Kamiya (pianist) on a Bösendorfer Imperial (RCA RDCE 4), the music was incredibly dynamic and fast. This recording is probably one of (if not the) best piano recording i have ever heard. While long out of print, this 1977 pressing pushes your entire system with lightning fast playing, high dynamics and a piano sound that makes a music lover such as myself wish he could afford such an instrument (let alone the grand ability to masterfully play it). This recording is a type of brutality test that only the best systems can transverse. Any, and i do mean any weakness anywhere within a system and you will have distortion, muddled and confusing sound, tonality abbreviations and possibly other problems you never knew your system had. Did the Silbatone C-102 valve pre-amplifier pass this grueling test? You bet... and with flying colors!
As for PRAT (pace, rhythm and timing), the Silbatone seems to simply play what is inputted to it. It neither enhanced boogie factor nor takes away from it. Funkadelic was funky, James Brown was hip and my prized UK DJ vinyl absolutely tranced. In fact this pre-amplifier aided in helping my VOYD turntable maintenance and tweak schedule. It was time for turntable lube/oil change with the usual care and feeding. With the C-102 i was better able to "dial in" the "sound" of my front end. This happened in the middle of the review process so i was able to hear both a before and after effect. As for why i did not use much music on CD during this review, it is because vinyl, to my ears, is simply better. i do not care what upsampling and other digital Band-Aids you have, you still have begun with a 16-bit/44.1kHz source. Alas, no real DVD-A or SACD playback worth mentioning here so no comments can be made using such material.
Conclusion And A Reality Check
Inputs: Four line inputs, phono input and tape monitor.
Phono Stage: MM, MC (Optional silver hand-wound transformer optimized for low impedance cartridges)
Phono Input Impedance: MC Phono 4-20 ohm
Outputs: Twp stereo pair via RCA and one stereo pair XLR
Charging System: 100% analog, gold-plated PCB modules
Dimensions: Analog Stage 9.4 x 42.7 x 30.8 (HxWxD)
Weight: 60 kg.