Many audio companies acquire a reputation for a certain type of gear, take Atma-Sphere for example. While they make pre-amps, and, according to Ralph Karsten, the Doyen of Atma-Sphere, their patented Balanced Differential design is seen at its very best in a pre-amplifier, they remain primarily known primarily for the affordable M-60 and statement MA series of amps. Perhaps it's all those exposed, gleaming 6AS7 tubes in the amps that we find so overwhelming and so the enclosed case of the pre-amps seem pedestrian. Nonetheless, pre-amplifiers they make. A couple of 'em in fact.
The $7,600, top of the line MP-1mk. II is a two chassis design with an all tube power supply. Just like the Atma-Sphere amps, it uses a lot of tubes, eight 12AT7s, ten 6SN7s and one 6AS7. A fully balanced design, it has been specially constructed to drive the 600 ohm true balanced load. The few times I have heard one I have been mightily impressed. But, being of more humble bank account, we are here to listen to and then talk about the MP-3.
At $3,800, the affordable Atma-Sphere is necessarily a less obsessive design than the MP-1 but a major undertaking nonetheless. The built in phono stage uses seven 12AT7 tubes, while the line level section uses two 12AU7s and two 6SN7s. Unlike it's larger sibling it does not use an all tube power supply, but, akin to the larger MP-1 the MP-3 is built with the full Balanced Differential design and so is equipped, just like its big brother, to drive 600 ohm loads. And just like the MP-1 it has the oomph to easily drive 200 feet of your favorite interconnects.
The little Atma-Sphere is a rugged, purposeful looking pre-amp, which is a polite way of saying that while you will probably find it nice looking, chances are your significant other won't. The front fascia has five toggle switches on the left that control source selection ("main", as it should be, being the phono stage), tape loops and invert phase, while a toggle switch on the far right controls power. Down the center is a column of three LEDs, indicating power on and registering bias offset for each channel. Right-center is a large volume control, flanked by two smaller gain trim knobs, one for each channel. The gain control is used to balance sections of the 12AU7 tubes in the high level section of the pre-amp and are not in the signal path.
Round back is an IEC power jack, a set of XLR outputs (pin 1 is ground), two pair of RCA tape loops and three sets of XLR inputs, two for standard line sources and one for phono. The use of only balanced inputs and outputs can be problematic for some users, fortunately my Dodson DAC has balanced outputs and two of the amps I had on had on hand also had balanced inputs (the Rowland Model 112 and Atma-Sphere M-60 mk. II). On the other hand the BAM module for my Merlin VSM-SE speakers is single-ended only and so I was forced to forgo its usage during the review.
The first thing that Robin (the far better half of the Warnke clan) and I noticed when putting the MP-3 in the system was the way it laid out a broad, deep stage that was filled with harmonically rich and distinct players. This feel was so powerful and real that my reliably normal, completely non-audiofool wife uttered her first ever audiogeekspeak by proclaiming the sound "amazingly tangible". I fully agree. Just as in real life, and maybe even a touch better, the MP-3 presented a richly nuanced musical space that gave each player a full, rounded tonal shape whilst sharing a larger, common performing room. Better still, each player in this virtual reality zone was distinct, without smearing, blurring or combining but also without the hyper edge-definition of many solid-state pre-amps. This natural, relaxed and yet highly distinct resolution made for a remarkably enjoyable illusion as well as one so real that switching from musician to musician, from musical line to musical line, was as natural and simple as a cock of the head or a mental shift of focus.
A significant part of what made this illusion so captivating was the overall tonal purity and harmonic richness of the MP-3. Over time I have noticed that pre-amps build using the 6SN7 tube seem to have a large degree of tonal and harmonic richness but can often slide from richness to syrup. Not so here. The MP-3 adds purity of focus to richness in a way that few if any 6SN7 pre-amplifiers in my experience have. The perfect example of how both skills are needed to elevate mere sound to the illusion of real music can be found by listening to the new John McLaughlin disk, Remember Shakti - The Believer [Verve 549 044-2]. An ecstatic confluence of plucked and struck instruments - guitar, electric mandolin, tabla and other percussion - and all being given a simultaneous and virtuoso workout, combine to place an especial premium on purity and clarity in order to hear the subtle variations made by pressure, speed and feel by each musician. And yet without tonal richness those subtleties are naught but skeletal and emotionless outlines. With the MP-3 I truly felt that I heard both sides in near perfect balance.
Coupled with this purity and harmonic correctness was a superb representation of the frequency range, although the MP-3 presents a treble that is not standard issue audiophile. When I first put the MP-3 in the system I felt as if the treble might be a touch rolled off. When starting a listening session, in place of a slightly lit soundscape awaiting musicians, there was naught but total silence. And when the music did begin emphasis seemed squarely on the mids and bass … at least until something high frequency happened. Then, just as a cymbal in a jazz band or a triangle in a concert, the treble cut through the sound with startling clarity and dynamics but without the slightest hint of grain or hash.
Now, if any area of the frequency range needs continual reference to live sound it is the treble. I worry that we, and if not we than most certainly me, have gotten used to a tilted treble, a treble that offers the phyyric victory of etched, hyper detail while losing the battle for natural sound. For kicks, head down to a Mars Music or some such pro musician store and find a really good drum set. Using good sticks and even a felt mallet, smack the cymbals. Unless you do something like this regularly, you will be shocked at how little force it takes to make a sound that cuts through the room but also at how much harmonic information there is in a sheet of metal. Cymbals have both an incredibly steep leading edge and a beautifully detailed, burnished trailing wave. Unfortunately, much of high-end audio concentrates on that leading edge and then quits. While result isn't the sizzling bacon sound of mid-fi gear, it also isn't like the real thing as the sound is all leading edge definition followed by papery, translucent harmonics. Not the MP-3. It nails the leading edge but also fleshes out the trailing edge with a burnished beauty that most gear simply passes over, and does this same feat with all treble information.
At the bottom of the scale, the MP-3 has superb bass with full but accurate tonal control. I spent a bit of time listening to the only album by Bill Laswell's one off project, Blind Light, The Absence of Time [Alda 001], which features astounding bass playing. Deep, tight, fat and fast, following Laswell is an invigorating task for a listener, but only if your gear can keep up, and the MP-3 does. Even in the densest passages the Atma-Sphere keeps tonality in perfect match with speed. And while not quite as extended and nor quite as tight as the First Sound Presence Deluxe pre-amp, it is still among the very finest I've heard in this department.
Dynamically the MP-3 is also a worthy pre-amp. With those tangible, present, room-filling images, sudden alterations in dynamics, thankfully, don't cause players to suddenly jump forward in the mix for a solo, nor retreat into the background when their turn is over. Rather they grow slightly larger or smaller while inhabiting the same relative space throughout a performance, which is a far more natural viewpoint than that of most gear, although, like the treble of the MP-3, it may cause a bit of mental recalibration if you have become accustomed to gear rather than music. As a point of reference, macro-dynamic swings through the MP-3 are well done if just short of the bone crushing power of the First Sound Presence Deluxe pre-amp I have on hand as my reference. But at the micro level, where music lives and breathes and where failure is not an option if you want to feel music and not just sonics, the MP-3 is as good as anything I've heard.
Taken as a whole the MP-3 has a very slightly laid-back but wonderfully developed stage, excellent clarity, highly realistic micro dynamics and very good frequency extension. The combination totals to an involving but not in your face sound, and an especially musical one. This allowed it to blend well with every piece of gear I had on hand, but especially well with my Atma-Sphere M-60 mk. II amp. The clarity, dynamic life and dimensionality offered by both components combined synergistically, so much so that I enjoyed the Atma-Sphere pairing better than the MP-3 with any other amp I had on hand.
Over the last several years I have had the opportunity to review an astounding wealth of $4,000 to $6,000 pre-amps. I've said it before but it bears repeating - so rich and broad is the field in this range that I find it hard to justify spending more than this on a pre-amp unless you are shooting, not just for the audio moon and stars, but for the far distant audio galaxies. As a group Joule-Electra, Hovland, Lamm, Conrad-Johnson and First Sound all make pre-amps that have absolute first rank skills but also differ enough from each other that just about every audiogeek or music lover can find their own, personalized long-term dance partner. I'm happy to say that the MP-3 offers up a set of characteristics that allow it to enter this group of elite pre-amps while also offering a unique set of skills.
While just a bit less immediate sounding than the Hovland HP-100 it has that pre-amp's harmonic purity and richness while adding a silence that allows for even better detailing. And while the Lamm LL2 is a tad more organic sounding, the MP-3 has staging and dimensionality that betters superb pre-amp. The Joule-Electra LA-100 offers a slightly more objective perspective than the MP-3, but the Atma-Sphere pre-amp is a tad richer sounding. Both the MP-3 and the C-J Premier 17LS are true sophisticates, with the C-J being the more flexible pre-amp and the Atma-Sphere the more extended. And, like the First Sound Presence Deluxe, the MP-3 has superb extension while adding a slightly more rich sound but giving up a bit in dynamics and neutrality to the First Sound.
The Atma-Sphere MP-3 pre-amplifier is a beaut. It's ability to render fully believable, 3D images, replete with harmonic richness is, in my experience, unparalleled. The good news is that this is not just a visual gimmick. While staging is fun and enhances listening pleasure and believability for many folks, it is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for musical reproduction. What are necessary conditions are tonal accuracy, harmonic richness and clarity. To our fortune, the images cast by the MP-3 communicate these conditions with finesse and grace. The MP-3 also couples a natural, unforced and grainless treble with detailed, extended and controlled bass. Of course it is a superb partner for the Atma-Sphere amps, but works its magic with solid-state brutes such as the Rowland Model 112 with equal aplomb. Add to that dynamics that, if slightly less than the best I've heard in my house, are very close to state of the art. Finally, throw in a superb phono stage and you have a pre-amp that makes a long-term, musically satisfying partner. Sure, the all balanced connectors (except for the 2 tape loops) are a challenge but what worthwhile thing isn't. In short, a very highly recommended music maker.
High Level Frequency Response: 0.2Hz to 200kHz, +0 db, -2dB
Phono Section Frequency Response: 0.5Hz to 90kHz (+/- 0.5dB)
RIAA Accuracy: within 0.1dB
RIAA Phono Sensitivity for 0.5V @ 1KHz: 0.2mv
Minimum Recommended Phono Input: .2mv
Phono Section Output at Clipping: 120v p-p
Phono Input Overload: 500mv
Power Supply Storage: 50 Joules
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