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January / February 2005
Superior Audio Equipment Review

First Sound
Presence Deluxe Statement With Paramount Upgrade MKII
Zen And The Art Of Compromise
Review By Todd Warnke

 

First Sound Presence Deluxe Statement With Paramount Upgrade MKII  If you use more than one source – and with all that great old vinyl for just about free, plus all the new music you can play with off the web not to mention hard-coded digital in all its various formats and the even the radio (assuming you can find a non-ClearChannel station), you should – then you have a problem, and that problems’ name is “preamplifier.”  Charged with the background, necessary evil of routing signal, volume control, buffering source(s) and power amplifier, there is nothing intrinsically glamorous about a preamplifier.  Indeed, how can there be glamour when the task list mandates that there is no way to do the job perfectly, which is, without coloring the sound.  This means that even the best preamplifier’s performance must be measured by separation from, not degrees of perfection.  Not a job I want, but there are preamplifier wizards out there who revel in this stuff and who, in my opinion, sweat more design details than just about anyone in audio. Some of them are famous; Emmanuel Go of First Sound Audio is not, though in a fair world he would be.

Those who do know Go, most likely heard of him initially back in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s when he launched the lavishly titled and extremely well received First Sound Reference Quality Passive Preamplifier. A purely passive product, it offered unmatched levels of clarity, detail retrieval and dynamics. Well, dynamics if the match between source and power amplifier were correct. It also rendered wonderful, complex and full harmonic texture – again if the source and power amplifier cooperated.  And therein lie the problem that Go’s passive preamplifier faced, one it shares with every passive – correctly matching source and power amplifier. To do this right – unless the source and power amplifier have been expressly designed to work together as a unit, or unless you are just bloody lucky – seems to need a gain stage.  Being the type of detail-obsessive geek that we in high-end audio most admire, Go set out to solve these issues with his passive whilst simultaneously retaining its clarity and musicality, a process that led him to introduce a line of active preamplifiers, the first of which was the rather sensibility named Presence Audio Linestage 1. That product has served as the basis for his lineup, with various upgrades in power supplies, attenuators and chassis configurations accounting for the changes as you move from the Linestage to the Deluxe, the Paramount and the Paramount Statement models. Working from the same base design has allowed Go to upgrade past customers to current specs for quite reasonable fees, while also allowing the purchase of a current version lower priced model and then elevating it to a higher model for not much more than the price difference between the two.

Anyway, about four years ago, and at the end of a long string of preamplifier reviews, including products from C-J, Thor, Lamm, Sonic Frontiers, Ayre, BAT and Hovland, I reviewed the Presence Deluxe MKII. Even in such well-known and august company the largely unknown First Sound stood out. When properly setup, the Presence Deluxe offered all gain and no pain (sorry for the pun) – and so I purchased a First Sound preamplifier for my reference. The model that eventually ended up in my system is an unusual configuration; best described a Presence Deluxe Statement with Paramount Upgrade MKII. What that is, is a four-chassis dual-mono preamplifier. Each channel, in essence, is a single Presence Deluxe with a dedicated power supply, a power supply that is designed to drive an entire preamplifier but in this drives but a single channel. This results in a setup that has, amongst other things, a power supply with 367,000 microfarads of capacitance per channel.  In case that number means little to you, go take a look at the storage in your power amplifier’s power supply.  I’ll wait... WOW, each channel of this First Sound preamplifier has a stiffer power supply by a factor of 2 or 3 than your entire power amplifier! Can you say overspec’ed?  I knew that you could. Of course the value of any audio spec lies in the listening and not the writing on the page, but I have to say that I am impressed by this stat of the First Sound, even on paper.

Visually, the First Sound line is cut from the same robust cloth as the power supply spec.  At 17.5” wide, 5.5” tall and 15” deep, the main chassis of each channel takes up a fair amount of room, even more than it appears as the power supply is housed in a separate chassis.  Each power supply chassis is 7.85” wide, 5.5” tall and 12.75” deep and is connected to the preamplifier proper by a permanently attached 6’ umbilical.  In my rack the First Sound takes up three shelves, one for each channel, while the power supplies share a shelf.

Controls are straightforward.  The power switch is on the rear of each power supply (with two little boys running around the house I appreciate this, but think Go might be served better in the long run by moving the switches up front).  The control units each have two toggles, one to move the preamplifier off mute and one to engage the tape outputs.  Each unit also has two rotary controls, one for source and one for volume.  With six possible sources (labeled Line 1, Line 2, Video, Tuner, Tape, and CD), plus tape output, you can hook-up all your line-level stuff at once.  The volume control has 24 discrete steps and deserves its own paragraph.

 

Every volume control is hand built, with the entry-level attenuator using 48 Holco resistors, in a series step configuration and in exact 2dB steps. The Deluxe attenuator uses 96 Holcos in a ladder type step sequence, again in precise 2dB steps. Paramount and above models use Vishay resistors in place of the Holcos, and in the ladder configuration. Opening the case reveals that these attenuators are pieces of industrial art – though again the pertinent matter is how not how they look but how they sound.

Round back, each chassis has six high-quality gold-plated input RCA jacks, a high-quality gold-plated RCA tape out jack and two RCA output jacks.  I appreciate the dual output jacks as it facilitates a powered subwoofer without system compromise.  And, in a nod to his purist roots, Go has wired the CD input separately from the rest of the inputs, giving it a slight edge in performance – so if you use a single source or one primary source, place it in CD.  Inside, the entire line uses an extensively shielded and heavily grounded circuit, though the upgraded models sport an even more massive grounding scheme.  There are but two tubes per channel, an OA2 regulator and a 6N-1P signal tube.

In all the design of the entire line of First Sound preamplifiers is remarkably direct.  With massive power supplies, ultra high-quality, hand-built attenuators, detailed and effective grounding and in a true dual-mono configuration, the First Sound preamplifiers are models of doing all the fundamental things as well as they can be done.  This design approach reminds me of nothing so much as the high art of French winemaking.  Take the right grapes, in the right climate, grow them using the best nature has to offer and, after harvest do only what has to be done to turn grapes into wine.  Then, in the case of grapes, if they are worthy, the wine will be as well.  If not, then no amount of American-styled oaking and blending will restore what was not there to begin with.  With French wine this uncluttered approach can result in either epiphany or thin, weak vinegar, likewise Go’s preamplifiers live on the same edge.  Direct design, premium parts, hand-built and minimal messing around make this a fine unit. Then if it is right (assuming the rest of the system is up to snuff), so too will the music be right.  If not, no amount of technical gimmickry can save them, or any other audio product, it must be said.  So, without more electrons going to waste, let’s listen.

 

Mindfulness
If audiogeeks controlled the music labels, Sarah McLachlan would be a universal heroine.  No, not the tasteful but over-produced, modern pop-rock Sarah who already is a heroine to some, but the nearly unknown McLachlan found on the Freedom Sessions [Classic Compact Disc RTHCD 2000].  Officially a nine track collection of demos and outtakes from the recording sessions that resulted in her breakthrough album, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, the Freedom Sessions are minimally processed, Zen Koans, each with the power to strike sudden awareness of the vapid state of modern rock.  But the most powerful of the koans – uh, songs – is a hidden, 10th track.  About 20 seconds after covering Tom Waits, "Ol’ 55", Sarah does "Hold On" with acoustic guitar, bass and drums only.  This track is truly transcendent, in the moment beauty; and is so well recorded that a correctly setup system can render it incarnate. With the First Sound taking signal from a Cary CD-303/200 and passing it on to the Sophia Electric 300B amplifier and then on to my Merlin VSM-M loudspeakers I heard Sarah as tonally tangible, organically whole and as dynamically real as my own voice.  Yep, you read that right.  As real as my own voice.  Now, not having had Sarah visit my room (except in several late-night fantasies) I cannot say if what I heard was a real as her voice, but what I did hear was closer to an actual human voice then I have ever heard from an audio system.  Sure, the recording is among the highest quality pop/rock recording ever made, but, it nonetheless remains up to the system to play it back correctly, and this system did so to the highest degree.

Ok, so pop isn’t your style – or your idea of a test of a system, so let’s try jazz. One of my favorite late night discs is The Call by Charles Lloyd [ECM 1522].  Lloyd gives Bobo Stenson on piano a generous amount to room to explore and work out his meditative sound and follows suit in a telepathic, symbiotic manner.  The tonal colors are rich, with bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Billy Hart adding complex time signatures and a powerful underpinning.  Not a swinging album, The Call is deeply reflective, stately and – for purposes of this review – superbly recorded.  The opening track, "Nocturne," begins with Lloyd’s tenor sax gently probing the darkness and slowly turns the stage over to Stenson’s equally insistent but muted piano, all while Jormin and Hart intermittently count time.  The feel is so late night, so contemplative that the sun has been known to run and hide while I play this track.  In the above listed system the layout of the band is laid bare, while depth is so real that the back wall of my room just about literally disappears.  And the tone!  Stenson’s piano sounds as real as my own in my listening room.  Again, I cannot say it sounds exactly like his piano, but it sure does sound real with the First Sound in the system.

Alright, you need more and full scale proof.  So this time let’s turn to Sergiu Celibidache and his, uh, expansive version of the already expansive 8th Symphony by Anton Bruckner.  How big is this?  Celi’s 1998 release with the Munich Philharmonic [EMI 56696] clocks in at over 107 minutes!  Take away the almost two minutes of applause and you still have an hour and 45 minutes of Zen-Master meets pious Catholic organist.  Though not a first rank orchestra, Celi raises the performance of the Munich players through out this piece to such heights that the 35 minute Adagio never slacks. To accomplish this, the performance suspends time and concentrates on harmonic and dynamic relationships.  I’ll admit that with middling gear the Celi 8th does lag, but not here. Through the First Sound preamplifier the orchestra was suitably spread and showed absolutely spot on depth.  The range of the tonal palette reached from purest white light to darkest black while the rendering of dynamic shading was as broad as, well, almost real life.  Again, we are talking about sonic performance that exceeds that of any preamplifier I have heard in my room and seems to be limited only by the quality of partnering gear

Looking back I see that I have written about these sonic examples without the normal audiogeek, “let’s break it all down into a gazillion small pieces” commentary.  orry.  I’ll try to be a better geek, so here goes.

The First Sound has bass that is solid, tangible and quite even.  It is only when you move to the real low stuff that there is even the slightest deviation from dead flat response while above that point response runs as flat as the Kansas horizon all the way out to doggy land.  he dynamic envelope is startling, both in its opening attack and subtle, long and detailed decay. This results in resolution that far exceeds that of just about any accompanying piece of gear. Staging is superb, with non-wavering, 3D images. I would place the size of the soundstage as very good but not quite the best I’ve ever heard. I imagine that this is the case because the First Sound is not given to exaggeration in any area of performance. Lastly, this thing is a quiet as the very best solid-state preamplifiers with no tube rush being detectable with your ear near the loudspeakers, much less at the listening seat.

 

Soulfulness
Personally, as good as all this sonic stuff this is, I find it more significant that the First Sound offers emotional purity that is of comparable level.  I know this is a fairly controversial area of audio reproduction and so I’m walking on thin ice here – but let’s be honest, if an audio product doesn’t allow you to feel more connected to the music it plays, then why bother with it? Sure, a particular setup or component may allow you to hear more stuff from a recording, and that certainly is interesting, but with the exception of all but a few fringe artists, musicians make music to move you. They may do that, in part and for example through mental processes such as those employed by Bach or, more recently, Brian Eno, but the bottom line is music has the goal of moving you from one emotional state to another. Some gear allows this to happen with ease.  Tubed gear seems to have an especial ability in this area, even if occasionally it is deficient in the sonic arena. Other gear, such as older Wilson Watt speakers, appeared criminally negligent in their ability to communicate emotion while simultaneously sporting phenomenal sonic skills.

There are, however, a few, select products that come quite close to having it all such as SoundLab loudspeakers or Dynavector cartridges to name a couple. Others, like the Linn SP-12 turntable tip the balance slightly to the emotional while the top of the line AKG K1000 headphones tilt slightly the other way. But in all these products are the few, special, timeless ones that become classics. To this elite list I would add the First Sound preamplifier.

Again, I know I’m on subjective ground here, or at least terrain that is difficult to navigate with a map alone.  My sisters (all three of ‘em), bless their otherwise kind and good hearts, love modern country music, and so some types of “music” connects with them that I simply cannot find a way into. Situations like this leads to problems when describing emotional connections – but being just stupid enough to try to describe music in reviews, I’ll go ahead and try to do this as well, though with the help of an example.

About seven years ago I began to bore of the state of popular rock music as everything, at best, had the stale scent of product.  This discontent led me to explore deeper what had previously been only an occasional dalliance with electronica.  The ever-suffering Robin found this to be almost too much to bear as the bleeps, burps and bangs coming from the listening room sounded like so much noise to her.  To be complete, while learning more about the genre there were many times I secretly agreed with her.  Still, the great electronia is great music, but until I placed the First Sound preamplifier in the system (driving an Art Audio Clarissa power amplifier), she never got it. Then, late one night when I was working and figured she was asleep I popped in The Place Where The Black Stars Hang by Lustmord [Side Effects DFX 16].  After about five minutes she walked in the listening room and quietly sat down.  After the album ended she exclaimed, “That is the creepiest music I’ve even been able to listen to”. Yes, she made the connection.  From there she has moved on to listen to and connect with Biosphere, Blind Light and Autechre.

To test my theory that the First Sound is the key to this I have removed it from the system many times and had her listen – and since we listen to this stuff in the dark, it was a true 100% blind test. Every single time she has walked away, even from albums she had previously connected with.  Proof? For me, yes. For you, perhaps not. And most especially if you come from the, “It’s all sonics” school of audiogeekism.  But if you love music not just for the sound but also for the way it makes you feel, then perhaps it’s enough of a proof to make you go listen to a First Sound preamplifier. I hope so, as it is a stunning experience.

 

Totality
Listening to any music with the First Sound preamplifier in my system has become a complete mind-body experience.  The sonic capabilities are such that the informational side of my brain and personality are completely sated and I never feel like there is more there in the recording than I hear in my room. But of far more import, the emotional side of me is equally filled as the First Sound pulls off that most tenuous of balancing acts, matching feeling to intellect. In this respect it has few peers in audio and is the reason it has become my personal reference.

At around $10,000 for the Presence Deluxe Statement with Paramount Upgrade MKII, it is far from cheap – but neither is a Patek Philippe wristwatch or a Ferrari sports car.  Each of these objects takes a different approach to being the “best” with Patek employing craftsmanship of the minute, of the near invisible in polishing their product to obscene tolerances while Ferrari looks for every compromise and systematically removes it. Mr Go’s preamplifiers lack the flash of a gold watch or the aggressive stance of a race car, but they evidence the same attention to detail and lack of compromise as these better known products with result of Go’s labors being a product that can stand with any as example of workmanship, quality and reward.

After re-reading these words I know that few will believe my impressions. That’s as it should be. Surely audio beauty is in the ear of the listener, but I do hope my words at least raise the question of my experience to you and lead you to discover the First Sound line in your own.

 

Specifications
Type: stereo preamplifier

Inputs: Six line-level inputs

Outputs: Two main outputs, one tape output

Frequency Response: 5Hz to 250kHz

Input Impedance: 150 kOhms

Absolute Phase: Inverting

Total Harmonic Distortion: less than 0.4% at 2V

Noise: Better than 91dB below 2V

Maximum gain: Greater than 15dB at 1kHz

Tube Complement: two 6DJ8 or comparable, two OA2

Maximum input: 7 Volts RMS

Dimensions (WxDxH in inches):
Main chassis: 19 x 14 x 5.5 
Power Supply: 7 x 11 x 5.5

Price: $10,000

 

Company Information
First Sound
833 SW Sunset Blvd.
Suite L57
Renton, WA 98055

Voice: (425) 271-7486
Fax: (425) 277-8653
Website: www.firstsoundaudio.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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