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June / July 2009
Superior Audio Equipment Review

World Premiere
Acousticbuoy Scorpio Linestage Preamplifier
Very competitive with others within its price range.
Review By Tom Lyle
Click here to e-mail reviewer.

 

Acousticbuoy Scorpio Linestage Preamplifier  I distinctly remember trips to the local audio salons in my younger days when one could only dream of owning the opulent audio jewelry that sat upon their racks and shelves in the back rooms where they kept their more expensive gear. The salespeople at these boutiques must have thought I was a pain in the neck when I would ask all of my naïve questions, not to mention my fly-on-the-wall presence when they demonstrated equipment to potential customers. Sure, there was more than a decent system at home, especially given my tender age. I thought that this unobtainable gear that they were selling was something to aspire to, and rationalized that my presence at the store was justified because one day, one day, I would be a good customer. But for now, this magnificent sounding gear was out of my league. This was not only because of the price of the equipment, which might as well been a million dollars given what they were asking for it, but adding to this sense of exclusiveness was what was experienced when I approached these components and laid my hands upon them.

Even in these relatively early days of high-end audio, when I turned the knobs and nudged the switches, these rock-solid, precise, and what I perceived as the futuristic feel of these refined instruments was almost (I said almost) as good as the sound that oozed forth. Jaded oldster that I am I have become accustomed to such gear not only in audio showrooms, but taking up space on my equipment racks in my listening rooms in my home. Yet I couldn't help but recall those more innocent days when I first laid my hands upon the Acousticbuoy Scorpio preamplifier. Here were those sensations – the almost velvety response of the stepped volume control and source selector, and the precision and solidity of the small toggle switches that grace its front panel. Adding to this was the machined front panel of the unit with its text carved into the metal (no stencils or decals here) and its diagonal striations, all of which separate this component from the run of the mill. Needless to say I realize that the sound of a piece of equipment is more important than anything it might or might not look like, and thankfully the Scorpio did not disappoint in this essential area.

It was kind of nice – I received the Scorpio preamplifier from the manufacturer Acousticbuoy knowing absolutely nothing about this component other than that it was being shipped from Canada . Before opening the box I didn't even have time to go to the Acousticbuoy website to check out its specs, pedigree, or, well…anything. Like I said, the preamp looked very nice in its solid 17 inch by 4 inch by 13.5 inch grey metal enclosure with thick faceplate, and it was quite weighty, too, at about 24 pounds. The Acousticbouy Scorpio front panel controls and back-panel were very utilitarian.

Acousticbuoy Scorpio Linestage PreamplifierO

 

Surprise!
After listening through the Scorpio for a few days, I finally logged onto their website. Surprise, surprise, the Scorpio preamp is powered by vacuum tubes, a 2AU7 and a 6C4 for each channel. Acousticbuoy also claims excellent specs for its unit, with very good numbers for channel separation and its signal-to-noise ratio. Its low noise is claimed to be in part due to its dual-mono design and its top-quality internal components. The aluminum cabinet is "hermetically" sealed, and is claimed to eliminate radio frequency interference (RFI). The "instrument grade" "rigorously matched" non-magnetic components are mounted on four layer circuit boards designed to eliminate interference from the AC power, which is meant to further enhance both the channel separation and the signal-to-noise ratio.

I used the Scorpio in two different systems for a period of a couple of months. Whether the signal passed through it to a 250 wpc amp driving electrostatic speakers or floorstanders, or that signal went to 70 wpc amps driving two-way stand-mounted monitors, its behavior remained stable. And as it turns out, its performance was undeniably impressive. But I did the bulk of my evaluation with it in my main system where it drove either a solid-state 250 wpc Krell KAV-250a or a 250 Wpc hybrid conrad-johnson ET250S. The analog front end consisted of a Basis Debut or Artimus SA-1 turntable, both with a Lyra Helikon cartridge mounted on a Tri-Planar 6 or VII tonearm.

Phono preamplification responsibilities were handled by a Lehmann Black Cube SE with its substantial outboard power supply or the internal phono section of a Balanced Audio Technology VK-3i preamplifier. Digital was played through Arcam, Oppo, and Benchmark gear, and the speakers were Sound Lab Dynastats or THIEL 2.4SEs which were at times assisted by a Velodyne subwoofer. Interconnects and power cable were by Virtual Dynamics and MIT, and all the power cables other than the amplifiers were plugged into a PS Audio Power Plant A/C regenerator, with a second unit used when the Basis turntable was used (the Artimus has its own outboard power supply). The subwoofer's power cable was plugged into a Chang Lightspeed power conditioner, and the whole shebang fed into two dedicated 20-amp lines using Virtual Dynamics wall receptacles. Much of the equipment was situated on an Arcici Suspense equipment rack, and the room was treated with Echobusters acoustic panels.

 

Mighty
After living with the Acousticbuoy Scorpio in my system for only a short while, it was apparent that this preamp was a sonic chameleon, adapting to each recording as needed. I guess that's just another way of saying that this unit was very transparent, and when it comes to any audio component that is the highest praise I can pay. One moment I would think that the Scorpio was a mighty brute, the next I thought its sound was adept at revealing the most delicate of tonal gradations. When listening to small scale ensembles, each note seemed to be a patent representation of the artist's or recording engineer's intent, and the importance of each note played was instantly recognizable. A perfect example of this would be on works such as string quartet recordings, and I spent quite some time listening to my favorite recordings of The Julliard String Quartet, which included selections from a perfect condition Bartok LP box set on Columbia and works of Janacek and Berg on a Sony CD. So when the Scorpio was in the system, as long as the players were adept (which is certainly true of the Julliard) and the recording was up to it (and even if it to a certain extent wasn't such as the only passable quality of the Columbia LPs), I would be drawn into the piece. The Scorpio's midrange was extremely detailed, the yet at the same time had warmth, which might sound like I'm describing a sound that is less than transparent (and a bit of a contradiction in terms) – but it isn't – it is just that it added to the natural reproduction of timbre that passes for the real thing, given the rest of the system is up to it.

Yet the Scorpio could also strut its stuff on overblown rock, as evident in the amazing Classic Records re-issue of The Who's Live at Leeds, where 90 percent of the album pushes the envelope when it comes to riding the thin line between the highest volume that can be reproduced on an LP and an overloaded signal. But when the band quiets down and becomes almost introspective on the improvisations during the middle section of My Generation, one can easily hear the guitar amp's hum and the dissimilarity of the master tape's hiss and the tape echo's hiss when it was used on Townsend's guitar. When the band turned up the volume (again, that's an understatement) the macrodynamic slam of the Scorpio made the air in the room turn thick with maximum rock ‘n' roll.

Not comfortable with the musical example above? OK, then. I'll talk about time spent listening to Bruckner's Eighth Symphony conducted by Gunther Wand on RCA which is one of my favorite versions of this monumental work. Usually his more moderate Fourth Symphony is recommended as a starting point for those not familiar with Bruckner's power orchestral works, but it was his Eighth that introduced me to his work, and I think it best flaunts his gifts as a genius of orchestration. The power of the orchestra going all out on the second movement's Scherzo tested the limits of the speakers (and me), yet both during this movement and the more sedate third movement Adagio the Acousticbuoy Scorpio made crystal clear the acoustics of Northern Germany's Lübeck Cathedral. They were mind-blowing, as was the entire performance by Wand and the NDR Orchestra of Hamburg. As the orchestra quietly introduces the piece, the only evidence that this is a live recording is the unobtrusive stirring and coughing that can just barely be heard beneath the music. As the piece begins the vibrating strings create tension as different sections and soloists take turns with recurring melodies throughout the expansive soundstage, and the acoustic of the hall is evident in both the quiet solos and as the orchestra swells. During the solos, one of many of the Scorpios' positive vacuum tube characteristics are revealed by slightly increasing the dynamic distance (the space between the soloist and the orchestra), and a greater sense of real humans playing real instruments in a real space. And even though this midrange is lush, it is not unnaturally so, and there is absolutely no loss in detail. The string's pizzicatos in the introduction (and later in the piece) also show off the hall's acoustics, in addition to the preamplifier's midrange warmth. The highs are sweet and at the same time extended, and are virtually a paradigm of the best that modern tube electronics have to offer.

In the March 2009 issue of the Review Magazine I wrote about the conrad-johnson ET250S hybrid power amplifier where I spent some time comparing two different re-issues of Yes' Fragile album that was originally released in 1972. Since then I've been spending what much seem to be an inordinate amount of time listening to the 13 disc (7 CDs and 6 DVDs) box set of the Peter Gabriel-era Genesis 1970-1975. To what do we owe to this plethora of great early to mid 1970s British prog rock? What's next, hi-rez Bruford-era King Crimson? I hope so (sort of). Anyway, up to now the best versions of these primo Genesis albums have been on vinyl, namely the superb Classic Records re-issues. The 24-bit/96kHz DVD-Audio... as as decoded by the Benchmark DAC1PRE in this new set definitely give the wax issues a run for their money. Which ones you might prefer (given you like this pompous genre of rock in the first place) might come down to which format you prefer at the moment, and perhaps the quality of the equipment they're played back on. But what might tip the scales might be whether you dig the re-mix job they've done to these classics on the new digital versions.

The Scorpio did a fantastic job at sorting out the complex song structures that made this era of Genesis famous. No, these aren't perfect recordings, these newly remixed versions were obviously EQ'd to the max, and yet the overall sound of the tapes still remains a little murky. But this darkness was no fault of the preamp --the Scorpio was just letting me hear exactly what was on the discs. But when I think of the crappy pressings I used to put up with when these albums were first released, the new mixes are pretty cool. The Scorpio was very revealing, and let me hear deep, deep into the mix. It was even able to extract a soundstage out of the relatively two-dimensional multi-tracks. So, even though the original tapes weren't of reference quality, the Scorpio really showed its strengths sorting out the complex instrumental arrangements within complex the song structures. Macrodynamics were put on display with explosive non-distorted bursts, and at the same time, small details were evident such as the digital signal processing used to improve the condition of the original tapes. When vocals and other instruments played during quite passages, it was easy to hear the digital noise gates turn on and off – the hiss beneath Gabriel's voice quickly faded during his silence between words and phrases.

 

Worth
The only sonic fault I could find with this preamp was subtractive; the lowest of the lowest bass wasn't reproduced with the same ability as compared to some other similarly priced units. But in many systems this won't even be noticed, and as long as a system isn't lacking in this area in the first place, it also should be a problem. The only other faults of the Acousticbouy Scorpio preamplifier are a matter of compatibility with the rest of one's system – three inputs might not be enough for some, and the lack of balanced inputs and outputs, remote control, and the lack of a tape loop might be issues for some. But aside from these quibbles, I think the Acousticbuoy Scorpio line-stage preamplifier is a fine piece of high-end gear, and very competitive with others within its price range, and more -- the "more" being its tactile pleasure and other intangibles that add to the impression that spending this kind of money on a preamp is not for naught.

 

 

Specifications
Type: Vacuum tube preamplifier
Tube Compliment: Two 12AU7 and two 6C4 
Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 20 kHz
Noise Level, dB (A): -90.6 dB 
Dynamic Range, dB (A): 91.2 dB 
THD+N: 0.035% IMD + Noise, %: 0.064% 
Channel Separation: -78.6 dB (1 kHz) 
Maximum Output Level: 25V RMS/ THD+N: 0.26% 
Input Impedance: 250K Ohms 
Inputs: Three pair RCA
Outputs: One pair RCA 
Power Consumption: 12 Watts 
Weight: 24 lbs. 
Dimension: 17x 4 x 3.5 (WxHxD in inches)
Price: $6600

 

Company Information
Acousticbuoy Products, Inc.
10 Northolt Cres.
Markham
Ontario L3R 6P5
Canada

E-mail: sales@acousticbuoy.ca
Website: www.acousticbuoy.ca

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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