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July 2007
Superior Audio Equipment Review

World Premiere!
Antique Sound Lab Flora EX DT Line Preamplifier

Review By Wayne Donnelly

 

Best Of 2007 Award  Audio equipment from China is popping up more and more frequently these days on this side of the big Pacific pond. One marque that has been around for quite a while before this trend got started is Antique Sound Lab (ASL). This Hong Kong-based outfit produces an extensive line of tube gear, including many varieties of single-ended triode and push-pull power amplifiers, preamplifiers and headphone amplifiers. ASL has a multifaceted manufacturing operation, ranging from transformer winding to powder coating, all accomplished in-house. The Flora EX DT is the most sonically ambitious preamplifier I have seen from ASL, and one of the more original in concept to come from any manufacturer. As you will see, its unusual user interface reflects the company's emphasis on purity and simplicity of the audio signal path.

 

Look Ma, No Knobs!
Antique Sound Lab Flora EX DT Line PreamplifierThose black boxes account for much of the unit's weight, and are key to what differentiates the Flora from most preamplifiers: i.e., multiple transformers. The Flora has no resistors in the signal path, and I have already noted the absence of any type of potentiometer volume control. Instead, this preamplifier has an autoformer/switch-based input stage, complemented by its transformer-coupled output stage. What remains is a simple and elegant single triode gain stage with a precisely regulated (ASL dubs it "constant current") power supply. This very effective approach does produce a slightly odd effect that should be noted. As playback level is raised or lowered, different taps on the autoformer are physically contacted and switched on or off, producing a soft but distinctly audible "rubbing" sound. I quickly got used to the sound (it is not loud), and I eventually even found it rather endearing. But I hear that some listeners are bothered by it. Judge for yourself.

 

Review Setup & Possible Upgrades
In a stroke of good timing, the Flora arrived just as I was sending my reference VTL TL 7.5 preamplifier back to the factory for a Series II upgrade. Amplifiers on hand were the 500 wpc Spectron Musician III (a "Best of 2006" Blue Note Award winner) and 800-watt VTL Siegfried Reference monoblocks (review in progress). Sources were my Basis 2800/Graham 2.2/Transfiguration Temper analog rig with phono preamps from Jolida, Audible Arts and Thor; Denon 3910 multi-format disc player with tube output stage by Modwright; and Jolida tuner. Speakers were the wonderful Analysis Amphitryon planar/ribbons (also 2006 Blue Note Award winners). Various combinations of cables from Acapella, JPS Labs and Bybee Technologies saw service, along with accessories from Bybee, Audio Desk, VPI, Marigo Lab, Audio Excellence AZ and Audio Top.

For initial burn-in and early listening to the Flora I used the stock Chinese 6SN7 tubes. The preamp sounded very good with those tubes, and it is an excellent value with them. But I thought things could sound even better, so some tube rolling commenced. A pair of cryo-treated NOS mil-spec Sylvania VT-231s ($125 each) made a sensational difference: more low-level information retrieval, greater harmonic richness, and better dynamics both on the macro/impact level and, especially, at the micro end capturing subtle shadings of vocal and instrumental phrasing. I used the Sylvanias for the major portion of the review, and it is the performance of the Flora with the Sylvanias installed that made me decide to put this review into Superior Audio.

I caught a brief glimpse of even more impressive performance by trying a pair of NOS Mullard ECC-32s. Those are getting rare, as reflected in their $450/each price. They are oversized compared to the standard 6SN7, and the top plate of the enclosure must be left off when using them. That's not much of a problem with the Flora, as the dangerous-to-touch elements are well isolated from where fingers can reach. As those tubes burned in, I was stunned by the Flora's reproduction of harmonics, and most especially with the vibrancy and immediacy of vocals. I had never before heard quite such a degree of "you are there"-ness, not even with my five-times-more-expensive VTL preamp. Unfortunately, only a few days after the Mullards burned in completely, one of them died. I went back to the Sylvanias for the rest of the review process which, as I suggested above, was no great hardship. Still, I keep remembering the sound with those big Mullards...

There is another significant upgrade that I have not listened to, but I mention it FYI. Tash Goka of North American distributor Divergent Technologies tells me that the Flora's two large coupling capacitors can be upgraded with Mundorf capacitors for a significant gain in overall quietness, dynamics and resolution. Jeff Wells of Audible Arts in San Jose, Calif., who has sold numerous Floras, also highly recommends the Mundorf capacitor upgrade. Contact Divergent or your ASL dealer for details and pricing.

 

Listening To Flora
As noted previously, the greatest part of my time with the Flora was with the Sylvania VT-231 tube upgrade, which I wholeheartedly recommend. Rarely have I encountered a preamplifier so able to take me quickly from my left-brain reviewer mode, listening with an audio checklist in mind ("Wow, that triangle really cuts through the orchestra, and that bass drum slam hits me in the gut!") to full right brain, pleasure-loving mode. This listener can pay no greater compliment to any component. Still, a few checklist details are in order. The Flora throws a remarkable soundscape: a bit broader and deeper, with even more distinct layering, than my trusty VTL. Moreover, within that spacious sonic panorama individual elements are fixed and solidly dimensional.

Take, for instance, the incredible "LA Paloma" cut from the Gil Evans Out Of the Cool Impulse reissue LP, one of the best jazz demo tracks I know. The gatefold album cover lays out a diagram of the spatial arrangement of the 15-member Gil Evans Orchestra, and with the Flora we can hear those spatial relationships almost perfectly. Extraordinary! The tonal accuracy and low-level resolution of the Flora are also top-notch. Voices I know really well seem to spring into the listening space with stunning wholeness and individuality that heartbreaking catch in Rosanne Cash's voice, or Renee Fleming's marvelous chest tone underpinning her glorious high notes, have never been more vividly rendered in my system.

The Flora is one of the best preamps I have heard at capturing the sense of scale and the percussive attack of a concert grand piano, perhaps the toughest test for any audio system. Telarc's superb SACD recording if Latin/jazz pianist Michel Camilo's fresh, jazzy take on Gershwin warhorses Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F delivers a big, authentic piano sonority that can stand with any version of these oft-recorded favorites. That same disc also illustrates the Flora's ability to capture the rhythmic drive of a high-quality recording. The Spanish orchestra speaks the American jazz idiom as well as any band, and their propulsive, committed playing makes this disc a toe-tapping tour de force.

 

Conclusions And Recommendations
The $2.5K to $4K price range encompasses numerous excellent preamplifiers, and I certainly haven't heard them all. But I think I have to put the Flora at the top of my personal heap in this bracket, slightly outpointing the excellent Modwright SWL 9.0SE. I especially applaud the decision by ASL and Divergent Technologies to go back and add a remote phase/polarity flip capability, which was not offered on the initial release. I realize that many readers don't seem to care about or even be able to differentiate proper electrical polarity. But for those who can hear it, this feature adds even greater value at the Flora's bargain $3,000 price tag. The answer to my perpetual question about any reviewed component "Could I be happy long-term with this piece in my system?" is a resounding yes. Just don't forget to upgrade those tubes.

 

Specifications
Type: Vacuum tube stereo preamplifier
Frequency Response: 18Hz to 44kHz (+/-1dB)
Tube Complement: two 6SN7
Inputs: Four sets single-ended RCA
Outputs: Two sets single-ended RCA, one set balanced XLR
Polarity: Inverted
Input Impedance: 100k Ohms
Input Sensitivity: 700 mV
Output Impedance: 600 Ohms
Output: 5 Volts
S/N Ratio: 84dB
Gain: 9.3 dB
THD: 0.2% @ 1.0 volt output
Dimensions: 14 x 15 x 6. (WxDxH in inches)
Weight: 35 lbs.
Warranty: 1 year parts & labor; 5 years parts; 90 days tubes
Price: $3000

 

Company Information
Antique Sound Lab Ltd
Rm. 38, 20/Fl. Block D
Wah Lok Industrial Center
Phase 2,31-41
Shan Mei St.
Fotan, N.T.
Hong Kong

Voice:  852 267 13062
Fax: 852 269 01112

 

North American Distributor:
Divergent Technologies Inc. 
342 Frederick Street
Kitchener, Ontario
N2H 2N9
Canada

Voice: (519) 749-1565
Fax: (519) 749-2863
E-mail: divergent@divertech.com
Website: www.divertech.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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