Loth-X's Silbatone C-102 Pre-Amplifier
A Battery Of Brilliance!
Review By Steven R. Rochlin
here to e-mail reviewer.
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
The name Silbatone is their belief in that silver conductors (SIL),
batteries (BA), and good tome (TONE) are
a must if one is to achieve the highest of resolution. As for the silver aspect,
technically copper is a
great conductor, though it is indeed eclipsed by silver. While some audiophiles
may believe gold is best, this is a fallacy. Gold is actually a bad conductor of
an electrical signal, but the benefit of gold's resistance to tarnishing has
lead it to be the de facto for cable end connectors. While the C-102 is
completely silvered out to the maximum, there are other aspects to this unit.
One of them is in using battery power.
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 above 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!
This review was to appear in a print magazine,
which has not had an issue in well over a year, so the unit was here for quite
some time. Therefore it is relatively easy for me to give overall impressions
due to the lengthy review process. After a few hundred hours of settling in
time, the first thing that grabbed me was the utter clarity and extensions of
high frequencies coupled with the most amazing mid to lower bass tonality. This
was not just a subtle difference to my usual reference units (conrad-johnson
Premiere 17LS, passive unit with DACT stepped attenuator and Final Labs Music 4
and 5). The C-102 was bringing about a perspective that almost literally took my
breath away. It is analogous to the first time someone goes from a good
"Class AB" solid-state amplification to that of an excellent single-ended
zero feedback riode tube (in the proper system). It was as though everything was simply
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
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
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
So it seems the review above is one of those reviewer
unadulterated raves. Well darn it all if you had this piece in your system i
would challenge you to say bad things about it. Ok, so it is three large chassis,
takes up quite a bit of physical real-estate, weights what seems like a ton and
So what?!?! The end result is a unit that reproduces music beyond that of any
other pre-amplifier ever heard... and i have heard more than one cares to
mention. This is not a subtle improvement over my reference units either, but
then again all my reference pre-amplifiers price added together do not equal the price of
this unit. Sadly, i decided to not sell a few of my chachkies to buy this unit.
The good news (for me) is that the United States distributor Joe Roberts sent me
the Silbatone JI300 integrated 300B stereo integrated amplifier. While it is not
battery powered, next month my review of the JI300 will be complete and we may
get some idea where the magic to this Silbatone stuff is. If you have the
financial means to buy the C-102 pre-amplifier, this wonderful piece is beyond any lousy
system or fave of the month club. What we have here is something so far beyond
what i previously felt possible that the gauntlet has been raised for other
designers to step up to the challenge. Of course
in the end what really matters is that you...
Enjoy the Music,
Steven R. Rochlin
Three 12AX7 (phono stage)
Two 12AY7 (line stage)
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
MM Phono 47 kOhm, Line 10 kOhm
Outputs: Two stereo pair via RCA and one stereo pair XLR
Charging System: 100% analog, gold-plated PCB modules
Analog Stage 9.4 x 42.7 x 30.8
Battery Box 9.5 x 42.7 x 42.7
Power Box 18.9 x 23.6 x 36.7
(HxWxD in inches)
Weight: 60 kg.
#1006 Byuksan Digital Valley III
212-13 Guro-dong, Guro-gu