There is nothing much to tell you about the sound of this particular preamp. And that's the point. I can't say that it is harmonically rich, that its treble is particularly sweet, or that it has a phenomenal attack. It simply delivers, on a plate, the sound of the other components in the system, neither more nor less. I can't even tell you that $15,000 buys you the preamp with the lowest noise, lowest distortion, highest input impedance or lowest output impedance. According to the published specifications, my Parasound JC2 edges out the Pre2 on each count at a fraction of the price. But I can tell you that both these amps are absolutely beyond reproach in all of these parameters, with varnishing low distortion and noise.
Let us stop a moment and get back to the basics. What should a good preamp do, and how can you tell if you've got a good one?
First, it should have the right inputs and outputs to match the requirements of the rest of your system. In my case a couple of balanced inputs and a couple of unbalanced inputs are enough, plus a balanced and an unbalanced output and some kind of tape loop. The Pre2 will satisfy almost everyone's requirements on this score, having two balanced and four unbalanced inputs and a tape loop. Switching between inputs uses contactless technology and a quick fade-out of the old input and fade-in on the new. You can select directly between inputs on the front panel and on the remote, unlike the JC2 which offers direct switching only on its remote. The connectors should be well spaced and neatly laid out, and of high quality so they make excellent contact and will survive abuse. The Pre2 does not disappoint.
It should also have enough gain to drive you power amp from your analog and digital sources. Most active preamps will have no issue on this score. The Pre2 offers a solid 6dB of gain for RCA output and a healthy 12dB for XLR output. But not all preamps provide high input impedance, which allows a wide variety of inputs of different sources to easily drive the preamp, or a lower enough output impedance to drive the vast majority of power amps with ease. No issues there with the Pre2.
A low noise floor is an essential element of high quality sound reproduction. Without it, noise can mask the low level signals that play such an important part in our listening. You need to pay particular attention here to the quality of the power supply and to the shielding of the signal path from stray electrical fields. Some manufacturers will even house the power supply in a separate chassis to this end. If you turn the wick full up on the Pre2 in my system and put your ear right next to the speaker drivers, you can just hear a slight hiss from the tweeter. This is an exceptional result.
You need a decent volume control. You'll find a huge variety of volume control designs in the market, each with its own proponents. You can get good performance in many ways, but you sometimes trade range or the ability to make adjustments in small steps for quality and price. It's also very important to keep a close channel match throughout the range of the volume control. EMM Labs has a proprietary software-based analog volume control system, and it's a spectacular performer. Switchable between readouts from 1 to 100 (0 is mute) or from -64dB to + 6dB, it adjusts for most of its range in 0.5dB increments and is entirely silent in operation. It takes quite some time to move through the entire range and I would prefer a variable speed mechanism like some other manufacturers have implemented. Missing from the Pre2 and from a number of other high end preamps is a balance control.
It would help if the preamp looked good, had a really good feel to the controls, had an easy to read display and had a choice of finishes to match the other electronic components. Pass on all counts. The Pre2 bears a very strong family resemblance to the XDS1 CD/SACD Player and will hold its head up against all but the go-for-broke designs coming out of Germany and Japan. The display and the volume control in particular are absolutely top notch. You can even customize the input labels and adjust both contrast and brightness over a nine step range in the menu system, while the mute option has three positions – soft mute, mute and mute off.
What about multi-channel? Since EMM Labs is such a big name in SACD, it will not surprise you to learn that EMM Labs have not left 4 or 6 channel fans out in the cold. You can synchronize multiple Pre2's together using a serial cable with the others as slaves of the first. That's the way I first heard the Pre2 in Dr. Ray Kimber's 4 channel room at CES. Not exactly inexpensive, but way cool!
The Pre2 does not carry a lot of bells and whistles – no phono stage for my Linn Sondek LP12 and no headphone output, although I am told the Pre2 makes a great headphone amp for the difficult to drive AKG K1000 if you use the preamp-out RCA jacks and appropriate cabling. There's no digital inputs either, although EMM Labs' Ed Meitner is not exactly a slouch when it comes to D/A converters. So it's a straight line level stereo preamp, fully balanced, and the major efforts have gone into the sound quality rather than optimizing measured performance or expanding flexibility.
The Gospel According To Ed
Copper traces are microscopically smooth on top and bottom, making our boards sound more like discrete OFC wiring.
Naturally damped sandwich construction offers superior strength and vibration resistance .
Lower dielectric losses and superior heat conduction ensure a more uniform temperature gradient across the circuitry, increasing stability and longevity.
100% contactless dual-balanced fully discrete audio paths.
Proprietary software-based analog volume control .
Newly designed intuitive control system featuring programmable input naming, settings recall and many additional features.
You also need accuracy of timbre, low distortion, high resolution, excellent imaging, tremendous linearity, quick transients, wide bandwidth and so on, all the usual measures we examine in any system.
How To Test
I used a wide variety of musical material and took my time. Differences in sound quality between two high end preamps might be expected to be minimal. Is that what I would find? After all the John Curl designed JC2 is a staggeringly good performer regardless of price. That it comes in at $4500 with HT bypass must put the fear of God into some of Parasound's competitors. Can EMM Labs justify a $15,000 sticker for their similarly featured preamplifier?
True to form for an EMM Labs product, the Pre2 majors in purity of sound and an incredibly precise and stable image, revealing layers and layers of sound in complex orchestral works, cutting straight to the heart in solo cello or voice. This is not to say the sound is thin or anemic. Quite the reverse! The sound is incredibly well focused and present. With both preamps you can take for granted a ruler flat frequency response and an immaculately quiet noise floor. But with the Pre2 there is more texture, more centre to the notes, sharper reflexes. It is also a more dynamic performer, with apparently boundless reserves of power. The resulting sound is simply more musical and natural than ever, and if the performance on your silver disc is truly spellbinding, you'll feel it, be stunned by the beauty and clarity of the musical lines. You will also find the music easier to listen to, since the brain is freed of its responsibility to fill in the blanks and compensate for minor imperfections when the sound reproduction is so complete and accurate. This is particularly true of massed vocals and persistent deep bass energy.
For some reason I am unable to fathom, the disc that makes this difference clearer than all others is The Well by Jennifer Warnes. Try her slow ballad "Too late love comes". The unaccompanied voice is heartbreaking, achingly clear and vivid, and then the low drone of Uillean pipes supporting the voice are simply more organically integrated into the performance than through the JC2, creating a more intimate and involving sound. What an exceptional performance and arrangement [Cisco SCD2034]!
I'm not sure if you count Diana Krall as jazz or pop these days but I love her early album All for You [Justin Time JTR 8458-2]. The slow ballad "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" has more gravitas on the Pre2, and her voice is more sultry and direct. "Hit That Jive Jack" gives a chance for everyone involved to swing, and the swagger just swaggers better with the Pre2.
An old favorite (and by old I mean mono) is Coleman Hawkins' The Hawk Flies High [Mobile Fidelity UDSACD2030]. The increased dynamic range through the Pre2 is obvious, with instruments jumping out at you in full flood, while the astonishing transient response makes the opening track "Chant" sound faster and better projected. Another recording from the same year, 1957, but this time in stereo, poses a tougher test. I'm talking about Kind of Blue [Columbia CS64935] where again the Pre2 gives more apparent pace, a more intimate soundspace and truly vivid color to each instrument. The difference in sound production between Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane has never more apparent.
But for me the truest test has always been classical music and I put the two preamps through the ringer on a diet of Shostakovich Piano Concertos (Hamelin), Brahms Symphonies (Fischer), Haydn Quartets (Mosaiques) and Benjamin Britten. The Britten set the pattern for all the rest. I was listening to the award winning Britten's Orchestra with the Kansas City Symphony under the direction of Michael Stern [Reference Recordings RR-120SACD]. This disc seems to have been recorded at an unusually low level. Well it does until you reach the climax of the "Passacaglia" from Peter Grimes. Then the amazing percussion outburst will help you understand why this uncompressed DSD recording needs to start at a low level if it isn't to overload later. If there is a better recorded disc (Professor Keith Johnson's first DSD recording) I've yet to hear it. Both the Pre2 and JC2 do a magnificent job here, but the Pre2 has the edge in tonal accuracy and dynamics.
This test would not be complete without trying The Beatles Love album [Capitol 09463 7981023]. The Pre2 excelled at placing the bird calls well to the left of the left speaker in the opening "Because" and revealing the flight path of a passing bee. It easily trumped the JC2 in separating the various voices in the close harmony in the musical part of that track. It's very strong dynamics and spot-on tonal accuracy work wonders with hard rock tracks like "Back in the USSR", instrumentals like "Blackbird" (out of this world) and "Yesterday" or ballads like "Something" and "Hey Jude".
Losing Less, And Thus Offering More