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August 2011
Superior Audio Equipment Review
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EMM Labs Pre2 Preamplifier
A truly high-end solid-state reference preamplifier.
Review By Phil Gold

 

  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?

EMM Labs Pre2 PreamplifierFirst, 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 Meitner
Aerospace grade composite laminate circuit boards .

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
To test a component of this caliber I took the most elaborate precautions. I mounted two preamps, the Pre2 and my reference Parasound Halo JC2, side by side on identical supports, and powered them both up using matching Nordost Valhalla power cords. I switched the balanced-in and balanced-out cables (Valhalla again) between the two preamps for AB testing. The front end was the EMM Labs XDS1 CD/SACD Player, the power amp a Bryston 4BSST˛ and the speakers the brilliant YG Carmels, the feature of an upcoming review. I adjusted the volume levels using the Nordost System Setup & Tuning Disc [CD NOR TD1] and a sound meter to give an exact volume match from the listening position, and only then began the listen tests.

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?

 

Listening
The review would be over right now if I couldn't hear the difference, or if the JC2 came out ahead. But since you can see there's more text below you'd be right to assume the Pre2 has some advantages, besides its slimmer profile and killer display.

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
Don't think for a moment the Pre2 is adding dynamics to any of these fine recordings, and it certainly isn't creating detail that isn't already in the recording or building a better three dimensional space than was captured in the studio. What is does is simply to lose less information along the way than the JC2 or any other preamplifier I've reviewed. I can't tell you that it's perfect, but on the other hand I can't fault it either. It's the purest and most accurate component I have had the pleasure of listening to (so far). I will be delighted to find a preamplifier that works significantly better... or just as well at a lower cost. For now the bar has just been raised. Whether the few notches that bar has inched up are worth the very considerable investment will be up to you. I've made my choice. Meet my new reference preamp.

 

Manufacturer's Reply
Specifications are easy to achieve with today's op-amps, however EMM Labs does not use monolithic devices in our audio paths. What we may sacrifice in analytical specifications we gain in a sonic transparency and integrity not possible using chips. We thank Phil for so strongly and unequivocally stating his enjoyment of our PRE2 preamplifier - and for purchasing it for his own reference use. A good preamp like the PRE2 raises your entire system, and all the music you own, to a more enjoyable level.

 

 

Specifications
Type: Reference solid-state analog preamplifier
S/N Ratio: > 110dB 20 Hz to 20 kHz
THD: 1kHz < 0.01%, 20kHz < 0.01%
Frequency Range: 0Hz to 100kHz
Gain Control Range: Better than 64dB
Max Input: ±7V p-p (+22 dBu)
Max Output: ±11V p-p (+2 6dBu)
System Gain: XLR +12dB (pin 2 hot), RCA +6dB 
Analog Inputs: 2 sets XLR (pin2 hot), 4 sets RCA, 1 set RCA Loop
Input Impedance: XLR 20kΩ, RCA 10kΩ
Analog Outputs: 1 set XLR, I set RCA, 1 set RCA Loop
Output Impedance: XLR 300Ω, RCA 150Ω
Multi-channel Option: Several units can be synchronized together
Remote control: Infrared remote, machined aluminum
System control input: Wired remote, Serial RS 232 for control
Upgrades: USB port for firmware upgrades
Power supply: High Isolation resonant mode power supply
Voltage: 100V/115V/230V 50/60 Hz - Factory set
Display: LCD with 2 levels and off
Power consumption: 40 watts
Size: 17 x 15.7 x 3.6 (DxWxH in inches) 
Weight: 26.5 lbs
Finish: Black or silver aero aluminum machined chassis
Warranty: 5 yrs 
Price: $15,000

 

Company Information
EMM Labs Inc
119-5065 13th St SE
Calgary
Alberta
Canada T2G 5M8

Voice: (403) 225-4161
Fax: (403) 225-2330
E-mail: sales@emmlabs.com
Website: www.emmlabs.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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