World Premiere Review!
Have you ever noticed how people's pets tend to look like them and reflect their personalities? Well, I have noticed a similar congruency between audio components and their designers for good or bad (no names mentioned here are the astringent amps/designers I have come across in my years as an audiophile). Fortunately, the subject of this review, the Merrill Audio PURE Tape Head Preamp (the "Merrill Preamp" or "Pure") for reel-to-reel decks and its creator Merrill Wettasinghe are on the right side of that spectrum. Merrill joined a recent meeting of the Westchester Audio Society (WAS) at my house and brought along his reel-to-reel tape preamp.
When one meets Merrill, you realize right away that he is supremely competent, very quick, focused, truthful, and has thought through all of the details (resolving) all attributes one readily hears from his tape preamp. To me, his preamp is exceedingly pure sounding, but I cannot speak to Merrill's chasteness (let he who is without sin cast the first stone!). You get no attitude, stridency or bullshit from either of them exactly how I like things.
Particularly as this is my first review for Enjoy the Music.com, a quick word about my audio travels, preferences/biases and equipment are in order. Like many audiophiles, I have travelled a long (I started around 45 years ago), winding road, with many detours and dead ends, trying to reach that hallowed ground of lifelike reproduction. Just figuring out which aspects of the sound I thought were most important to accomplishing that was no small feat. To me, the two most important aspects of a component are extreme resolution and speed. In my experience, if you get those right, all the other things like soundstaging, PRAT, immediacy and presence follow and if they are lacking, no amount of bloom, lushness, etc. can make up for it.
By extreme resolution/transparency I don't mean just highlighting particular details of a performance, but allowing one to hear deeply into the recording, revealing clearly the leading edge of notes, the timbre of instruments - the micro-details and micro-dynamics buried deep in the recording. Of course, it is the execution of these elements that is critical and separates the analytical, soulless components from the truly magical, revealing and musical components.
My system is as follows: Dartzeel NHB-18NS Mk II preamp and NHB-108 Mk II amplifier, Evolution Acoustics MM3 speakers, Grand Prix Audio turntable with Kuzma 4-Point arm and Ortofon MC Century cartridge and an Ampex ATR 102 reel-to-reel tape deck (refurbished by the late, great Mike Spitz) with both quarter-inch (0.25") and half-inch (0.5") two-track head stacks with Flux Magnetics repro heads. I got into reel-to-reel about a year and a half ago and it has been a very slippery slope since then. I first heard a good 15ips two-track copy of a master at an audio show and from that moment on, I knew I would sell my soul to be able to have that sound in my home. There is a presence, immediacy and wholeness to reel-to-reel that I don't hear in any other format. And, of course, the separation, dynamics and bass impact handily beat LPs.
As a general matter, one seeking to get into reel-to-reel can go down one of several roads. One can purchase for a very reasonable price an old four-track deck. The transport mechanisms and internal amplifiers of these machines (if in good shape) can be fine and there are many four-track tapes available on places like eBay that are decent to really good sounding. In my experience, because of the limited magnetic material on each band, these tapes will not sound as good as comparable two-track tapes. The second route one can go down is to get a good used consumer or pro-sumer two-track machine. There are many of these machines available, but you have to be very careful regarding the condition. These machines can have very good transport mechanisms and are typically built like tanks.
My experience, however, has been that the internal amplification, because of age and design, just are not up to today's high-end systems. Many people get around this by wiring a cable out from the machine's repro head and run it into an external tape preamp. This is in fact what I first did. I originally had a Tascam 42B deck with the cable run into a King-Cello tape preamp. This brought me all the great qualities of reel to reel tape and if not for my audio-nervosa, I could have been quite happy with this arrangement for the rest of my days. Then, a friend offered me a refurbished Ampex ATR 102 pro-level deck. This is the third road.
Pro-level decks were used in studios and typically have gentler, more accurate transport mechanisms, which definitely can be heard. I did a comparison of the Tascam and ATR run into the King-Cello and the improvement in sound from the ATR mechanism was quite clear. The sound quality of the internal amps of these machines vary, partially dependent on whether the electronics have been refurbished. I am certainly no expert on tape decks, but I have been told that the ATR 102 decks have some of the best sounding internal amplifiers (obviously, for recording purposes, there are many other considerations). When I switched to the ATR 102, I found that the internal ATR electronics were transparent and provided more weight to the music than the King-Cello I had been using. Nonetheless, I always wondered whether the ATR amps were really up to the resolution and speed of the rest of my system. That takes us to today. When Merrill brought his preamp to the WAS meeting, I had to try the Merrill unit. I am very glad I did. Fortunately, for comparison purposes, it is very easy to switch between the ATR electronics and the Merrill. I can test out external tape preamps by pulling out two amplifier cards and replacing them with two cards with balanced cables. The whole process takes about a minute.
Merrill Audio's PURE Tape Head Preamplifier
So, here is where some of you Tapehead guys say: "Hey, what about meters? What about EQ adjustments to tweak the sound to test tones on the tapes or on MRL tapes?"
I have to admit that was my initial reaction. The more I discussed the matter with Merrill and thought about it, however, the more I was satisfied without having those features. First off, azimuth adjustment can still be accomplished by hooking the unit up to an oscilloscope and using a Lissajous pattern (my tape friends tell me that is the most accurate way). Second, I couldn't tell you how accurate the meters are on my ATR or if the meters have a flat frequency response I'm not having them regularly calibrated as might be done in a recording studio. Third, I simply don't have the patience to do the tweaking for every tape I play (I get tapes from different sources and many of them don't even have the test tones attached). I am not the guy that adjusts VTA for each different album to squeeze out every last ounce of fidelity. I'm sorry to disappoint, but there's a limit for me. So, since I am not planning on doing any dubbing and every single tape I played sounded flat, I am happy staying with the Pure Sonics model.
Here is Merrill's description of the technology of his tape preamp and his views on EQ adjustment and meters:
There will be three versions of the Merrill Audio Tape Head Preamp, all sonically / audio-wise the same but differentiated by features. Right now, the production version of the base-level, Pure preamp is ready. It retails for $9000. The next level up is expected to retail for $15,000. It will have a touch screen display with most likely VU meters, and some level of "tone controls," perhaps only HF, as requested by some mastering engineers. Estimated release date is perhaps mid-summer. The top level will be the "pro" version, expected to retail for around $22,000. It will most likely add more sophisticated EQ to allow for alignment for playback to reference tapes, etc. and maybe adjustment for head loading. The features of this version are "TBD"; estimated release date is early Fall.
Setting Up The PURE Tape Head Preamplifier
The Merrill Audio Tape Head Preamp philosophy is to keep the signal path and the sound as pure as possible and therefore add the electronics for adjustment only as necessary. Multiple adjustments reduce the accuracy of the EQ, altering the phase and decreasing channel tracking accuracy, and adversely affect the sound clarity. We believe that using EQ adjustments to try to correct for tape-head bump is a mistake for purists. Tape-head bumps are different in frequency and magnitude on each machine. On newer tape heads and on better machines the tape-head bump is very small and can be ignored. Should it become larger or significant, the tape head can be re-lapped, which is the best way to remove tape-head bump. Additionally, the recording machine will have a different head bump from the playback machine. Hence the head bump is small and difficult to equalize without destroying the fidelity of the playback.
It is very important to manage the head bumps at the recording, rather than the playback. The reproduce errors are small in this frequency response area below 125Hz and for all practical purposes should be ignored - otherwise it could be compounded with other equalization errors and phase shift issues. With respect to EQ'ing the higher frequencies, the test tones allow for alignment at those frequencies, but that does not mean a flat response will be achieved. There is a possibility that the frequency response is worse when aligning only for these tones at 100Hz, 1kHz and 10kHz. Adding to that is that the varying frequency response of the VU meters can cause further frequency misalignment if trying to adjust at the test tones.
So, for the Merrill Audio Pure Tape Head Preamp we decided to exclude any of the EQ adjustments. Similar to a phonostage, the preamp will apply the appropriate EQ to the tape. The higher-level models, for those intending to do dubbing or mastering, or for those who otherwise feel it necessary, will have the EQ adjustments and digital meters. For most audiophiles just wishing to listen to their tapes, having the higher-level models will be like driving a Ferrari in New York City.
The Sound Of PURE (Analog) Tape Head Preamp
I was caught off-guard by how real and immediate the cornet sounded for a second I thought it was real. Though obviously not as biting as a real bugle (I hated getting woken up by those things in Boy Scouts camp), the edginess of the cornet came through clear, solid, shaped and three dimensional. The drums and piccolo that followed also sounded lifelike and impactful and I could hear the drum strikes more distinctly; the piccolo seemed so well-defined and delicate.
When the brass and then the strings come in, it is hard not to sit up and take notice. In each case, you can hear the individual instruments, but you feel the power of the massed instruments more so than with the ATR electronics. And again, you notice the speed and presence of the instruments. By the time I got to the crescendo in the first movement, I noticed something else the whole presentation sounded way more "open" than with the ATR amps. It wasn't that the soundstage was wider (I don't think it was) or deeper (it may have been) with the Merrill preamp, but there was just more air and ambience revealed in the recording and instruments were more three-dimensional.
At the peak of the crescendo with the ATR amps, things got kind of congested and it was harder to separate out the individual instruments and their locations. The bass drums were clearly heard, but they sounded a bit recessed and masked/softened by all of the other instruments. Not with the Merrill preamp. The wallop of those drums scared the crap out of me. As a result, the whole crescendo was so much more satisfying and closer to how I hear such pieces in a concert hall. Like the ATR amps, the Merrill preamp was quite neutral in its presentation. Timbral information was conveyed clearly and with appropriate weight. Stringed instruments were silky smooth, with no hint of graininess or brittleness.
I have in the past initially mistaken components that had tipped-up sound as being resolving and immediate sounding. Ultimately, these components proved themselves to be thin, flat and fatiguing. The Merrill Audio PURE Tape Head Preamp did not sound tipped-up to me, but I wanted to check whether what I was hearing was true resolution and whether the music had sufficient weight. To me, the quickest way to sort this out is to listen to a good recording of piano a truly resolving component will reveal the weight and complexity of the instrument. The excellent Tape Project release of Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby seemed to be a perfect choice.
Bring In ATR Amps
Motian's cymbal strikes and brush technique really stand out, whereas with the ATR amps, they were more recessed and less reverberant. LaFaro's finger plucks were more distinct and prominent and there seemed to be even greater weight to the bass. Because of the openness and three-dimensionality, the legendary connection between Evans and Lafaro was clearer to me. Though I would ordinarily not consider this recording "exciting," through the Merrill Preamp there was a new energy to the performance that kept me more engaged. I also discovered a new energy and excitement to many other recordings that I knew well. I frequently found myself tapping my foot always a good sign.
One thing I should clarify is that the PURE Tape Head Preamp's extraordinary resolution does not come at the cost of being mechanical/analytical or grainy. It does not atomize the sound, as I have heard with some very resolving components, nor does it sugar coat (or, to use a term I heard from Merrill, "caramelize" the music). Like Merrill, himself, it is very truthful you hear the good and the bad in a recording. This was confirmed on WFD and many other tapes, where any hint of dryness or candy-coating would have been revealed. On Analogue Productions' release of Ben Webster's Gentle Ben, Mr. Webster's beautiful, loping sax is pure and liquid. There is not a hint of harshness or over ripeness. The preamp does not have the warmth or bloom of some tube equipment, but to me, it sounds like really good, modern tube components pure and natural. If you are looking for plumpness in the mid-bass, you won't find it here. The preamp sounded very flat to me.
Because of the purity and unfettered dynamics of the recording, Analogue Productions' release of Hugh Masekela's Hope can sound incredibly life-like if replayed on the right equipment. Like with the other tapes, this recording sounded more open and lively than through the ATR amps. Indeed, in comparison, on this tape the ATR amps sounded a bit veiled, particularly when it came to the voices. The voices (both Mr. Masekela's and his background vocalists) sounded much more present and immediate. I could hear a growl in Masekela's voice that was harder to hear through the ATR amps. The background vocalists were more forward and part of the whole, and could be separately heard, even during the chaotic crescendo at the end. That cow-bell (or whatever the hell it is they're hitting during the build-ups) really sounded like it was a bell in your listening room. More important, Masekela's trumpet was heard with all the bite and immediacy that it should have.
Through the ATR amps, it sounded a bit softened. The drums, even when the pounding was causing my amp to approach clipping, sounded clear, defined and appropriately-sized. It sounded as if you could really hear the true dimensions of each drum and the strikes that were being delivered. The lightning-fast Merrill Audio PURE Tape Head Preamp frequently delivered drum strikes that made me jump out of my chair.
International Phonograph, Inc. Reel-To-Reel Tape
I did not have any publicly-available Rock tapes for this review, so fortunately Jonathan Horwich at IPI (International Phonograph, Inc.) was kind enough to send me a copy of his new tape, Davy Knowles Still Got Work To Do. It was a perfect tape to test out the Merrill Preamp's chops when it comes to Rock. The music was right up my alley bluesy rock with a tinge of southern influence (think Allman Brothers). There were many tasty numbers that had me bopping my head, with a few outright hits that really rock (e.g. "Any Lie Will Do"). All of the performers are clearly quite accomplished. The recording is open and direct sounding. Davy Knowles' voice is very present, as is the Hammond organ and guitar.
I did find the drums a bit recessed for my taste (I really like to feel the impact of the drums unfortunately, they are so often buried in the mix). Through the ATR amps, the tape sounded really good and certainly conveyed the energy of the performance. Through the Merrill Audio Merrill Audio PURE Tape Head Preamp, however, the performance really came alive! Again, the sound was more open and the energy was turned up several notches. The Hammond organ and guitar really popped. Just as I hear those instruments at live Rock concerts, they had bite and timbral density especially when Knowles is making his guitar weep and scream.
Bottom Line, Simple And Sweet
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