Review of the NAD S100 Silverline Pre-amp
My Sonic Frontiers Line 1 for my system was purchased about the same time the NAD S100 pre-amp was purchased for the downstairs system. Now, with both pre-amps having had at least 100 hours of run in, it was time for a one on one show down on my system.
I will describe the differences first and perhaps talk about what is 'better' later.
On the Mary Black track, I noticed that the S100 had slightly less midrange bloom that the Line-1. On the other hand, the S100 seemed a touch more transparent in that one could hear deeper into the recording and there was a slightly deeper soundstage; however, the sense of depth was perhaps more of an impression because the added soundstage wasn't really defined. By the way, the Line-1 was noisier than the S100; the hiss from the tweeters (if you stand real close) was softer on the S100. Not surprising since this is a tube v. solid state comparison.
Moving on to Natalie Merchant (Live on Broadway album), the slight lack of bloom acquitted itself well here as the vocals were a bit 'thick'. Also, when Natalie hits the highs on Gun Shy, there is evident compression which makes it a bit jarring on the Line-1. The S100 presented this in a very polite fashion.
This led to the first hints of something I didn't like about the S100. The S100 shares several traits attributed to NAD products. It is sweet, liquid, and musical; basically, 'tubey solid state'. However, the downside of this sound is that it is rather polite and relatively not that dynamic. In terms of pace/rhythm and dynamics, I would have to say that I preferred the presentation of the Line-1. Mind you, the Line-1 is not a 'rocker' in the sense of a the typical Krell 'grab the bull by the horns and run' sound, but it doesn't have the reticence which I sensed on the S100.
Listening to Tori Amos', I noticed that the sparkling techno-percussion of Glory of the 80s was oh-so slightly muted and recessed., in line with the more polite presentation of the S100. The synth bass notes were a bit more prounounced and deeper. I heard much the same with Bliss.
Sarah McLachlan's beautiful Mary refocused attention on the lack of midrange bloom in the vocals. Mind you, this does not mean that the S100 sounded bad in the vocals. Though vocals were a tad 'thinner' than on the Line-1, they were not thin or brittle thanks to the very smooth treble and upper mids. Unlike the Mary Black recording (which is a similar vocals+minimal accompaniment), I did not hear deeper into the soundstage on this recording; perhaps because there was nothing left to hear (of course, what I hear on the Mary Black recording is probably reverb but if it leads to a more realistic creation of space in the living room, why not? - even engineerings sometimes use reverb because minimalistically miked recordings sound so claustrophobic)
After listening to the above, I swapped in a few more regular CDs to confirm my initial impressions.
I then switched back to the Line-1 again. I also noticed something: strings were actually slightly more reverberant and 'sweeter' through the Line-1 (perhaps tube distortion at work again?)
One important thing that I noticed (oops bad typo corrected :)) was a lack of the electronic hash that casts a shroud over a lot of cheaper solid state equipment, most noticeably the amplifiers that get feature in What Hi-Fi supertests and get 5 stars. I should know, I own a Quad 77 and I heard the 'shroud' for the first time when I did an A/B test against the McCormack. However, because I have heard some rather expensive equipment, I did detect a tiny trace of grain on the vocals on through the S100 (I do not hold this against the S100 as I don't think anything solidstate at this price level will be grain-free - of course, if you haven't heard other equipment, you'll think the S100 is grain-free [lucky you :)]. On the Line-1, perhaps the midrange bloom obscures the grain, but I didn't detect any. (I will probably have to listen to a very good tube-pre-amp before I learn how to detect it :))
My own assessment is that the Line-1 is the better pre-amp and further, it is worth the few hundred dollars extra (the 'sale' price on the Line-1 is still valid). Even its remote control and features are better than the S100 (I suppose all thats left is reliability...) In my earlier review of the Line-1, I admit that I was rather hard on the Line-1, but that was because I was moving from driving the amp directly to pre-amp. In my view, spending $2k+ on a box that allows me to switch between 2 sources while providing minimal sonic improvement (fortunately, it was ultimately an improvement) is not my idea of good value.
But when you compare the S100 to the Line-1, female vocals on the Line-1 are better (whether they are more accurate doesn't bother me :)) as the midrange is subtly 'breathed on' by the Line-1 and has greater 'body'. The same goes from strings.
The S100 also sounds more reticent and polite than the Line-1. I would never have thought of describing a tube pre-amp as dynamic but all the reports that Sonic Frontiers sounds like solid state (which is a bad or good thing depending on your viewpoint ;)) are quite true.
Signal to noise ratio measurements favour the solid-state S100, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Simply put, the Line-1 sounded more musically engaging in my system, and mind you the Line-1 is a very neutral pre-amp (too neutral to some) that doesn't 'spice' up the sound, and quite transparent (again, the loss of transparency from driving direct is audible but very subtle - too easy to exaggerate). The S100 tries to be tubey-solid-state but is not entirely successful.
Yes, I am hard on the S100, but perhaps I am actually hard on this whole pre-amp thing as a whole. I'm not sure what solid state pre-amp at the price level of the S100 can do better (the Adcom perhaps, but the Adcom was too ugly for the living room :)). But note: the Pre-amp costs more than my speakers and almost as much as my amplifier!
I hope to listen to others and report back to you.