A New Pre-Amp (Now up to Part IV) :)

Part 0: Prologue/disclaimer (written after living with the SF Line-1 for a few months).
I have to say that I like the Line-1; the bass problem has gone away after running in the pre-amp and the tubes. (I am very sure that its not that I've gotten use to the problem bass) Basically, I have traded a bit of transparency for gains in soundstaging and imaging solidity. The thing about the Line-1 is that it tries to be as neutral as possible and doesn't try to beautify the sound (which in itself is not a bad thing actually). So basically, you're paying at a $2k box that allows to switch between CD and DVD players.

Perhaps thats why I'm hard on pre-amps, and not only the Line-1 in particular. I will try very soon to do a one on one against the similarly priced Nad S100 ($1.8k) downstairs. Also, 1 more thing in the Line-1's favour is that it is fully balanced and using balanced connectors does bring sonic improvements. I also fully appreciate its wonderful ergonomics and remote control :)


Part I: The Best Laid Plans

I was kind of planning to source for my pre-amp maybe end of the year (check if any bonus besides 13th month...) and anyway, I've been waiting for a long time to get one. At any one time, Asia Sound usually has some stuff which its clearing. It prints a little sheet with prices etc and sticks it up. Recently, I noticed a handwritten scrawl right at the bottom of the sheet with the price of the Line-1.

OK, more than $1,000/- less than a Conrad Johnson PV-12? Hmmm... Of course, I checked to see if there was any pre-amp on the market near to the Line-1 in terms of $$$. Oh look, the Adcom pre-amp with the Nelson Pass design, also from Asia Sound. Of coure, I had my heart set on a tube pre-amp so....

My Hi-Fi buying philosophy (dictated by my finances) basically states that: buy good stuff cheap. If it isn't cheap, and you don't need it. Wait, someday, it'll be on sale (at latest, when they replace the model :)) So I've been driving my amp direct from my CD player and everytime I want to watch a movie, I switch the interconnects. I couldn't do this forever, so fortunately, this popped up. Would the PV-12 be better? I've heard the PV-12 vs the Sonographe pre-amp, and my rough guess would be: better, yes, but not by much

Part II: Dragging it Home and Initial Impressions

Of course, tube pre-amps need a lot of break in. Listening in on it breaking in, I wondered 'Oh no.... no wonder they're selling it so cheap' :) Conventional wisdom states 50 hours break in. I'm at slightly over 40 hours now, but really, even my Amp took months to mature in terms of sound.

Initial Sound quality:
I had already known from others that the Line-1 is not considered 'transparent'. Please ignore the rather bad Stereophile Reviews (if you read their review on the Anthem Pre, Line-1, and then Line-2, you'll notice that the language is all the same... they're all 'wonderful') However, this must be taken into context. The Line-1 still costs more than my amp and my speaker (the CD player is still the most expensive component) and so, I was pretty confident of getting reasonable transparency.

The comments below are comparisons between the pre-amp and driving direct. When I say 'more' or 'less' its all relative. If I say its not transparent you might want to note that other similarly priced pre-amps are probably about the same (save passive ones).

Of course, doing level matched A/B comparisons of driving the amp direct vs through thepre-amp definitely showed that the Line-1 is not transparent and also what fantastic sound I was getting driving direct (I would venture to boast that the XA7ES driving the McCormack beats hands down any CD player/pre/power combination costing less than $5k) Please note that all the details are there. I can still hear the very quiet breathing in and out in Mary Black's Shine at the intro. However, driving direct someone reaches into the silence and pulls something out from it.

Admittedly, I was using a old Nordost Blue Angel from pre-amp to amp, but I used both my XLO and Blue Angel to drive the amp direct and the loss of transparency doesn't appear to be caused by the cable (unless there is something unique about the pre-amp to amp connection that I don't know about -- apparently some people think there is)

Driving direct made the sound forward, with an immediacy and sparkle about it. One listener of my system thinks that its a bit 'in your face' with the singer a bit too close (I listen 6.5 ft from speakers by the way). However, there is a 'sparkle' which I relate to transparency of the system that gives it life.

With the pre-amp, the vocals and pushed back deeper into the soundstage, more in line with the other instruments. This is fine, but the sound lost some of its 'sparkle' and 'space'. Objectively, you would say that treble extension is all there: I don't hear it as rolled off. It may be a tiny bit smoother, but brightness remains the same. If the sound was rough in driven direct, it was rough here as well. The more full-bodied sound did not ameliorate the roughness. Which is actually good as it indicates transparency at least in this regard.

But, there seemed something missing in the 'life' department because the lost immediacy and transparency (which perhaps provided great 'hi-fi' thrills, and hey, better than nothing), was not replaced with the expected the next level of musicality... yet.

Soundstaging definitely improved. Images became more full bodied and the soundstage was bigger.

Imaging remained kind of the same. For the vocals, it could be said that the image, being pushed back and not as forward, lost some of its specificity.

OK, if the Stereophile lab reports say that the pre-amp has a flat frequency response, why am I getting more bass? The bass and midbass definitely went up in volume. Fortunately, the bass is reasonably tight. However, for some bass heavy CDs, I think the quantity is getting a bit too much. I might have to consider getting some serious bass traps for the room in the future.

Speed remained essentially unchanged. Maybe a tiny bit slower.

Initial Conclusions
As indicated, I've traded away the sparkle and transparency and didn't appear to get much in return. Wheres my increased musicality and harmonic richness?? And yeah, can I get some of my transparency back? Disclaimer: This is of course after a very short break-in. I'll probably need to change this after 100 hours+ of operation. But the main thrust is that you will lose transparency moving from driving direct to a tube pre-amp. Also, the general character of the pre-amp (compared to driving direct) as a relatively neutral (read: relatively lean for a tube-amp with more bass with good treble extension) should remain. Reviewers have pointed out that running in more will provide greater openess and transparency. Note:: increased transparency from more running-in confirmed! Whew :)

Part III: Bring out the Tweaks!

The pre-amp sits on the top shelf of my Target D3 rack and the pre-amp comes with squishy feet. I was planning to get a new interconnect first. Asia Sound offered to let me try the Tara Reference Gen 2, and I was planning to take them up on their offer after the pre-amp ran in.

But more importantly, (at least in my belief system), isolation. And so, off I went to Soul of Music to get 3 medium DH cones and 3 large DH cones. Spare DH squares I have. Also, he handed me a pair of Diva interconnects (I keep telling him... 1.5m is too long for my system and he tells me that T S Lim says 1.5m sounds better. He also hands me the Harmonic Technology Truth-Link 1m interconnects.

I tried both the medium and the large. I'm going with the medium under the squares. The cones increased the air and spaciousness and thus made it a little more transparent. No, still some way off from driving direct. Also, the pace and rhythm tightened up a bit.

Wondering whether or not the Cones could have an effect under the NAD preamp in the living room on a Target B5 with castors (yes, the CJ MF2500 is being partnered with a preamp that costs less than 1/10 the price of the power amp), the same effects could be heard. However, I preferred the cheaper medium cones as they made the bass a little more lean.

The DH squares were actually pretty good. They do operate synergistically with the DH cones, much to my surprise. I've tried them under Black Diamond cones but somehow theres not much effect (no ill effect either). The squares made the high frequency 'air' less grainy and more seamless without loss of any HF detail.

A step in the right direction then. The pre-amp was heading in the direction of 'listenable' :)

Am I going to compare them to the Black Diamond Cones? Its too close.Both are fantastic buys and instant improvements to almost any component. Improving a pre-amp. Who would have thought it?

As mentioned, I was considering the Tara, and at the back of my mind was the Nordost Red Dawn but I was worried that it might be a bit too bright. Anyway, the Harmonic Technology Truth Link is the '2nd' from the top and the website says that it is 'smooth'. Something like the Tara eh?

I slipped the HT into the system and I was bowled over by the sound. Jaw-dropping would be appropriate here as well. Of course, one might take into account that the Blue Angel is not that great a cable. Still, there was a tiny increase in detail and air, and more important, the system suddenly turned musical. Trying to put my finger on it, the cable makes the midrange more liquid and slightly more full bodied without obscuring detail. Plowing through my CDs again, I found that without exception, I preferred this wonderful sound.

But no matter how blown away I was, I have to remember that what occurred in this case was probably a classic 'cable mismatch' in the sense that the fast, detailed and spot lit character of the Blue Angel overemphasised those qualities already present in the Line-1. I still believe that a cable is only presenting to you the qualities of the component it is connected to and that the HT was a good match because it did not emphasis certain the things that the Blue Angels did.

Conclusions for Part III
Well, I've still got loads of CDs to plow through and the pre-amp will still improve over time. Still, I'm excited that the sound can only improve :) Wait till I change the crappy power cord on the pre-amp. All in all, a good buy for the money. Will update after thorough running in.

Part IV: Further Running In - New Sonic Considerations

I'm sure there's more running in to do, but this is yet another interim update.

To summarise quickly, whereas earlier on the brightness/roughness attributed to the Blue Angel made the sound rather intolerable, further running in has eased this brightness/roughness and has made the Blue Angel listenable. This actually enables me to do a more detailed comparison of the cables. In addition, I've plugged in the Diva Fugue interconnects and am ready to do a comparison of all 3.

Truth Link: As mentioned above: liquid, liquid, liquid. Good air and detail at the top end.

Blue Angel: The Nordost attribute of fabulous focus is present and beats all the other cables. There was greater speed and 'jump' (though admittedly, some of it is caused by treble 'splash' - i.e. highlighted treble rather than any greater resolution of inner detail) The central imaging is better though admittedly 'painted' using a 'rougher' brush. The better Nordost Cables should be able to do the painting with a finer brush.

Fugue: This is a leaner cable with more in common with the Blue Angel (i.e., the Nordost/XLO etc vs the HT/Tara sound). I note that the focus was a bit more diffuse but there was marvellous air and space around the image and the best retrieval of soundstage ambience and information that I've ever heard on my system. Listening to Mary Black's latest Speaking with an Angel, I heard the gentle & subtle decay of her voice into the background as well as loads of other soundstage cues. Perhaps I could hear this better because of the cable's generally leaner nature and good separation. On more demanding listening, I think there is a tiny bit of roughness on the high frequencies (about the same as Blue Angel). As for speed and pace, its close to the Blue Angel.

As stated above, I loved the HT's ability to cure the harshness and to impart a liquid midrange. On the other hand, I had to accept a slight loss of 'jump' and 'sparkle' (as to whether this is 'natural' or 'artifcial' is not as important as whether you like it) which is no big deal if the 'sparkle' is rough.

Anyway, the signs seem to point towards continuing my affiliation with Nordost and to get a better grade of Nordost. To be fair, I'm already using Blue Heaven speaker cables so there is a question of system synergy here that may tilt the balance to Nordost.


SSP bypass - Transparency Test
The Line-1 provides a surround sound processor bypass feature that connects the inputs direct to the outputs bypassing everything (including/especially the tubes). This gave me an opportunity to run the XA7ES using variable outputs through the SSP and comparing it with the variable outputs (set to max) through a normal input and going through the normal inputs.

Through the SSP, the speakers were dead silent from my listening position which confirms that the tubes are not in the circuit. Through the normal input, there is an ever so slight hiss typical of tube equipment. A comparison will therefore tell us how transparent the onboard circuitry is. Fortunately, I have to say that the losses were extremely slight. But the addition of losses from the RCA connections etc I suppose add up to some audible losses. But thanks to running in not as much before. The Line-1 is pretty transparent.

Conclusions for Part IV:
Hey, the sound is getting pretty good now. The sound is less rough and so I have more cable options available. I still have to decide my final interconnect and maybe start thinking about power cord....