August 2004Emotive Audio Designs Poeta Preamplifier
by Jason Thorpe
"Tubes? Do they still make those things?"
I hear that so much (from non-audiophiles, of course) that I get tired of doing the dog-and-pony show and explaining how tubes are still valid amplification devices. Since the advent of the transistor, the concept of using tubes in audio gear has mostly been relegated to the audiophile fringe. The reason? Let's face it -- tubes can be finicky. They get hot, they need replacement, and their performance tends to drift. So the majority of the gear thats on the market is solid state. It works well, amplifies cleanly, and runs cool. And more than likely, silicon is more accurate than glass. Bully for the transistor, I say.
The transistor, progress, and the mindset thus engendered have allowed our society to move forward. We have progress to thank for good-sounding, inexpensive solid-state amplifiers, photos from the surface of Mars, and fluoride toothpaste. While Id never want to return to the days before silicon, I love the sound of tubes and the ease with which they present music, and I will happily trade some solid-state precision for a little extra warmth and humanity.
After spending some time with the Poeta preamplifier, Im almost certain that the folks at Emotive Audio feel the same way as I do.
Emotive Audio, based in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania and headed by the affable Fred Volz, prides itself on hand-building musical-sounding audio equipment. The company manufactures a line of three preamplifiers, of which the $4495 USD Poeta is the most affordable, and the $16,995 Epifania is the most expensive. Ive also seen, heard and lusted after Emotive Audios $20,995 Caeli-LE 300B tube monoblocks, which have individually designed, acid-etched metal chassis -- and plenty of tubes.
The circuit of the Poeta is based on that of the Emotive Audio Sira, which is the middle sister in the company's line of preamps. While the Sira is an all-tube, fully point-to-point wired preamplifier, the Poeta is a hybrid that uses point-to-point wiring in the audio circuitry, with PCB-mounted solid-state circuitry in place of the Sira's tube-based voltage regulation and high-impedance current sources. Circuit-wise, the Poeta employs a 5687 twin-triode as a voltage amplifier, two 6186's as cathode followers, and a 5R4GY for voltage regulation. Where Emotive Audio claims to diverge from other tube-based manufacturers is in the elaborate support system of voltage regulators and high-impedance current sources that create an optimal environment for the operation of the tubes. According to Emotive Audio, the potential of tubes is almost never realized, as they require specific electrical operating environments in order to reach their potential. Emotive Audio claims that these environments are hard to provide because the values that define them are in direct conflict with each other within conventional audio circuit designs. Emotive Audio claims to have eliminated the conflicting needs within their audio circuits through the use of high-impedance current sources in place of both the plate and cathode resistors for the audio tubes. This allows these tubes to operate in a much more linear manner than in conventional circuits, which yields real improvements in sound quality.
Some components stand out from the crowd, even when not connected, and the Poeta is a striking example. With its rich grenadillo-wood flanks, brushed stainless-steel top and brass nameplate, the Poeta looks more like a humidor from an 18th-century sailing vessel than a preamplifier. Theres a real sense of solidity to the Poeta -- an original 13 colonies kind of feeling. The brushed stainless-steel volume and selector knobs are solidly made, and their tall profiles serve the dual purpose of raising your fingers up above the tubes, which are in close proximity, and adding a sense of depth to the top of the chassis. The Poeta has five sets of single-ended inputs and two sets of outputs -- one fixed and one variable in level. Lacking a phono stage or tape-monitor circuit (you can use the fixed-level output as an unbuffered tape output), the Poetas only amenity is a mute switch, which is operated by a toggle on the top of the chassis.
So the Poeta is a minimalist preamplifier. This austerity extends to the operation of the unit. When I first received the Poeta, as is my wont, I completely ignored the instruction manual. After all, you gots yer inputs and yer outputs. What else is there? A stern warning in the owner's manual which states that should the amplifier be switched on while powering up the Poeta, the mute switch must be engaged or there will be big trouble. In my haste I missed that bit about the mute switch and watched in horror as my Energy C-3 speakers experienced a backbreaking grand mal seizure, with both woofer cones stretching out to their maximum excursion for about two seconds before slowly settling back to center. I queried Fred Volz of Emotive Audio about this unruliness, and he told me that its "normal, but not wise" for this preamp. He feels that protection circuitry, which the Poeta lacks, can degrade the sound. He also stated that hes never seen speaker damage result from this misbehavior. That's fine, but if you don't want to repeat this disconcerting experience, you'll either have to watch carefully whenever you power up the Poeta or, if you have a solid-state amplifier that you like to leave powered up, you could simply leave the preamp on at all times.
As I discovered, leaving the Poeta powered up turned out to be a good idea. While it sounded just fine when cold I found that its sound quality improved greatly over the first hour, and after being lit up for a full day it really bloomed. So thats just what I did, all the while rationalizing that its just four tiny light bulbs, so much power could they possibly consume?
Other than the aforementioned turn-on histrionics, the only other operational difficulty that I encountered was a microphonic tube, which I swapped out without drama for one of the replacements that Fred kindly supplied. The Poetas controls functioned well; the volume knob was silky, while the selector, mute and power switches operated with a chunky, tactile clack. There were some residual microphonics, even after swapping tubes, which were manifested by a very slight chirping noise when the chassis was tapped or the selector switch moved. According to Fred, this is normal behavior. I didnt notice any performance degradation from the microphonics, and I actually came to enjoy this sound as its musical and, in my opinion, gives the Poeta a human feel.
I initially inserted the Poeta into my secondary system, where it was driving either Tannoy TD10 or Energy Connoisseur C-3 speakers via a Musical Fidelity A3cr power amplifier. The source here was a Museatex Bidat, which was fed by a Toshiba SD-3750 DVD player. Cables in this rig were Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval interconnects and Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables.
After Id gotten a handle on the Poetas performance in this system, I moved the preamp downstairs into my main rig where it was feeding either a Musical Fidelity A300cr power amplifier or an Anthem P2 Statement amplifier. These amplifiers powered the formidable Ascendo System Z-f3 speakers. The source varied between the Clearaudio Emotion and Pro-Ject RM-9 turntables. The Emotion was fitted with the matching Clearaudio Aurum Wood Classics cartridge, while the RM-9 alternated between my Roksan Shiraz and a Grado Sonata. Both turntables sent their low-level signals to my Sonic Frontiers SFP-1 Signature phono stage. Cables in this system were a combination of Virtual Dynamics David and Acoustic Zen Matrix interconnects, with Analysis Plus Solo Crystal Oval 8 and Ascendo speaker cables. Power cords were a mixture of Virtual Dynamics David and Cardas Hexlink Five.
They still use tubes in the MiG fighter, you know
My initial impression of the Poeta was that it doesnt sound overtly tubey. The rich wood, brushed steel and glowing tubes led me to think that Id hear burnished highs and somewhat wooly bass, but that wasnt the case. To tell the truth, I couldnt immediately discern any of the blatantly stereotypical (sorry!) tube artifacts that the Poetas looks evoke. Instead, the tonal balance was pretty much neutral from top to bottom, with reasonably tight bass, a well-defined midrange and an articulate, extended top end. Clearly, this is a thoroughly modern preamplifier and not a well-finished antique.
Although the Poeta doesnt have that rich, chocolate-truffle tubiness of yore, a closer listen unearthed a subtle delicacy of tone and depth of image that separates it from any dead-neutral solid-state preamp of my experience. My barometer for soundstage depth is Chet Bakers Chet [Analogue Productions APJ 016], which features flute, baritone sax and Bakers trumpet in a natural acoustic thats just dripping with ambience and emotion. Pepper Adams baritone, for instance, was delightfully rendered, the instruments gravelly rasp imbued with just the slightest bit of euphonic seasoning. The Poeta didnt blatantly add to the tonal richness and spaciousness thats rampant on this album, but it did subtly highlight the air around the instruments, especially through the lower midrange and on high-frequency overtones.
You know, I wonder if the people at Emotive Audio decided on the name of their preamp before or after they did their listening. The Poeta certainly does evoke an emotional response to music. After installing the Poeta in my main system, I was absolutely bowled over by how much fun it was to listen to music through this elegant component. Duke Ellingtons Blues In Orbit [Classic Records/Columbia CS 8241] is a fairly sparse, delicate record thats interspersed with exciting, full-throttle blats from the brass section. The Poeta infused this music with a delicious sense of rhythmic drive, coupled with outstanding depth and presence.
Thus emotified, the punctuation of the trombones on "Three Js Blues" gained a healthy dollop of meaning. Rather than hearing disembodied sounds, I was much more conscious of the texture -- and the people -- responsible for each note. Its not easy to lay this aspect of the Poetas sound at the feet of a distinct audio trait, but if Ive got to go out on a limb and use a familiar audiophile-ism, then Id have to say that its harmonic delicacy and tonal depth that make the Poeta so special. While a trumpet still sounds just like a trumpet, it ends up gaining a tiny bit of extra body -- not much, just enough help to intimate the breath and spit that goes into the making each note.
My newest favorite album of all time is Patti Smiths latest, which was recommended to me by Rob at Applause Audio here in Toronto. (Please feel free to continue anticipating -- and in some instances modifying -- my tastes, Rob.) Trampin [Columbia C2 90330] is that rare (for me at least) LP that rocks, seduces and challenges in equal parts. Its beautifully recorded, with luscious bass and well-defined, if somewhat studio-manipulated, imaging. "Radio Baghdad" is one of the more complex songs on the album, varying from spacious, atmospheric folk to crunching minor-key rock and back again. (I gather that its some sort of protest song, but I dont pay attention to such matters.) The Poeta does it incredible justice, with a creamy, lush quality to the midrange right through to the treble, which shot the musical-involvement factor through the roof. This lushness was not accompanied by any lack of detail or roll-off in the treble whatsoever -- the guitars still sizzled, and the cymbals were crisp and extended.
"Radio Baghdad" builds and climbs, as the soaring guitars increase the musical tension until all hell breaks loose in a cathartic peak. The Poeta beautifully rendered this thrashing climax. Instruments and voices remained distinct and well-placed in a believable soundstage, retaining that hallmark image solidity and realism despite the intensely complex musical signal.
The Poetas bottom-end performance was generally very good, and in some ways superb. There was plenty of extension on Trampin, with a lithe, rich quality to the electric bass. While the bass was deep, and, frankly, a ton of fun, it wasnt incredibly tight -- certainly not steel-trap, solid-state tight. For the most part, though, the bass complements the rest of the Poetas character -- rich top-end meets warm bottom, and all live happily ever after. That might sound flippant, but its true. Theres a distinctly organic flavor to the Poetas presentation of bass and midbass instruments that meshes perfectly with the expressive midrange and treble. I like to be foolish every once in a while, so I dragged out UB40s Rat in the Kitchen [Dep International VL2389] and cued up the title track. I found that the bass sounded close to perfect -- rich, fat and natural, with a distinct purring juiciness that made it sound like I was in the middle of a concert rather than sitting on a sofa in my listening room. The transition from low fundamentals right through to the chunka-chunka of the guitar was beautifully handled and delightfully fleshed out. Theres terrific cohesiveness to the way the Poeta reproduces a musical signal, and its able to track busy, dynamic music with ease.
The Poeta never overdoes things, though. My description of the sound might leave you with the impression that its all about ripe lushness at the expense of accuracy and detail. Nothing could be further from the truth. This preamplifier passes an honest signal, one that serves the music, intensifies its import and meaning, and releases it without excessive editorializing. On the way to work today my local jazz station was playing Getz and Gilbertos rendition of "Girl from Ipanema," which is something I dont listen to very often but enjoy very much when I hear it. On my return home I slapped it on the table. As you may be aware, any additional sweetness on Getz/Gilberto [Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-208] can induce insulin shock, but the Poeta rendered that schmaltzy bon-bon in a truly faithful manner. Astrid Gilbertos voice retained its silky smoothness and didnt step over the line, and there was no overt additive richness, only the Poetas signature complex tonality and subtle evocation of meaning.
Oh no! Not again!
I like my own gear. I really do. I want to keep it, and I want to be happy with it. However, I recently had my heart broken by the Ascendo System Z-f3 speakers, which made chopped liver of my Hales Transcendence Fives. Because I can't afford to keep the Ascendos, and the thought of sending them back fills me with dread, I've been quite the sad sack lately, and my wife is getting rather tired of my hangdog attitude.
Imagine my dismay, then, when I removed the Poeta, reconnected my Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 near the end of the review period and heard the overall ease and musicality of my system drop significantly. As with the Hales speakers, I had never noticed any deficiencies with my SFL-2, but I sure was noticing them now. In comparison to the Poeta, the midrange and treble of the SFL-2 is downright abrasive, with a layer of irritating glaze that made my ears want to close up. The Poeta, in comparison, has a silky-smooth, yet very extended top end and a buttery midrange thats an absolute joy to listen to.
The SFL-2 places images much further back in the soundstage, which is surprising given that the Poetas more prominent imaging doesnt result in the slightest hint of grit or glare. Instead, the Poeta projects more musical information outward to the listener, but with a heightened feeling of solidity and realistic size.
While the Sonic Frontiers preamp is a tube-based design, its solid-state rectified, and it most certainly doesnt sound as lush and full as youd expect given that there are eight 6922s lurking inside its chassis. In fact, its fairly easy to mistake the SFL-2 for a solid-state design. So is this a case of a fairly neutral, accurate design pitted against an overtly lush and, well, tubelike anachronism? While there is a distinct tube flavor to the Poeta, its nowhere near as exaggerated as some Ive heard, most notably the MiniMax preamp when loaded with NOS tubes. There are no cartoonish overtones to cymbals that make every stroke sound as if a ride is infested with rivets, and theres certainly no tubbiness in the midrange and bass to obfuscate musical detail. Indeed, when compared directly with the Poeta, the SFL-2 showed a distinct lack of bass. Patti Smiths Trampin sounded thin and reedy via the SFL-2, missing the juicy bottom end that the Poeta so effortlessly portrayed.
So what we have here is a tube-based preamplifier that has all of the positive attributes of tubes, but with no audible drawbacks of any significance. I guess that the SFL-2 had its day, but in my books, its been trumped. Woe is me.
But I cant afford it!
The fact that the Poeta is the least expensive preamplifier that Emotive Audio makes is something that Im not going to think about right now, as it is nothing less than a superb-sounding piece of audio equipment. Its rare combination of sonic ease, outstanding soundstaging, a rich midrange and expressive treble portray music in a deeply involving manner. Add in deep, satisfying bass and youve got a real winner. While beauty is definitely in the eye of the beholder, I wouldnt think there are too many people who would object to the Poetas old-world, hand-crafted appearance.This preamplifier certainly isnt inexpensive, and while the Poeta is a bit persnickety as far as its operation is concerned -- what with the small amounts of microphonics and its potential for turn-on antics -- theres nothing about the sound that gives me even the slightest cause for concern. And thats what its all about, right?
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