At times, I think about preamps as I do about clothes. A Brooks Brothers suit, even on this ol Colorado cowboy, looks good. And looking good makes me feel good. Likewise, a beautifully designed and built preamp makes the system look and feel good. And just as my favorite faded jeans are the most comfortable thing this side of naked, a nicely broken-in preamp can make the rig a comfortable place to drop in for those nights I cant get out to hear live music. Still, as wonderful as classy or comfortable clothes and preamps may be, at the end of the day it is still nothing at all, as in no clothes or preamp, that is best. Unfortunately, the constraints of both society and audio systems make clothes and preamps necessary evils. And even though we have never talked about this, at least in sartorial analogies, I think Emmanuel Go of First Sound shares my opinion.
See, back in 1989, First Sounds first product was the rightly lauded First Sound Reference Quality Passive Preamplifier. An utterly impressive piece of the audio art, it performed the fundamental preamp purpose -- volume control -- without the attendant active issues of complex, possibly signal-degrading circuitry, contamination by connection to the house AC, and active devices that are never 100% uncolored. Of course, passives also lack niceties such as tape loops, additional system gain, and component buffering. They also have a tendency to sound harmonically thin and highlight system flaws and mismatches. Admittedly, a perfectly designed and assembled system may not need any of the other features of an active preamp and may not accentuate any of a passive's shortcomings. But how many perfect systems do you know of?
Thats what I thought. And that dumps us, along with Emmanuel Go, back at the necessary part of necessary evil.
Built then with an eye to the advantages of both passive and active circuits while also looking to minimize the inherent ills of both, Emmanuel Gos line of active preamps are ingenious designs, constructed with fanatical attention to detail. In addition, each model in the line uses the same chassis, so that a First Sound customer can upgrade his preamp to any higher model for roughly the price difference between the two. The line ranges from the $2795 Presence to the $15,495 Ultimate Paramount with stops in between at the $3795 Presence Deluxe, the $6195 Presence Deluxe 4.0 and the $8695 Paramount. Besides the common chassis, each model also shares the same basic topology and tube set, a single 6922 per channel as the active device and a single OA2 regulator per channel.
The differences between the models are power supplies (from entry to ultimate, the standard SPS 2.0, DPS 4.0, and dual DPS 4.0 power supplies), various internal-wiring improvements, passive-parts upgrades, the size of the grounding materials, faceplates, and volume controls. The production system is such that you can order a First Sound preamp with any combination of the above parts you want. According to Emmanuel Go, after the basic circuitry, the most significant part of the sonic character of each model, is derived from the power supply. The basic power supply, the SPS 2.0, with 280,000 microfarads of capacitance, is massive. And from there it goes up. The DPS 4.0 has 367,000 microfarads of capacitance, while the Ultimate Paramount, with two DPS 4.0 power supplies, has a reservoir of 556,000 microfarads to draw on.
The volume controls are equally obsessive and overly built. The entry-level model uses Holco resistors in a series-type stepped attenuator (using a total of 48 resistors) set to give precise 2dB steps. The Deluxe volume control uses Holcos in a ladder-type stepped attenuator (for a total of 92 resistors), while the Paramount and Ultimate Paramount use Vishays in place of the Holcos in a ladder configuration. Regardless of the resistors used, each volume control is hand assembled with the same perfectionist attention to detail. And since it wouldnt make sense to put all this work in and not finish it off right, all operating controls are dual mono, meaning a separate volume, source selector, tape switch and mute switch per channel.
Build quality is outstanding, with metal work that is sturdy and well crafted. The five sets of input jacks, two sets of output jacks, and tape in and outs are widely spaced and mounted on a copper back plate. Even the little details, like countersunk screw openings that align with absolute perfection to the chassis and screws that sink exactly flush with the casework, are all taken care of. Internally, everything is laid out cleanly, with superb workmanship on all solder joints. The gold-plated volume and source selectors are luxuriously finished and nicely set off against the faceplate. Moving them results in a satisfying "thunk." I am thoroughly impressed by the well-thought-out product line and the attention to manufacturing detail that First Sound has taken. Of course, the pay off is not in how an item looks, how much it costs, its specs, name-brand parts or upgradeability, but in how it sounds.
The sound of one preamp clapping
And how it sounds is nothing short of amazing. From the first note, the Presence Deluxe left the strongest and most positive first impression I have ever felt. With the First Sound preamp in, the rig sounded as if it had fewer parts, as if it was somehow direct coupled from source to speaker to room, as if I were listening to a master tape. Sonically, the system retained all of its former virtues -- coherence, emotional and harmonic integrity, naturalness and superb balance -- but added the utmost clarity, jaw-cracking dynamics, intense and deep bass, and newfound layers of nuance.
Example 1: MeShell Ndegeocellos Peace Beyond Passion [Maverick 9 46033-2]. I know I mention this disc every other month or so, and if youve heard it, you know why. If you havent, youre missing out on my pick for soul album of the decade. Each track is anchored by mile-wide and Grand Canyon-deep bass, but, in particular, "Who is He, and What is He to You" features a ferocious bass line inconceivable in the original Bill Withers version. The combination of the Presence Deluxe, Dodson DA-217 Mk II DAC, Merlin VSM-SE speakers, Atma-Sphere M-60 Mk II amps and Cardas cabling resulted in a bass line that was as physical as anything Ive ever heard through any system, at any time and at any price. Best of all, this sound and fury was in total and complete service of the music and not merely an onanistic exercise in sonics.
Turning to the Jacques Loussier Trio recording Satie [Telarc CD-83431], "Gnossienne No. 2" opens with a wonderful plucked-bass solo by Benoit Dunoyer de Segonzac. With the Deluxe passing signal, this solo, at any volume level, was portrayed with all the delicate detail needed to place both player and instrument in my room. And, once again, regardless of volume, the system loaded the room with rich, powerful, and natural bass. If you havent had the sensuous pleasure of feeling your room load with only 70-75dB of bass and the resultant feel of a real, live player in your room, caressing you with bass rather than bludgeoning you as most home-theater systems would have it, you have missed one of the finest and most seductive of all audio experiences.
Lest you think that the glories of the Presence Deluxe are limited to bass, "After Midnight" by J.J. Cale (from Anyway The Wind Blows -- The Anthology [Mercury 314 532 901-2]) showed the subtle and evocative powers of the preamp. The honky-tonk piano, rolling bass line and simple but effective guitar solo perfectly frame the laid-back, half-sung/half-croaked vocals. The interlocking of detail and naturalness on this recording, at least as presented by the Deluxe, surprised me, as I had never suspected that this was a recording that captured such a level of quality and immediacy.
And yes, classical music was also well served. A friend from Paris has persuaded me to investigate the recent releases on EMI of live and rehearsal recordings of Sergiu Celibidache. Of particular interest to me has been the Brahms Symphony No. 1, with the Munich Philharmonic [EMI 5 56843 2]. While far from a perfect recording à la the Bruckner 9 on Reference Recordings (then again, what is?), this 1987 recording is actually quite good, and the performance is transcendent. What the First Sound preamp does with this recording is also outstanding. With apologies to Emmanuel Go, presence is the only word to describe what happens when you put his preamp in the system. You are in the hall, in the audience. The reverb is not added to the recording, but a part of the sound of your room. The weight of the orchestra is not just heard, but felt with all your senses. Truly, the reproduction is so in-tune with the essence of the recording that you are listening through the recording and feeling the event itself.
And that is the central experience I had, or rather felt, with the Presence Deluxe: the sense of being connected to the event on the recording. I know that this a very subjective and emotional description, and that you are probably looking for a more objective description as well. Dont worry, thats coming. But please keep in mind that sonics without emotion, even if the description of emotion is necessarily ambiguous, are empty. I want to make it clear that the sonic skills of the Presence Deluxe deliver the musical intent as well. With that perspective, lets turn to those sonic skills.
Starting at the bottom, the Presence Deluxe does bass better than any preamp Ive ever heard -- and not just in terms of extension, dynamics, control, tonality, and detail. Rather, in all five areas it either sets or equals the performance of any preamp in my acquaintance. Like live bass, at any volume level, the subtle micro detail is transparent, while the room loads naturally. Tonal richness is always full but never fat, while extension, at least in my system, is unparalleled. Dynamics truly are of the bone-crushing variety when called upon, but this beast can clothe that steel fist in a velvet glove as well.
Moving up the scale, the song remains the same. Mids have true impact, not just color. The sweet, burnished entry of a soft Miles trumpet run has all the overtones intact, but adds a certain jump factor that is not due to volume but rather to perfectly and naturally crafted detail.
The top of the range is extended, but also delicate and refined. Never hot, but also revealing, the treble strikes the perfect balance, as there is no sense of a mechanical device creating these sounds but of a perfectly clear conductor passing them through unaltered. Soundstaging, while not the widest or deepest Ive heard, was very close to the best and always felt real. And as for dynamics, the Deluxe is in a class Ive never experienced before. Staggering. Really.
But of all the sonic skills, detail retrieval was the most astounding. Perhaps the best way to describe what I heard is to draw an analogy to digital-audio encoding. If mid-fi is an MP3 recording, working with a barely adequate palette of tonal colors to sketch the outlines of drums, trumpets, saxes and pianos, while high-end gear is a Redbook CD, with an increased palette of tonal shades, but not yet enough to accurately describe all possible tonal colors, then the Presence Deluxe is like a yet-to-be-developed 36-bit encoding system with 68 billion tonal shades to its palette. Thats not just detail, but enough resolution to imbue each note and micro-note with an absolutely individual character -- enough to resolve the infinitesimally small variables that make every note that Miles played different than any other note ever played, enough that it attempts and succeeds in the reproduction of a single, specific note that took place at a particular place and at an exact time, a note that could only be played once and was captured by that recording, stored and replayed just for you. Pretty damn good!
Another way to describe it is to point out that what I heard through the Presence Deluxe was not so much new information and details about my favorite albums (personally, I think if a product is giving you a completely new view that its adding too much of its own opinions), and its not that the Presence Deluxe makes everything else sound forced, unnatural or wrong. Rather, its that the resolution the First Sound preamp brings to bear makes everything else sound like an approximation.
At the end of my listening sessions I found the best way to sum up the overall experience is to lean on an Eastern philosophical idea -- selflessness. I know that saying this will probably land me in trouble down the road as well as cast aspersions on my listening skills, but I simply could not find a manifestation of sonic ego, of the Presence Deluxe imposing its view on the signal sent it. The result is that I felt far more connected to the source than with any other preamp in my experience.
On the other hand, this selflessness is not without its own set of issues. First, every piece of gear is a part of a system, and system synergy is the highest goal in assembling a system. There is an art to balancing room, speakers, sources, amps, cables, musical tastes -- and preamps. For example, in my room and with my gear and tastes, I found that the Blue Circle BC6 amp was a better partner for the Presence Deluxe than the Atma-Sphere M-60 Mk II amps. The slight warmth of the BC6, in a system that with the Presence Deluxe, Merlin VSM-SE speakers and Dodson DAC, was balanced on the very cutting edge of resolution, was the perfect balancing bar, resulting in resolution of both the how and the why of my favorite music. Other combinations of gear were also stunning, but also slightly less well balanced between the sonic and emotional fabrics of the musical event. I would expect that placing the Presence Deluxe willy-nilly in just any old system may also result in a rethinking of overall system synergy.
And second, listening to master tapes is not for everyone. Ill admit to the occasional desire for more homogenized playback as the sheer resolution of the Presence Deluxe requires full attention from the left brain even as it soothes the right brain. In short, while fulfilling, this thing does not do background music. Not that I tried it, but I would imagine it could almost animate a John Tesh album. So if you set that Yanni, George Winston, or Ray Lynch disc a spinnin to lull yourself to sleep, youve been warned.
I have spent most of the last 24 months on an accidental tour into the state of the (roughly) $4000 preamp. Over that time Ive heard the Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III, Hovland HP-100, Sonic Frontiers Line 3, and Lamm LL2. The primary lesson Ive learned from all this preamping is that the standard is amazingly high as each preamp Ive heard offers sound that just five or six years ago was available for no less than ten large, if then. A second lesson is that as a group these preamps make it hard for me to recommend any preamp that costs less. For those who contend that the bend in the law of diminishing returns starts at $2000, each one of these preamps argues effectively against them. As well, each one could anchor a serious, cost-no-object system without shame. The kicker is that even amongst this group of universal overachievers, the Presence Deluxe stands out.
For example, where the Sonic Frontiers Line 3 offers clarity that only the Joule Electra preamp can come close to reaching, it does so with such studied neutrality that in telling us how the music was made it often hides the why. Not so with the Presence Deluxe. It offers clarity every bit the equal of the Canadian super preamp, but never impedes the emotional flow. Of course the Line 3 comes equipped with remote, a headphone jack and facilities for balanced ins and outs, making it a more versatile, if slightly less dynamic and emotionally fulfilling, preamp.
The Hovland preamp speaks with a directness that is immediately captivating, and even better, it doesnt wear out over time. Still, the startling pure voice, or lack thereof, of the Presence is as direct as that of the Hovland, but without any trace of the forwardness that the Hovland can exhibit, and with deeper bass and better dynamics.
I love the look, feel and sound of Jud Barbers Joule Electra preamps. Like the Presence Deluxe, the LA-100 Mk III uses the OA2 tube, and both have clarity that is completely unforced and natural. Im not sure if this common ability to get to the truth of a recording without striping it of meaning is due to the OA2 regulator, but regardless of the reason, the two preamps sound very much alike in this area. The Joule Electra preamp also speaks without guile, never forcing the issue, but never avoiding it either. A bad recording? You hear it. A system mismatch? You hear that as well, but not so gratingly that the off switch becomes a viable option. In this way it also shares characteristics with the Presence Deluxe. But the Joule lacks the seemingly endless reserves of the Presence at dynamic peaks as well as the bass extension and slam of it.
The Lamm is the hardest of this group to categorize. Refined, balanced, light on its feet, it is also surprisingly powerful and has excellent bass. Its detailed, but laid-back -- richly involving, but neutral in character. These contradictions add up to an emotionally honest and direct preamp that is so well balanced that I cannot think of a system where it could not be heard to excellent effect. It is only in contrast to live music, and to the Presence Deluxe, that any lack can be found in the Lamm. The First Sound preamp has slightly better clarity, deeper and more powerful bass, and greater dynamics than the LL2. Still, I find the Lamm to be the only preamp in this group that can teach the Presence a lesson as the refinement and balance of the LL2 is like that of no other preamp Ive heard. And, as intoxicating as master-tape listening is, so too is the sophistication of the Lamm.
A tree falls
Perhaps the Presence Deluxe can best be summed up as the preamp for those who want a passive but need the facilities of an active. It has the same clarity of a passive, married with the naturalness and complete lack of mechanical sound that only passives seem to have. In fact, so strong is this trait that I half expected Emmanuel Go to call me at the end of the review period and say that the Presence Deluxe really is a passive and that the tubes are just there for their gentle glow. But if he had, I have would been half surprised again since so many of the positive attributes of an active preamp are present as well, such as dynamic slam, harmonic color and the ability to couple with any amp I mated it with.
OK, the verdict. One way to get in trouble in the audio-reviewing game is to call any product "the best," even if you qualify this with a price range. First, the industry is always turning out new gear, so todays best will eventually be eclipsed. Second, unless youve heard everything, calling something the best is just asking for trouble. Third, as a group, reviewers are subject to constant scrutiny, with their motives constantly being questioned, so a rave review is almost immediately followed up with questions of integrity. Mind you, this is not an unhealthy reaction. I know I question every review I read, but usually not for integrity, rather for bias. Not that Im the best source, but I can say that without exception, the reviewers I know well operate with complete integrity. But not a one of us operates without bias. So I know that Im asking for it when I say that the Presence Deluxe is the best preamp I know of -- but it is. What this means to you only your ears can say. And by all means, give them the chance to talk.
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