R.E. Designs LNLSA-1 Line-Stage Preamplifier
by Frank Alles
Sometimes the truth hurtsbut not always
Dan Banquer, R.E. Designs chief designer, seems ideally suited to his task because his formal education encompassed both music and electronics. As the son of a classical musician, he attended many symphonic concerts and sat in during rehearsals of his fathers woodwind ensemble. In fact, Banquer played a few instruments himself until the long hours of practice took their toll and he developed tendinitis. His subsequent exposure to the world of hi-fi led to a general dissatisfaction with the sound of audio electronics, finally driving him to develop his own line of audio products. R.E. Designs manufactures both the LNPA-150 monoblock amps ($2,700/pr) and LNLSA-1 preamp ($1,200), the subject of this review. Both products are available factory-direct only.
For those of you who havent already guessed, the preamps model designation, "LNLSA," stands for "Low Noise Line Stage Amplifier." Frankly, I would have much preferred "LMNOP-1" because thats a little easier to remember, but Banquer seems to be a stickler for accuracy, so I doubt that he will change it. As I found in my ebullient experience with this unit, "accuracy" is what its all about. So if your associated gear and software are up to the challenge, hang on to your hats because youre in for a treat.
What it is...
The LNLSA-1 is an active line-level preamplifier with switching for up to seven inputs, two of which (two sets of tape inputs) are buffered. The buffered inputs are meant for use with high-output-impedance sources, but designer Banquer recommends experimentation with all sources. The buffers tend to soften the sound somewhat, perfect for those of you who feel that the honest presentation the LNLSA-1 provides is more than you can live with. Personally, I preferred the non-buffered inputs for their purity and clarity. There are three Elma ratchet-type rotary switches on the front panel. The left switch is a seven-position recording selector and the middle dial routes your choice of input to the main outputs. The switch on the right facilitates control of the volume (providing steps of about 2dB either way). This attenuator has been designed to have an inter-channel tracking error of less than .1dB, typically measuring .05dB, which I find very impressive. The close channel-matching is necessary since the preamp lacks a balance control.
Apart from the rotary switches there is a toggle switch for power on/off, its amber indicator light above it on the left-hand side, and two additional toggles on the right-hand face of the unit. The upper toggle provides 17dB of attenuation and can serve as a muting switch, while the lower switch selects either stereo or mono operation. Additionally, a female IEC connector on the rear allows the user to swap power cords (an 18-gauge cord is included).
The basic circuit topology is an updated derivative of the J.L. Linsley Hood discrete operational amplifier. It features a dual-complimentary FET input circuit and fully complimentary Motorola output transistor arrays biased for class-A operation. Output impedance is stated as 325 ohms nominal at the main outputs and 100 ohms at the tape outputs. It is also worth noting that there is an RFI/EMI filter at the AC input.
My initial assimilation of the LNLSA-1 into the amalgam I affectionately refer to as my "secondary reference system" was pretty straightforward. I placed the preamp atop a Townshend Seismic Sink (removing my home-brew passive unit in the process) and connected the stock power cord and Full Spectrum Signature and Monster M-1 interconnects. My choice of source was either a Parasound D/AC-2000 converter with its partner C/BD-2000 transport or a Townshend Audio Mk-III Rock turntable with a Transfiguration MC cartridge installed in a modified Rega RB-300 tonearm. The phono preamp was a custom AHT-P, and a ByLux Dedicated Line Filter delivered AC to the motor of the Rock. Clayton Audio M-70 monoblocks fed my Paradigm Reference Studio/100s via Full Spectrum Signature speaker cable. Custom-built, add-on, Walsh-type tweeters were also employed.
After some preliminary listening, I swapped the stock power cord for a better-sounding 16-gauge Belden cord, and I changed the Monster M-1 interconnects I started with (between preamp and power amp) to Luminous Audio Monarch cables which made another improvement. After some additional experimentation (with respect to the LNLSA-1s location) I placed a Shakti Stone on the right rear corner of the linestage over the input/output jacks. I also tried this preamp with other amps I had on hand, and though it worked well with the others, the best overall performance was achieved with the Clayton M-70s.
So impressive was the LNLSA-1s sound in this system that I later substituted it for my American Hybrid tube linestage in my primary reference system, which then fed my AHT/Acoustat servo-charged monoblock amps and Acoustat Monitor III electrostatic speakers. In this way I was able to see how the unit performed with different associated gear in two unique and dissimilar systems, each with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. This allowed for a thorough assessment of the linestages considerable capabilities.
Upon installing the LNLSA-1 in my system I wasnt sure what to expect in terms of performance. I sat there looking at it and couldnt help thinking that the unit looked more like a rugged piece of electronic testing equipment than a line-level preamplifier, and as I turned the various rotary and toggle switches on its face, the feeling grew stronger. That is to say that everything had a firm, positive, heavy-duty feel. The only irony there was that no "iron" was used in its aluminum (good for sound) chassis, so its rugged looks belied its scant 6-pound weight. There I was, poised for the unexpected, and thats exactly what I got.
My first impression was that the unit needed some time to warm up. I fondly recall playing Trios "Da Da Da," from the disc of the name [Mercury 314 536 205-2], while drumming "Nah Nah Nah" on the armrests of my listening chair in mock syncopation with the beat. Things were sounding a tad hard and constricted, but as I continued that initial session over the course of the next few hours, the sound just got better and better and better. Frankly I began to wonder just how good it was going to get because the sound was improving to the point where any obvious limitations were rapidly disappearing. At that point, I packed it in for the evening, though I left the preamp powered up, so that I might have a clearer picture the following day.
Did I say "clearer picture?" Actually, this is a very appropriate description of the LNLSA-1s presentation. Instrumental images appear out of dead silence, precisely focused and detailed in a soundscape that is both very wide and deep. Consider that we are talking solid-state here, not tubesIm telling you that this unit does a most credible job in terms of layering, image specificity/stability and dimensionality. Ive heard many preamps at various price points that truncate the soundstage, especially in regard to image depth. This piece isnt one of them.
Furthermore, many high-end tube preamps that always seem to garner kudos for their expansive imaging capabilities also tend to stretch vocalists and images to exaggerated proportions. So what you end up with are three-foot-wide singers, seven-foot-high guitars, six-foot-long saxophones, and so on. Even my own highly prized AHT linestage is guilty of this to a certain degree. With the LNLSA-1, no matter which system or combination of equipment I used it with, the images were always realistically proportioned. Playing Gershwins Rhapsody in Blue [Delos DE 3216], for example, although the full symphony orchestra occupied a major portion of real estate, all the instruments located therein were presented in the perspective youd hear at the concert hall. The grand piano wasnt the size of my house, but it certainly was life-sized.
I think the single most impressive aspect of this LNLSA-1s performance is its uncanny ability to extract every last insignificant detail from any given recording. I heard quite a few sounds on familiar recordings with such great clarity and tight focus that I was able to identify lyrics and things like amplifiers being switched on (during the performance) which until then had either been inaudible or incomprehensible. A combination of many factors is responsible for this "ultra-resolution." To start with, you need a very low noise floor, and this is certainly a strong suit of this preamp. Also required are excellent linearity, transient response and very low levels of distortioncheck, check, and check. But it doesnt stop there. The LNLSA-1 exhibits power and dexterity at both frequency extremes. Its bass especially can boogie with the best in terms of extension, neutrality, and control. All these factors combine with a smooth adroit midrange and an ability to issue dynamic contrasts (macro and micro) without a hint of compression and work together in perfect harmony to provide some of the most transparent sound Ive yet experienced in either of my reference systems.
Try a tune like Cakes "Mastodon Farm," from Motorcade Of Generosity [Capricorn CXK-42035]. This is a very busy recording with lots of strange percussion along with trumpet, guitar, electric bass and drums. We also have the lead vocal being echoed by a tiny, tightly focused, lower-level voice on the right while a chorus sings in the background. The LNLSA-1 nonchalantly renders every sound distinctly, precisely located and with "reach out and touch it" clarity. Very impressive!
Proceeding to my classical heavies in the stat-system, I was wowed by not only the breadth and depth of the soundstage (it compared very favorably to that of my tube linestage, which excels in this area) but by the preamps extraordinary way of keeping complex instrumental lines separate and focused. It seemed that I was hearing the individual rows of violins and brasses neatly layered back to the rear of the orchestra, and when a soloist played, the instrument had both the degree of intimacy and proportion that I perceived as correct relative to body of the symphony. I believe my tube linestage still held an edge in its ability to provide air and ambient cues out to the rear corners of the stage. However, at this juncture Im not clear as to whether this effect is actually on my recordings or its just an electronic embellishment.
Playing Gershwins An American in Paris from the disc Dayful Of Song [Delos DE 3216] I was struck by the natural timbres of the various instruments and the impact of the big bass drum, which boomed forth with tremendous wallop at center-rear of the orchestra. I must tell you that the reproduction of the bass drum was equally adroit with respect to its tightly controlled focus and in the abruptness of its decay. This type of exemplary bass performance is enough to keep any audiophile or music lover pinned to the listening seatit certainly did as much for me. When the LNLSA-1 is compared to some other preamps Ive tried, I have to admit that its midbass seems a little thinner or less prominent, though I wouldnt necessarily characterize that as a flaw. Certainly the lowest octaves are extended and well served.
Vocals anyone? Im glad I asked! Listening to Cassandra Wilsons "Strange Fruit," from New Moon Daughter [Blue Note CDP 7243 8 32861 2 6], I discovered that Ms. Wilsons voice is positively full-bodied and very spooky (those of you whove heard this cut can relate). Jeez, Id hate to meet her in a dark alleyshed scare the #@$%^& out of me! This, along with the plucked strings of the resophonic guitar on the right and balanced by the entrance of an eerie coronet on the left and backed up by acoustic bass, supplied the perfect setting for this dramatic and unsettling piece. Is it Halloween yet?
Halfway through the reviewing process I took delivery of Monarchy Audios new SE-100 Deluxe monoblock amps, which Im also writing up for SoundStage!. These diminutive (but powerful) little darlings sounded utterly charming, even riveting, especially throughout the critical midband, when paired with the LNLSA-1. I literally lost myself in the music, sitting through many cuts on any given album entranced by the melodic beauty and ease of the presentation.
Putting on The King Singers Good Vibrations, [RCA 09026-60938-2] I was blown away by the intricate harmonies and inflections of the singers as they intertwined in a playful multi-layered venue, which in this instance happened to be my very own listening room. Vocal sibilants seemed natural and were neither emphasized nor softened. Both macro and micro dynamic swings were delivered with aplomb. Covers like Paul Simons "The Boxer" and Billy Joels "And So It Goes" provided plenty of genuine goosebump material. This (I mused) was bliss!
Ascending to the treble it was pretty much more of the samethe same degree of excellence, that is. On tracks with truly extended treble, like US 3s "Cantaloop," from hand on the torch, [Blue Note CDP 0777 7 80883 2 5], the preamp presented scads of fine detail with pinpoint focus. The speed and finesse on the top allowed me to discern easily miking changes and minute details that are often masked by competing products. Whats more, high-frequency instruments sounded clear and natural. Cymbals had plausible shimmer and other percussive instruments like maracas, castanets, hand claps, finger snaps (you name it) were rendered distinctly and authentically.
Surely there are many preamps out there that will look better in your fancy-schmancy equipment rack. I think perhaps all-black cover and side panels, instead of the powder gray, might be an improvement. But then the gray epoxy coat is quite durable, and besides, my own priority is in the listening, not the looking.
From a functional standpoint I could have done with a few extras, such as a second set of main outputs (Lord knows there are enough inputs), a balance control, a polarity-invert switch, and a grounding post. Remote control would be nice too, but these features would likely increase the price and could detract slightly from the units stellar sonic performance.
Two aspects of its operation struck me as being atypical. The first was that sometimes when I rotated the gain knob I could hear the click-stops make faint "pops" through the speakers. It was more noticeable with phono as a source than with CD, probably because I had to use more gain in the phono mode. Banquer claims this is normal and to be expected with the type of rotary switch he uses. The second idiosyncrasy was that a couple of times when I inadvertently cut the power to the preamp with the power amps still on, a steady moderate humming noise (akin to feedback) came through the speakers until I killed the power to the amps. This didnt seem to hurt anything, but it was a bit disconcerting. Dan B. explained that this scenario leaves the amp inputs "open" so that the interconnects then act as antennas.
The particular circuit used in this model is set to provide only 9.5dB of gain, which, when used with certain low-output moving-coil cartridges with certain combinations of phono preamps and power amps, may not provide enough overall system gain. However, CD playback is a different matter (most CD players provide 2 volts of output or more), and it is unlikely that a lack of gain would be a factor here. Banquer did mention to me that he could adjust the unit to provide about 12dB of gain if requested by the customer. By the way, for all you home theater fans, Banquer is presently working on a six-channel solid-state preamp with about 17dB of gain per channel.
From a purely sonic perspective I could find little fault with the R.E. Designs LNLSA-1. In case you havent guessed, this is very high praise indeed. When judged against the very best units Ive heard, the R.E. Designs LNLSA-1 holds its own quite well. Certainly it is the best-sounding solid-state linestage that Ive had the pleasure of using with my own equipment. Even when subjected to my highest level of scrutiny, the LNLSA-1 achieves a level of overall performance that is not easily matched or bettered by other designs.
I suspect that some of you will disagree with me because this piece is extremely revealing and will doubtless expose flaws in your front-end and other associated gear that you may not have noticed with other preamps. My advice is: Fix your front-end, cabling, or whatever, and this piece simply can not fail to impress you.
For the first time in my experience, a linestage combines the kind of purity and finely focused detailing you normally get from a good passive unit with the explosive dynamic capability and soundstaging prowess one finds in a good active piece, and all this for a nearly entry-level price. The LNLSA-1 is an exceedingly neutral and transparent device. It will not soften or glamorize the sound in any way. It will pass on all the music and virtually everything else that its inputs "see" with deft accuracy and fidelity to the source, which is precisely what its designed to do.
In essence the R.E. Designs LNLSA-1 throws down the gauntlet: "Can you handle the truth?! Well can yaPUNK?"
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