Transcendent Sound Grounded Grid Line-Stage Preamp
by Todd Warnke
Sim·ple (sīm¹pel), adjective, sim·pler, sim·plest Not complicated.
When I first saw the Grounded Grid preamp by Transcendent Sound, simple was the word that entered my mind -- not simple as in "simple-minded," not simple as in "easy." (Heaven knows that while the task of a preamp is simple, it sure isn't easy.) No, simple as in "not complicated." The physical look and layout of the Transcendent preamp is the very definition of uncomplicated. The specs say it weighs 10 pounds -- sopping wet, perhaps. Built like a tank it isn't. At 15"Wx11"Dx4 1/4"H, it is compact. The aluminum case is just that and nothing more, an aluminum case. With only an on/off rocker switch, power light, volume pot and source-selector switch on the front, the look is efficient. And with only three pairs of RCA inputs, a single pair of RCA outputs, and an IEC power receptacle on the back, hookup is also very straightforward. All things I like.
Simple Having little or no ornamentation; not embellished or adorned.
Bruce Rozenblit, president and head of design at Transcendent, knows the Grounded Grid preamp is simple. He purposely went after a minimalist design with the preamp. Acknowledging, first, that a new company would have difficulty living off statement-priced products, he wanted to bring to market a preamp that offered high value without the cost of extra frills. And second, he sincerely wanted to expand the audiophile market with products that just about anyone can afford. With the preamps price at only $1199, he certainly has accomplished both tasks.
The circuit of the preamp is both innovative and cost-effective. Based on a radio transmission circuit, it uses but three Chinese 12AU7 tubes and a small amount of ancillary componentry. The two circuit boards (one power, one control) are separated to minimize electrical contamination. Each of the tubes has its own transformer (by Magnequest), and all the other parts are of good if not outrageous quality. Looking at the board layout, I can see that much thought went into making the Grounded Grid preamp as, well, simple as possible.
Hooking up is a cinch. In keeping with the simple theme, inputs are labeled 1, 2 and 3. After wiring the preamp in the system, I found it to be fully responsive to power cords and interconnects. After much experimenting, I settled on the VansEvers Pandora power cord and Audio Magic Spellcaster interconnects. Though the preamp saw use in the office system, since it arrived fully broken in, it spent most of its time in the main room where it was primarily used between the Theta Miles CD player and either the Blue Circle BC6 or the Warner Imaging VTE-201S amp. The primary speakers were Dunlavy SC-IIIs, but in the main room the preamp also spent time with the Triangle Antals. Power conditioning was courtesy of an API PowerWedge 116, and everything was propped up on Golden Sound DH cones and squares.
Simple Unassuming or unpretentious; not affected.
Years ago I had a Tara Labs Passage preamp. Like the Transcendent Grounded Grid preamp, it used only 12AU7 tubes, had a slightly smaller-than-standard case, and was a linestage only. Unlike the Transcendent preamp, its circuitry, while cleanly laid out, was several steps beyond minimal, and the casework was an obvious nod to aesthetics. I used that preamp for several years, and quite enjoyably. It was moderately sensitive to tube rolling, had a grainless, non-fatiguing sound (especially after several mods), and was quite musical. What it lacked was dynamics and, although it possessed a clear view, it was short some ultimate resolution. It also had a consistent, overlaying warmish character.
Not so the Grounded Grid preamp. Yes, it has some character, but very little, especially for its price. Rather than a strong flavor, the little Transcendent preamp has an unassuming way with music. Its resolution is both superb and natural -- no hyped, overdrawn, audiophile magnification of recording artifacts. But just as important, it offers no clouding or editorializing. In fact, in the detail department, it exceeds the performance of preamps far pricier.
A quick comparison between it and the Audible Illusions L-1 showed them to be equals in their ability to extract information. Moving up the scale, the match against the three-times-as-expensive Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III reminded me of the awesome skill of the Joule Electra preamp. Resolution and detail are its strengths, where they offer up abilities, which, in my experience, are unmatched. The Grounded Grid preamp held its own around the first corner and far onto the backstretch before the LA-100 Mk III took a decisive lead. Outclassed? No. The Transcendent preamp performed with great respectability, but was nonetheless out performed by the best in what is a textbook example of spending more to get more. Both preamps perform far beyond what you should expect from their price; its just that the Joule Electra preamp costs a lot more.
As for the frequency response of the Transcendent preamp, starting at the top, it has an open and smooth treble. On discs like the new 50s-blues-meets-90s-rock burner by R.L. Burnside, Come On In [Fat Possum 80317-2], this is a welcome and honest combination. The remixes on this album (by Tom Rothrock and Alec Empire) are hot as hell and yet timbrally true. This is a nasty combination for any preamp that is not able to just get out of the way. And the unpretentious, unassuming Transcendent preamp does exactly that. By getting out of the way, the fire in the words, the heat of the cymbals, the slash and burn of the guitar leads course through the preamp and right into the room.
The mids are vibrant, lively and also largely unaffected. Guitar was fully fleshed out, with proper amounts of string and wood. Female vocalists, such as the too-lovely-for-this-world Margo Timmins, were there. Piano was natural, harmonically full and dynamic. For $1199, this was excellent performance.
Bass, and really only the very bottom of the lower midbass and on down, is the first area where there is a slight letdown. An example: The deep bass work on the world music compilation Bliss [RealWorld CAR 2372-2] retained 99% of the boom but lost bits of definition as the center of gravity lowered. This effect was more noticeable with the ported Triangle speakers than with the sealed-enclosure Dunlavy SC-IIIs.
Staging was also slightly off of perfect, being just a bit forward of neutral. This was consistent from recording to recording, which is why I am willing to call it an artifact of the preamp. The stage projected a foot or so in front of the speakers, but, in its favor, was of adequate depth to avoid claustrophobia. Width was of excellent quality, and image stability was good as well. As for the timing factor, the boogie element was very high in whatever system the Transcendent preamp was dropped. Finally, the Transcendent preamp has an open and very clear view into the musical proceedings.
I did have one usage issue. At low levels, the volume pot mistracked a bit. This was far more of an issue in the office when listening late at night than in the main room. In the close confines of that room, and coupled with sensitive speakers (the Triangle Antals, at 91dB), I ran into several occasions where getting the volume low enough to keep my wife Robin from awaking meant a night of frustrating sound for me. Back in the main room, with more space to fill, I never encountered this problem.
As an overall performer, the Transcendent preamp did much to alter my view of more affordable preamps. Very quick, highly resolved and with excellent tonal characteristics, it shows what is possible with enlightened design coupled with an eye on cost. Perhaps best of all, the Grounded Grid preamp is a pure and easy communicator of music. It plays perhaps the hardest role in life superbly, that of sidekick. It lets the star shine while subverting its own ego for the common good.
Simple Ordinary or common.
As much as I wish this type of skill was ordinary or common in high-end preamps, it just isnt. Even though the Tara Labs Passage is no longer being made, it was a unit that brought me many hours of enjoyable listening. Working from memory, the little Transcendent easily betters it. On clarity alone it is a walk-away winner. When you add the pure way it communicates, the duel between the two is over before it starts.
After the earlier and only partial Transcendent/Audible Illusions comparison, I decided on a full shootout. Let me tell you, things got very interesting very quickly. First, the bass definition and slam of the L-1 is better than what the Transcendent is capable of in my system. This was a decisive point for the L-1. Staging was a toss up, with the Transcendent preamp being a bit forward and slightly more real-sounding, and the L-1 being more accurate but also a bit sterile in comparison. The midrange accuracy of the L-1 is superb, but the Transcendent is its equal, and with a bit more life as well -- half a point to the little guy. Treble is also close, but in my setup I give the nod to the challenger. The two are equally open on the top, but the L-1 sounds slightly harsh in comparison. Another half point to the Transcendent preamp, giving us a tie. This is performance beyond expectations. At 75% of the cost, just to be in the race with the L-1 would be a compliment, but to take it to a photo finish is a statement.
Simple Not guileful or deceitful; sincere.
Ill leave with a final definition of simple, and the one most apropos. At the end of each listening session, this kind of simple was what ran through my head. So sincere is the Transcendent preamp that if it were a person, Id trust it with my ATM number. It has absolutely no willful deceit in it at all. Yes, its bass performance can be bettered, but only at significantly greater cost. Dynamically, it is lively rather than forceful, but that is a small error in my book. For sure, you can get a fancier case, and for less than the Transcendent preamp costs. But better, more honest sound? Not that Ive heard. I know you saw this coming, but I have to say it: At $1199, the Transcendent Grounded Grid preamp is wonderful. And I cant make it any more simple than that.
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