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Boppin’ Down Memory Lane: Preamps

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Jack Roberts Beatnik's Journey

The first separates I owned were the Quad 33 preamp and 303 power amp. I purchased these to drive my original Quad ESLs. A little over a year later, I had a chance to hear the Quad II amps and their QC preamp in my system. These old tube products blew my mind and I sold the Quad 33 preamp and purchased an Audio Research SP-3A. Other than a very short time with a Threshold FET Nine, I have owned nothing but tube preamps from that day on.

The first review I ever turned in for publication was of the little Shindo Aurieges L line stage. I purchased the Aurieges from Matt at Pitch Perfect Audio in San Francisco and paid full retail for it. I had been using a passive line stage for quite a while and was so taken with what this little preamp did for my system that I contacted Constantine to see if I could submit a review. I told him that people had to know how good the Shindo Aurieges was.

So, now as we go boppin’ down the memory lane of preamps I have reviewed, I want to point out that I have come to believe that preamps are the heart and soul of any audio system. I’m not saying you can’t get great sound with a passive line stage, but I am saying that to achieve the kind of bold, alive sound that I’m looking for requires a great preamp. I want to talk about four preamps that have made lasting impressions on me; I’ll simply go down the list in alphabetical order.

The first preamp I want to talk about is a phono preamp, but it does have a line input and a volume control, so I think it qualifies. The Aesthetix Io Sig MkII is a very special product. It has as much and as natural-sounding air than from any preamp I have ever heard. The same is true of its bloom and harmonic correctness. When it comes to dynamics, it’s the best I’ve ever heard. The Io Sig MkII does all this while adding very little of its own sound to the music. I have my doubt that there is anything out there that could really better this, but I’m always game to try to find it and tell you about it.

The Aesthetix Io Signature Phono Stage is a very serious assault on the state-of-the-art. Like a great sports car, the Io Sig MkII is not for the casual user. This is an all-out attempt at making the very best with never a single compromise for convenience. It’s big, very heavy, and takes up a lot of room. It also uses lots of tubes and if you want to put the kind of NOS tubes in it that were supplied to me, it will cost a small fortune.

Still, if you are someone who values the very best of tubes combined with the very best of solid-state, it will surely be worth the effort. I promise you that you will be rewarded with a truly realistic and emotionally involving musical experience. The second preamp I want to remember is the combination of Kang Su Park’s Allnic Audio L-3000 line stage and H-3000 LCR Reference phono stage. Kang Su Park of South Korea has been a devout lover of valve electronics for a few decades. First he was with Silvaweld, then he started Allnic Audio. Allnic was the company that would give him the opportunity to build equipment that would compete or exceed products from established companies like Audio Note UK, Kondo, Shindo, Wavac, and the like. I promise you, he has not fallen short in these lofty goals. Starting with the build quality of his duo on through the sonics, this combo is simply one of the best in the world regardless of price.

The first couple of things I noticed about this Allnic combo was how incredibly quiet they were and the sense of solidity they add to the music. They have the best way of handling space that I have ever heard. They also breathe incredible air into your room while giving an incredible clarity to voices.

Two words jumped out at me from the very start with the L-3000 preamp: space and transparency. They portray spatial information in a way I have never heard before and it is transparent beyond anything I have ever heard. Having said, that I should also mention it’s very dynamic, reveals the nuances of music beautifully, has great scale, and has this incredible sound stage. Images are very precisely placed, tonal color is very good, and it has a wonderful way with the flow of music. There is no doubt this is a very, very special preamp. This is simply a preamp I will never forget.

By comparison, the deHavilland UltraVerve is a very affordable preamp; but don’t let that for a minute make you think it’s not a top-tier preamp. From the time you unpack it to the first moment you turn on the UltraVerve, it is obvious that it has substance. It doesn’t take much listening to know it’s responsive, and has a really good startle factor. I think those big tubes really do have a big, robust harmonic structure that is very musical, and at the same time never slow or thick-sounding. The good news is while the UltraVerve has big, robust harmonics, it also has “PRaT” in spades. It allows listening to music in your home to be really fun.

The UltraVerve has it’s own specialty that I have not heard in a preamp under $8,000. In fact, it is this similar ability in the bigger Shindo preamps that have lead me to step up from the Aurieges. It has to do with recreating realistic scale. I think this is accomplished through harmonic richness and the ability to get a certain weight in the mid bass without ever seeming overly warm or slow.

There is a reason there were so many glowing reviews of this preamp. It is a preamp that is priced like an entry-level preamp that sounds like a true high-end preamp. This is truly a product that offers value in the high-end market. It holds its own with the very best, it’s fun to listen to and has a big robust sound but not at the cost of tonality or detail. Even though I haven’t heard the new Ultra Verve 3, I bet the original UltraVerve still an incredible preamp for the money.

Lastly, I want to talk with you about the Shindo preamps. Shindo Labs makes six full function preamps with built-in phono sections. I have owned four of these, which says a lot to you about how much I like their preamps. Shindo power amps are more like the great wines they are named after. That is, while they are equally great they vary slightly in taste like wines do in vintage. The preamps are different; they all seem to be cut from the same cloth.

When I reviewed my first Shindo preamp, the wonderful, little Auriges L, I said, “this is a review I struggled with. For I feared I would not have the right audio vocabulary to convey the sound of the Aurieges’ to you.” Well, this is even truer in this article. How do I describe a preamp that in its very essence sounds like a “Shindo preamp”, and still sound substantially better than any other I have heard in my system? I think I should start by sharing what makes all Shindo preamps so special. It is best described by talking about the music, instead of the sound. Shindo preamps let the music flow naturally. They let you hear the air around and inside of instruments. Starting with the Masseto on up the line, you get great scale than any preamps I have heard.

Even the little Auriges will let you hear more layers of the music than I have heard from other preamps. As you move up the line you just get more of this. In fact, that describes what happens each time you step up within the line of Shindo preamps; you just get more of everything. Each of the preamps I have mentioned are exceptionally fine, but I own a Shindo Giscours for the record.

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