What does the name “Einstein” bring to mind when mentioned? Oh sure, some people think “genius” and simply leave it at that. But not to astrophysicists; to them, he’s much more—he’s a revolutionary.
Prior to Einstein, Newtonian physics was the norm in scientific circles: the belief that time was an absolute construct to be equally observed by all parties was a commonly-held belief. Einstein, by himself, completely refuted Newtonian physics with the birth of the Special Theory of Relativity (time is an abstract construct completely and separately determined by the observer), and the far more accomplished General Theory of Relativity (which expands the universe from 3 dimensional planes to a 4th dimension, time, while also explaining the effects of gravity—gravity being simply a warping of the time-space continuum).
So, what is Einstein up to in the world of high end audio? Good question, but its about time he put his considerable intellect to good use, as if you’ve heard as many systems as I have you would agree that it would take a considerable genius to accomplish the goal of recreating the live experience in the home. Glad to have you on the team, sir!
All kidding aside, there’s no relation between the man Albert Einstein and the German high-end audio manufacturer Einstein Audio, other than the name. But to say that the object of this review, the Einstein Tube Linestage preamp, is revolutionary and destined to be held in considerable reverence by audiophiles is not simply hyperbole, and it is no joke.
The Tube Linestage is a single chassis unit (yay!) measuring a svelte 17” * 15” * 6.5”, and tipping the scale at 40lbs, but I wouldn’t plan on just throwing it on any shelf in which it physically fits (more on this later). Two large knobs affix the front of the chassis, one for selecting amongst 5 sources (Tuner, CD, Line 1, 2 and Phono, but the latter would require an outboard phono stage), and the other for volume; the remote is full function as well, which is a luxury that, having grown accustomed to, I would not do without. Around back, you’ll find that of the 5 inputs, all the named inputs require balanced connectors, but the Line 1-2 are RCAs; in my opinion, this is a good thing, for 2 reasons: 1) the balanced connector is superior to the RCA variety, and 2) the Tube linestage is fully balanced (so may as well coerce the upstream to comply in order to get the best sonics possible). The main output is balanced as well, but for those who still use recording devices (like me) you’ll be pleased to know that the 2 tape monitor outputs are RCA-based (while sonically inferior, I’ve yet to see a recording device using XLR cables).
From an operations perspective, the unit is obviously a tube-based unit (guess the name tipped you off, eh?), running in class A bias. It uses one 12AU7 and a host of 6922s (18 of them to be exact), but only 10 of the 6922s are in operation at a time; 8 in the power supply, and 2 for each source, and when you switch sources, the tubes for the outgoing source power down while the tubes for the newly-selected source power up. I really appreciate this design; not only do you get to conserve tube life for sources not in use, but the unit also used readily available / inexpensive tubes, so no worries about tubes being out of production or too costly. While I’d have preferred not to have the Class A bias that the preamp operates in, I didn’t think it would matter too much (more on this below).
By the way, the unit is quite lovely to look at. Yes, this is shallow and irrelevant. But if you could have your dream girl, the partner in life you’ve always wanted, the one you could talk to about everything until the wee hours tick away, I’d bet you want her to be hotter than a tamale, too.
One of the dangers of audio reviews (both writing and reading) is that all parties assume they’ve the same priorities. While some people go for intimacy and delicacy, others go for leading edge and transients, others for tone, others for staging, etc. This is why both SETs and SS camps are sound; they each ask, and answer, different questions. It does the reader no good if the writer doesn’t share his / her bias and preferences.
As for me, I want the live experience in the home. Now, is that phrase just a reviewer hedging his bets? Not at all; it establishes priorities in the system-building process. To get the live experience in the home, system building should follow this sequence: macro-dynamics / staging first, tone second, micro-detail last. Let me explain: I’ve 2 philosophies on system building. Number 1) get dynamics right and address the rest later, and Number 2) in the long run, you’re better off saving up and buying the best thing you can rather than hopping on the endless upgrade train.
Now, #1 is really a lesson I learned from our dearly departed Bob Crump (RIP), but he’s quite right: notice how footers, cables, shelves, etc all change tone & microdetail? Now, how can you make a weak-willed system more dynamic? The answer is that you cannot. Sure, you might make minor improvements by going from soft footers (less dynamic) to hard, but you cannot turn a cow’s ear into a silk purse. And as Mikey Fremer rightly pointed out, you likely need a lot more power to recreate lifelike dynamics than you think—which helps explain my purchases of 500wpc monoblocks and Wilson Watt Puppy 6s (excellent dynamics for monkey coffins). Now, insofar as #2 goes, if you’re a committed audiophile, as I am, it’s just foolish to buy / sell / buy / sell when you’re making small improvements. You’d be better off just going whole hog & getting what you need to get you to the end of the road, rather than nickel & diming yourself for years.
Back to the review. I’ve heard the Einstein in multiple systems (very good rigs I might add), and invariably the unit displayed the same characteristics that I see now that it’s in my rig: an incredible sense of dynamics / transient snap and uncanny neutrality. Let me get right to it: in my experience audiophiles fight a mostly losing battle in terms of my ultimate goal of creating the perfect illusion of a live performance in the home because of 2 mistakes: inadequate dynamic expression and systems that are too bright (think “digital” on both counts). Well, the Einstein Tube Linestage is easily the most dynamic component I’ve ever owned, taxing the dynamic capacities of the McIntosh 501s and the Watt Puppy 6s like I never thought possible. Now, digital normally has dynamics severely compressed as a failure of most engineers, but every now & then you can find a well engineered CD (Decemberists: “Picaresque”) that have the snap & transient pop-to-stop that live music has. Well, the Einstein Linestage will ensure that you get it in your house, and that dear reader is the toughest trick in audio. If you don’t have lifelike dynamics in your system after its insertion, the problem is elsewhere (me, I lose a bit in my CD player, and a lot in my software. I wish I never sold my records).
I think about dynamics like I think about surfing: sometimes you get good wave after good wave and they all push you in pretty good, and its pretty thrilling. And that’s why you surf. But then a REAL GOOD WAVE just plows behind you and rattles your cage and gets your chest heaving and you know you’ve just had your day made for you, and you find yourself wishing every wave were just like that. Well, the force and drive behind that real good wave is like the Einstein in your system. Or, to use another analogy, think of a preamp as a conduit for water (music) to flow from upstream to downstream; whereas most preamps are like faucets, the Einstein is like Niagra Falls…it just throws you giddy with its incredible force, reestablishes what you should expect, and accomplished it all in a completely natural manner.
In a nutshell, recorded music takes on the visceral characteristic that live music has, whether it be the pulsation of a kick drum, the sharp attack of a plucked string, or the “action” (per Jonathan Valin) that instruments take as they project outwards. Casual listening is virtually impossible with the Einstein in the rig; music is now the main & only event, much as at a live performance. In this regard, a paramount concern for me, the Einstein is simply beyond reproach.
As an aside, as part of the appeal of the McIntosh 501s, the big blue volt meters dance around in a very sexy manner. I noticed with the Einstein in front, the gyrations of the meters moves quite a bit faster. Coincidence? Doubtful.
Prior to the Einstein, I had a good idea of what tone should sound like, and what preamps sound like (to again show my bias, I would only own tube preamps). Well, the Einstein doesn’t have a tube sound, or a SS sound (unless you think moxie is a sound). It’s just treading this thin line where it’s tough to peg down. If anything, it sounds extended…more so than anything else, it extends, whether it be the frequency extremes or the way notes seem to go to great deliberation to get to their natural conclusion, and then STOP (Norah Jones and other female jazz singers are a great test for tone; if you don’t just love the way your system portrays a female singer like Norah, Dee Dee Bridgewater, or Shirley Horn, then you don’t have your system tuned properly). It doesn’t overextend with a false euphonic the way a tube (particularly a SET) will do (quite a lovely effect BTW, but nevertheless its wrong), nor does it just throw away the baby with the bathwater or impart a false etch the way a SS unit might. It just does its job, correctly.
Also of note, the unit is dead quiet, which no doubt helps with its dynamic expression, both macro- and micro. This is where the unit crosses the line amongst parlor-trick but incomplete products into the rarified territory of world-beaters; if the Tube Linestage was just about big and bombast, it would be great for rock and classical but lousy for jazz or choral. I’m happy to report that is not the case, and the unit is equally well suited for ALL types of music. System building is usually about living with compromises; sometimes, you don’t have to.
Of final note, the Tube Linestage throws an expansive soundstage complete with terrific width / depth / height. With the right track (Low: “Time is the Diamond” off of “Trust”—I’ve not heard another song with better staging), the front of the room literally melts away and you’re left with a panorama of sound. Now, this is impossible in the first place if you’ve speakers that are resonant monkey coffins (or worse still, planars / stats / horns), or if you’ve an untreated room, or if you’ve a lot of vibrations on your electronics, but if you’ve got those things addressed, you can get a stage that will literally wash over you with the Einstein in your rig. Truth be told, I’ve heard a lot of preamps that can do this (easier for tubes than SS ones); I’m just saying I’ve not heard any preamp that can do it all at the same time, until now.
No audio component is perfect, nor is any beyond reproach. That said, here’s a couple things I don’t like about the Tube Linestage:
System Remote Control (optional)
1) The unit runs HOT. I had never owned a class A component before, and I must say its a shock. When fully warmed up (1 hour), it’s so hot you cannot put your finger on it for more than 1 second. I recall seeing a photo on the web showing an egg frying on a pan placed atop a Pass Labs amp (class A as well), and I wouldn’t doubt this unit could fry an egg as well. I’d never have expected it from a preamp — forced me to reconfigure my rack (ugh) and rethink my HVAC of my dedicated room. And unlike all my other equipment, I would NEVER think of leaving this thing on unattended for days on end; it just runs too darn hot, and I suspect my electric bill will reflect it. Furthermore, hot components are less reliable components (there’s a phrase amongst mechanical engineers called “thermal breakdown” that applies as a matter of physics and engineering, so it applies to audio components, which is one of the reason solid state McIntosh amps are reputed for their reliability: they run cold), but its worth noting that the unit comes with a 3 year warranty, and in talking to the factory they state they’ve never had service calls associated with the preamp, and its been around for years, albeit with limited distribution in the US.
2) The remote that comes with the unit is silly; see it and you’ll understand, as it looks like a remote that comes with a $300 receiver from Best Buy. While it does its job (source & volume), it doesn’t fit such a lovely unit. Though an upgrade is available, for this kind of money, upgrades should be stock amongst a reference product.
3) The power IEC is underneath the unit. You have to use a right angle IEC on your power cords to power the unit.
4) It doesn’t make bad recordings sound great. It just plays bad recordings like they are. I assumed Einstein could’ve figured out this trick if he figured that the universe was born through the explosion of space/time, but guess that’s asking too much. (That said, it’s still easy to get completely lost in great recordings that are poorly engineered).
5) I have no owner’s manual. I called the factory, and they did send me one. It’s written in German. ACHTUNG!
The above criticisms aside, The Tube Linestage is easily the best audio component I own, and on par with the Acapella Campanile as being the best audio components I’ve ever heard. With the insertion of the Einstein, I put the degree of change in my system’s sound on the order of a speaker change, like moving from bookshelves to full range 20hz floorstanders. This preamp is a paradigm-shift, and brings the dynamic tilt of live music into the home more than any other electronic component (note: I didn’t say “speakers”, I said “component”). The Tube Linestage is not made for home theatre or casual listening; however, if dynamics are your thing, or if live music is your thing, I cannot imagine any preamp outclassing the Einstein. Yes, I bought one.
Comments from Brian Ackerman of Aaudio Imports,
U.S. Distributor of Einstein Audio Components:
I would like to thank Mr. Coleman for his insightful review of Einstein’s The Tube Preamp.
First, I would like to point out that this product is an original design, and not a copy or re-design of anyone’s circuit.
Regarding Ryan’s criticisms of The Tube, I would like to offer the following information.
1. The unit runs Hot: As with all Class A amplifiers, The Tube requires proper ventilation. The transformers are the primary heat-generating section of the preamplifier, the section is well isolated and the heat does not reach the faceplate or controls. Having used this preamp for the past 3 years, I can say that The Tube is extremely reliable.
2. The Remote: Yes, I agree that the stock remote does not match this beautiful preamp, and fortuitously Einstein offers an upgrade. For the engineering efforts and craftsmanship dedicated to The Tube, it is a superb value for its asking price. Einstein simply decided to funnel all the money and resources into the Preamp.
3. The Power IEC is underneath the unit: The decision for the IEC’s location is a carefully calculated one to obtain the best operational performance, and it contributes significantly to The Tube’s sound quality. Aaudio Imports carries high-end, right-angled power cords from Isoclean & Acapella for use with Einstein amplifiers.
4. It doesn’t make bad recordings sound great. It just plays bad recordings like they are: Thank You!
5. I have no owners manual: Einstein is currently working on an English manual which will be available soon on a pdf file. Current owners of The Tube will be able to download manuals from the Aaudio Imports website once they become available.
Bonus feature: The Tube can be ordered with optional unbalanced outputs or home theater bypass for the ultimate in versatility.
Thank you Ryan for a wonderful Review!
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