Design and Description
After reviewing the Margules U280-SC 25th Anniversary Stereo Tube Amplifier in my reference system, I added their preamp to it. For some history and info on the company itself, please read the amp review. The SF220.15 preamplifier is designed so that its output is a very low impedance, designed to drive any amplifier optimally, solid state or tube. The circuitry is designed to “strap” the input and output stage, avoiding the use of any negative feedback. Margules says this should result in very good transient response.
Like their amp, the SF220.15 uses what they call a SHUNT power supply. According to Margules, the Shunt technology provides a significant improvement in Q damping factor of the power supply, a key factor in overall performance; including smoother transient response, soundstaging and in macro and micro- dynamics. They also say the power supply is virtually indestructible due to specially designed regulation technology that protects it from major tube failures. They use a fully regulated filament supply that has an active damping control to minimize hum and microphonic effects of the tubes.
One thing I like is that while they use a separate power supply, it’s not in a separate chassis. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have unlimited rack space. Instead, the power supply is in a separate chamber within the chassis of the preamplifier to avoid noise induction. The preamp is very quiet, so I’d say this seems to have worked quite well.
Again,like their amp, the Margules SF220.15 uses premium audio components. The PC board is silver-plated for maximum conductivity. In the 20th Anniversary version, they have upgraded precision resistors and premium audio grade capacitors.
The SF220.15 is a little different looking from most preamps, but I am rather taken with its looks. It is fairly straightforward when it comes to use; all the main functions can be activated by the remote control, or the buttons and knob on the preamp. On the front panel, the SF220.15 has a big VOLUME knob, INPUT indicators and the IR sensor. The rear panel is equally straightforward with a toggle On/Off switch and high quality single-ended input and output jacks. I replaced my Emia Remote Autoformer from the system with the SF220.15. The rest of the system was the same as it was for their amp; Teresonic Ingenium XR speakers, Margules U280-SC 25th Anniversary Stereo Tube Amplifier, AMG Viella V12 turntable and tonearm, 47 Labs Midnight Blue CD Player and all the cabling was from High Fidelity Cables.
I had just finished reviewing the $38,000 Pass Labs Xs Preamp before the Margules amp and preamp were put into the system. My first impression was quite surprising; I could not believe how well the Margules preamp held its own. Now, don’t misunderstand, I didn’t say it was as good; not really that close. Still, it brought to the plate a sound that was powerful, tuneful, and fun to listen to.
From the first moment you turn on the SF220.15, it is obvious that the sound has real substance. It doesn’t take much listening to know it’s responsive, and has a really good startle factor. It has a robust harmonic structure that is very musical, and at the same time never slow or thick-sounding. Pace, Rhythm, and Timing, are qualities I have discovered that I value very much in music reproduction. The good news is that the SF220.15 not only has big, robust harmonics, it also has “PRaT” in spades. This allow listening to music in my house to be really fun with this preamp.
Listening To Music
The late Harry Pearson used to talk about components having a musical character either yin or yang; yin was warm to dark and very involving; in contrast to a yang character, light to bright and spectacular. I have learned that I almost always prefer the yin character as long as it’s not over-done. I know the ideal would be “no character,” but I have never heard such an audio component. The SF220.15 falls slightly to the yin side of things, but not as much as many tube units. I find its tonal balance to be very good indeed.
When I listen to music at home, I’m looking for a sound that allows instruments and humans to have a nearly life-like scale. No matter how pinpoint the images are, how wide and deep the soundstage is, if the sound is small, I’m not happy. Now, it seems obvious that speakers and power amps play a big role when it comes to scale. I have been reviewing for quite a while now, and I continue to be surprised to learn that even preamps have a big effect on achieving proper scale. The Margules SG220.15 helps to achieve as lifelike a scale as well as any preamp I have heard under $10,000. The soundstage is also very good vertically, as well as front to back, and side-to-side.
The SF220.15 has a nicely extended and refined sounding top-end. I thought it was sweet, not rolled off, not overly detailed, clear but not bright. It gets the timbre and harmonics of the music right. It has a rich a harmonic structure, and while it is a robust sounding preamp, I never found it overly lush or overly romantic. I loved the way voices came to life in my listening room; they had a stunning presence with this preamp in my system. The Margules SF220.15 is not the ultimate, last word in transparency, but for the price it is exceptional, and I never thought about it lacking any transparency when I was just listening to music and didn’t have my reviewer’s hat on. By the way, speaking of just listening to music, it is very easy to forget reviewing and do just that with the Margules preamp.
Rob Wasserman Duets
At this point, if you read my reviews you know I use side two of this LP to set up my system, but I love the music so much I listen to it often. On Wasserman and Jennifer Warnes’ version of “Ballad of the Runaway Horse,” her voice should sound believable and full of emotion. The bass should sound full but not bloated. The SF220.15 played this cut very nicely. Wasserman’s bass wall full and tight enough to have good PRaT. Warnes’ voice sounded very believable, but not with quite the air I hear with the Emia or the Pass Labs. The Pass Labs is not a fair comparison, I know.
On the cut “Angel Eyes,” Wasserman’s playing of the bass sounded a little big but still dynamic. Bentyne’s voice really came to life nicely and the preamp played the dynamics of her voice really well. The last cut on this LP is the most beautiful instrumental rendition of “Over the Rainbow” I have heard. Here, you hear Stephane Grappelli on violin joins Rob Wasserman on bass. The combination of speed, sweetness, and air lets you hear the music very much like a real performance. The SF220.15 played this song with rich timbre and real tonal color. It was very sweet and beautiful.
Sauerkraut and Solar Energy
This Flying Fish album with Norman Blake, Tut Taylor, Sam Bush, Butch Robins, Vassar Clements, David Holland, and Jethro Burns is DAWG music at its best. The cuts ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ and ‘Sauerkraut and Solar Energy’ are my two favorites. This is a LP that the SF220.15 played these two cuts in a way that was very enjoyable, though not the last word in speed. Still, it had good energy and real sweetness with the strings. It portrayed the instruments nicely on the stage but could have had a little more air and space around the instruments.
Ella And Louis
I have enjoyed this LP hundreds of times and have always made a point to listen to it with a new component in my system. With the SF220.15, I could hear their voices emerge from an exceptionally low noise floor. Ella’s voice sounded so sweet and rich while Satchmo’s sounded gravelly just like it should. His trumpet sounds very good but does not get loud with the ease it does with the very best preamps, and has a really satisfying rich tone.
I enjoyed my time with the Margules amp and preamp, as well as their phono preamp I will review next. I would be remiss if I didn’t reiterate about the rich and musical harmonics this preamp allows me to hear. There is just something in the reproduction of the harmonic structure of the music that moves a music system beyond being just an ensemble of good equipment. It’s an intangible element that lets you enjoy the music more. Put simply, it lets you be part of the musical experience right there in your room.
If you are looking for a preamp in the $3,500 to $7,000 range, you should be sure to give the Margules SF220.15 a listen. It could easily be your cup of tea. Highly recommended!
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