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MBL 5011 Preamplifier Review

Ed Momkus iterates the caliber of the $9,595 preamplifier

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MBL 5011 preamplifier

The MBL 5011 Preamplifier is part of MBL’s Noble line, which is smack-dab (yes – that’s really a word!) between MBL’s Reference line and the Basic line. How I got it is:

A Leap of Faith

In April of 2006, after two years of being a die-hard member of the “no preamp is better than 99% of the preamps out there” camp, I decided it was time to audition some preamps.

I started a series of weekly pilgrimages to local high-end retailers and read over thirty professional reviews of preamps priced at $4,000 and above. I also pulled out my old notes from home listening sessions with the Mark Levinson 380S and the Ayre K-1x, each of which I had used in my system for a week in the fall of 2004. In May of 2006, Constantine Soo helped me out on my search by arranging to have me review the Sphinx Project Eight Reference preamp, as well as the XLH SL-11XS preamp, which I used in my system for a month each (see my reviews in Dagogo).

In the late summer of 2006, I also demo’d the upgraded Ayre K-1xe. By late October I felt that I had a very good perspective on what was available and the type of preamp sound and functionality I was looking for. Since most of my candidates retailed for over $7,000 (with some over $10,000), I focused on finding a used or demo preamp in mint condition. To that end, I began to scour the used and demo listings on Audiogon and my local retailers, and in late fall was able to listen for a week to a demo BAT VK-40SE being sold by Music Direct. At virtually the same time, I saw an ad for a used MBL 5011. Since the seller was outside of the Chicago area, I had to make a hard choice. I decided to buy it sight unseen (and “sound unheard”) and operate it head-to-head with the VK-40SE, reasoning that I would resell it if I preferred the VK-40SE. Ten months later, the MBL 5011 is my preamp of choice.

Why did I decide to buy a preamp I had not heard? Because of the very positive reviews I read about MBL and the 5011. The descriptions described a preamp that seemed to be right up my alley: a sound that straddled solid-state and tubes, without any of the nastiness associated with either religion. I must admit that I was influenced by the gushing reviews of the MBL 6010, the 5011’s big brother from MBL’s Reference line, which some knowledgeable audiophiles think is the best preamp they’ve ever heard. I figured that little brother probably had most of the big brother’s virtues.

What should we expect from a preamp?

It’s important to note at the outset that top notch preamps all sound quite good. Now, when I say “sound quite good”, I mean in the context of what a preamp is supposed to do. A preamp is supposed to let all the music flow in a way that allows the strengths of the upstream and downstream components shine through. I do not expect a high quality preamp to render a wholesale change to the musical presentation when it is substituted for another high quality preamp. (Of course, it will usually sound much better than lesser preamps.) It may sound clearly different – superior pace, rhythm and timing; richer tonal palate; greater bass weight, etc. – but the best preamps all sound pretty good in their own right.

For example, as I was completing this review I received the top-of-the-line Pass Labs XO.2 three-piece preamp from a friend and inserted it into my system in tandem with the Pass X-600.5 monoblocks. The sound is clearly different from the sound produced with the MBL 5011, but still very pleasing. (see review.) The real question is how the pre melds into your system and whether it helps to make you “feel” the music.

At this point I want to restate something I’ve said before about preamps (see my review of the Sphinx Project Eight Reference Preamp). From a purely functional standpoint, I ideally want a preamp to (a) switch my sources; (b) allow gain adjustment for different sources; (c) provide a bypass option; (d) split the output (for biamping); (e) control volume; (f) allow balance adjustment; (g) allow reversal of polarity and (h) provide remote capability, all without degrading the sound.

From a musical standpoint, I don’t want a preamp to change the character of the sound. I’m looking for a preamp to work with my amps to: (a) improve dynamics; (b) enhance bass “heft” and attack; (c) clarify low level detail; (d) enhance the depth and width of the soundstage; and (e) enhance the placement and presence of the performers. I think that you have to fundamentally like the way your system sounds without a preamp before you select the preamp. “Fixing” a sound you don’t fundamentally like by adding a component that intentionally colors the sound is a bad way to go.

Functionality Galore

Ever hear the car ad that says “Nicely Equipped at $50,000”? Well, the 5011 is really “nicely equipped”. It’s hard to imagine a better set of features for any application. It incorporates a fixed bypass circuit for integration of a processor, two entirely separate output groups which have separate relative volume controls, and a fixed output to connect to a recording device. It also has five standard inputs, one XLR and four RCA. The unit I purchased used was also equipped with two optional inputs: CD direct and MM Phono. (Other options are available.) Sadly, I don’t use a turntable, and the CD Direct input is RCA, while I use XLR connections from my front-end. I’ve thought about sending the unit to MBL to replace the MM Phono with an XLR version of the CD Direct just to see how much better my Esoteric P-70/D-70 would sound.

Of particular interest are the separate volume controls. The preamp has its own main volume control (it is a very high-quality analog potentiometer) which controls both of the separate output groups. Each output group has three separate outputs: one group with two XLR connections and one RCA connection, and a second group with two RCA connections and one XLR connection. Two separate, additional auxiliary volume controls allow you to control the relative output of each group, which gives you incredible flexibility. Of course, this allows you to pipe music into a second room/zone, but it also facilitates biamping.

You can go nuts having one output run a “bass” amp with 26 dB gain for your speakers’ low-end while also driving a “delicate” amp with 20dB gain for you midrange and treble. If you really wanted to go wild, you could use the output that feeds that bass amp to also feed subwoofers. Finally, by using an auxiliary volume control to attenuate the main volume control, you can also deal with one of the age-old problems of amp/preamp matching: getting ear-splitting volumes when the pre is only set to the 9:00 position.

The MBL 5011 is a substantial, solid component, weighing in at 42 pounds, and I’m guessing that its mass helps deal with vibrations. I’m a big believer in tuning components with cones, discs, footers and the like, but thought that the MBL 5011’s built-in feet did a very nice job. I eventually decided to put the 5011 on Walker Valid Points, but it’s really a matter of taste. I suspect that you could tilt the sound to “tubey” or “defined” by substituting different footers, especially considering that (as mentioned above) the 5011 straddles those two sounds.

Let’s get to it. If you’ve read my reviews of the Sphinx Project Eight Reference Preamp and the XLH SL-11XS preamp, you probably know that in the past I’ve loved the Ayre’s dynamics and PRAT and the Levinson’s liquidity, and found that the Sphinx was in the middle: a bit less dynamic than the Ayre and a little more gritty than the Levinson (in a good way). Good as they were, none of those other preamps motivated me to abandon my “no preamp” philosophy.

Well, the MBL 5011 is every bit as dynamic as the Ayre, plays music with as much liquidity as the Levinson, and also plays gritty music with grit. In addition, I think it presents even better tonality and weight than any of those other three units, and does it all with excellent pace, rhythm and timing. Add the MBL 5011’s superior functionality, and you have a heck of a preamp by any measure. If you’re like me and crave the bass dynamics, slam and articulation that is usually associated with solid-state, but want a fuller, richer sound than most solid-state preamps, the MBL 5011 is a no-brainer (unless, I suspect, you can afford the MBL 6010).

I used the MBL 5011 with three different power amps: the Electrocompaniet Nemo monoblocks, the Pass Labs X-600.5 monoblocks and the XLH M-2000 monoblocks. All three of these amps put out 600/1200/2400 amps into 8/4/2 ohms, but each has its own unique character.

In each case, the MBL 5011 did not affect the essential character of the amp it was driving, but it made each amp sound more lifelike than I’ve heard it before. I felt that I wasn’t just listening to a top notch audio system, but that the presentation had improved to the point that I was experiencing the original performance. The sound was the richest with the Nemo’s, which makes sense since the Nemo’s are the richest-sounding solid-state power amps I’ve heard. It was the most delicate with the Pass X-600.5’s, which are the most nimble and airy of the high power monoblocks I’ve heard. The Nemo’s sounded the most dynamic and articulate that I’ve heard them, and I am convinced that it was due to the enormous dynamic range and headroom of the MBL. At the other end of the spectrum, the Pass X-600.5’s exhibited more weight without losing their nimbleness and delicacy, and I am convinced that it can be attributed to the rich tonal palette that the MBL paints.

I’ve been living with the MBL 5011 for ten months and it is my personal reference preamp. I won’t go through the details of each review disc I played, but it’s worth naming a few discs to clarify the qualities of the MBL 5011:

Steely Dan – Gaucho, MCA Records (Universal Music) B0000868-36 (Hybrid SACD);
David Bowie – Let’s Dance, EMI 54331923 (Hybrid SACD);
James Newton Howard & Friends, Lasting Impression Music LIM-XR-004 (XRCD);
Perez Prado Orchestra – The Best of Mambo, Victor Entertainment SVCD-1046 (XRCD);
King Crimson – In the Wake of Poseidon (30th Anniversary Ed.), Discipline Global Mobile, DGM0502;
Patricia Barber – Mythologies, Blue Note Records (EMI) 0946-3-59564-2.

Steely Dan’s “Babylon Sisters” is a multi-layered tune with an organ that exhibits some bite, delicate triangle strikes, rich and powerful bass, and backing vocals that have a wide soundstage but are clearly separated by space. It’s a very “studio” recording, but the MBL 5011 makes you feel like you’re in the studio.

It’s not so much that it handles the tonality, soundstaging and dynamics better. It’s the addition of a sense of “live”, of the way the music was meant to be. “Glamour Profession” is a very rhythmic piece, with a moderate to fast pace, reverb, and many staccato notes. PRAT is extremely important. However, it’s not meant to be thin or airy. It’s meant to have body and swing, while making you want to tap your toes. The bass is quick, but fat. The 5011 does this better than any other preamp I’ve heard it with.

David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” features aggressive drums that are extremely noticeable on any audio system because they are very up front in the recording, so the listener is immediately impressed with their power. However, if you’ve ever heard a drumset that is similarly miked for a live concert, you immediately notice that they’re not merely powerful – they literally explode onto the audience. That kind of explosiveness is very hard to reproduce in a home audio system, even if you have powerful amps and the volume really cranked up high. With the MBL 5011 in the system, I can replicate that explosiveness without having the volume at earsplitting levels. Many rock tunes have a narrow dynamic range (compared to symphonic pieces), so we don’t expect much of it when listening to rock n’ roll. “Cat People” is an example of a rock tune that starts out loud, but intends to convey blossoming dynamics as it progresses. On most systems this song comes out merely loud. The MBL 5011 makes you sit up and take notice when David Bowie sings that “We’re putting out the fire…with gasoline!”

Patricia Barber’s “The Moon” opens with just Patricia Barber’s vocals and piano, but abruptly transitions into a powerful drum and bass line. The abrupt transition is meant to snap the listener out of introspection into a physical rhythmic reaction. I’ve heard it several times in other systems, but it really hits you when the MBL is in the system.

When I reviewed the Pass X600.5 monoblock amps I used James Newton Howard’s James Newton Howard and Friends XRCD disc. That disc involves seriously dynamic drums and synthesizers, as well as delicate passages with only triangles, cymbals and wood blocks. The Pass amps did a great job in rendering the triangles cymbals and wood blocks with great delicacy, but after experimentation it became clear that the dynamic nature of the drums and synthesizers owed a lot to the MBL 5011, making the whole performance seem more real even though it’s a studio recording.

A similar feeling of “real” was produced when I played King Crimson’s Cadence and Cascade and In The Wake of Poseidon. Greg Lake was in the room, natural and full-bodied, the flute was piercing but without a trace of glare, the guitar plucking highly detailed, and the drums enormously powerful.

Finally, Perez Prado’s “Mambo Jambo” features fast, staccato horns with body. Whenever I play “Mambo Jambo” for guests, they comment on how it makes them want to dance. However, it’s easy to make people want to dance when the horns and bass are fast but thin. The challenge is to give them substance without losing the pace of the music. Again, the MBL 5011 does this in spades.

Conclusion

So there you have it. For my taste, the MBL 5011 is a wonderful preamp and is now my reference. I have no idea how the MBL 6010 could be much better, but I’m itching to hear it if I can get a hold of one. For now I’ll have to be content with the 5011. Grab one if you can afford it.

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