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Sonic Euphoria PLC Preamplifier Review

The $1,295 Sonic Euphoria PLC passive preamplifier: The Best Bargain that Sandy Greene ever had

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Sonic Euphoria PLC Preamplifier

Let’s see if three’s a charm. In the last two issues of Stereophile magazine, they featured a review and a follow-up of the Sonic Euphoria Passive Line Controller (PLC). I have made it a point not to read those reviews… waiting until I finish my own, and then see how my impressions compare. I’ll let you know at the end of this review.**

The Sonic Euphoria PLC is a passive preamplifier using an autoformer attenuator. I have a black single-ended version now in for review that retails for $1295. It certainly is built to a very high quality that will eliminate any potential buyers remorse the second you unpack it. The front panel is a very thick and rounded black anodized aluminum panel with a very elegant layout of 3 solid feeling milled aluminum knobs. It just looks and feels great.

Jeff’s Sound Values of National City California design and produce the Sonic Euphoria PLC. Dan Muzquiz from Jeff’s has been guide and mentor while introducing me to this preamp. He’s been extremely informative and responsive. And not just with info about the SE PLC, but also great musical recommendations and even help setting up a subwoofer. I love dealing with great people in this industry… it keeps me comin’ back for more, and Dan is one of the best.

When asking Dan about how particular the SE PLC was with other components, here’s what he wrote,

“As for amplifiers that we’ve had first hand experience with, using the PLC, there have been quite a few. It’s more a matter of how well the source components will actually drive a given amplifier to full volume – that is more the point. If those two items can play well together, you can almost certainly do well with the PLC. Being passive, it’s not a matter of how well the PLC can push the amp, it’s the source being able to push through the PLC to the amp. Of course, there is always that thing of components complimenting each other. Synergy.”

Well I have to say, with my Eastern Electric MiniMax tubed CD player, Rogue Audio Stereo 90 tube amplifier and Meadowlark Kestral II speakers, there was not just synergy, but synergy of the most sublime kind.

When asking Dan about break in and setup, here’s what he had to say,

“Keep in mind too, that we are not really using a volume control but rather, a high precision ELMA switch. Each click of the “volume knob” moves the signal to different taps on the autoformers. You’re only really listening to about 4 wires at any given setting. Because of this, you’ll need to burn the preamp in at
listening levels. Running it at low volume while out of the house only breaks in that set of wires and turning it up when you get home, only has you hearing fresh wires again. The thing to do then, is to enjoy it as it burns in. Just play it.”

I have heard some of the effects of break in. To me, the PLC opened up slightly at top and the dynamics became a little more apparent with short, really short break-in times… like 2-3 hours at different volume settings.

In trying to understand the technology and benefits of using an autoformer for attenuation, Dan wrote, “One of the strengths of the PLC (and Transformer / Autoformer based passives in general) is that even at low volume levels, it is able to maintain deep bass and dynamics. This is something that is problematic for resistor based passive to do.”

Again, I have to agree. I like listening at lower levels, especially after I put the kids to bed. To me, yes, the PLC maintains deep bass at low volume levels, but it is more about its openness, texture and detail that bring real satisfaction at lower listening levels. In my past experience with other preamplifiers and integrated amplifiers; not only did the bass disappear at low listening levels, but so did the sparkly, texture, soundstage, details, pitch… the PLC keeps all of these sonic attributes in line linearly, equally at all volume levels from soft to rockin’.

For the last couple of weeks, I have just been listening to my system with the Sonic Euphoria PLC in line. But when I first put it into the system, I did a bunch of A-B comparison listening between it and my Rogue Audio Ninety-Nine Magnum Preamplifier.

First up in this comparison was the band Ivy’s first album, Realistic. With track #2 “No Guarantee”, I noticed that the SE PLC had a little more midrange energy. The sound was a little more upfront, a little more textural, and a little more rhythmic. This initially made me feel that the SE PLC was a little more analytical than the 99. I found the 99 to be a little more even overall, especially across the low-end bass range. But the SE PLC went a little lower and I think that made its low bass stand out. The SE PLC was certainly a little brighter at the top end, but the 99 had that special tube air and dimensionality which enhanced the sonic picture, including the performance space, especially the reverberant effects. Characteristically, I would say that the SE PLC was overall a little more transparent, driven, precise, accurate and impactful; while the 99 was a little more relaxed, coherent and flowing.

Morphine’s Cure For Pain is a great recording from a very unique and talented band. A trio with drums, horns: usually two played at once by one guy, and a bass guitar, which I think is actually two strings played on a tuned down guitar. Anyway, this is a classic indie rock album with a great sound and great songs. On track #2 “Buena” one sonic experience that really stood out for me was how with the SE PLC, you could really hear how the ride cymbal wad being hit with a stick tip on its bell, versus sounding more like a wash of the entire ride cymbal. On the Police’s “Driven to Tears” from their Message in a Box compilation box set… again the cymbals on Stewart Copeland’s kit were more distinct from one another through the SE PLC. But even more amazing to me was how Andy Summer’s short solo mid-song just absolutely ripped through the SE PLC.

In comparison conclusion, I do have to say that differences in general, between the SE PLC and the 99 were quite subtle. I invited my friend Matt over for some blind A-B-ing. When he walked in the room, I had one Pre wired in and both powered up (actually the SE PLC doesn’t require power… another nice trait if you ask me, who wouldn’t want to save a power cord and a parking spot on the line conditioner? And since I have not stated it before in this review, I will now state that the SE PLC is completely 100% devoid of any noise. Duh, you might say, it’s a powerless passive pre. True, but it really is great to introduce that kind of mechanical silence into a system).

I played a song from the new The Magic Numbers CD then switched the wiring and played the song again. I had matched the volume levels prior. Matt has great ears and this was almost an unfair test. I have been listening to these two preamps for the past 6 weeks or so, and I have learned their unique signatures. I was asking Matt to spot either within his first few songs. What he heard was different than what I believe are their differences and he would not commit to either stating, “Both sound great and are only slightly different.”

Listening to “Who”?

I have never heard this album rock like this! It’s filling the room, taking me to the time, the place, and the vibe. I’m hearing the guitars, and not just their type, but also their strings, their vintage. The character of the amps… a wall of them… is more distinctive that I remember. The insanity of the drums… they’re pounding, falling over. The cymbals sparkle and ring. The sticks are moving all across them. The bass is knocking me out of my seat. I never knew a bass could do THAT!

I’m in a “Who” mood… “The Who” that is. They are my favorite band of all time. I have almost all of their stuff on vinyl and a few special CD’s. That’s WHO I was describing above and specifically their Thirty Years of Maximum R&B compilation from 1994. A 4 CD box set chronicling most of their popular songs along with a bunch of rarities and alternate takes.

I probably listen to these CD’s a few times a year. Seriously though, I have never heard them like this. They rock way more than ever before. There’s more space, more texture, more umph.

With some vinyl, using my Rega P25, Dynavector 10×5 and Gram Amp 2SE, I heard some interesting traits of the SE PLC. Firstly, I really had to crank the volume up to equal the output of the CD. No surprise, as I have always had to do that. But the Rogue 99 has a great feature that helps diminish the perception of pushing the preamp. The 99 has a gain increase knob that hikes up (or knocks down) the overall gain in two steps (either way). With the 99, basically turning this knob two notches up and I barely have to touch the volume knob when switching from CD to vinyl. With the SE PLC, I had to move the volume up/around about 3 “hours”. If a semi-loud setting was “11” (as in a 12-hour clock) for CD, comparably for vinyl the volume knob would need to be at “2”. No biggie really, especially on a passive preamp, that’s just really opening up the attenuator more.

My test vinyl is Aimee Mann’s Lost in Space. A Mo-Fi pressed limited edition. I think it’s one of my best sounding recordings, regardless of format. With the SE PLC, I heard a great mix of frequency extension, stereo separation, detail and pace. This detail and transparency had me hearing more of the static and pop on vinyl than I had in the past. I guess with detail comes, well, detail. The SE PLC seemed to be a great compliment to the Rega > Dynavector > Gram Amp combo; adding back a tad bit of texture.

As a reference product for future reviews, I think the Sonic Euphoria PLC would be fantastic as it would let me really hear the individual character of each component prior in the chain. (But I am not confident that it could be my only preamplifier, and I’m not sure I want two… as the SE PLC might not work well with every source and amp.)

Back to the Aimee Mann album… I felt as if the vocals seemed a little more recessed than I was used to. This was a trait Matt actually noticed as well, stating the Rogue to be a little more forward in sound staging. But on the plus side, the SE PLC seemed to make the emotional musical swells on Aimee Mann’s album that much more dramatic and dynamic. I found myself air-guitar-ing to the lead on “Guys Like Me”. I’ve never done that before… who would think anyone would air guitar on an Aimee Mann album, but the rock and emotional impact through the SE PLC certainly can have that effect on the listener, even with an Aimee Mann guitar solo (which by the way are quite exquisite and tasteful consistently).

I listened to a couple of Hank Mobley records on the PLC recently. His Blue Note release Dippin from 1965 and his Prestige release, Mobley’s Second Message from 1956. This is great rollin’ jazz and with the SE PLC, I had that great feeling certain jazz albums can give through a good system. The recording takes you back to the time, the place, and the vibe. With the SE PLC you can clearly hear the room, the energy, the fun and the love of the medium.

One other thing I really liked about the Sonic Euphoria PLC was that it helped make my vintage KLH 17 tuner listenable again. With the PLC’s transparency, midrange energy, deep extension and top range texture, it allowed me to enjoy listening to this vintage yet sometimes soft tuner once again. We have great public radio stations here in Philadelphia, and it’s a real pleasure to let someone else DJ for a while… to listen to new stuff or even great old stuff over the trusty FM airwaves.

In concluding one of his emails to me, Dan wrote,

“My own stereo system stopped evolving for 13 years or so, up until this year, when we (our company) finally had the resources and enough parts for me to
order my own PLC. Being the store manager, I took a back seat in ordering one for myself for the almost 2 years we’ve been shipping them. I had to allow production
to go to customers first. Being around all this equipment on a daily basis gives me the hobby fix but when I get home, it’s not the equipment that drives me. I like to listen to music, not equipment. The PLC has put me closer to my music. Isn’t that what got us all looking into this sort of equipment to begin with? I think you know what I mean.”

I do. I whole-heartily agree. The Sonic Euphoria PLC has definitely put me closer to my music. It has the linearity, the palatable texture, the dynamic impact, the bass slam, the real-life air, but most importantly the feel and energy of real music… real good music. I’ve had my Rogue equipment for years now. The Rogue stuff is really good… excellent actually. The desire to change my set up has never crept into my consciousness before. The Sonic Euphoria PLC has me thinking and thinking hard. To me it’s a real fine piece, from construction through customer support, through the most important bit: musicality. I want to listen more (to CD’s, to vinyl, to FM). I don’t want that feeling to go away.

There are a couple of cliché’s in audio reviewing. One being if you think you’ll miss the piece under review when it’s gone, then it’s a keeper. The Sonic Euphoria PLC brings me closer to the good stuff… the BEST stuff actually. And I don’t want to miss that!

** Footnote: So how did my review fare in comparison to the ones from Stereophile?

In Brian Damkroger’s review from the January issue, in describing the bass range, he noted a “warm, bouncy feel that anchored the presentation and propelled it forward” and he also noted “dynamic transients” that “were huge”. Brian also remarked how the sound stage didn’t quite have the depth of his other preamplifiers that also happen to cost a lot more. Similarly to my calling out the specific way the PLC handled the sound of cymbals, so did Brian, noting how he could specifically distinctly, hear detail that created a more realistic presentation of brushes on the cymbals. Lastly, Brian remarked how he thought the PLC was a great preamp for rock and “multimiked” classical music. I certainly agree on the rock aspect!

In Art Dudley’s follow-up, he remarked how the Sonic Euphoria PLC had a “seriously good” way with pitch, musical flow and timing. That the SE PLC did well with those sonic attributes with “no dynamic compression, and no bass attenuation.” He also mentioned that he heard great drama, presence and “musical immediacy” through the PLC but that great active preamps he has used had a better way with following the shape of notes from attack through decay. Art concluded by labeling the $1295 price of the SE PLC as a “Bank Error In Your Favor” card from Monopoly. I certainly agree there as well, and as The Who would say, “I call that a bargain, the best I ever had.”

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