It had been a while since I last auditioned a preamp, and I had asked Constantine Soo to get me a solid state pre to review. When he told me that I would get the Sphinx Laboratories Project Eight to play with, I drew a complete blank. I had never encountered Sphinx Laboratories products before. Sphinx is a Dutch company (Question: why is a country called the Netherlands also sometimes called “Holland”, and why are its citizens “Dutch”?) whose products are distributed in the U.S. by May Audio, which carries several very fine product lines.
I was surprised when three big boxes with the Sphinx logos arrived. Two boxes were explained by the Project Eight’s 2-chassis construction. What could the third box (which was bigger than the other two) possibly be? When I opened it up, I discovered that it contained the Sphinx Project Eighteen Dual Mono Power Amplifier. Another toy to try out! The only thing that gave me pause was the fact that the top was detached from the amp. I was told that both of these pieces were coming from the Consumer Electronic Show, and when I found no visible damage I concluded that the sender had been exhibiting the amp and had taken the top off to show off the “inners”. In any event, I had another product to review and was able to look inside without having to disassemble the unit myself.
So Why A Preamp?
As you’ll see below, I haven’t used a preamp for 2-channel music for some time. There are certain inconveniences associated with not using a preamp, not the least of which is having to disconnect and reconnect cables from source to source – something most people won’t even consider. It’s not that I don’t want a preamp. The problem is that I have my two-channel system sounding pretty good without a preamp, and I’m not going to mess that up by inserting the wrong preamp. As I’ve learned from long (and sometimes painful) experience, system synergy is difficult to achieve and easy to destroy.
From a purely functional standpoint, I 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 know some folks who look for a preamp to create a more “satisfying” sound. Since I’m a strong believer that system synergy is critical, I won’t argue that matching the preamp to the rest of your components is critical. A common example of this is the addition of a tubed preamp to an otherwise solid-state system. I have done this myself (with mixed results). Moreover, system tweaking to suit your personal taste is important to achieve the sound you are looking for. However, 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. You’re better off changing your speakers or front end.
I have worked very hard to eliminate the need for a preamp without sacrificing performance. I have accomplished this by doing three things. First, I make use of an extremely transparent passive attenuator made by Rick Schultz of Electronic Visionary Systems called the Ultimate Nude Attenuator (“UNA”). One end of the UNA plugs directly into the input of an amp, and the interconnect that runs from the source plugs into the other end of the UNA. Each UNA has a knob which you use to control volume. Second, I have carefully matched the impedances of my components and interconnects. The DAC has a very low output impedance, my power amp has a high input impedance and my cable capacitance and the capacitance of the UNA are very low. Third, I have spent a full year auditioning power cords and power conditioners that maximize the PRAT, slam and dynamics of my front end. Since accomplishing this, the few preamps that I have tried out in my system have made the system sound worse – not bad, just not as good as the system without them. You might say that my test environment is very good at revealing the performance of a preamp.
Here’s the specific system. My front end is powered via a dedicated electrical circuit. A Silent Source Signature PC runs from the wall outlet to a Walker Velocitor S, and two additional Silent Source Signature PCs run from the Velocitor to an Esoteric P-70 and D-70 transport/DAC combo. I run Nordost Valkyrja balanced IC’s from the output of the D-70 into a pair of UNAs, which in turn plug directly into my Electrocompaniet Nemo monoblocks.
I control the general volume range by manually adjusting the UNAs, and I make fine volume adjustments from my listening position by remotely adjusting the digital volume control on the D-70, rarely attenuating more than 3dB. The DAC has a very good digital volume control, and I really can’t hear any degradation of resolution unless I’m at very low volumes. However, using the D-70’s output control in conjunction with the UNAs means that I make only small adjustments to the output of the DAC and never risk degrading the performance of the P-70/D-70.
The Nemos are connected to B&W Nautilus 800Ds via Transparent Ultra MM Bicable. Each Nemo is powered by its own dedicated 20 amp electrical circuit, which feeds power to the Nemo via a Bybee Powercord.
It doesn’t make coffee or toast (I didn’t actually try – so who knows?), but the Project Eight preamp has all of the features (except the bypass) listed above. The control unit has eight inputs, two XLR and six RCA. Each input can be separately activated or deactivated, named, trimmed to account for the differences in the output levels of your sources, and adjusted for polarity. The Project Eight has 3 pairs of outputs, two XLR and one RCA, all of which can operate simultaneously or be individually deactivated. You can balance the left and right channels. You can control other Sphinx components via optical cable connections. You can program it to adjust volume in either .5dB or1dB steps. You can also set a maximum volume to protect against the day that some idiot flips your volume knob all the way up “just to see what happens”.
Setup is straightforward, and the manual is very good at giving you accurate, specific instructions. Once I connected the control unit and the power unit to each other and connected the mains cable between the wall outlet and the power unit, it took me less than ten minutes to connect, activate and trim 2 sources, program volume steps and maximum volume and check the balance (no balance adjustments were needed). Once I was listening to music I found it very handy to be able to check and reverse polarity from my listening seat. All very easy!!
The Sounds Of Silence
The test system that I described above is dead silent. I really mean dead silent. Visitors who come to listen always comment on how they can’t hear anything at all between tracks. With no source playing (or you’d get your head blown off) and the Nemos set at full power (which is a lot of power: 600 watts @ 8Ω, 1200 @ 4 and 2400 @ 2), you have to put your ear right up to the tweeter to hear anything, and even then it is faint. Readers who have experienced the type of silence I am describing will understand me when I say that I can no longer accept any component that adds any noise to my system. I mention this because inserting the Sphinx Project Eight Reference Preamp didn’t change anything – the system remained absolutely quiet. This is quite an accomplishment. I have had only a few preamps in my system since putting together the configuration described above, and they all added some amount of noise to the system. Not since auditioning the Ayre K-1x in a prior system have I heard a preamp this quiet.
The only thing that shatters the silence of the Sphinx Project Eight is the operation of its volume control. Whenever you increase or decrease the Project Eight’s output you will hear very audible clicks. The Sphinx allows you to set the steps of the volume control at 1dB or .5 dB. Either way, each step produces a loud “click”. I was originally surprised by this, given how absolutely quietly the Project Eight operates in all other respects, but I actually came to appreciate it as time went on. I found that, at moderate volumes, I could more readily judge how much I was adjusting the volume by listening to the number of clicks than by trying to read the display from 15 feet away. Your vision really starts deteriorating in middle age.
I decided to first review the Sphinx Project Eight Reference Preamp separately from the Project Eighteen Dual Mono Stereo amp. To cut through the suspense, the Project Eight Reference Preamp is a reference-level performer suited to any system, including very high-end systems. It excels in dynamics – both micro and macro – and imparting liquidity and solidity to the performance.
When I initially inserted the Sphinx into the system, while removing the UNAs and using Bybee Golden Goddess interconnects from the DAC to the Sphinx, I did not get any wholesale change to the sound, which is what I expected. Rather, I got a little more of three things.
First, I noticed that a bit more weight was added to the presentation. It’s not that the bass was any deeper or more dynamic. It was more robust and full. I felt a similar presence in the midrange, including drums and woodwinds. So far, so good.
After a few listening sessions with a variety of music, I also confirmed another quality. The Project Eight has a liquidity and smoothness that sounds “sophisticated” and reminded me a bit of a Levinson 380S I auditioned extensively in an older system. I felt at the time that the Levinson was too liquid – it was great with jazz, but I didn’t think it fully conveyed the rough edge that characterizes rock n’ roll. (I have not heard Levinson’s reference, the 32.) The Project Eight was less polite than the Levinson and was better and conveying that “rough edge”. A second good thing.
Finally, I noted the extra bit of dynamics that the Sphinx added. I have for many years really liked the Ayre K-1x. It is extremely dynamic and conveys a “you are there” sound that feels natural. The Sphinx Project Eight’s dynamics were not quite as outstanding as the Ayre’s, but nonetheless very good. In effect, the Sphinx was between the Levinson and the Ayre – closer to the Levinson in liquidity, but closer to the Ayre in dynamics. Check off a third good thing.
Each of these characteristics was enhanced in my system by only a small measure when the Project Eight was inserted. Just to see what would happen, I inserted the Project Eight into a mid-priced system I have in a second room. Wham! All of these three characteristics – weight, liquidity and dynamics – became more pronounced, but without altering the overall character of the presentation. This confirmed two things: 1) my system is pretty good without a preamp, and 2) the Project Eight is a hell of a preamp. Very nice.
During the time that I had the Sphinx products for review, I also had the Genesis G6 speakers. Consequently, I spent about 60% of the time listening to the Project Eight Reference Preamp when my B&W Nautilus 800D’s were in the system and 40% when the G6’s were in the system. I found that I like the Sphinx Project Eight Reference Preamp a little more with the Genesis speakers. I felt that the added weight and presence that the Sphinx brought to the table complemented the G6’s nicely.
The only thing that I wished for, but did not get, was an enhancement to the depth of my soundstage. In my experience, tubed preamps are generally better than solid state preamps at giving depth to the soundstage, with the one exception being the Ayre K1-x. The Sphinx maintained my already wide soundstage and enhanced it by solidifying the presence of the performers located on the edges of the soundstage, but I felt as though my depth shrunk by a tiny bit.
The Project Eighteen Dual Mono Stereo Power Amplifier
Let me start by noting that I did not expect to be reviewing the Project Eighteen Amplifier. However, I enjoyed having it to “play with.” If I had known that Sphinx would also like to have an amp reviewed I would have liked to try Sphinx’s Project Twenty Six mono amplifiers, which would have had the power to drive my B&W Nautilus 800Ds at realistic volumes. This would have been a better comparison to the Electrocompaniet Nemos. However, the Project Eighteen amp accorded itself surprisingly well.
I first tried the Project Eighteen with my 800Ds. The amp sounded quite good driving them at low levels, actually extracting more detail than the Nemos produced at that level. However, the Project Eighteen simply did not have the ability to continuously drive the 800Ds at realistic volumes. The breaker would trip and would have to reset before the amp could be used again.
As it turned out, it was very fortuitous that I happened to have the Genesis G6 speaker for review at the same time. The Genesis G6 speaker is an active design that comes with its own built-in 500-watt bass amp. I hooked up the Sphinx Project Eighteen to the G6s and voila! beautiful music issued from the G6s. You like intricate guitar music? You should have been here! The presentation of the music was extremely detailed and fast. In fact, it reminded me of the Classe M-400 I auditioned eight or nine months ago. At that time I thought that the M-400s were the most retailed amps I had ever heard, and the Project Eighteen came pretty close. Moreover, since the Project Eighteen was released from any low bass duties by virtue of the G6’s built-in amp, music jumped out of thin air at NASCAR speed with gobs of microdynamic information. These characteristics lead me to describe the Sphinx Project Eighteen’s strengths as speed, detail and transparency.
I am sure that the Project Eight/ Project Eighteen combination helped highlight the Project Eighteen’s strengths. As I noted above, the Project Eight is a superior preamp and I assume it was designed to complement Sphinx amps. Since the combination really did a nice job with the Genesis G6s, I thought I’d try the combination in my mid-priced system. Remember how I said that the Project Eight Reference Preamp really added weight and presence to my mid-priced system? Well, adding the Project Eighteen made that system sound like a whole different animal. I didn’t think the cheap Polk speakers and Denon DVD player I use in that system were capable of the sound that was produced. Speed, imaging, transparency, solidity and weight all took a big step forward. You might say that it should have been obvious that I’d get these kinds of improvements, but I’ve tried some very expensive equipment in that mid-priced system that just made me yawn. Not the case here!
The Project Eighteen Dual Mono Stereo Amplifier is an excellent amplifier for speakers that do not need enormous amounts of current. It imparts speed and transparency while extracting all the detail you can find in a recording. 4.0 on a five point scale.
The Spinx Project Eight Reference Preamp is exactly what it says it is – a reference preamp that is world class. It is dead silent, which helps to bring out minute details: it has excellent dynamics, both micro and macro; it adds weight and solidity to the performance; it imparts liquidity without being too polite; and it has a wide soundstage. 4.75 on a five point scale.
It’s clear that the folks in Holland (or should I say the Netherlands?) know how to make classy audio equipment. That sounds like another of several good excuses to visit on my next vacation. However, until that time I can check out other Sphinx Laboratories products by contacting May Audio in Niagara Falls, NY; website: www.mayaudio.com.
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