How many manufacturers of audio products do you know announce on their website, “New shipping requirements… no longer requires HAZMAT shipping designation!” None, right? That’s about to change; Let me introduce you to TEO Audio, maker of the Liquid Preamp. You read that right – liquid preamp, complete with ingredients such as Gallium, Indium and Tin. That combination sounds a bit like a mixed drink with fine liquor and diet Coke. Don’t let that unappetizing illustration throw you, as this preamp is something else in several respects, not the least of which is how it sounds.
Please listen to our product
At shows I am approached regularly to try out samples of manufacturers’ wares. Occasionally I make a snap judgment based on the sound of the show system in which the product has been used, the manufacturer’s reputation and/or associations with other manufacturers I know, the feature set, my current review queue, apparent build quality and, yes, price and aesthetics to decide whether it will be worth my time. This is not as poor method of determination as you might think. For further insight into momentary decision making I recommend the book Blink by Malcom Gladwell, in which he points out in a discussion of a process known as “thin slicing” (rapid, but informed decision making) that in many endeavors a quick informed judgment is as good as a belabored one. It might be said that I thin slice audio systems to determine what is and what is not worth reviewing.
So it was that having already committed to several reviews spawned from the show, I contemplated the TEO Audio Liquid Preamp offered to me by Taras Kowalczyszyn for one reason – you bet, the liquid. I love technological audio oddities, especially if they hold potential to break the rules as well as “sound barriers.” Taras was not shy, proclaiming matter-of-factly that the technology of the “wiring” used in TEO products far outstripped any solid wire. He was utterly confident of the pedigree of the Liquid Preamp. I wasn’t so sure about that, but I knew I had to explore this uncharted realm of components, and thus the reviewing schedule would burgeon with one more piece.
Where are these guys from?
I am regularly surprised at the backgrounds and experiences of members of the audio industry. Many have come up through the ranks of garage and basement tinkerers to become luminaries of the audio world. Perhaps the same will be said of the principals of TEO Audio. Behind the name stands Taras (TEO is an abbreviated form of his late father’s name, Teodor) and designer Ken Hotte, as Taras describes himself as, “… a largely self-taught electronics tweaker, tech and designer.” Taras worked several years in Canada at an audio/music store and currently does sound installations in public venues, specializing in noise/vibration control. He applied his knowledge of noise and vibration control to the chassis of the TEO Audio Liquid Preamp. Essentially, the Liquid Pre is nothing more than naked lengths of the sheathed conductor of the liquid cable and a premium stepped attenuator inside a precisely crafted aluminum casing.
We have all had the occasion of despising a product that, once we knew how little was inside, seemed a rip off. You might be tempted to draw a similar conclusion when you hear that the TEO Audio Liquid Preamp is a box of wires, a series of resistors and a switch. That is, until you hear it. When you hear it a voice inside your head responds to such skepticism with a counter-objection, that those nose bleed priced preamps with lots of wires, power regulation devices and endless etched signal pathways on circuit boards that sound so much worse are perhaps the real rip off! You may aver that simplicity ought not be so expensive. Yes, but simplicity yielding vastly superior performance is very highly valued, especially in the field of Audiophila. In this case, the simplicity belies the fabulous technology in the wire, which rockets the performance clean out of sight of circuit-laden preamps. When I was a young audiophile I thought a lot of circuits meant a powerful result. I didn’t appreciate the beauty of a simpler circuit yielding superior performance. Now I do not discount a box that is mostly air, because I have heard what such things can do.
More assistance with the chassis came from Vladimir Arbunia at Radison – not the hotel, which is spelled Radisson, but rather the electronics chassis maker. Taras was humble, “… we realized we knew nothing about box building and Vlad knew piles more, so we just asked Vlad to make the best box he could… the tolerances are insane, the thing is built like a tank…” I concur, it’s a thing of beauty and unmercifully tight, as brutally solid as a flight data recorder. I appreciate that TEO did not slough off the necessity of couching the liquid cable in a fitting enclosure, one with extreme attention paid to the environment in which the cable would perform. Then again, if any dim witted owner who got the itch to explore the contents was able to unscrew a lid and have at it, potentially exposing themselves to substances which require a HAZMAT warning, it might not be good for the owner or TEO Audio. It’s best that the box be tight as a drum.
Ken’s past seems shrouded in mystery, like an Eastern electronics guru with a fuzzy resume. According to Taras, Ken is a modern alchemist, exploring avenues which traditional science would eschew. How else would one come up with a slush of Gallium, Indium and Tin for a conductor? It sounds absurd, mixing metals mixing metals in a liquid state, forming a “eutectic” blend, to be used as a conductor. To get these metals to solidify you would have to lower the temperature to about -30 degrees Celsius! Have you ever seen melted ice cream in its pail? It might not be far off from the blend of these elements, a metal slurry that conducts electrical signals.
Remember The Mod Squad?
I recall as a young man watching the culture-bending undercover cop show The Mod Squad, which featured rebel-cum-police officers Pete, Julie and Linc. It made straight up police dramas such as Adam 12 seem downright boring! What does the show have in common with the Liquid Pre? Only a name, Mod Squad, which also happened to be a high-end company in the 1980’s making the Line Drive Passive Preamplifier. Lorlin selector switches were used inside, and TEO has a stash of them; Ken typically dismantles two and rebuilds them to make one rotary stepped attenuator for the Liquid Pre. Finding a cache of these high quality switches allowed them to be incorporated into the design with the liquid cable.
While on the subject of the Lorlin switch, its operation is silent and smooth, sure in its movement to slot into the 24 or so detents. As with many other passive preamps I did a lot of moving the baseline output level of the TEO Audio Liquid Pre, sometimes setting it at full output, sometimes at 70-80%. This was due to use of the Liquid Pre with DACs having their own preamp function. Some massaging of the sound quality can be attained through blending the output of the DAC and the Liquid Pre at various points on their respective attenuators. All these preamp devices claim to be dead silent and to have a vanishingly thin effect on the signal. Don’t you believe it; they all place their imprint on the sound, so work with them in tandem to achieve a nuance to the playback right for your ears. It is true, however, that one or the other will sound best with no attenuation, at full volume, while the accompanying preamp is used to actively attenuate.
Yet another volume control in my system was introduced from the computer source. I handled the system sound level by my iPad’s sliding volume control on the Remote App. When attention is paid to both cabling and the blending of the volume devices, a powerful method of tuning the rig results. I found that most of the time I left whatever DAC I was using at 100% output, but the Liquid Pre at about the 12th to 18th detent. That range seemed to be the sonic juncture of precision, fullness and tonal richness.
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