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EMM Labs PRE stereo preamplifier Review

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About this time last year, I received what EMM Labs referred to as the Reference PRE. The only identification that appears on the preamp are the letters PRE, which I find a bit confusing, given that the earlier design was called the PRE2. While I really did not expect drastic improvements from the PRE over the PRE2, I hooked it up in my system and almost immediately realized that the PRE was a stunning leap forward. The remainder of this review focuses on the differences and how those differences contribute to a more lifelike recreation of the recorded event.

 

Technical Details

One of the many things that sets the PRE apart from the vast majority of solid-state preamps is the relative simplicity of its design. Whereas most other modern preamps often boast of the number of opamp chips or large-scale integrated circuits in the audio path, the PRE eschews the use of such devices in favor of discrete transistors, which in total are far less than the number of signal path transistors inside a single opamp chip. The audio signal path of the PRE is, in comparison to the well regarded PRE2, purer and more simplified. As the PRE is designed for balanced operation, there are two identical but distinct class A audio paths per channel, one for the positive polarity signal and one for the mirror image negative polarity. Given the claim of purity and simplicity, you may wonder why the motherboard contains hundreds of parts; however, ninety percent of these parts — visible on the surface mount, ceramic printed circuit board — are part of the highly sophisticated power supply regulation system protecting the relatively few transistors in the audio signal path from unwanted external influences. This regulation system ensures that every transistor in the audio signal path is in its own special cocoon of stable and noise-free voltages to give state of the art, low distortion, class A, DC coupled performance. Much like in the EMM MTRX Reference amps, the audio circuitry is characterized by extremely wide bandwidth, extremely fast rise time, and vanishingly low distortion.

 

Set-up

As good as the PRE sounds straight out of the box, it benefits significantly from some break-in as well as from careful choice of a power cord and proper mechanical isolation. With the wrong power cords the unit can sound somewhat bleached and lacking in tonal color. Two power cords that work superbly are the Jorma Prime and what I think of as the Furutech RED (Furutech DPS-4 wire, which you will need to terminate).  Likewise, depth, focus, and detail benefit from the use of isolation feet. Two products that I have found to work superbly are the Stillpoints Ultra 6 (two at the front and one at the rear) and the CenterStage 2 (in this case two at the front and two in the back). In this particular application, I would go with the Stillpoints Ultra 5 or Ultra 6.

 

Listening (digital sources)

Bill Evans, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, XRCD.This is probably the best that I have heard this XRCD. In particular, the soundstage is less flat with Paul Motion’s drum set more clearly located behind Scott LaFaro’s bass. LaFaro’s bass is not “in” the left speaker in the same way that I have heard before. Instead, it is set back just a bit. The audience noises are clearly there, lending a sense of occasion and reality, but not as intrusive —just there, like in real life. The piano does not sound quite as big as I recall, but in the past I thought that I heard some overload, which I no longer hear. All good, all musical.

Tord Gustavsen, ECM, CD.First, the cymbals are fantastically detailed — very important here because the drums are so exposed with this quiet Scandinavian piano trio and the cymbal work is often delicate. The bass is big, fat and rich, but clearly located. I can also hear La Faro’s breathing during the bass solo that begins track 2. The detail is incredible. The main tonal difference that I note that between the EMM and the Audio Note preamps is the piano sounds fatter and warmer with the tubes, i.e., the “tube midrange.”  Which is more real? I am somewhat more aware with the PRE that the piano is appropriately considered a percussion instrument, consisting of hammers that strike metallic strings, but this is not in a bad or exaggerated way. It’s just reality. You could tell me that the EMM had some tubes in it and I would probably believe you —the end result is not just very detailed, but very musical as well.

Corinne West and Kelly Joe Phelps, Magnetic Skyline, Tin Angel Records, CD.Two guitars, two voices, one of them the great Kelly Joe Phelps. Likely recorded in live takes in the studio (if my ears are right) and superbly so. I got goose bumps multiple times. The sound of two fine singers, male and female, harmonizing with superb pitch and taste, is one of the most beautiful things that humans can do, particularly when done over the foundation of two very experienced acoustic guitarists playing fine sounding guitars. This preamp opens up every detail. I know where Phelps and West are sitting. I can hear the details of the picks on the strings (the guitars sound freshly strung). I can hear the details of the pronunciation, the closeness of their lips to the microphones, which, taken with everything else, accounts for the shivers down the spine. This is as good as it gets.

Linda Ronstadt, What’s New, FIM CD.What I expected to hear was slightly bright and edgy strings from Nelson Riddle’s terrific arrangements . . . and then the brass would come in with gusto, sparkling but just a bit painful. On both counts, I was wrong. First of all, this sounds as if it was recorded yesterday.  I’d swear that Ronstadt was singing into a Neumann tube mike.   I can hear all the detail of her voice. It has bothered me at times that Ronstadt does not sound like Anita O’Day or Helen Merrill or Chris Connor — the angels of the American Songbook in the 1950’s (to me at least, though, yes, Fitzgerald and Vaughan can bury them in many respects — maybe the flaws and vulnerability are what grab me). Here, Ronstadt sounds like Ronstadt and she has nothing for which to apologize, especially with Nelson Riddle providing the safety net. With that safety net so clean that a pro could transcribe the arrangements by ear. The placement of instruments is nearly 180 degrees across the listening stage and the speakers disappear. What an illusion.

Beethoven, 4th Symphony, La Chambre Philharmonique. Beethoven on original instruments, the strings played without vibrato, by a chamber orchestra-sized ensemble, can be a dangerous combination when played with too many microphones up close. This live recording does not suffer from the edginess and brashness that often characterize such performances, at least not as heard via the EMM Labs PRE (and EMM digital gear and MTRX amps). The soundstage is quite clear. The antiphonal effect of the strings on either side of the stage is right there and, for me at least, is one of the many new and exciting things I hear with these performances. Most exciting, however, is the very palpable sense of eager enthusiasm that we can hear from the musicians. I find it hard to define the precise musical cues that make this so palpable, but it is there in spades as heard via the EMM gear. Indeed, it is edge-of-the-seat excitement. Is it the exceptional attention to dynamics fostered by Krivine but captured by musicians that are right there with him? Is it the hair’s breadth musical acuity? Is it the occasional edge of an excited bowstring? All of those things? Whatever it is, the thrill of the music comes across in exceptional glory.

Schumann, Symphony 2, Dausgaard, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, BIS SACD. There is no doubt that this is an SACD as it presents a level of spaciousness, air, detail and ease that easily surpasses Redbook CD, especially as presented to us by the EMM gear. Dausgaard’s historically informed performances of standard repertoire have been attracting very positive press (with a few detractors) over the last few years. This Schumann 2nd is a huge success to these ears. The EMM presents wonderfully grain-free strings over a very wide soundstage. With the smaller orchestra we get the advantage of more colorful blending of the winds with the strings. The prevailing wisdom of the past was that Schumann was a poor orchestrator whose work needed “cleaning up.” With the smaller orchestra, it is hard to see how the objection stands.

The second movement is one of my favorites in the literature and Dausgaard moves it along with exceptional élan. The EMM helps us hear, in particular, the careful attention to dynamic gradations that make this performance special. It also helps us hear the careful attentiveness of the orchestra. The players do not miss a beat — literally — in this performance, which, while brisk, is also somewhat liberal with rubato and expressive hesitations.

Gillian Welch, EMI, CD. The LP of this album has held me almost breathless on multiple occasions. It is almost as if even the most minor squeak of my chair will utterly ruin the quiet, moonlit atmosphere spun by Welch and her companion. I have not in the past been overly impressed with the Redbook version of this album and, apparently, neither was Welch who pushed for the LP issue. While I do not completely understand the why of it, listening now with all EMM gear, the Redbook CD makes me almost as breathless as the LP. This is to suggest that there is clearly a synergy among the EMM pieces and, for that matter, between the PRE and digital media.

Frank Sinatra, Only the Lonely, CD. I have heard some listeners say that early CD’s are sonically among some of the best, which seems silly given the rather huge technical strides that have been made since the early 1980’s, not to mention the continuing growth in understanding how to exploit the differences between digital and analog. Yet this early issue of what is arguably Sinatra’s greatest record sounds just terrific tonight, as it almost always has. Sinatra is perfectly centered and I feel as if I can practically reach out and touch him. That slightly nasal quality is right there, captured in the most flattering light by the ubiquitous Neumann tubed microphone.  At least fifty percent of what makes this album such a gem goes to Nelson Riddle. The instruments are placed very well on the soundstage and sound marvelous. In fact, I had forgotten how intricate some of the wind work is.

One Response to EMM Labs PRE stereo preamplifier Review


  1. Andy Yuen says:

    Hi Fred, This review is stunning! Very comprehensive, very informative and very enjoyable. Thank You!

    Andy Yuen

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