|I believe the most difficult component to select is the pre-amplifier. I have tried several different products in my system and listened to a number more in show rooms. It has appeared to me that every pre-amp I have tried has had a weakness, so selecting the perfect fit has always come down to the unit that best highlights my other components while masking their weaknesses. |
When I changed my system to Plinius SA-102 amps in a vertical bi-amp configuration, it was time again time to explore the pre-amp. Before the Plinius I had been using solid state Aloia amps and an Aloia pre-amp with very good results. The Aloia pre-amp was an excellent match with the Aloia amp but was showing its limitations with the Plinius. I felt there was an overall vale left between me and the music. The Plinius were begging for greater transparency and less limitation on the high end. The bass was good but certainly not the best I have heard. I then went back to the pre-amp I used before the Aloia, a tube Kora Eclipse. This pre-amp was quite magical in the midrange and was surprisingly able to handle the bass quite well. In the treble I again felt the Plinius amps were needing a cleaner signal path that the tube pre-amp was simply not capable of providing. Now I thought back to other pre-amps I had owned or knew quite well to see if any of them might fit the bill. The Ayre K-3 was one unit I felt was too bright and therefor I feared it would sound to "Krell like," too electronic. Audio Research was a company I was quite familiar with but I have felt their pre-amps were a bit grainy. I have had a couple Adcom pre-amps in my past, I felt they would show their limitations in the high end. I have owned Conrad Johnson in the past. Last one was the Premier 12. CJ is wonderful stuff, producing liquid mid range and pleasing highs. The bass has appeared bloomy and I was concerned about slowing and thickening the bass signal. The other units I had tried before were Mark Levinson No. 380s, Sonic Frontier Line 3 and Jeff Rowland. The Levinson has never appealed to me, The SF is too grainy where I have often felt the Rowland may be a perfect unit for me but the cost is too high for the unit I want.
I was considering a few units I had little to no experience with Hovland HP-100, CAT- SL-1 and BAT VK-50SE and most appealing was the CJ Premier 16LS. These are all tube units. I felt strongly that I would want the softness and glow of tubes to match with the clear transparent signal of my modified Sony SCD-1, the Plinius amps and Dunlavy IVa speakers. Before trying any of these units I asked these forums for any advice. Any choice I made would require me to purchase the unit to try it in that none of these companies are available to test here. It was my old friend "Redkiwi" whose advice has never failed me who suggested I consider a Placette active line stage. Redkiwi is quite familiar with Plinius in that he lives in New Zealand and his shelving and isolation theories are the same as mine so I know what he is hearing and looking for in a sound.
I went to the Placette web site www.placetteaudio.com and printed out some information and reviews. I also searched Audiogon and Audio Asylum for information. There was much discussion on the passive units but very little on the "flagship" active unit. From what I could learn the Placette was extremely transparent due to its use of a stepped aptitude with 126 steps using Vishay S-102 resistors in series. 50 Vishay resistors are used in this unit, including 22 on a Class A headphone amplifier. This was extremely appealing to me in that the modifications made to my SCD-1 CD/SACD player also used Vishay resistors and I loved the open, clean, smooth sound. I felt good about this fit but was still concerned because the passive unit apparently lacked the impact and slam in the bass. I called and spoke with the owner of Placette, Guy Hammel, 208-342-6141 to discuss his feelings of how the active pre-amp would fit my needs. He felt the fit would be exceptional given the clean sound of the Plinius and the Vishay resistors in the Sony. He offers a 30-day money back return policy so the risk was limited. I gave him a credit card number and ordered a unit for $4000. He has no dealers so the only way to buy is used if you can find one or direct from Guy, 4-6 weeks are his back log so now it was a waiting game.
Because every unit is hand build only after the order is placed, Placette can be "custom" built to any specifications. The standard unit comes with one of six input jacks and one of the two output jacks using OFC (oxygen free copper). The unit also includes one pair of tape output jacks. I use the OFC input for my SACD player and the OFC output for the midrange high frequency amp. The second "standard" output I use for the bass amp. The unit comes with an unremarkable "after-market" chunky Sony RM-V60 remote control. Although it is not of "audiophile" standards it works flawlessly and I'd guess I would rather see the money in the components and not the remote. They design the remote to activate a relay withing the unit that in turn selects the resistor combination. All other times the remote sensor is in sleep mode. Thus, eliminating the noise associated with most remote controls.
So how does it preform. Transparency is the word that sums up the whole experience. This pre-amp is an extremely clean, non-fatiguing volume control, with excellent slam and PRAT. The unit has no assertable sound of its own, and is as neutral as I have heard. Where every pre-amp I have ever tried had a signature left on the signal, this unit simply has none. A very natural warmth replaces the warm bloomy midrange of the tube pre-amps. I once felt I had to work with footers and vibration control to tame the artificial bloom, now it sounds simply natural, the ways it sounds live. The grain and glare of most solid state pre-amps can often begin as sounding transparent with crisp imaging but eventually leads to fatigue and a desire to tame the highs. With the Placette the sound is endlessly transparent and clean, but never the least bit fatiguing. It is as if the highs go on to infinity, violins have no boundary or limits, bells and cymbals extend forever. What is so amazing is that I have sat for six and eight straight hours never feeling I needed to get away, but rather longing for the next disk to fall into. Bass was my biggest concern due to the comments I read regarding the passive unit. No problem here, the bass is tight and punchy. No bloat or excessive weight so often found in tube pre-amps. Again it was natural, as if they were producing the bass between my speakers. I had no sense of a piece of equipment trying to produce a signal, but rather the resulting sound as I believe it was meant to be heard. Guy had told me this unit would allow me to hear the Plinius amps and the Sony SCD-1 for the first time. That actually scared me, I was not sure I wanted to hear a digital front end and a solid state amp, even if they were as good as I thought they were. Well I have to say, the sound of the Plinius is effortless throughout the extremes, excellent lifelike midrange, incredible bass slam and control along with the smoothest, clearest highs I've ever heard in my house. The Placette is simply a non component, I think it leaves no signature of its own, it is completely transparent and completely neutral. The sound stage is as wide and open as I have heard with any other pre-amp. Imaging is crisp and persists without being overly etched. I can sense the presence of the instruments in the space of the sound stage without them appearing too defined. Is it perfect for everyone? No I honestly think if you have weaker components it will highlight those flaws and possibly make a system worse. I believe that is why pre-amps are so difficult to match, we want them to highlight the strengths and mask the weaknesses. The Placette will not mask your system with bloom, color, glow, nor will it brighten and etch a dark system. It simply allows you to hear your other components for what they are, and I think that is what I believe a pre-amp should do.
The Placette is an excellent pre-amp. I recommend it highly. It does have a couple issues I should mention. First off it is not highly designed. It is black and nondescript, not made from exotic milled aluminum but rather has a plastic like housing. I believe this is for vibration and harmonics (something Guy has extensively researched and designed for) rather than cheapness, but again the budget was spent on the very best components available in the signal path, not on appearance and box construction. The remote is clearly not the standard I am used to, but again . . . The last issue discussed at length on Audio Asylum and in all the reviews I have read is the toggle switch used for volume control when not using the remote. I read all kinds of complaints about the function and lack of control with this toggle switch. I am not sure what all the hype was, for me it works flawlessly. I could adjust the volume the same from the toggle or the remote, both work great. I am guessing the problems others had came about because they had their pet elephants working the toggle switch for them, or they simply had too much to drink before operation this complex machinery. The final complains heard, and I agree is the stepped aptitude. There are 126 discrete steps but they start too high, thus not allowing for extremely low volumes. This has been a problem only a couple times. Nevertheless, it would be enjoyable if they took some range off the top end (where I have never been) and moved to the bottom end for low volume situations. Placette does offer an after market unit that adds Vishay resistors so if this is a real problem they can solve it.
In conclusion, transparent, natural, open, clean, excellence. I hope this is the last pre-amp I will ever want, but I would still love to try one of the state of the art tube pre-amps or the flagship Rowland just to compare.
Patricia Barber; "Café Blue" and "Modern Cool" MFSL
Patricia Barber is my favorite artist of the past twenty years. I've seen her live in small jazz clubs and have followed her career from her first recordings. These two are reference quality recordings with some of the most creative remake and original material. The base is always full and well defined on her recordings. Her voice has an incredible range from deep rich dark tenor to a fully extended soprano. Her piano playing is exciting and freshly unique. Percussions are very involved and well defined, great for transient testing and toe tapping. The only complaint I have regarding her recordings is the size of the piano and drums which are as wide as my room. If you enjoy female vocals and great percussions these are must own disks.
Alison Krauss, "Forget about It" Rounder
Alison started her career as a folk, country singer. Although she hasn't moved far from her roots she would be hard to classify as either. I think of her as an extremely airy female singer who plays the violin and has a back-up band that includes a slide and steel guitar. This recording is one I've played over and over always entranced with the dynamics and freedom of her voice and the skill of her acoustic band.
Duke Ellington, "Blues In Orbit" MFSL
I don't know what more can be said about this classic recording. It is a recording that must be included in any jazz collection. The recording quality is excellent with great detail and superb depth. This as with most older jazz recordings tends to have a strong center image and strong far right and left. The mid left and right tend to be without much information. The beginning of this disk is much the same but the later cuts tend to in-fill better than most. Great brass sections and maybe some of the greatest tunes written for jazz.
Miles Davis, "Kind Of Blue" Columbia
This has often been referred to as the most important jazz recording ever made. I agree, the band comprises of some of the greatest musicians ever for there instruments. Of course Miles-trumpet, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley - alto saxophone, John Coltrane - tenor saxophone, Bill Evens-piano, Paul Chambers - bass and Jimmy Cobb - drums. It's simply the greatest jazz material recorded by the greatest ensemble put together. The recording quality is adequate but the tape hiss is certainly prevalent.
Lucinda Williams, "Essence" Lost Highway
Lucinda is a favorite of mine and what ever her latest disk is has always my newest favorite. I have seen her on a number of occasions in a 300 person venue, she is awsome! She has been refereed to as country or east Texas rock. I think of her more as one of the greatest song writer of our time and one hell of a good musician. Her latest band has five guitar players along with percussion and organ. Her latest is as far from her country roots and far more main stream yet she has not lost her ability to open herself up so as though we can see her very soul. She expresses raw emotion as if each word is ripped from her very heart. I know a lot of people have tried Lucinda and found her too rough and too country, but if you give her five listens you too will be addicted.
Big Joe Maher, "Mojo" Wildchild! From Mapleshade
Mapleshade is one of my favorite labels. Wildchild works more off beat from the traditional jazz of Mapleshade. Mojo is an incredibly open and clean blues type album with great spirit and feeling. I think this along with most Mapleshade recordings is how the music was made to be heard, simply flawless.
Janis Ian, "Breaking Silence" Analogue Productions (gold)
This has been considered a audiophile standard sense it was first released and has not lost it's appeal on me. The recording quality is suburb, the music is as well performed as any rock/ vocal I've heard. The songs are written and performed with great soul and feeling by Janis who began her career in the sixties as a teenager. The gold disk is quite a step up in quality than the standard aluminum, but even with the aluminum you will not be disappointed.
Sara K., "Hobo" Chesky (96/24)
Sara is not often spoke of, but I think this disk is the best of all the well recorded Chesky disks. The imaging is terrific and the percussions are three dimensional. I love Sara's refined yet raspy voice, she has a blend of throat and chest vocals that is unique and pleasing to me. This disk has long been a standard test disk for how well my stereo is producing bass and imaging.
Kasey Chambers, "Barricades and Brickwalls" EMI Music (Import)
Kasey is raw emotion and raw talent. This is her second disk and both are worthy of owning. She writes all her own songs, often talking of hard times and love lost. Kasey could be classified as country but she's far more diverse and far too talented to fall into that category. I think of Kasey as a raw young version of Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris with the same ability to display the emotion of their heart. The recording quality is marginal, her band is above average but it's Kasey I listen to and her talent is beyond reproach.
Cowboy Junkies, "The Trinity Sessions" Classic Records (gold)
So much has been made of this recording and Margo Timmins' voice, but it's all true. This is an anomaly in the history of Cowboy Junkies recordings IMO. It was recorded raw and live in a one day session in a church. It's the simplicity of recording and spontaneity of there talent that shine through, but it's the lead singing of Margo that pulls it off. Her purity, depth and tonal richness are among the best female singers today. Vinyl and gold CD are far superior to standard aluminum. Vinyl is still available, gold is out of print.
Plinius SA-102 amps
Sony SCD-1 SACD player
Dunlavy IVa speakers
Nordost Valhalla speaker cable
Nordost Valhalla and NBS Statement interconnects
NBS Statement power cords
Hydra power conditioner