H2O Audio Fire preamp review
I originally posted this review on the Audio Asylum web site, but a couple people mentioned I might consider posting in this forum as well. Hopefully it is not a repeat read for too many people.
H2O Audio Fire Preamplifier
I would like to write a bit about my experiences with H2O Audio's Fire preamplifier. My audio system has been a slowly improving work in progress over the past 23 years. Its current form starts with a quiet PC feeding a MHDT Labs Havana DAC, which feeds the review component, which feeds a Pass Labs X250.5 amplifier that drives Avalon Acoustics Opus speakers. Speaker cables are currently Goertz Boa, with various brands of interconnects. Source components and the preamplifier are plugged into a PS Audio Power Plant Premier.
While I've had a relatively easy time finding what I want out of speakers and amplifiers, I've had more tribulations with preamplifiers. I've purchased and auditioned various makes of passive attenuators and active preamplifiers over the years, ranging in price from about one thousand to six thousand dollars. At times I've skipped the preamplifier stage completely, driving amps direct from the source if possible. While it was easier to find preamps that mated well with my older amplifiers, since upgrading to more modern lower impedance designs, I haven't found a preamplifier that I didn't think was a compromise in one form or another. Either they collapsed the sound stage depth, sounded too thin, bloated the midbass, softened the frequency extremes, softened dynamics, added glare, had noisy power supplies, or cost five thousand dollars more than I was prepared to spend.
I had first heard the H2O Audio preamplifier a few years back, when a prototype was making rounds. At the time I liked the sound, but the design wasn't complete. I am now listening to the production version, which is a solid state mosfet design consisting of one chassis that houses the power supply, and a separate chassis for the analog circuits. The Fire costs 4,995 US dollars and is only available direct from the designer. The preamplifier has four single ended inputs, and two single ended outputs. A remote control is included that controls only volume and muting. The construction of the two chassis is substantial and solid, which is necessary because there is a fair amount of heat generated from the preamplifier's 500 milliamps of Class A bias.
Describing a component's sound makes the listening experience read as if it is an analytical process, but listening to a good system is more an emotional experience for me. So as I describe the sound in an analytical manner, please note that the Fire is a component that rises listening to an emotional, not analytical, experience.
The Fire, as of yet, is the only preamplifier I have had in my system that has shown me I can run a preamplifier without compromising some aspect of sound quality. It has also proved that I wasn't previously aware of the full performance capability of the Pass X250.5 amp. The Fire throws forth a rich, warm sound. However, it is not the false warmth that comes from lack of energy in higher frequencies. The preamplifier has a detailed yet natural presentation in the high frequencies, free of hash and glare. The midrange has presence and body, and the bass is full, strong and deep with excellent pitch definition. When I listen to my system with the Fire in it, I am surprised that delicacy and smoothness can be mixed together with power, warmth and detail over the full frequency range. The detail that the Fire provides is not the etched detail that leads to fatigue on less than excellent recordings. It is a presentation of detail that allows me to listen "into" the music, and makes the individual instruments and performance sound more coherent and beautiful. On some recordings, it is as if the music is glowing from within.
I continue to be taken with the dynamic capabilities of the Fire. The music swells and blooms within both small and large dynamic contrasts. In comparison to the Fire, other preamplifiers I've had in the system will get louder and softer, but via the Fire music seems to swell and become more rich and grand. The power of a Mahler symphony does not get choked, and floor toms in a rock recording have punch, power and definition. At the same time, the small dynamic shadings on instruments such as plucked strings and cymbals allow the delicacy of certain recordings to be emotionally felt and appreciated. The interplay between the piano solo, cymbal work, percussion and bass guitar during the long piano solo in Pat Methany Group's "The First Circle" is lusciously delicate and pure sounding, with ever rising power up through the trailing crescendo.
I am very much enjoying the tonal qualities of instruments via the Fire. Acoustic guitar, electric guitar and violin have a glowing presence which I believe has something to do with the ability to allow small dynamic contrasts through, and present larger dynamics as bloom and swells instead of simple volume changes. The sound of these instruments is like that of a good tube preamp, but without the softening effect or frequency response anomalies that are often associated with mid priced tube designs. Voices, both male and female, sound rich and coherent; free of the false hyper detail that I too often hear through digital front-ends. Slide trombones sound phat, and it is easy to separate the tonal qualities of multiple instruments playing in unison.
Regarding the sound stage and imaging capabilities of the Fire, I am hearing an extended front to back spread of instruments if the recording allows it. While this has much to do with the design of the Avalon Opus speaker, every other preamp I have tried, both active and passive, will flatten the depth dimension to a degree and throw either a forward, mid mid-plane, or receded presentation. The Fire allows some instruments to be well forward of the speaker plane with others well behind the speakers. In "The First Circle", when the floor toms kick in at the end of the piano solo, they are set way back at the wall of my listening room, but still come through with power and impact. I spoke above of being able to listen *into* the sound stage more so than with my other preamplifiers, and I believe this to be because the detail cues that portrays spatial depth are not being masked. This music has a beautiful dynamic and spatial openness previously missed in my system. The ambiance and air inherent in some recordings become part of the performance, not something in which I must strain to hear.
The Fire does not strike me with extremely pin-point, side to side imaging, even though that quality exists. Instead, the music is presented in such a natural manner that these qualities are not forced upon my perception. I am more struck by the Fire's ability to present instruments within their own localized space if the recording allows it. Recordings that play with the phase to throw sounds outside of the speaker boundaries are still presented well outside of the speakers.
If you can't yet tell, my foremost impression is that the Fire creates beautiful music. There is no annoying glare of a problematic solid state upper midrange, or the masking of a bloated midbass, or the false leading edges and harmonics of over-hyped detail. One might think from reading my notes that the Fire is colored to the warmer end of the spectrum, but I don't think this is the case. Instead, the Fire is letting the natural warmth and detail inherent in a recording pass on to the amplifier. I hear more body, warmth, detail, dimension and dynamics, and can't help but get drawn into and swept away by the music. As such, the Fire is not a component that works well only with good recordings like som esolid state designs. Bad recordings are more accessible now because there is a detailed fullness that fends off the fatigue of hot recordings.
Lest one thinks I am gushing too much about the sound of the Fire, there are a couple of untraditional aspects of the preamplifier which I will mention.
First, the Fire is ear candy, not eye candy. Form definitely follows function here. While the Fire is not ugly, it has to dissipate quite a bit of heat and has a more utilitarian appearance. It has an extreme build quality similar to my Pass Labs amplifier. If you are looking for sculpted art to sit atop a marble pedestal, you won't find it here.
Second, the Fire takes an hour and a half to two hours to come up to the operating temperature where it sounds best.
Third, when the Fire is first turned on, its output is muted. The mute can only be disengaged via the remote control. Imagine, if you will, the customer who has spent five grand on a preamp, but can't listen to his music system because he misplaced the remote, stepped on the remote, sat on the remote, has a dog who ate the remote, dropped the remote into a glass of scotch, ran out of batteries for the remote, or has an evil spouse who stole the remote as retribution for spending too much money on a preamp. I have sent a note to the designer regarding this oversight, and it will hopefully be resolved.
Forth, the volume swings via the remote control are also a little bit large in my system. The channel tracking and manual control range of the volume control is otherwise excellent.
Finally, if these features are important to you, you should note that there is no balance control, phase inversion switch, nor balanced inputs and outputs.
Ultimately though, I can't find anything to criticize regarding the audible performance of the Fire. It is a component that is allowing my system to perform at a higher level of musical enjoyment.