Review: Bent Audio Tap Linestage

Category: Preamps

Before, I get to the details of reviewing the Bent Audio Tap Linestage, I first would like to give a context regarding what my linestage reference of the last three years has been in order to "set the stage" so this review would be the most helpful to the members reading it.

My reference over the last three years has been the Placette Audio Dual Mono Active Linestage. It replaced a ML-32 reference preamp in my system. I had auditioned six different preamps/linestages, half were tubed - half were solid state ranging in price from $6000.00 to $16000.00, until I finally heard the Placette Active in my system and found what I was looking for sonically. It offered, compared with the other pieces in my home auditions, the following sonic virtues:

1) No noise floor at all. Music just "floated" out of a totally black background.
2) A great soundstage, front to back - side to side, with the best center fill and layering I ever had in my system.
3) Precise microdynamics and details without being what I would call "dry" or "etched" at all.
4) Excellent extension on both the top and bottom with great slam in the lower bass.
5) Natural tone/timbres, very important to me because I listen almost totally to acoustic jazz.

Not bad stuff! However, being the curious audiophile that I am, I had read about a few new linestages that had come out the last couple of years and decided to listen to what some of the best designers were up to now. This time around I auditioned a highly regarded solid state,tubed, and transformer based units. Even though the solid state ant tubed pieces were almost twice as expensive as my Placette, and they have their virtues, I did not find them to better the Placette in the above mentioned areas. Different but not better for my ear's and personnal taste.

That's the context, now on to the review. The Bent Tap Linestage is the child of John Chapman and his company Bent Audio out of Canada. I would like to share John is one of the great gentleman/designers of high end gear and is a true pleasure to talk and to do business with. His pieces are purchased direct, with a 30 day trail period with full refund if one is completely not satisfied.

At this point in time there has been a full review on the Tap Linestage on POSTITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE website by Bruce Kinch and on SIX MOONS website there is what they call a "pre-view", along with one of SIX MOONS reviewers, Les Turoczi, who considers the Tap Linestage one of the "favorite discoveries of 2006" and has made it his new reference linestage in his system.

The above mentioned reviews, along with information on the Bent Audio website, will provide excellent background information on the topic of passive preamps/linestages and specificly on the issue of transformer based passives compared to Vishay resister based approachs. By the way, the Placette Active is a Buffered Vishay based passive linestage that gives no gain, but eliminates any concerns with impedance matching the front end with the down stream amps.

I never get into lengthy details regarding engineering or parts, that is all provided by the Bent Audio website, however I always comment on build quality and looks before I get to the the most important part the sonic performance. The Tap Linestage has a "cool modern" look to it, but it will never be the "eye candy" that my Pass Labs or Accustic Arts pieces are to me. The front has angled sides and sits atop a 1" slab of clear acrylic which has been routed out to securely mount the twin transformers. Inside high quality Arlon circuit boards, ribbon cables, and custom OCC copper wire sourced from Neotech speak highly of the construction of this piece.

Now, to the most important part of any review, the sonic performance of the piece being evaluated. In the following areas the Tap and PLacette active were, at least for me in my system, indistinguishable:
1) Total black background, no noise floor, music just "oozes" out of the system.
2) Both provide the best soundstage and layering of any linestage I have ever had in my system.
3)Macrodynamics are present and powerful, but intergrated in the overall "fabric" of the music.

Were the two linestages start to part sonic company is revolving around to key sonic areas, tone/timbres and image density of players in the sound stage.

I find that the Tap to be slightly "warmer/fuller" then the Placette Active in overall timbres, what many listeners would refer to as the "magic of tubes", mind you, not "fat/euphonic" but more "velvety" then the "silkyness" of the Placette. It reminded me when I went from an Edge NL-10 to a pair of Pass Labs XA-100's, both great amps, but I found the XA-100's to be subtly more what I call "organic/musical". Another verbal stab at it would be to say that the Placette Active has "razor sharp" leading edges and the Tap is a little more "rounded off" but has more body and decay then the Placette Active.
The Placette Active never sounds "etched, dry, or overly analytical, but a little less "sweet" then the Tap. They both offer beautiful sonic pictures and what you would like would be very much decided by your personnal taste and what type of system synergy you would end up with in your rig.

The other sonic difference that I noticed was in the area of image density. The Tap kicked it up a notch in comparsion to the Placette Active regarding the density of images, not the size or air around the individual players, but how "real" they sounded in the stage. Again, both linestages are quite terrific regading this sonic aspect, but the Tap gives more in this area then the Placette Active.

So, is there a winner or loser between this linestages, I don't think so, there both reference level in their performance. As I always say at this level of gear it comes down to personnal taste and system synergy. There's always very small but real differences in gear, but the final voicing of any system finally comes done to matching this tiny sonic bits together to get what we are listening for in the pleasure of the music we care about.

The Bent Tap is my new reference linestage for the reasons stated above. Both the Tap and Placette Active are great performers, terrific bargains for what they sell for, the Tap $3000.00, the Placette Active $5000.00, when you think they compete with any linestage on the market today and both John Chapman and Guy Hammel are great gentleman to work with, you might put both on your audition list if your seeking out a new linestage. Which one you would like better truly would come down to personnal taste/system synergy, so really won't know till your try it in the context of your own rig.
I would like to address a couple of different items with this post.

1) In a past conversion with John Chapman, he shared that S&B was very annoyed that he would not jackup the price of the TAP for the North American market, so they could ask for a very high retail price in the European market for the Tap under their Music First banner. I have so much respect for John, both as a designer/manufacturer and a businessman who wants to make a fair profit, but not proposely inflate the price of his pieces for shear greed. My hunch is S&B thinks they screwed John by not supplying their transformers anymore, I just think they have put egg on their own greedy faces, and John is shown to be the first class gentleman that he is. I'm sure he'll just find another company to build his trannies or just build them himself.

2) Audioezra, congratulations on your new Cabernat preamp and your Kalista transport! I know your were very excited to get them and put them into your system, so I'm very glad they are giving you the pleasure of the music you were seeking. I'm still looking forward to coming over with Bob to your home and having a great time hearing your reference system.

3)Drubin, I have tried at least four very highly regarded tube linestages, the last audition was the Monbrisson Shinto Labs, and have found in my system and for my personnal taste that they offered no sonic virtues over either the Placette Active or my Bent Tap. I still think many, not all by any means, offer a somewhat euphonic coloration that some people love and find to be more "musical" to their ears or in the synergy of their systems. That's way it's so important to try any piece of gear in your system in your home environment.
"I still think many, not all by any means, offer a somewhat euphonic coloration that some people love and find to be more "musical" to their ears or in the synergy of their systems."

Excellent point Teajay. I have a K&K TVC that uses S&B TX-102 MkI transformers and I must say thay it is by far the best preamp I have had in my system. Previously I was using a Joule Electra LA-100 MkIII which I feel is a very musical preamp and quite capable of delivering it's fair share of atmosphere and realism. The K&K doesn't give an inch in that regard and surpasses the Joule in transparency, detail, and clarity.

I have no doubt that some active preamps can achieve a level of transparency, detail, and clarity on par with a passive preamp. However, to do so would mean a significant investment. In fact I find it interesting that some tube preamp designers, are trying to voice their active preamps to be more neutral and transparent which to me defeats the purpose of a tube design. Personally, in buying a tube preamp I would expect some type of coloration which would provide a unique sonic signature and hopefully one that would satisfy my preferences.
What a nasty piece of business that was by S&B. I know how much time John invested in the development of the TAP but I also know that John won't give up and it was not for naught. My sympathy to John and the customers that will have to wait.
Hi Guys

I posted the following thread in AudioCircle but thought it worth repeating here because I need some feedback on what amplifier gain would be best to drive the TAP. It seems that impedance match, source voltage and speaker sensitivity are all factors that contribute to the TAP's sonic virtues:

"It might be interesting to find out the nature of your amplifier that you are matching with your Bent TVC. My amplifiers are the superb CIAudio D*200 Monos with 26 dB (XLR). With my SB3, CDP, radio tuner or TV source I find myself utilising the volume between the 20 and 30 range, giving me satisfactory sound levels. However, in the rare occasion when I play a SACD track or DVD movie (like "The Mission" starring Robert De Niro) I find myself cranking it up to 31 (unity) and occasionally when the dialogue softens, it is at maximum 34!! As you know, the 6 DB automatically engages for the TAP beyond 31. While 90% of my listening raises no issues with a 26 dB amplifier gain, it would be nice to have more headroom with DVDs. I wonder if any of you are experiencing the same concerns? Would appreciate your views and observations!"
Denjo, in my system I only have a FM tuner and my digital front end as sources into the Tap. I would say that 99% of the time the volume setting on the Tap is between 25 to 29 to get my total system to "snap" into total focus and present the best sonic picture for that piece of music. So, I never have encountered any concerns with volume settings with the Tap in my system.