Review: TRL, Inc. Dude & Samson Tube preamp
I am not an experienced reviewer but an experienced listener and certainly an experienced purchaser of audio gear. I wanted to write separate reviews of the TRL Dude preamp and the TRL Samson mono blocks, but they have essentially been together for much of their break-in time and that makes it harder to evaluate them separately. I will try my best to carve out comments relative to certain preamps or amps I have owned over the years. Speaking of which, I have owned quite a few pieces but not many in the upper echelons of gear simply due to finances and trying to eek out the best sound per dollar I could muster without breaking the bank.
I was turned on to TRL through the discussion pages of Audiogon and a few folks who had mentioned their products on Audiocircle. I prefer small operations led by folks who have deep passion for their work and customer satisfaction. The more I dug around and exchanged emails and phone calls, the more I found all positive comments about their performance and the knowledge of Paul and Brian Weitzel. Then I began to engage Paul and found him extremely accommodating, much the same personality of Jim Salk - always willing to answer your questions and abundantly deep in knowledge and experience. When you compare the pricing for TRL gear against the mainstream offerings you can quickly see what a bargain their gear offers given the designs/performance per dollar invested.
My room is a dedicated space. I am lucky enough to have dedicated rooms for both the HT and this listening room dubbed Aural Enlightenment. It is double drywalled, green-glued, hat-channeled with dedicated Venhaus 10 ga cryo'd Romex feeding Maestro outlets. The real challenges for this room were building around the sump pump, breaker box, low voltage box, two steel beams, and two basement windows, all while situated next to the furnace room. To eliminate the furnace noise I have double walls, double steel exterior door entry with all flanking noise stopped up in the ceiling joists as well.
The room is approx. 13.5 x 20 x 8 and is heavily treated with diffusion and absorption both commercial and DIY. I am a handyman by upbringing and learned to operate table saws, hand tools, soldering guns, and brazing torches before my teens. When my hands are active, my mind is active and I love "projects" to build. The best little project addition to my room last year was the Prime 53 diffusors on each wall which replaced 703 absorbers at the first reflections. Huge improvement in soundstage. My room has had the good housekeeping seal of approval from the fellas at GIK who were able to visit and make some final tweak suggestions which I dutifully followed. I have a single chair in the room since it is dedicated and not a multi-purpose family room.
Equipment is straightforward and pretty much no-nonsense. Adona racks, 3 inch maple shelving using Michigan maple cutting boards, a Pioneer PD65 for transport (rarely used), a BPT BP2 modified by yours truly, a Logictech Touch, a Bolder Deluxe power supply with Bybee Rail mod, a Bolder modified EE tubed Mini DAC using either a Pavane or Gold Lion 12AU7 tube, an inexpensive eMachine desktop to run the Squeezecenter software and grab the internet via ethernet rather than wireless.
Interconnects as suggested by Paul include FIM heavy solid gauge XLR's for dac to pre, DIY 9 ga. solid core IC's for the long run from pre to amps, and soon-to-be-constructed, 6 ga DIY solid core SC's. Presently I am using Supra Ply 3.4/S at a measly 1 meter length instead of the Goertz Divinity which can be a little bit edgy on the top end with its lower inductance. I bought the Supra on a whim and was pleasantly surprised at the realness of guitars and vocals that a silly 1 meter could provide. Not that I have not had revealing systems before, but this one is now so musical that cabling finally matters. I am also playing with a Synergistic Research Powercell 4 on the amps. It did not do much for the Dude when I ran it solely into the unit so I plugged the Dude back into the BP2.
For reference, here are some of the preamps I have owned or auditioned since 2006:
Sim Audio Celeste P3
Pass Labs X1
Audio Mirror T61
Bel Canto DAC3 Pre
Response Audio Bella
Auditioned a Rogue Athena
The Athena was tops in this bunch followed very closely by the very musical and smooth Bella by Bill Baker (now making the Purity line).
Amplifiers I have owned and had in my room since 2006:
Monarchy SM70 monos
PS Audio GCC500 modified by Underwood
Wyred SX1000 monos
Wyred SX500 monos
Dodd 120 monos
Pass Labs X350.5
Rowland 201 monos
Belles 150A Refs as monos
TAD Hibachi monos
Dared VP-20 monos
PS Audio Delta 250 monos
AVA something auditioned
Xindak ? 200 wpc
The BAT was a beast but a little dark and the Wyreds kicked the crap out of the Pass in all areas especially the bass region.
A quick summary of the configurations ordered from TRL:
Dude has dual Shallco volume controls and one 4 input selector, 2 output sets, one set of dummy XLR’s.
Samsons have single ended inputs and dual binding posts to allow bi-wiring.
My favorite combo is tubed pre and SS amperage. Consistently I have owned Salk speakers and in this room have had the HT3's, Archos, and now the HT2 TL's. My next step is the Soundscape 10's or ???? Again, a huge bang for your buck with the ultimate in customer satisfaction from Salk Sound.
So what's a guy to do to spend a modest amount of money to build a system worthy of the Soundscape speakers? I shopped quite a bit and explored many brands including Krell, McCormack, BAT, Rogue, First Sound, Herron, Purity, Audio Valve, and Joule. Once I hit upon Tube Research Labs I knew I struck pay-dirt due to my reasons mentioned above.
Sound? Glorious of course! Why else spend the time to write a lengthy bad review? The only item I carried over from a previous set-up was the dac in stock form. I did have a chance to listen to the modified dac with a stereo amp before the Samsons arrived and was very impressed with Wayne's work which produced greater inner details and deep penetrating bass from this very inexpensive dac.
The Dude already had over 300 hours on it and Paul advised that rolling 6SN7's may or may not make any difference so "be careful how you spend your money". The Samsons did exactly what Paul said they would do and sound mid-rangey for some time until they loosened up. I have 432 hours on them so far and they are certainly broken-in in my book. They began to improve around 100-120 hours. I left the system on 24/7 for over 2 weeks and the amps never even get warm. They are the coolest amps I have ever had next to the Wyred amps. What is kind of "annoying" is that the amps don't really "do" anything. They don't spit, they don't sputter, they don't click or pop. They don't add anything to the sound. They don't take anything away. I mean, come on, maybe if I give them a good swift kick, they would impart something to the music. After all, isn't that what we have come to expect from most amps we have fired up? I reported this to one interested individual and he thought I did not like them. No, I LOVE them, but dang, they just are quietly locked and loaded and ready to fire if you dare pull the trigger. They are invisible and just let the music flow. If you want bass, they give it. If you want A Capella, they do their thing. You want guitars ripping, then the highs will be there. I have had a few amps impart their sonic signature on the music, but if you have a clean front end (how many of you just looked down?) then the Dude and Samsons will reproduce that faithfully.
The most aggravating thing for me now is bad music. You know the stuff with gobs of analog hiss. Now I have to be a very discerning selector of tracks to pump through the Touch. Garbage in, garbage out. But if you have black background music, oh boy, are you in for a treat. So let's talk about some music that has grabbed me and I play over and over. You know, tracks you are familiar with and can hear changes if components are swapped out, etc.
Jake Shimabukuro - Gently Weeps album, track 9 "Heartbeat/Dragon"
While we can appreciate Jake's abilities on this acoustical album, this track has a neat effect with the thumping on the Ukelele body that is absolutely spooky as it bounces from front to back, up and over. There is a single knuckle rap on the body but the echo repeats about 7 times most predominantly on the right side until it hits the back wall behind the seated position. I have never had this happen except for the one audition of the Rogue Athena, pre-Samsons. At that time the BAT VK500 was the beast in play and it did give the echo, but with the BAT, it was darker and less pronounced. The combination of the Dude and Samsons really put a smile on my face as I pulled this track out for the new system. I did demonstrate this for a few folks recently and they were mightily spooked as well with the clarity and echo effect.
Wailin' Jennys - Firecracker Album, track 9 "Long Time Traveller"
This track is very ethereal as it is sung a Capella and seems to have been recorded in a hall of some sort. That hall effect is reproduced in my room and the sound rises up and spreads out wonderfully just as if you were in a large old church at choir practice. If I insert a different amp the hall effect can still be sensed, but the clarity and soundstage collapses. That makes it very unmusical and not quite as much fun.
Angelique Kidjo - Oyo album, track 7 "Monfe Ran E"
I really like this singer. I am not crazy about her partnering with others and actually prefer her own tunes and when she sings solo. She has extreme energy in her voice and a wonderful tone that makes your midrange sing. My favorite track on this album is actually the first tune, but this track is downright fun to groove to. I like the vocals for sure but also the snare drum single stroke rolls in the transitions. Overall in my system this is a real hoot to listen to because it has the vocals, the drums, the bass, and high energy all recorded very well with zippo for background noise. Lots of energy is transmitted and reproduced by the TRL gear. Again, it is amazing to me that the Samsons just do whatever the Dude tells them to do and they do it quickly and efficiently without ever breaking a sweat. On a side note: I recall the heat of the BAT VK500 and how it really brought the room temperature up once it got warmed up (well over an hour). The Samsons and Dude need warming up as well before they start to sing. I turned off the system for one day in the break-in period and tested the sound cold and did not care for it, so every day thereafter I would walk into a totally warmed up system and it brought a smile to my face every time I did.
I was warned by TRL owners that the Samsons were the icing on the cake and that adding them to the Dude was the right direction to head instead of auditioning more "name brand" amplifiers that might give me synergy. I am glad I listened to these owners because the synergy is exceptional (as it should be) and was the right way to go.
Kevin Mahogany - Double Rainbow, track 3 "Save that time"
Not the cleanest album for background noise, but still a decent recording. I know lots of people test their speakers and systems against piano as it can be very difficult to reproduce. It is a percussive instrument by design but most folks don't think of it that way. They may think of it in melodic terms and in the hands of someone who can play it (unfortunately not me) it can really move the spirit. I like this track for its reproduction of the piano and how it sounds so much like my very own baby grand. No overemphasis on any one frequency, the system just gets it right. Salk speakers are known for their true midrange reproduction (not at the expense of the other bands) and the combo of the HT2 TL's and TRL gear is a perfect match for bringing out the intensity of the key strikes and the resulting melody. No complaints with any of the gear here.
Jen Chapin - Rosetta trio Light of Mine, track 3 "Starman"
This album is interesting as it is a good mix of vocals and stand-up bass. I first heard this track at RMAF 2009 and thought it would be a great demo for the combo of female vocal and acoustic bass notes. So we're working the mid-bass to midrange area here with Chapin's alto voice and it falls right into the trap of the Salks. The bass is right on tonally and you can get the slapping of the frets come through as a separate sound. This is a trait I can finally achieve with the TRL gear, as it brings out the best in my Salks and gives me information very distinctly to the left and to the right and off-center and up high and down low. The smoothness and detail of the TRL gear is just outstanding. I remember when I first put the Dude in the system last fall I immediately remarked how musical it was even before it had any chance of opening up. That was certainly a relief for a new piece of gear but made me worry on how I might find amps that were up to the task.
A topic just jumped into my head and that is noise. I have had zero noise issues with the Dude before and after the Samsons and I have a 25 foot run of IC's from the rack to the amps in unbalanced configuration. When I added the Samsons they, too, did not add any system noise or static of any kind. In fact, both the Dude and Samsons are the quietest pieces of gear I have had in some time. They also have no ugliness at turn on or turn off - no pops, no clicks, no abnormalities. I have clicked the Samsons off many times to change out speaker cables and then sprung their circuit breaker switches back on with no more than a slight normal transformer twang as they fire back up. No surges or snaps.
How do I summarize this? I think it best to say that the TRL gear is the most musical gear I have ever owned. Not the most feature-laden, powerful, or flashy. I'm still trying to come to grips with 30+ years of "hearing" the flavor of the electronics in a system and now, all of a sudden, not being able to put my finger on any one flavor. I'm very thankful that the Weitzel brothers have created such masterpieces at such an affordable price point. Their offerings are consistent with my experiences with Salk Sound and while both are off the beaten track in brand, they offer musicality by the truckload and should be earning increased market respect and admiration as the positive user experiences gain more press. I am very happy to have the musical system I was hoping for and expect to keep smiling childishly for some time from the sweet-spot chair!Associated gear Click to view my Virtual System