The Messenger Preamp
When I read a review, whether it’s been posted by a professional audio reviewer or by an competent amateur, I always like to see a bit of background, so I’ll start off there. I’ve been an ardent audiophile for 36 years as of this writing. On my 16th birthday, my tone deaf parents inexplicably presented me with a stereo system, consisting of a Dual 1218, Shure cartridge (can’t remember the model), Marantz 1060 integrated, and ‘house brand’ speakers. I thought that I had died and gone to heaven. A few years later, I was attending university in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mere 70 miles from my home in Richmond, and a very fine high end dealer called Audio Art opened up in the latter. My then girlfriend (and now my wife of 31 years) and Audio Art – powerful reasons to visit home on a regular basis. I was treated to the likes of the original Beveridges, Koss electrostatics (the speakers, that is), and Magnepan. Roger Modjeski was in residence and was a great influence – and very patiently allowed a poor college student to listen to his goodies. I ended up buying a pair of Magnepan MG-1s from Roger, but sadly could not afford the Audio Research electronics that I had drooled over. No, Hafler amp and preamp (later heavily modified by Frank van Alstine), and one of the first Rega 3s in the country sporting a Black Widow arm, were the mainstays of my system for the next 11 years. So what’s the point? Looking back, I find it fairly amazing that ‘upgrade-itis’ remained dormant for so long, even after I could afford better. In 1992, we went to the UK for what turned out to be 6 years, suffering through a series of small, inaccurate systems because the posting was to have been for only 2 years and I didn’t want to have to resell a bunch of gear again. Upon our return to the US, I was fairly wild to own a really good system again. And so it started, the continual changes, usually - but definitely not always - for the better. Since this is a preamp review, I’ll simply list what I’ve owned since 1998 as points of reference – CAT SL-1 Signature MK II, Audible Illusions Mod 3A, Art Audio VP-1, Atma-Sphere MP-3, Supratek Cortese, Aesthetix Janus, ASR Basis Exclusive (phono), CTC Blowtorch. In addition, I’ve extensively auditioned various BATs, Aesthetix, c-j, VTL, a Shindo (Monbrison), a couple of Zandens, and others. And, just like virtually everyone else, there are some top quality preamps that I have either not heard at length or not at all. So, given that context, I will say right now that in my system or in systems with which I am intimately familiar, the Messenger preamp is at the very top of the heap.
The Messenger engages my musical attention in a way that no other preamp has in the past. That’s a pretty general statement, but it accurately summarizes the overall listening experience. A while back, I wrote a review of the Ayre MX-R amps and had a difficult time pinpointing why they sound so ‘right’. The Messenger is equally troubling, although for different reasons. There’s no question that the timbral fidelity and tonal color through the mids and into the highs are superb. One only has to listen to Satchmo’s “St. James Infirmary” to confirm this. You are transported to a small Quarter venue. Simply awesome. Likewise, the soundstage is cavernous if the recording allows it. I’ll repeat myself somewhat from the Ayre review – ideally, a reproduced soundstage of an orchestra should be heard as a trapezoid with the long dimension at the rear. The Messenger earns 5 stars out of 5 here. Unlike some, I consider the reproduction of soundstage to be of at least equal importance to other factors when it comes to the illusion of reality. Fortunately, there’s no tradeoff with those other factors, so one CAN have his cake and eat it too.
I believe that I know why the Messenger reproduces a soundstage so accurately, and for that matter, why I find the image specificity to be exactly spot on. Personally, I am quite intolerant of razor sharp images, such as that produced by most solid state preamps. This is not what a live, unamplified instrument sounds like. Rather, those instruments are sculpted in a 3D space with a slightly diffuse ‘halo’ surrounding it – again, if the recording allows. Conversely, many tube preamps move too far in the opposite direction, producing a somewhat amorphous mess of an image. Typically, the worst offenders are the classic designs (I own a modified Dyna PAS-2 that is the aural equivalent of swimming in molasses). In any event, the Messenger sounds to these ears to be well nigh perfect in this regard. OK, back to the why of things. The Messenger is unique in my experience in that it is a completely quiet tube preamp. This applies to both line and phono stages. Every prior tube preamp that I’ve owned or auditioned has had some form of noise associated with it. The Messenger is every bit the equal of the Blowtorch/ASR combination in this respect. I’m convinced that the characteristic of silence is the main factor in the Messenger’s amazing ability to retrieve microdetail, which in turn allows the recovery (as always, recording permitting) of that massive soundstage. It’s become somewhat of a cliché, but then again most clichés are based in fact – the Messenger permits the listener to hear things that he or she has not heard before.
And now to the more difficult job of describing a few characteristics of the preamp when I don’t have the vocabulary to do so. First and foremost, it is completely non-fatiguing. I’m not sure what magic has been wrought here, but for the first time, I can sit and listen to CDs for hours on end without a trace of anxiety, irritation, or similar angst. This is certainly not a function of a rolled off high end, as that region is reproduced as well as anything I’ve heard previously. And crappy CDs produced by overzealous, equalization-mad engineers sound, well, crappy. It’s a mystery to me, but quite a pleasant one!
The mid and upper bass is yet another minor cause of confusion – again, a happy one. One of the sources that I use for checking out reproduction here is the opening kick drum sequence on the Eagles’ “Hotel California” from the “Hell Freezes Over” LP. For whatever reason, I find that most systems – and preamps in particular – are unusually sensitive to this cut. Ordinarily, that drum will be reproduced on one or the other side of neutral i.e. bloated by some, ultratight and sterile by others. The Messenger treads the fine line in the middle beautifully. Of course, I’m simply using this cut as an example. To summarize, the musical foundation sounds ‘all of a piece’ with the gorgeous midrange.
Since the last preamps that I owned were the CTC Blowtorch and the ASR Basis Exclusive, and since I had the opportunity (with some audio buddies as well) to do a direct, lengthy comparison with the Messenger, I’ll spend a little time describing the similarities and differences. First, there’s no question that the Blowtorch, in particular, is one of the world’s premier preamps, and was the only solid state preamp that has ever lured me away from tubes (post-Hafler era). It shares the same dead silence that I value so highly in the Messenger. It throws a similarly enormous soundstage. It has the best high end of any solid state preamp in my experience. The very deepest bass, in the 30-45 Hz range, is slightly better than that of the Messenger, which is hardly surprising. So, what’s appeal of the Messenger in comparison? Very simple. Apart from that absolute deepest bass, the Messenger has a bit more of everything, and in the case of the critical mids, quite a bit more tonal color. Does it err slightly to the warm side of neutral? Possibly, but I’m not sure about that. In comparison, though, the Blowtorch sounds a bit lean. On the phono end, the ASR Basis is superbly quiet, quite dynamic, and reasonably flexible with respect to loading and gain. Here’s the stunning bit – the Messenger, a built-in, all tube phono preamp is just as quiet as the ASR, no matter the volume setting. It is at least as dynamically capable as the ASR, if not more so. Its one nominal failing? Both gain and load are set. I understand that load can be changed by physically substituting resistors (and I assume this means unsoldering and resoldering). 100 ohms is the factory set value. Gain, as far as I am aware, cannot be modified. Needless to say, moving coils are pretty much the only option. I can say that I’ve used cartridges ranging in output from 0.25 mV to 0.65 mV, with absolutely no problems. Would I prefer to have the option of changing the load? Yes, certainly, but as I found with my experience with the Janus (load changes with a click of the remote), my tendency was to play around with load, only to settle back at, you guessed it, 100 ohms…well, actually 125 ohms on that unit).
A side note: the Blowtorch was sold to a record company executive who “wanted to hear everything that was going on in a recording”. The usual tube strengths were of much less consequence. Man, did he ever choose the right preamp.
While I’m on the subject of characteristics which might be perceived as negatives, here are a few more. I’m getting old and lazy, and I would like to have had a remote – but not at the expense of sonics. Appearance is pretty plain and industrial. I personally dislike the volume controls, which are small and can be difficult to determine identical positions on left and right. These are reminiscent of the CAT controls, if any of you have experience there. The Messenger is single-ended only, and my amps of choice happen to be balanced only. I’ll tell you right up front that I do not buy into the notion that balanced connections are fundamentally superior, at least not for reasonably short runs. My present setup is proof-positive otherwise. However, I was faced with a choice – adaptors or custom cable. I initially chose the adaptor route, using the Cardas units. This was during the Messenger/Blowtorch comparison. When it became clear that the Messenger was right for me, I had Stereovox make up a custom RCA/XLR interconnect. After receiving those and breaking them in, it was obvious that, as good as they are, the Cardas adaptors degrade the sound. My point here is that, in my opinion, you should not let the lack of balanced connections deter you from at least considering the preamp.
Those are all of the negatives that I can think of. Sonically, in nearly every regard, I find the preamp to be essentially flawless. I have no doubt that I’ll hear from folks owning a Connoisseur, an Einstein, or any number of other great preamps, saying “well, such-and-such a unit does this sooooo well”. Wonderful, I’m happy for you! I can only hope that if you get the opportunity, you’ll have a listen to a Messenger.
Obviously, I’m deeply enamored with the Messenger preamp, and for that matter with the rest of my system. I opened this review with a count of the preamp merry-go-round that I’ve been on for the last 10 years. Since owning the Messenger, I’ve felt no need whatever to look further. For that matter, apart from a current significant upgrade to my vinyl setup, the entire set of gear has remained stable for nearly a year – a near term record!
I’ll close with one final comment not relating to the sonics. Elliot Midwood, the designer of the Messenger, is one great guy. He bent over backwards to make sure that I was happy with the preamp. Please note that I’m not affiliated with him in any way. I just think that great service deserves respect and recognition.