At last, preamplifier that’s so good in every conceivable way that it almost makes it into Kramer’s system, but for a lack of bass slam.
Like any sensual pleasure, reviewing hi-fi is largely subjective. The audio components with the best measurements don’t always sound the best, and sometimes the best reviews come from equipment that doesn’t measure well at all. Only the listening really counts.
In the same way that sonics are best judged by ear, the beauty of hi-fi components is in the eye of the beholder. If I had to make a call on which audio brand is responsible for the best-looking electronics, it would be a close call between Naim and Densen – the foremost examples of restrained design in the business. I can respect and admire the cost-no-object extravaganzas out there, from the huge backbreaking power amps to the towering stacks of valves, but discretion is harder to do well than ostentatiousness, which can so easily slip into overkill.
Densen’s BEAT B-200 preamplifier isn’t the best looking component the Danish company makes. It’s burdened with a huge centrally mounted volume knob, a throwback to earlier Densen designs. The later B-250 and B-275 preamps are glorious expanses of streamlined metal. Having said that, the B-200 is definitely something of a looker, especially in the Albino (silver) finish with a chrome knob, where a gold knob would be too much. I never tired of the way it looked on my rack, making everything else seem a little ill considered from a design perspective.
Features and Construction
Sharp edges are part of the Densen design language and while they won’t cut, they sure do look sweet. The quality of the metalwork is top notch, and the Densen looks and feels every inch a premium product.
Ergonomics are a bit odd – volume control can be controlled in very small increments using the aforementioned knob but source switching is taken care of with some small buttons, and the selected input is shown via a row of tiny front-mounted red LEDs with thin black text on the top of the case. This text is invisible from a few feet away, so it can be tough to figure out what input is live without staring at it up close. I suppose that Densen assumes that B-200 users will be controlling the amp from the optional Gizmo remote (a $500 Densen system remote), in which case they’ll know what source button they’ve just pushed.
The rechargeable Gizmo is a solid chunk of metal and would be second only to a Plinius truncheon remote for fending off home invaders. Remote codes apparently exist for Logitech’s range of Harmony universal remotes, so you won’t have to use a long stick to control the B-200 if you’re not up to the cost of the Gizmo.
There are four RCA inputs round the back and no less than four preamp outputs for running multiple Densen power amps but otherwise, this is an old style bare bones preamplifier – no phono input is fitted and there’s no DAC or headphone stage, but an optional MM phono stage can be fitted and a facility exists to run an external crossover.
Internally, the Densen makes extensive use of surface mount components on a Teflon circuit board for the shortest possible signal paths. To make sure that this preamp can drive any power amp, it’s effectively a power amp in its own right, putting out no less than 6 watts when at full power.
Densen components have a reputation for needing to be warmed up before sounding their best. The company also recommends at least 100 hours of run-in. I was unable to ascertain just how long the review unit had been run for, so elected to give it a lengthy break-in period before starting any critical listening. After 30 hours I had a brief listen and went straight back to the running-in phase. At 50 hours, the sound was still a little lean so I went away left it running for what seemed like ages before trying again at over 100 hours.
At this stage things seemed to be coming together, but there was a point a day or two later where the sound shifted in the space of an hour or two, with more weight and warmth appearing as if by magic. No, the Densen didn’t morph into a valve amp like a silver Transformer gone awry, but it did fill out in all the right places.
The B-200 also displayed a pronounced tendency to sound better when left on, or at least in standby. After a day with the power off, it needed an hour for the sound to smooth-out again.
I spent a long time listening to the B-200 in a system comprising a Marantz SA-8260 SACD player, Well Tempered Simplex turntable (with Dynavector DV-20XL MC cartridge and P75-MkII phono stage) and my Viganoni and Viganoni Sachem monoblock power amps feeding Theophany M5 Series 2 speakers.
The sound quality of this preamp in my system can be summed up quite easily in a few short words – it’s superb.
The longer version starts off with multiple spins of Mr Bob Dylan’s two disc The Best of Bob Dylan, which is one of the treasures in my CD collection. The Densen did much the same thing as ATC’s excellent SIA2-150 integrated amplifier (reviewed here) by lowering the noise floor and laying out more detail. In simple terms, it felt as if I could hear more of the recording with the B-200 in place.
So while I’m tempted to roll out some “veils being lifted” type cliches but let’s just say that this is a mighty transparent preamplifier. Call it clean if you will. The ability to hear the smallest details is something I value highly and the B-200 seemed to clarify the space between notes and open up the acoustic, so that decay and resonance – the actual atmosphere of the music became more pronounced. Everything sounded bigger and recordings had more air around the performers. A good example is the percussion that runs through ‘Lay Lady Lay’, which was present behind the speakers as if someone was tapping away on the wall. The vocals and harmonica on ‘I Shall Be Released’ hovered in the room on top of a stony dead silence, and the overall results were electrifying.
The big distorted guitar sounds of Neil Young’s latest CD Le Noise were epic with the B-200 in place – searing notes and throbbing reverb played at high volumes really make this album come together.
One of my favourite reference tracks – Nils Lofgren’s ‘Keith Don’t Go’ from his Acoustic Live album – also seemed to have new depth and clarity with the B-200 in the loop. The resonance of the guitar strings and his thumpings on the guitar body were full of textural information, and full of life. Once warmed up, the sound was always smooth and rich enough so that it wasn’t fatiguing over long periods, while retaining enough body to keep the Sachems happy – they’re unforgiving with lean preamps. The treble coming from the B-200 was something to be treasured; it was as extended and clear as the best quality vodka, with not a hard edge or sense of harshness to be found.
The more volume I threw at the B-200’s Alps volume pot, the better it sounded. It’s good at low volumes (unlike many amps I’ve tried) but it really helped the system to stay composed and enjoyable even when running hard.
Dynamics and pace were very much a high point with the Densen, and tracks with big transitions and high-speed attack such as Rodrigo y Gabriela’s ‘Foc’ (from Live: Manchester And Dublin) or Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick snapped in a very lively fashion.
The only element of the sound that I wasn’t entirely sure about was the B-200’s ability to drive bass notes the way I like them: a hard drum strike should go ‘BANG!’ Instead it was more like ‘Bang!’ The end result is still pretty impressive, with rock tracks from Audioslave’s self-titled debut album or electric blues from the Robert Cray Band’s Sweet Potato Pie sounding energetic and powerful. But I know that there’s more bass slam, speed and grunt to be had from the Theophany/Sachem combo, especially with the Simplex TT in place. The difference wasn’t major and except for this one thing, the B-200 did everything better than any preamp I’ve had in my system.
The other gripe is related to the remote: at the price, the Gizmo just shouldn’t be an option.
I’d love to hear the B-200 matched up with a brace of B-300 power amps. In fact, this is something I’ll have to try and arrange, because as good as it was with the Sachems, it may be even better in a one-brand system. The new pricing puts the B-200 into fairly lofty territory, but I’m convinced that it can hold its own at this level in terms of build quality, sonics and pride of ownership. Densen products come with a lifetime warranty to the original owner, which is quite something in these throwaway times, and a real bonus to any buyer.
I’ve got a lot of time for this preamp; in fact it’s the only one to make the shortlist as a potential replacement for the Yamaha in my system. If you’re able to get your hands on any of the current stock and can get a sharp price, you may well be looking at a conspicuous bargain. ASHLEY KRAMER