Ashley Kramer finally finds what he’s been looking for: audio nirvana with a very special homegrown preamp that’s just forensic enough to make music sound like music.
BREAKING APART THE conventional integrated amplifier paradigm theoretically makes a lot of sense. Put the delicate preamplifier section in its own chassis and give the power amplifier its own box and leave them to do the things they do best. There are negatives – extra boxes equals more cost, plus you need additional cables and more rack space. Then of course you can end up with component matching issues, which are the bane of many an audiophile’s existence. Logically, you’d just use a pre/power combo from one manufacturer, but then the inevitable searching questions come up: “What if my Naim power amps sound better with a valve preamp?” for example.
I’ve owned a set of Viganoni & Viganoni’s superb Sachem power amps since 2007 but had no way to try them with a matching preamp for the simple reason that there wasn’t one. Over the years I’ve tried a bunch of preamps, as recounted repeatedly on this site. Some didn’t quite do it for me, others came close, and one or two were just about spot on. I came very close to pushing the buy button on ATC’s excellent CA2 preamp earlier this year (reviewed here) but then I heard the first rumour of a new Sachem preamp. A chat with Franco Viganoni revealed that yes, a preamp was on the way but it was nothing more than a prototype on a piece of board at that stage. I elected to hold off on the ATC and hang tough till the new pre was something I could listen to.
Not that I was really hanging all that tough. After all, the Stereoknight Silverstone Balance passive preamp I was using at the time was sounding increasingly good. All that copper wire took a long time to come on song, but once it did the passive was a pleasure – transparent, revealing and faithful to both source and recordings. However, a bit of extra dynamic energy wouldn’t have gone amiss, particularly at lower levels, which is where a lot of my listening takes place.
I heard the prototype of the new Sachem preamp in March (as detailed here) and while it was extremely rudimentary in terms of build, sonically it was quite something. Even as a bit of PC board, it sounded better in a number of respects than the highly capable Sentec preamp that’s been in Franco’s system since I first heard it in 2006, which led me to believe that the final version would be special. A few more months of waiting had to be endured, interspersed with occasional updates from Franco before the long-awaited day when the production units hit the assembly line. Not long thereafter, I received a call to come and collect my Sachem Pure preamplifier.
As expected from Franco, the Sachem Pure is primarily designed to recreate music as it was recorded. He’s been recording classical music for decades, and has developed his own recording techniques and come up with a highly specialised yet minimalist microphone rig to capture what’s heard on the night as faithfully as possible. It was the discrepancies between what he heard on site and what he was hearing from various stereo systems that led him to create the Sachem power amps in the first place, so the Pure absolutely has to operate in the same spirit. As the manual states: “The timbre is neutral (it does not add its own “sound” to the musical programme) and, if you are a serious manufacturer, this must be your challenging objective.”
Features & Construction
Franco is somewhat dismissive of much of modern hi-fi thinking, particularly at the high end. An amplifier amplifies, no more and no less. It doesn’t add and it doesn’t subtract and it certainly doesn’t editorialise. Minimalism is a big part of the formula – take high quality, high performance components, place them logically, reduce the dimensions of the chassis and physical layout and shrink the signal and earth paths as much as you can. Big boxes filled with air and messy point-to-point wiring are not part of the Viganoni process. Franco also dislikes capacitors in the signal path, reasoning that while they might not affect the measurements, they always affect the sound. So the signal path of the Pure is completely capacitor free.
If small components and shrunk signal paths are good, then microscopic must be better, which is why the heart of this preamp is based around two tiny Analog Devices op-amps, one per channel. That’ll provoke howls of outrage from some quarters but here, it’s all about the numbers, and according to the designer, these numbers are dead right. The op-amps have been specifically chosen for their characteristics, and allied to the design and construction of the two-chassis Pure, the measurements are exactly what Franco was looking for, but more importantly, so is the sound.
As he puts it: “At the heart of the apparatus are the ICs and if any better ones come on the market, you can purchase them and replace the old ones. It is very easy and you can do it yourself! I have to tell you that I have chosen these particular ICs, mounted as standard in the Pure, following my own criteria. I think that nowadays they are the best option on the market, but you might disagree, so it’s up to you to try different ones, if you like! Just call me if you want to do that, and I’ll tell you how you should proceed. For your information, I have chosen them because with my live recordings they sound simply astonishing: perfect dimensions in the sound, with precise localisation of the performers; the bass is as tight and deep as I’ve ever heard before and the high-band is just “silky”, incredibly refined and ethereal. Not for nothing, have I used them in the preamp I have built for my trinity of Schoeps microphones too. Anyway, I know that many audiophiles (unfortunately, I say) are not looking for the “absolute sound” but for something that suits their taste, so the Pure gives them the possibility to experiment.”
The Pure is factory set up to drive power amps located no more than five meters away, but on request it can also be configured with a different output impedance in order to drive long screened cables in environments where the power amps are placed close to the speakers with the preamp and sources some distance away. With a claimed frequency response of DC to 4MHz, the Pure could theoretically pick up interference in an area that’s saturated with radio frequencies (although it’s said to be quite insensitive to interference) but again, on request the amp can be configured with a “very small” capacitor to limit the frequency response. This cap is on the signal path, and while the designer reckons it’s too small to make any audible difference, he does state that it’s best to only implement it when needed.
As a two-box unit, the power supply components are kept away from the amplification section, with the power supply connecting to the preamp via a short umbilical cable. The PSU is built around two toroidal transformers said to be dramatically over-dimensioned for the application, feeding twenty “audio grade, very low impedance and low ESR capacitors”.
The two Pure boxes are good looking and nicely built without falling into the high-end built like a tank category. They’re are small enough to place side by side in the space of a single full-width stereo component, but connections are abundant despite the compactness. Round back on the PSU along with the standard IEC power socket are two DC jacks, one to feed the Pure preamp and one to feed one of the upcoming Pure products (headphone amps are on the design agenda, for example). There’s also a USB socket intended to provide high quality power to USB wireless transmitters and other USB powered devices like Bluetooth receivers.
The preamp’s front panel is home to two delightfully retro knobs, one for volume, the other for source selection, plus the IR receiver and some tiny blue LEDs. There are three RCA inputs on the back of the preamp, a recording output and two preamp outputs, one of which is a standard output. The other is flanked by a small switch that is used to set the output to flat or cut – cut being the appropriate way to run amplifiers Franco style.
The switch is linked to a built-in second order (12dB/Oct) electronic crossover that can be configured with either Butterworth or Bessel roll-off curves. The -3dB cut off point is continuously adjustable depending on the response curve: Butterworth from 65Hz > 300Hz and Bessel from 90Hz > 400Hz. The Pure is factory set with the -3dB crossover point at 80Hz with a Butterworth curve, but it’s worth noting that crossover adjustments must be made by the factory or by the Viganoni and Viganoni team on site. There’s also a home theatre bypass allowing owners to integrate a Pure based stereo system with a home theatre system.
The remote control is definitely from the Franco stable. It’s a big plastic box, finished in a very retro brown hue and topped off with a big toggle switch that controls the volume levels. Click it left for less music, right for more – according to Franco, being able to get the perfect level for a specific track is all that anyone needs. The remote uses a 9 volt battery that’ll last ages. Normally, I’d be grumbling about a single function plastic remote being supplied with a $7000 preamp, but it’s a charismatic way to interface with the system and the fact that it’s not an OEM unit and is quite distinctive is a plus. Would I prefer metal? Sure. Does it bother me? Not at all.
After all that experimentation with various preamps driving the Sachem power amps and any number of speakers on the end of them, along with a good number of trips to listen to Franco’s system, I’ve become very familiar with the inherent sonic characteristics of the monoblocks. First and foremost, they’re fast, with excellent timing and plenty of control – making for intense dynamics both in micro and macro levels. They’re remarkably transparent, very detailed and subtle too, and quite capable of matching anything I’ve had at home in this regard. They’re also faithful to timbre, all of which makes sense considering that the power amps were designed to recreate the musical event.
This is best summarised by saying the amps are accurate, which obviously means that they’re not going to be adding warmth, richness or going out of their way to make bad recordings sound good. Don’t get me wrong, the power amps are still smooth – there’s no hint of built-in harshness, they’re actually very refined but as I’ve stated before, some people won’t like the sound of the Sachems. “Just too lean” is the predictable comment, especially with the wrong speakers. I’ve heard this characteristic eased with a valve preamp in front of the monoblocks and exacerbated with a couple of lean sounding preamps, but the amps faithfully play back what’s on the recordings and that’s the damn job at the end of the day.
Given that the Pure has been designed to match the monoblocks by the original designer, you’d expect it to be very much in the same vein, sonically speaking. As it turns out, it is. The Pure just fits the bill as a perfect partner, taking the power amp’s strengths and enhancing them, which is great for owners of the original or version 2 monos.
I unpacked the Pure on a Friday night, while listening to my system with the Stereoknight Silverstone Balance. Displaying uncharacteristic patience, I worked through a bunch of tracks ranging from softly played acoustic music to upbeat jazz, with a few forays into hard rock. After an hour or so, I removed the passive pre, replacing it with the Pure while grumbling about the need to run an extra power cord (the simplicity of the passive pre is still quite appealing). The rest of the system is a Marantz SA8260 SACD player and a set of Theophany Loudspeakers M5 Series 2 floorstanders. Interconnects are cryo treated Slinkylinks with a double run of Nordost 2Flat speaker cable.
The first track I played through the Pure was ‘Don’t Drink The Water’ from Dave Matthews’ and Tim Reynolds’ Live at Radio City. I’ve got a bit of Dave Matthews-related OCD at the moment, so this double CD has been on high rotation recently. Through the Stereoknight, the sound of the two acoustic guitars in the intro at high volumes is impressive, but through the Pure it was better all round. Even stone cold and fresh from the box, the Pure was more detailed, more dynamic with greater bass extension and an overall increase in transparency right from the bottom to the very top that simply didn’t make sense given how clear the sound was before. A common complaint from those who’ve heard the Stereoknight is that it’s just too revealing. The Pure is even more so, sounding more passive that the passive. If the measure of a preamp is the straight wire with gain concept, then the Pure wins in allowing more of the music through without adding its own character. The Stereoknight could almost be said to be glossing over the sound compared to the active unit.
Where the Pure seems to work more magic is its ability to be relentlessly reveal (certainly more so than any of the other preamps I’ve had in the system including the passives) while still maintaining an uncanny smoothness and refinement. This is a difficult juggling act for any amplification chain, but in conjunction with the power amps the sound is clean, almost see-through in terms of detail, and while it doesn’t flatter bad recordings at all, it doesn’t make you want to reach for the volume button. Franco mentions a “silky smoothness” in the high frequencies and this is one of the Pure’s most obvious traits – the treble really is stunning, but then again so is the midrange.
Listening to the Pure after the capable Stereoknight was like hearing a new layer of musical detail, and this was obvious on the other tracks on the CD. The way the depth of the acoustic space was rendered and the easy way the speakers were reproducing the tiniest nuances of vocals was a big step forwards. Instrumental separation between the two guitars was superb, as was the separation between the sound of the actual strings of the instruments and the echoing resonance that filled the room.
Moving to another well recorded and mellow, but more instrumentally complex CD proved that the Pure had no trouble with the sound of drums, cymbals and bass instruments. Southern Manners by The Watson Twins has some standout tracks on it but none more so than track three, ‘High School’, which is a richly layered mix that starts off with a softly played guitar, immediately followed by vocals and the deep notes of a strummed bass guitar. The vocals were as clear as I’ve ever heard them at home on this system, but the way the bass sounded was just perfect. I’ve heard it sound bigger, more soaring and powerful when the massive dynamics of a Yamaha A-S2000 integrated amp were doing preamp duties in this system. But that sound was heavily editorialised, with the Yammy adding no small amount of the weight and scale. The Pure does none of that: instead it just gets out of the way and lets the music flow, with deeply impressive yet realistic dynamics and a veritable wealth of detail down into the strings of the bass. It’s still a huge sound, but there’s no doubt that it’s an accurate one.
‘Shoot The Lights Out’ from the same CD is another stunner – light touches on a guitar and the lightest taps on a piano play briefly before the vocal rises from a darkly black background. Again, this is a perfectly clear and nuanced vocal performance. With this kind of music, the only thing that’s sounded equally good at home but quite different was the Shindo/Living Voice combination I reviewed in 2012 (review here). High praise indeed, because the Shindo amps were revelatory – but the Sachems match them in many respects, albeit in a much cooler and leaner fashion. The 80 watts from the solid state power amps, allied to the sheer speed of their delivery, means that they’ll drive rock and roll into the room in a way that the Shindo set never could, which makes them more versatile (ultra high efficiency speakers notwithstanding), but the Shindo gear just makes beautiful music. In the perfect world, I’d have them both.
Looking for some more energy, I moved to Massive Attack’s Collected CD to see what the Pure could do with bass and electricity. Playing ‘Karmacoma’ at high levels, the Pure seemed to add a small amount of additional weight compared to the sound I’ve been used to hearing from this system for the last few years with the StereoKnight in place, albeit not as much as some of the other preamps I’ve had in here. But there was no doubt that the bass was more controlled and tighter than any of the other contenders, especially as the levels increased to the point of shutting down the SPL Apps on my phone. The speed of the power amps was brutally obvious, making the leading edges of notes an absolute highlight and adding to the musicality with impeccable timing. Nothing lags, nothing rolls off into a slow artificially prolonged decay, and there’s zero sense of things getting out of hand regardless of the volume. The complicated mixes on the CD are rendered as deeply separated yet cohesive wholes – it’s quite a feat to have this much instrumental separation on hand, yet for everything to hold together so well.
Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York was up next. The power amps have always been strong performers when it comes to giving instruments such as drums and guitars a sense of power, especially with these speakers – the intensity of the strikes and strings sounds strongly realistic on this particular combination of equipment. The emotion in the vocal delivery is also as plain as day, thanks in no small way to the amount of detail that can be heard.
This is a real case of system synergy at last – the character of the Marantz SACD player has always worked well with the amps and the Theophany speakers, and even though I’m aware that I’m hearing something of a mid-bass peak from the speakers, it’s a characteristic that I’ve grown to love (much to Franco’s dismay – I suspect that an intervention is being arranged). Soundstaging and imaging is about the same as I’m used to from these speakers, although the Pure has cast the performers slightly further into the back of the room.
The outright accuracy of the Pure in combination with the Sachem power amps is evident in the way warmly recorded music sounds as luxuriously rich as it should – Tony Joe White’s One Hot July and The Path Of A Decent Groove sound almost syrupy because the CDs are recorded that way, especially on that deep voice of his. On the other hand, some of the tracks on The Cream Of Clapton sound thin and stark, with all their flaws exposed, much as they do through a good set of ‘phones. Still, the refined delivery means that this sort of recording can be appreciated for what it is, rather than being a trial. The low-resolution streams from Pandora are also revealed to be missing some critical information, but the presentation is such that this marvelous music discovery service is still being extensively used.
The detail and transparency on offer here is just wonderful – I’ve always held these speakers in high regard (or I’d have flogged them years ago considering how many others I’ve heard in my price range) but now, with the Pure in the driving seat, things are sublime. For example, listening to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s ‘Tin Pan Alley’ from The Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan, I’m struck by how much information is making its way into the room. The drum strikes are quite clearly a number of distinct events, a long way removed from a dull “thwack” – this is the kind of resolution I’d always wanted in my system, and I’ve got it without losing any of the other characteristics I like so much.
It’s worth noting that it takes at least two weeks for the Pure to fully run in, which is great for owners because it sounds so good to start with, but it does get better by a small margin, mostly in terms of detail and smoothness.
Well, after a lengthy journey, it’s safe to say that the amplification part of my system is sorted at long last, and I’m listening to more music than ever. In fact, the arrival of the Pure has cut right into my reading time – the system often spins discs for 15 or more hours on a weekend, and now that the holiday season is upon us, it’s getting hours and hours of use every day as the music collection is explored.
Even with the Yamaha integrated amp being used as a preamp, the Sachem power amps were so good I kept them in spite of all kinds of excellent integrated options. Now with the Pure in place, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve got what I’ve been looking for. The wrong recordings can make me want more warmth, but that’d mean less accuracy and precision. This is simply less hi-fi and more music. There’s transparency, power and good dynamics combined with delicacy and subtlety, not to mention some of the most blinding speed and absolute leading edge attack, and it’s all utterly addictive.
The sound is engaging, works with low level late night listening as easily as it does with the volume knob pushed way up, and it’s as refined as anything I’ve heard for less than silly money. And that’s probably the best aspect of the Viganoni & Viganoni amps: they’re not exactly cheap, but set up right they’ll match just about anything out there. A visit to Franco’s place will be enough to convince you of that, because when that system is running hard, it’s not hi-fi, it’s music and it’s an experience. The Pure preamp has another feather in its cap in that it’s also versatile enough to be used in conventional stereo systems, integrated into home theatre installations and even to form the basis of an exceptional stereo system using one or more subwoofers and rolled off main speakers – that gives it the edge over many standard preamps.
The good news is that I’ll be upgrading the power amps to the newer spec in the New Year, which will push my system to new heights. And eventually, I’ll go down the subwoofer route. But beyond the power amp upgrade, I’m sticking with these amps for sure. They’re that good. ASHLEY KRAMER