The Softly-Softly Preamp Shuffle Part 7 – Changed Expectations

October 22, 2012

WHAT’S GOING ON here? Back in April 2011, when reviewing StereoKnight’s Silverstone Balance transformer-based passive preamplifier, I wrote: “Then there’s the other passive preamp worry – restrained dynamics. In theory, active equals slam and passive equals snooze. As someone who values, even treasures sheer speed and dynamic eagerness, I was more than a little concerned.

My anxiety over these issues lasted all of a few hours. An initially subdued dynamic presence was quickly banished and the SB proved capable of passing almost all of the transient speed and attack from source to the power amps, which I’ve always found to be able to grab music by the scruff of the neck and make it dance and surge.

With the SB in place, drum shots hit hard, guitars shimmer and rage as appropriate and vocals rip from silent to ecstatic and back again. Even low level listening retains a fair amount of the dynamic integrity but the sound is so clean that I’m always listening at higher volume levels than I used to, which is where the sound seems to fill out and bloom properly. There’s a little more drive to be had from the active preamps I’ve used, most notably the Yamaha, which is a star at provoking life and energy from the Sachems, but the SB isn’t that far behind.

Eighteen months later and I’m singing another song: “The StereoKnight’s prodigious charms made up for the boxes it didn’t check on my preamp list. Sonically, it was a real winner, stepping out of the way and leaving a transcendentally transparent sound that rocked my world. The only real niggle was that the dynamics never quite resolved to the level of the Yamaha, which punched like a young Cassius Clay (more on this later). In any event, the process stalled as everything went into boxes and then into my storage locker as I buggered off overseas on a long, well-deserved midlife crisis holiday. I only got the full system back in operation recently and while I was loving the way it sounded in a new, much bigger and much livelier room, the restrained dynamics were bothering me a bit.”

So what’s changed? Insanity? Fickleness? Willfulness? Well yes, anyone who knows me well will tell you that these qualities go without saying, but in this case, the simple answer is that my expectations, and perhaps even my fundamental tastes, have changed.

Have these things changed my audio expectations?

After packing all my hi-fi gear away in May 2011, my audio world was simplified down to an 80Gb iPod Classic and a set of Ultimate Ears Super-Fi 5 Pro in-ear ‘phones. These ‘phones are among the punchiest and most powerful I’ve ever tried at anything less than silly money and they still do the bass line on Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Stand Inside Your’ love better than most ‘phones I’ve heard. Spend eight or nine months with those things in your ears pretty much every day, sometimes for up to 18 hours and more at a stretch while doing the long-haul flight thing and I’ve got no doubt that you’d also get used to high levels of speed, low-end weight and most notably, sheer impact.

That was the start. but then I came back to NZ and got stuck into reviewing a decent number of earphones and headphones. When the speaker drivers are tiny and are driving really compact rooms (your ears), then it can be taken for granted that speed, attack, punch and bass extension will be stand-out qualities (among other things). Some ‘phones of course present these qualities better than others, but after so many hours being slammed by ‘phones, I’m very aware of the dynamics in music – in terms of both micro and macro dynamics.

When I listen to music these days, I’m focused on a number of things as always but now, if there’s no grand sense of scale, of intense instruments, and of realistic dynamic range, then I’m easily lost and my attention tends to wander. Some may argue that the job of a hi-fi system is to accurately present what’s on the recording without editorialising and without adding dynamics that aren’t there in the first place. To this I merely point out how forceful live instruments actually are and that the dynamics are always there. I’m not even referring to the power of a speaker array driven by Kilowatts of power at a rock concert; try an unamplified acoustic guitar played hard or a saxophone close up if you want a lesson in the power of sound.

The StereoKnight is a killer preamp, especially at the price, where I believe that it’s got few peers when it comes to fulfilling the ‘straight wire with gain’ role that all preamps should theoretically manage (but very few do). Even in a system as lean as mine, it still makes for an amazing sound in many ways, but I’m really liking what I’m hearing in terms of the dynamics with the Rogue Audio Metis Magnum in the loop. Then there’s that lovely richness and warmth to consider. Active beats passive? Valves beat solid state? More to follow soon with the review of the Metis Magnum. ASHLEY KRAMER

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