AS HAS BEEN covered in exhaustive detail on Witchdoctor, I’ve been looking for a preamplifier to match my much-loved Viganoni and Viganoni Sachem monoblock power amps. And looking, and looking…
I called off the search once I heard that Franco Viganoni, the designer of the Sachems, was working on a preamp. After I heard the very rudimentary prototype (see here), I basically just settled in to wait for my unit to arrive. With no real idea of cost, form factor or even operational considerations, I knew that the as yet unformed preamp would be a good match with my power amps at the very least, and in all likelihood, a sonic stunner.
The sages tell us that patience is a virtue, perhaps even its own reward, but in this case I was hoping that my patience would pay off in a more tangible fashion. So when the call came in to tell me that the preamp was ready to audition, I headed up the familiar path of the Northern motorway to Viganoni and Viganoni HQ in Orewa to see if I’d made the right call. As it turns out, I never needed to question my decision, not for a second.
From a features and construction perspective, the Sachem Pure preamp mirrors Franco’s thinking on minimalism, short signal paths with no capacitors on the signal path if at all possible, clean power supplies and of course, sonic purity taking precedence over all other considerations. The heart of the Pure is a tiny chip that’s smaller than a fingernail – after all, if small is good, then microscopic must be better. The chip is designed specifically for audio applications and is said to perform like nothing else that’s available today in the preamplifier realm. It’s been exhaustively measured and the numbers bear out what Franco was expecting – measuring totally flat from DC to levels that aren’t really worth getting into and displaying characteristics in terms of speed and transient response that bode very well for the sound quality.
The chips (one per channel) are housed in adapters, which are in turn located on a compact and very cleanly laid out custom-made PC board in a custom made chassis. Point to point wiring isn’t even under consideration in this environment, so everything is surface mounted and hand soldered by Franco himself (no less than 350 solder joints are required for each Pure). All the parts from the Alps potentiometer to the individual capacitors have been selected from a sound quality perspective with no regard to the cost but also without going all audiophile in the process – what works, works and if it does, Franco won’t be spending more just for the sake of it. There are plenty of Franco’s favourite Wima capacitors in place, and some of the resistors are tiny, costing far more than a conventionally sized equivalent but judged as being essential for both sonic and layout reasons.
There are three inputs, a tape loop, two outputs and a home theatre bypass, so it’s a fully featured unit. Naturally, one of the outputs can be run in Franco’s “cut” mode for integration to a subwoofer – the theory being that speakers can’t do bass as well as a sub, so why bother sending the low frequencies to them in the first place?
The same chassis is used for the preamp and its matching power supply, which is also loaded with high quality parts placed in a very clean layout. The two units are linked with an umbilical power cable. A nice touch is the provision of a USB socket on the power supply to provide clean power to USB powered devices like a wireless dongle.
As expected, the aesthetics of the two boxes are characterful, perhaps even eccentric, but that is definitely part of the charm. The remote control is perhaps the most charismatic part of the whole Pure equation. Those who know Franco well will be baffled at the thought of a Viganoni and Viganoni product that’s remote controlled but fear not, the remote has been designed to have zero impact on the sound of the preamp. It’s built into a plastic case about the size of a big mobile phone. It only controls the volume, and it does so in that most analogue of ways – the old school toggle switch. Click left for less music, click right for more. Using it is just like taking a trip back in time and I love it. The purist in me wants to install the remote board and transmitter into a hefty polished steel housing the size of a brick and pop a massive toggle switch from a 1950s jet fighter on top, but I guess Franco knows best in this regard.
Sonically, the new pre is definitely an improvement over the old, rare but excellent Sentec unit favoured by Franco. He claims that the difference isn’t huge but to my ears, the Pure has better dynamics, is noticeably more transparent, and this one is tough to explain – lets the music breathe better than the Sentec does. There’s a sense of greater ease and more natural detail right down to the smallest micro-nuances. It’s just more natural, especially with good recordings. The bass is noticeably faster and carries more impact – if you’ve heard this system fired up in anger, you know that it’s not slow in this regard.
We had Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘The Last Rebel’ running loud early in the session. This is a track that I really enjoy because on the right system, the big bass lines will make you wonder when the roof or the floor will collapse. How loud was it? Well, the SPL Apps on my iPhone give up at something over 100dB and we were certainly cranking it much louder than that. Louder than I’d ever listen to on my own hi-fi system in fact, but as a showcase of bass power and weight it was more than just impressive. Truth be told, you can spend a lot more money on racks of hi-fi gear and get far less of everything, let alone the wonderful bottom end that comes from Franco’s system. With the Pure installed and the volume way up, the system can actually be intimidating on certain songs but that’s by no means a bad thing, and the bass is not even close to being the only improvement. Rather than going on at length about the sound, I’ll wait for my unit to arrive and will write up a full review.
For those who appreciate headphones, a Pure headphone amp is in the planning stage, either in a single box design or one that’s powered by a separate power supply for those who must have the best.