There's a concept in esoteric psychology. It talks of cyclic incarnations of groups of beings. They reassociate in different relationships throughout time, undergo parallel steps in evolution yet remain bound together by a specific underlying soul principle - like a commune of individuals travelling through time & space. Remaining diversely unique, they fundamentally agree on certain core values. Those constitute the communal zeitgeist, the common ground, the elemental theme. These vibratory qualities bring and hold together these group members to operate like a multi-faceted organism. It experiences itself in an endless laboratory of lessons and developments, derived from the multitude of constellations produced by new embodiments and shifting relationships.

Literally true? Does it matter? Everyone enjoys encounters in life that signal a special familiarity. Those aren't just karmic unfinished business or ancient friendships. They are meetings of souls from the same tree, with a nearly tribal recognition that he or she's one of us - about the same thing, involved in the same endeavor. In a very practical sense, this happens to audiophiles as well.

With time, experience, luck and happenstance, we come across equipment -- and through it, an associated designer, a specific design philosophy, an eventual house sound -- that rings a bell; loud, clear, piercingly, with endless reverberations of deep sympathy. It's a tacit recognition. We're in accord. We listen for the same things. It's quite a shock. Magic. Out of the endless stack of possible permutations, of qualities to fancy or discard, we happen to value the same ones as being more vital or essential than others. Chances are good then that -- unless he went off the deep end of strange experimentation --we'll fundamentally find ourselves in agreement with most everything this designer creates. Ditto for contrary results with others. No matter what they make, we just won't see ear-to-ear. Between their and our vision, there's a profound rift: Islands in an archipelago without canoes or bridges.

Adi Da Samraj shooting imagery for Quandra Loka - click to visit the artist's website

In my own case, this reflex of subjective audio design assessment -- involuntary, mostly subconscious yet nevertheless operating with extreme prejudice and clarity -- has been triggered into sympathetic "audio buddy" response by the likes of Joe Fratus of Art Audio; Renaud de Vergnette of Triangle Electroacoustique; Matthias Ruff of Avantgarde Acoustic; Eduardo de Lima of AUDIOPAX; John Stronczer of Bel Canto Design. The latter's PRe6, today's review subject, slipped into my usual system context in place of his PRe1, creating a perfect setup to comment on sonic differences between either.

With the advent of discretely encoded multi-channel material on DVD and SACD, surround sound no longer requires a dedicated processor to discombobulate formerly matrixed signals. Still, without processing, the ultimate burden of performance rests on the circuit quality of your source component. Unlike their highly sophisticated PRePro processor with active DSP and DAC circuitry, Bel Canto's PRe6 is for those who don't need or want video or active audio processing. It's essentially a multiple-paralleled version of their analog-domain two-channel preamp. It accommodates two single-ended 5.1/7.1 multi-channel sources or up to 12 (including one balanced) two-channel feeds. With XLR and RCA banks of 5.1 and 2nd zone outputs and a single-ended tape loop, the business end of this unit is all set to accept about as many audio-only addressees as a mid-size apartment building. Could I play you some monster tracks in lieu of rent this month?

Taking advantage of comprehensive in-house software writing talent, the embedded setup and configuration menu -- accessed and manipulated via remote or front-panel controls -- assigns desired surround mode feeds to specific inputs; reconfigures others; disables those not used; offsets surround channel outputs from +10 to -20dB; names inputs with up to 8 characters (including capital and small letters, numbers and spaces); sets input-specific levels; fixes soft-mute offset (a half-mute whose precise attenuation from current playback level is user-adjustable); and assigns the output level for Zone2 (unity gain setting of 100 recommended if operated with its own discrete attenuator pad). An RS232 port integrates with system controllers while twin triggers can remotely power up power amps. Pairs of red/green LEDs above all single-ended inputs assist in system setup and cable routing.

The front panel exudes the familiar class of BCD's across-the-line styling. A centrally recessed black menu bar with small silver push buttons is surrounded by a softly curved silver fascia. To the left of the display read-out, buttons for MUTE and ENTER perform the obvious while the right-handed UP/DOWN/LEFT/ RIGHT star cluster controls volume/inputs/tape or performs navigation when in menu mode. A round LED between it and the STANDBY button on the far right turns red in standby, blue when the main display is disabled.

The all-metal silver remote mirrors the front panel's simplicity. It controls input selection; volume and balance in 0.5dB steps displayed as full-unit numbers (the difference between 57 and 58 hence equals half a dB); soft/full mute (one or two clicks on the respective button); display on/off; and access to the setup menu.

Another thoughtful software-controlled feature? Like the PRe1, the PRe6 remembers the last volume setting for each input, making controlled level-matched A/Bs between different sources a cinch and lazy reviewers even lazier. Just what the doctor ordered.