Asked, for the PRe6, what ongoing R&D had altered in the PRe1's basic architecture, John Stronczer pointed at a plethora of items. These included the power supply; the circuit board layout which has adopted 3-dimensional 4-layer techniques; the XLR and RCA output buffers; the raised input overload tolerances, now a staggering 10Volts RMS. What genetically still links both designs? The distinct less-is-more emphasis, on the shortest-possible signal paths, the very best of IC-based surface-mount devices. A vital upgrade in the latter class is the implementation of BurrBrown's new PGA2310 attenuator chip (also used in the just-reviewed Coda-Continuum Unison and the soon-to-be-reviewed Jolida SP-80 monos). It's by many considered to be the finest digitally controlled, analog-domain volume control solution extant. In the PRe6, it replaces the Crystal CS3310 and runs at a full +/- 15VDC on the supply rails. It's the sole provider of circuit gain - the actual output stages for both single-ended and balanced terminals operate at unity. With 16dB of max gain, the 2310 is said to offer S/N ratio and bandwidth beyond even the older Crystal chip.

Prior to signing off on the final production version as submitted for review, Bel Canto sent serious beta-test units to select US as well as French and Japanese dealer/distributors. Interestingly enough, what passed uncensored and enthusiastic muster with the Yanks solicited requests for heightened transparency from the foreigners. Should one read into such pertinence that they, perhaps, enjoy more acute perceptions, more uncompromising standards? To protect our national audiophile pride, this, naturally, shall go unanswered.

Revisiting the basic architecture post-feedback for an intense investigation into a possible transparency issue, Stronczer attacked the only area that promised any remaining potential performance headroom - the input switching matrix. After extensive testing, he ended up replacing the previous active CMOS switches with passive, latest-gen sealed TeleCom-grade small-signal relays spec'd to 10uA of signal current and flaunting a colossal bandwidth of 1GigaHertz. Inserting the revised PRe6 into his own system, he immediately perceived the proverbial veil parted. He committed to the final design and now reports universal acceptance from even his most critical customers.

Incidentally, even though the PRe6 is clearly a multi-channel product, Bel Canto considers it their finest two-channel preamplifier yet. That's how I'd review it, too - as a two-channel device, the conclusion being that said performance would translate directly to "passive" multi-channel, the latter then contingent solely on the quality of D/A conversion inherent in your DVD's or SACD's discrete 5.1 analog outputs.

The PRe6's stated design philosophy of ultimate transparency strongly coincides with my personal preference that system "voicing" be accomplished at the amp/speaker interface, relegating the preamp's duty to invisible switching and attenuation only - provided your front-end/amp combo generates sufficient overall gain as it does in my system.

Having previously reviewed the PRe1 for SoundStage!, in a bypass against the Art Audio PX-25 outfitted with a passive attenuator, the preamp plus additional interconnect had acquitted itself as essentially inaudible to garner my comment "without self taste like premium non-carbonated table water". Today's overriding question? Could the PRe6 further transcend this fundamental no-self nature of the PRe1? You see, transparency is a negative quality of absence. It's not about what you hear. It's about what you don't hear. Thus, it can only be ascertained in the subtractive. Should something previously unrecognized fall away to be identified as coloration in this process of elimination -- and without concomitant alterations or additions of timbral harmonics or frequency response -- you can posit that the new component incarnates a higher level of transparency. It's a more universal disappearance act of self that reveals the Divine -- music in our case -- with a point of view less referenced to personality and flavor. True transparency should approach the direct perception of what Buddhists call "suchness" - the way things really are, without perceptional interpretation. You only know that when you do. Never before. You only experience and thus recognize greater purity or profundity when they spontaneously arise.

This is the same in audio. "I had no idea things could get any better until I heard xyz in my system". It needs to bite you in the arse before the existence of a domain beyond what you know registers. And that doesn't at all settle how many dimensions beyond the one you just entered still exist. That's why the quest for Nirvana, in audio and meditation, is an endless journey, the reportage of breakthroughs a continuously moving target. Checking my listening chair for any fake burrs now to avoid false alarms, I hunkered down, settled in and checked my derriere for any unnatural pin pricks. Hey, grasshoppers hear with their knees. Ready for an assinine exploration of neutrality?

The PRe1 clearly sounded darker and thicker, with a less acute sense of illumination, both into the recesses of the soundstage and onto instrumental and vocal surface textures. Shifting back and forth between select Scandinavian female vocalists (Lill Lindfors, Lynni Treekrem, Kari Bremnes, Berit Opheim), the PRe1 proved to inject some warmth into the proceedings, both as a function of subdued treble openess and an overall congealing of the finest of micro details.

The PRe6's greater magnification power on small-scale signal manifested as items like the spittle hiss on a saxophone's reed; the mechanical lever action of a piano's damper pedal; the separation of moisture on parting lips, the fleshy impressions deep in the throat. The enhanced treble extension not only caused a literal perception of greater visibility but affected transient crispness, especially on percussion and plucked strings -- the explosive meeting of wood on metal, plastic tip on skin
-- and the high harmonic spray attack and subsequent decay sparkle on cymbals, triangles, bells and various shakers. This added air, particularly with instruments at stage back, revealing more audible space, as though the respective performer exuded a certain glow from the inside out, extending beyond the physical contours to light up a surrounding bubble of emptiness.

One might, from these descriptions, deduce a concomitant minor leanness vis-à-vis the PRe1. Not. The comparative warmth of the dedicated two-channel piece played predominantly in a subtle while obvious softening domain, gentle fuzziness and mild obscuration in its wake. Quite a wake-up call considering the findings of my earlier review. Granted, my digital front-end far eclipses now what I had at the time, possibly widening the gap between either preamp over what I would have heard then. Clearly, the PRe1's minor warmth didn't translate as superior robustness or solidity now but rather, as minor opacity that rendered things more oblique and, subjectively, a bit slower. In the context of a highly resolved system, the newer unit's greater pellucidness was a clear advance requiring no furred brows to discern.

But there was more. The PRe6 proved superior also in the bass, rewarding with both more weight and the equivalent action of added treble illumination down low - more definition, as though exerting a stronger grip on the signal, more control, precision and intelligibility. Perhaps this acted as counterweight to prevent the exploded top-end from becoming predominant?

Whatever the case may be, the PRe6's wholesale and well-balanced advances in transparency over the already-excellent PRe1 make me wonder whether perhaps a PRe2 isn't already squatting on the drawing board, to shrink $3,800 worth of present multi-channel functionality down to dedicated stereo-only use. Before you conclude that the advent of the PRe6 renders the PRe1 or other preamps obsolete, consider the well-known truism that absolute neutrality -- i.e. DSP-controlled, perfectly flat frequency response in speakers -- tends to equal boring. For all our audiophile lip service about neutrality and fidelity to the signal, when the laser hits the groove, the vast majority of us will, in fact, insist on certain colorations over none at all. A fellow such as myself -- with the controlled harmonic distortion spectra of my SET monos mixing and quelling on the tonal palette already -- he may not want the dilution of additional tonal voicing in his preamp. Such a perspective renders the PRe6 the perfectly untraceable Thallium poison: Lethally effective yet, for all intents and purposes, completely unmeasurable.

Conversely, those system owners wishing to use the preamp interface to inject some warmth or harmonic finesse to make up for "boring neutrality" further downstream will find the PRe6 to be - well, boringly neutral. In my book, that and the fabulous remote functionality -- never mind the multi-channel flexibility -- conspire to absolute preamp perfection. But I'll also admit that were the BVaudio PA-300 I have on indefinite loan my main amplification device, I'd favor the slightly less resolved but warmer mien of the PRe1. To be honest, I'd probably go for something far more overtly lush, say the newest fully tricked-out BAT unit, if rumors about its excellence held true in my own system context.

In the final analysis, John Stronczer's PRe6 fulfills his stated design objective to the T - squared, in fact: Total Transparency. I can't know whether that's what you want or need in a preamp. I wouldn't blame you one bit if you insisted on a very specific palette of enjoyable colorations instead. Should, however, your needs and priorities lean towards the ideal that caused Ed Meitner to call his equivalent professional-domain unit the Switchman -- clearly indicative that input gating and volume control are the only functions worthy to justify a preamp in the eyes and ears of a mastering or recording engineer -- the Bel Canto Design PRe6 isn't just leaning toward that ideal. It's a rolling stone headed for the abyss of nothingness with massive momentum. It lets you hear what the rest of your system is up to, without any discernible editorializing but an inherent noise floor likely lower than any other component in your rig.

That spells resolution and speed aplenty, but no help at all in patching up insufficiencies elsewhere. In short, the PRe6 is my idea precisely, of what a preamp should and shouldn't be. But such ruthless honesty can be a two-edged sword. Hence no blanket recommendation but one as qualified above. Put differently, not just non-carbonated but distilled table water - tasteless, or without taste, the polar meanings open for debate.

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