Using the same Venezuelan track "Escribeme" for a first dip into autoformer waters, I was instantly struck by a realization: I didn't hustle out of my chair to prime the pump! I had arbitrarily set volume to what I assumed wouldn't blast me out of my wits, then hunkered down in my chair to remotely trigger the Cairn transport into play. All the while, I 'd completely forgotten something vital - to first familiarize myself with the passive to ascertain what setting of its rotary master volume would equate to standard playback level within my rig's gain structure. Though the volume was rather low, I just sat there admiring how nothing compelled me to increase levels to 'wake up' the music. You know the chestnut. Every system has a threshold below which things aren't quite there yet. It creates a specific output level that you get conditioned to as being normal for most listening. Surprise, surprise - this was significantly lower than my usual median audiophile body temperature. Yet the emotional connection to the music was fully intact, nothing too cool to require a boost for the intensity of involvement I crave. Damn. There clearly was something to this whole current/voltage inversion recipe ascribed to autoformer attenuation. Better yet, I hadn't heard it in anticipation of theory which can play psych tricks on you. I'd enjoyed the experience first, authentic and without expectant mind manipulations, then put 1 + 1 together. Hmm.

Where the MiniMax sounded 'loud' due to tonal saturation and macrodynamic scale, the PLC sounded 'loud' because of phenomenal detail saturation. However, details without dynamics just sit there. Think Quads of yore. The Sonic Euphoria piece acted like a dynamic expander. It didn't give better highs and lows at background volumes like a tone control but instead, more articulated microdynamics. Scaling down dynamic fluctuations below a certain threshold customarily subtracts subtleties - you still hear the difference between ppp and fff, naturally, but no longer the dimensions of nuance between ppp and pp. The PLC's expansive dynamic envelope even at low levels was likely due to inherently zero noise floor and the higher current delivery into lowered voltages.

Switching down another two clicks for additional 3.6dB attenuation, the music did shrink in scale as you'd expect - but it didn't fall apart, at something which now approached seriously subdued background levels completely acceptable for simultaneous stress-free phone conversations in the listening chair. Spooky, this - and highly satisfying since dynamics bestow life to music. The 1.8dB steps with the fine control out of the circuit proved perfectly spaced even on my hyper-efficient horns, probably because the Zanden DAC outputs a lower-than-standard 1V only. Switching the fine control into the circuit to give 0.9dB steps incurred a faint veiling to the sound - nothing to fret about except to note that maximum transparency is attained with this control in the up/out rather than down/in position. Regarding noise, the PLC was completely inaudible with its volume control fully opened - and sans active ground. With the ground wired up, I had noise so off it went. Your system could react diametrically opposed though, hence it's a smart feature for one's tool box.

By comparison, the multi-channel preamplifier was tonally virtually indistinguishable except for sounding a smidgen drier on María's vocals, the PLC adding a faint velvety smoothness - as though the PRe6 was water, with the PLC infusing just one dispenser drop of oily essence to make the water taste the same but feel silkier flowing down the gullet. Throttling back output voltages, to lower and lower playback levels, the PLC maintained a small but persistent edge, in sounding involving longer rather than becoming distanced, bleached and boring.

Where did we stand thus far? In one corner, a $1,195 3-input tube preamplifier with twin pre-outs and upscale appearance; in the other, a $1,195 passive with the same dual pre-outs but double the inputs while adding a tape-out and options like remote, balanced and upgraded WBT connectors. MiniMax would allow sonic customizing via tube rolling, thus playing in the realm of tailored harmonic distortion to become an active juncture in the signal chain. Its electron-passenger train connects source to amp not by straight line but via hanging a quick detour for scenery, flavors and added impressions to the musical journey. The PLC's train meanwhile connects source and amp directly sans detours, merely tilting the railroad track downhill from level-flat to increase apparent speed/excitement at lower volumes. The referee in the ring? A $3,800 hi-tech multi-channel preamp with advanced remote facilities. And the referee had to admit that both contenders offered tremendous performance, going about it in two distinct ways none of which was preferable per se but, mostly, a function of intention: Did one wish to merely pass a signal like a butler who remains invisibly in the background but facilitates important events? Did one wish to become an airbrush artist, removing minor signal imperfections and adding a few concealed pounds of substance to sonic objects, rendering them a mite idealized but unapologetically gorgeous? Two schools of thought, two different kinds of systems. Like the just-reviewed iLungo Crescendo, the Sonic Euphoria PLC is for owners who love the sound of their source/amp/speaker combination and merely need to insert the most transparent kind of volume control possible. MiniMax is for systems whose owners currently complain from minor leanness and require more muscle tone, not brain food, but don't mean to transgress into plumpness or lethargy.

Hogwarts Express steaming across the Glenfinnan viaduct

If, by the way, you think that the PLC's gotten short shrift in the amount of copy lavished on it thus far, remember that unlike audible sonic attributions, transparency requires precious little by way of description. It's like pregnancy. You either are or you aren't - transparently pregnant. End of story. Where the PLC breaks new ground is in the microdynamic low-level domain.

Pulling tubes, not teeth, I next compared PLC and stock MiniMax [left set].

Significantly reduced tube-imparted voluptuousness narrowed the gap between these preamps now, with MiniMax still sounding harmonically more endowed but no longer exhaling romantic fragrances. Concomitant with this reduction in romance was a lessening of polish - the difference between wood hand-sanded with the finest-grit paper, then oiled; and wood finish-sanded with a bit coarser paper and left au naturel. MiniMax's intrinsic noise floor was naturally higher (clearly creating onset of speaker hiss at no-signal levels just above what I actually listened to) but due to the leaning-out of THD, the musical weave was finer than before. It no longer knotted up in the thicket of complexly interlocking musical lines. The macro-dynamic scaling advantage noted in my first go-around against the PRe6 barely held true now. With most of the musky glow faded, both were apparently functions of the NOS tubes. Low-frequency heft diminished a bit but articulation increased. Very much to the credit of MiniMax designer Alex Yeung, treble extension on percussion and high-pressure muted trumpet only played faint second fiddle to the PLC which probably measures flat into the stratosphere Because I don't own interconnects longer than one meter, I couldn't fulfill Jeff Hagler's request to try long runs. He claims the sonic losses are non-existent or minimal compared to usual passive preamps.

The most interesting aspect of this second comparison? The extent to which both preamps approached each other rather than diverged. That's clear testament to our recurring observation that no matter what particular circuit architecture or gain devices are chosen, a conscientious designer intent in neutrality can approach this goal many different ways. Having conclusively determined how sensitive MiniMax was to tube-rolling, I decided on postponing my comments on Bill's second tube package -- of one Siemens silver-plate 12 AU7 and Telefunken 802S each -- for a planned cameo appearance during my forthcoming Klimo Merlin tube preamp review. It was clear as death & taxes that prospective owners of Eastern Electric's first product could voice it from lean to luscious, saturated to barely enhanced according to preferences and system needs.

In conclusion, both of today's review subjects deserve our Blue Moon Award for high-value excellence in their respective categories. MiniMax leads in the beauty pageant, PLC in the features score. Both take the gold for performance. The Sonic Euphoria piece garners special bonus points for reducing the 'lift-the-curtains' volume threshold to shockingly modest levels. It's the perfect choice for apartment dwellers, late-night listening hounds or those concerned with preventing hearing damage from prolonged high levels. On the flip side, the PLC gets mildly tagged for an extremely ringy case (something which owners could readily remedy with a few sheets of SoundCoat) and with a parallel request to up the thickness of the bent stainless steel cover if it didn't also up the price of the product. This nit indicates the perennial dance designers suffer on the hot coals of balance, doing the Potomac two-step between essentials and luxury, value and performance. MiniMax seems perfect as-is, safe for coach potatoes who insist on remote control.

Ergo? No matter how you slice today's musical vegetables, life on the audiophile kitchen table is better than ever. The affordable sonic fridge is stuffed with delicacies which previously remained the exclusive province of upscale eateries and celebrity chefs. And on the shelf with the preamps, the Eastern Electric MiniMax -- without the expensive Western Electric 300Bs -- and Sonic Euphoria PLC are particularly tasty specimens you should sample before flying in anything unnecessarily complex and burdened down - by expense, snob appeal and possibly lesser can-do performance. Way to go, señors Yeung and Hagler. Who said East and West, beauty and truth shall never meet? Shake hands and make up...

Manufacturer's website
Manufacturer's website