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One note on tube swapping. I inquired as to whether it was worth trying a few of the alternate tube choices available. While waiting for a response from Mr. Tucker, I came across this quote from Galibier Design, an eXemplar dealer: "In the case of the eXemplar exception II line stage, John has come to the conclusion that the 6N3P is the most accurate and musical tube of the available choices. This is how he now supplies the line stage. He's found the 6N3P to have the most even frequency response."

All in the family
I think it's worth mentioning that John Tucker can get you from digital front end to speakers without leaving his shop. There are the eXemplar-modified Denon 2900 and 3910 universal players, which have received their fair share of attention and praise. He has a line of tube amplifiers, a 300B-based design and custom options including 2A3 and 45-based amps. Finally, there are the eXemplar hornspeakers. For the line-only gals, you'd just need to bring the cables to have yourself an eXemplarish party. To finish out this picture, eXemplar Audio is the factory-authorized agent to assemble all Bottlehead products and Mr. Tucker will also mod your tube gear as well. From the eXemplar web site, "our design approach to modifications employs the same technology as provided in our products. Advanced current regulation and shunt regulation are incorporated throughout our modifications wherever appropriate and beneficial. This technology combined with simple well-designed signal paths and quality components can transform your equipment to the highest level of performance possible, resulting in a musical presentation beyond what was previously possible."

It takes two to tango
What don't you want your preamp to do? You might say, "add stuff' but then why go with an active preamp at all? As Srajan has pointed out, a passive preamp may be just the thing for the SET-loving crowd. Eliminate another plug. While I have not explored the passive preamp route, I have to say I like what the preamps I've liked add. And what they seem to enhance is mainly tone and space. A richer sound and meatier presentation. Them bones, them bones, them dry bones is not my sonic or otherwise preference. And the eXception II is no exception here. I find that it adds that fuller tonality and spaciousness, albeit to a lesser degree than my Déjà Vu preamp. Where the eXception II diverges from my 6SN7-based preamp is in control - control of micro and macro detail.

And isn't that exactly what the designer had in mind? "Absoloodely" would be my answer. One knock against vacuum tube power regulation and rectification is that it can be noisy and lacking in ultimate control. It can be sloppy and slow. The eXemplar is anything but. Think of the eXception II as the flattop-toting drill sergeant type where your musical signal is concerned. It controls with an iron fist. One downside I hear is that this tight grip seems to squeeze some of the breath out of the presentation, making the final place wherein the music exists in a tad arid. Mind you, that's by way of direct comparison to the Déjà Vu. That's unapologetically wet. I appreciate this fuller, richer, steamier sound. I'd say that the overall effect of the 6SN7-based preamp is more relaxed. Admittedly, micro detail and clarity are smoothed over a bit especially in the attack so we're talking Personal Preference 101.

"...The snowfall had finally let up and the once white field was green again, steam rising above the month's harvest. Prince geode examined the brains to make sure they would be adequate for the supercomputer's needs. In the distance, cows grazed lazily, oblivious to the plutonian mastership hovering above them on skunnymunk mountain...." From notes on Marumaris' The Wolves Hollow.

Marumari's The Wolves Hollow [carpark records cd4] is otherworldly, trippy and eclectic electriconica. Intergalactic space wolves. If you travel along these same sonic lines a good part of the time, the eXception II is the travel agent of choice. Its control and punchiness makes this electronica crisp and delightful. Sequenced streams, blips and beeps all have recognizable edge, painting a clear picture of these lovely soundscapes. Delineation is the word of the day here. Do you ever want to hear something at once foreign and beautiful? Try this recording on for size.

Mozart's Piano Concertos as recorded by Richard Goode and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra on Nonesuch are another feast of loveliness. I've got No. 18 and 20 [nonesuch 79439-2] and No. 25 and No. 9 [nonesuch79454-2] and I listen to them whenever I want to be reminded of genius. Here, the eXception II/Déjà Vu either/or scenario is less clear. It's a toss up really as we're given more detail and separation by the eXemplar, yet the Déjà Vu delivers the bigger tone and scale to make for a more dramatic presentation. If I were forced to choose, I'd stick with my trusty 6SN7s within the context of my present Fi/Abby system. On the other hand, if we was talkin' DeVore Gibbon Super 8s and some as-yet-to-be-named amp that will eventually become its permanent mate, I'd give the nod to the eXemplar. In a system-building context, I've heard the eXception II sound exceptional when paired with the First Watt Aleph J solid-stater and the DeVores. Here, the Déjà Vu sounded noisy and a bit loose. When I put the eXception into the mix, the music at once cleaned up yet remained tonefully rich and airy. This is a fuller-range sound than my SET/single-driver setup, with more extension at both ends of the frequency spectrum.

So attention to details, keeping things well sorted and in their proper place becomes more important. Any sense of flab or flutter comes across as all wrong in this system - as unwanted pounds covering up the shapely beauty of the music. The eXception is the athletic type, shedding those pounds to reveal the music in all its glorious movement.

More so than musical preferences, system context can make a component sound ... well, out of place. The idea that a properly designed component can travel equally well in any and all circles is unrealistic and ultimately beside the point for the owner. We just need it to work in our system. Another dogma I find dodgy at best is the idea that a reviewer is somehow impartial or objective when it comes to review gear. Ha! What I can be is honest about my preferences as well as what my system does well (and more importantly, what it does not want any part of). While the eXception II was operational perfect, dead quiet and exhibited a masterful sense of pace, timing and control of detail, I ultimately go for more color: more tonal flavor and a looser grip on the size and shape of the sound. A more relaxed and pudgier presentation.

That said, I will also say that the eXception II travels very well and outmingles the Déjà Vu in terms of its ability to blend with more components. You can be fairly certain that the eXception II will be a quiet, controlled performer no matter where she ends up. And if you like the strong silent type, she may be the perfect mate. For this level of performance and engineering, coupled with the unusual and subtle elegance of the front panel, the eXception II merits a strong recommendation for a listen. Putting my personal preferences aside, I have nothing to criticize and within the right system mix, only unqualified praise.

And what about music? Here too we can refine, whittle and objectify our musical preferences to see if the eXception would be a good mate. Do you own more string quartets than any other kind of music? Thereafter cello sonatas, followed by the occasional blue grass delight? Or strictly classic jazz on vinyl? Acoustic music, especially small-scale performances, seem to warrant a love of tone. Big tone and enough space to relax and reverberate in. Here the eXemplar is a tad tight for my tastes. The drama, the romance is not as sappy as I like. On the other hand, if most of what you listen to happens through amplifiers, synthesizers, processors and other studio-based ephemera, you need micro-detail and separation. Fat tone can be confusing then. Dynamics and pace with a tight grip on the groove are in order and the eXception may be the preamp of choice for this job.

Is this kind of musical pigeonholing an oversimplification? Sure it is. But I'd suggest we can extrapolate from this nugget to get to some useful conclusions. "Likes sports, horseback riding and romantic candlelit bowling parties." Hey, people actually choose whether or not to meet over stuff like this, perhaps even get married. We're just talking about picking out a hi-fi component! I'm not much for rules but here's one; never ever marry anyone you "meet" on the Internet and never ever buy a piece of hi-fi gear based on a review. You have to actually meet, face to face. Spend some time, live together. We're merely pointing the ways. A signpost painter and matchmaker are, in the end, what is the true work of the lonesome audio reviewer.

I hate the cold
Not me. I like snow, wind, rain, mixed up with my heat and dry. I wouldn't want to live without any of the seasons come rain, shine or blizzard. But that's just me. If everyone had the same where-I-want-to-call-home preferences, the earth would not spin evenly, becoming lopsided with the uneven distribution of people-imposed weight. Eventually, it would wobble on its axis and go bowling through the universe unhinged. And we'd cease to exist. Or so I imagine.

Back to audio for audio's sake, the eXemplar eXception II preamp is another fine piece of gear coming from the mind, hands and heart of another interesting and talented designed, John Tucker. What it does to your music as it passes through is all good to my ears. My only reticence is to ask, does it do enough? This will depend on your system context and personal preferences since they dictate the kinds of music you like to hear and how you like to hear it. If you're looking for lush and romantic, keep browsing those ads. He's out there somewhere, waiting.

If you want a bit more control, a bit more detail and edge -- and I don't mean edgy but delineation -- add John Tucker's eXception II to your shopping list. If you own a solid-state amp and you've been wondering if adding a tubed preamp might just give you that magic spark, think eXception II. It
does not bring along any of those less-than-desirable tube tendencies like self-noise and bloat that seem to be the goblins of tube-lore that just won't die. Yet it has a touch of that magic spark, that musical hi-fi muse that in this case seems to be the result of a perfectly happy marriage of opposites.
Manufacturer's website