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Reviewer: Bill Cowen
Sources: Nottingham Spacedeck w/ Nottingham Ace-Space tonearm, Koetsu Black, Cartridge Man Music Maker V, Zyx Fuji and Benz Micro Lo2 Series 2 cartridges; Cary Audio 306/200 and 303/300 CD players
Preamps: Cary Audio SLP-2002, Cary Audio PH-302 phono stage and Art Audio Vinyl One phono stage
Amps: Cary Audio 805 Anniversaries, Cary Audio 211M Anniversaries, Audio Electronics Six-Pacs, Art Audio Jota, Audio Electronics Super Amp
Speakers: Coincident Speaker Technology Total Victory Series 2
Cables: Shunyata Research Orion speaker cables and Aries interconnects; Harmonic Technology Cyberlight interconnects; Shunyata Research Anaconda and Python power cords
Stands: 2 x Solidsteel 5-shelf units outfitted with Greater Ranges Neuance shelves
Powerline Conditioning: Shunyata Research Hydra-8 and Hydra-2, both with Python Alpha mains cords
Room Size: 25.6' L x 17.6' W x 8' H, dedicated
Review Component Retail: $4500 for line stage as reviewed (available with solid or cut-out face plate), $6500 including MM/MC phono stage, add $500 for remote-actuated digital readout
Because this is my first review appearing at 6moons, allow me just a moment to offer a glimpse of my approach as an audio hardware scribe. Prior to joining the ranks of the tremendously skilled writers here in moonland, I reviewed a number of pieces for Soundstage!. Prior to my stint there, I was just a regular-guy hobbyist although I was fortunate enough to have the wherewithal to play around with a good number of high-performance components. Guess what? I'm still just a regular-guy hobbyist although again fortunate enough to be able to share my experiences with a broader audience.
While at Soundstage!, I was forced into a bit of a paradigm shift, forced to adapt to another angle of the audio world - that of someone who couldn't simply mutter "this is great" or cry out "that sucks" but who had to describe the sound of a particular piece in an objective and fair manner without attempting to judge it with a valuation. That approach will continue in my reviews here. It is not my place to proclaim a component as good or bad. I have one set of ears, one listening room and my own pre-conceived notions. We all do. Anybody who claims otherwise is either fooling himself or just a plain fool. It is my place, however, to describe the sound of a component and to supply enough ancillary information to put it in proper context. After that, it's your job to determine if the qualities described lend themselves to your ears and your requirements. If they do, by all means audition the component. If not, there's always tomorrow.
But enough of that. Let's move on to the subject at hand: the Gill Audio/Art Audio Alana line-stage preamp.
Nuts and bolts
The Alana is a joint venture between Joe Fratus of Art Audio and David Gill of Gill Audio. While Art Audio is likely a household name at this point, be aware that David Gill has worked with Joe Fratus for over eight years and collaborated on several Art Audio designs. In keeping with the Art Audio tradition, the Alana is a full-on tube design, sporting two NOS 6922s (or Russian 6H23s) and a 6FQ7/6CG7, all run in pure Class A. Overall gain is 14 dB, a perfect amount for most systems. The logos of both companies are proudly and attractively displayed on the thick chrome-plated faceplate, which gracefully finishes out the rest of the heavy steel, black-painted chassis. With a net weight of 44 pounds, this is not a chintzy, flimsy unit. On the shining faceplate resides a chromed toggle switch for power and two rotary knobs, one for input switching, the other for volume attenuation. Exotic wood knobs are available to suit your aesthetic demands, chromed ones are standard. A blue LED above the power switch indicates power to the unit, another blue LED situated above the input switching control dims when the remote volume control is triggered. This LED also turns off when the preamp has been muted via the remote. That's a really nice feature for those of use who have spent hours with the "no sound" panic only to find that the mute button was inadvertently engaged on the remote. Beyond that, the face plate is a big expanse of gleaming chrome - no more, no less. (A cut-out face plate is available as an option for no surcharge. This becomes mandatory with the $500 digital readout option to create the physical opening for the added display.)
Around back, there are 4 sets of input RCA jacks, two sets of output RCA jacks (nice for a biamp or subwoofer setup among other things) and an IEC jack for the power cord. Again, no more, no less. If you're thinking that the Alana is a pretty basic preamp from the features offered, you're absolutely correct. Its job is to perform the basic functions that a preamp should in the purest fashion possible and without the additional circuitry that can often have a negative effect on the overall sound quality. But before you stop reading by thinking "I need balanced inputs and outputs", let me put your mind at ease. Even though the Alana is quite basic from the feature standpoint, it's also highly configurable by the factory (preferably at the time of ordering). You want balanced? No problemo. You want a phono stage? Done. Need a different combination of inputs and outputs? Say the word. Got a fancy NOS tube set you'd like to have? No guarantees there but do check with the folks at Art Audio to see if they have what you want. You may be surprised and they'll be happy to include them for an additional price. Yes, many of the options cost more money but I personally find it pretty neat that you can have the unit tailored to your needs as opposed to most other components that come only in one flavor.
|Inside, layout and workmanship are first-class. Brimming with audiophile-grade parts and an obvious attention to detail, the Alana is a work of - um, art. The tubes are easy to get to and are plugged into high-quality sockets. Circuit paths are short and quite logically laid out. I could go on but you probably get the idea - this is one serious preamp and worthy of your auditioning time even if you were planning on spending more. And before I forget to mention it, the Alana is supplied with a very nice remote control. Although it features only volume and muting capabilities, it comes in a black-brushed aluminum case and is a pleasure to use.
|Finally and on an excellent note, over the months that the|
|and months that the Alana has graced my system, it performed flawlessly. No glitches, no blown fuses, no scratchy tubes and no cause for any paranoid audiophile angst. It just played its heart out. I guess we all expect that to happen with a component at this price but we all know that that's not a given especially when tubes are involved. The Alana's perfect record in this regard obviously speaks to excellent engineering, superior parts and a proper implementation of both.
The Alana took up residence in my Solidsteel rack and sat contentedly on a Greater Ranges Neuance shelf. If you don't have a good rack, shame on you - go get one. If you don't have a Neuance, there's no shame but I'll tell you that using one worked quite nicely with this preamp. The Alana is supplied with a heavy-duty power cord but I immediately swapped in the bargain-priced Shunyata Research Diamondback power cord and later moved up to Shunyata's Python Alpha. Although the Python was in fact better, the Alana had no excuses to make when fitted with the Diamondback, testament to a superbly engineered power supply. If you're going to spend this kind of change on a preamp, spend a little more and get a good power cord for it, okay? But other than these honorable aforementions and a hundred or so hours of break-in time, the Alana received no further special favors nor did it need any.
The minute I sat down for my first serious listening session, I knew something was up. I was expecting to hear something good but I wasn't expecting to be blown away. I really hate to let the cat out of the bag so quickly but think kindly of me for laying this out now and saving you all the words between this sentence and the conclusion.
The first tune I tried was "Shadow and Jimmy" by Was Not Was [Chrysalis VK-41664]. I've enjoyed this tune for years as it has a lot of percussion, some great vocal harmonizing and is quite nicely recorded. What stood out more than anything was the information hidden in this recording that I had never heard before. I'm not talking about in-yer-face detail but rather the inherent acoustic space, the gentle decay of a note and the harmonic detail that springs to life in a live setting (but gets lost or masked all too often when listening to recorded music). The Alana's accomplishment in this area didn't end with "Shadow and Jimmy" - it was present (and magnificent) on every recording I played, whether digital or analog. We've all heard the detail-spectacular hi-fi crap that seems built into many audiophile wanna-be pieces. It's as if they can't get the natural detail and information right so they magnify fake detail. Blah. If that's what I wanted, I'd buy a receiver and crank up the treble control. Fortunately I know better and so do you. If you want natural, don't settle for hyped.