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One of the Alana's other inherent traits showing itself with Was Not Was (as well as with everything else) was its keen ability to take itself out of the chain. Or should I say that the Alana didn't inject a sonic signature? Doesn't matter. I never heard the preamp manifest itself. All I heard was the music it helped produce. Now, any quality preamp should inject little or no sound of its own. Unfortunately, too many of them do such evils, even units at higher prices. It's as if the designer wanted to make his or her own mark, whether dynamically, tonally, via hyped (read: unnatural) detail or in an alteration of the recorded acoustic. I'm not a fan of components that 'sound'. I like to meet the designers themselves but I don't want to hear them in my listening room. I like components that don't sound if that makes any sense. And the Alana doesn't sound. It's neither warm nor analytical, flashy or polite. For lack of a better description, it just lets the music flow through without editorializing and without attempting to determine what it thinks the music should sound like. It's the invisible component - at least until that chrome faceplate catches a glint in the sun.

On the dynamic end of things, the Alana is quite good in the macro-dynamic area (if not superb) and absolutely splendid in the micro-dynamic realm. For instance, Jimmy Thackery's Wild Night Out [Blind Pig 5021] is a nicely rendered live Blues recording. Through the Alana, the crowds' cheering, sniffling and catcalls were brought through in a far more realistic manner than I've ever heard in my system. While most good components can offer a sensible reproduction of a crowd, very few can let through the subtle and miniscule dynamic shadings that transform it into a living, breathing entity. In some ways, listening to a car stereo is an apt analogy as regardless of the pedigree of the system, the ambient noise makes it nearly impossible to discern the complex dynamic shadings that are so much a part of live music.
Listen through the Alana and you'll be left with no doubt that car stereos leave a lot to be desired when compared to a quality home system. In the macrodynamic area (i.e. the overall scale from softest to loudest), the Alana is a credible performer. I felt that it didn't quite go from soft to loud with as much a scale as I would have liked but the shortfall here was extremely minor. I mention it only because I noticed it, not because it was a failing or in any way significant. I'd give a 95% rating for this aspect of the presentation if I used numbers to evaluate but I don't.

I spent some time with James Taylor's Hourglass CD [Sony 67912] as it features some pant leg-flapping bass and I wanted to see just how proficient the Alana was with this difficult frequency range. To be succinct, the Alana flapped my pants. Wildly. It got down deeply into the subterranean bass yet did so with speed and agility. My listening notes were full of the descriptors taut, fast, deep and of course, damn right! No bass = no good and the Alana kept me from invoking that phrase. But beyond the bass, it was in the midrange and treble where the Alana showed its might. Vocals were spot on, with no chesty overhang or sibilance. Woodwinds and brass were both real treats as the Alana's neutral tonal character combined with its finesse in the detail and micro-dynamic areas provided startling realism and the
subsequent goosebumps. Although I listen to a lot of Rock & Roll, classical and modern Blues give me my musical fix on a daily basis too. The Alana scored high marks across all musical genres and again cemented its role as a "be seen, not heard" preamp. High praise? Yes, but fully earned.

Before I finish with the sonics, I feel the need to bring up one important point: involvement. We all have different priorities, different tastes and different goals with our systems. If there were one right component or system, we'd probably all own it. But since right is a purely individual determination, we all have to figure out what it is that makes it right for us. For me, what makes a system (or component) right is its ability to transport me to that special place where time and worries cease to exist and intellectual and emotional pleasure reign. That's kind of like sex, only different. I can't go to that place if there's a lack of bass. Or frequency anomalies that offend my brain. Or sonic information that shouldn't be there, whether it be noise, artificial detail or an analytically grating presentation. Or, I can't get there if my brain tells me something is wrong. Once my brain is satisfied, the rest of the puzzle is put together by an emotional connection to the music in play. This requires a system or component that presents an exceedingly close facsimile to live music, which is my only true reference. And when I hear such a reproduction, I get involved. Pretty simple, really. To be perfectly blunt about it, the Alana is not the first preamp that has involved me but it is by far the best at it.

By now you're probably wondering if I consider this preamp to be perfect. Yes? Well, not to burst any bubbles, it isn't. I have yet to hear or use a perfect audio component of any type and as such, I do have a couple of nitpicky comments to make. First, the Alana is not the end-all be-all in the macrodynamic arena as mentioned above. Tube rolling can bring about some dynamic changes and perhaps I didn't find the magical tube complement. Or maybe I did and that's just the way it is. Fair enough? Second, the ergonomics of the volume control could be better. The volume knob is attached via a long metal shaft to the potentiometer located itself about two-thirds of the way back in the unit. The manual (non-remote) operation of the front knob is a little rough and not quite as velvety smooth as you'd expect in a component of this caliber. Not objectionable and it doesn't affect the sound but it needed mentioning just the same. As a quick aside to that issue: Due to a stupidly hectic work schedule, I've had the Alana in my possession far longer than I should have prior to submitting this review. My sincerest apologies to both David Gill and Joe Fratus for the delay. I mention that specifically because since I received the review unit, the Alana has been outfitted with
a new volume control implementation that includes an optional digital display indicating the chosen volume level. In short, this issue may not even exist on the current model. So take my comment for what it is, likely a historic note that may be - well, mute.

End Game
In short, the Alana is the most musically satisfying and emotionally gripping preamp that I've yet heard. It delves deeply into the micro-detail and harmonic fabric of every voice and instrument yet never sounds analytical, hyped or artificial. It carries the frequency spectrum from the lowest bass to the treble stratosphere with grace, finesse, purity and clarity. Put simply, it brings out the heart and soul of the music without ever intruding upon it. While there are preamps a touch more dynamic and with more features, they are either pricier or sonically compromised to still not deliver the music in as natural and beguiling a manner as the Alana. If you're thinking that I'm enamored with this preamp, you're absolutely correct. It's not leaving my home. My check's long since been cashed...
David Gill replies:
Thanks for the wonderful review. After reading it, I could tell Bill has similar listening habits and tastes to mine. That explains why the Alana fits so nicely into his system. The Alana comes standard with three inputs and two outputs but as noted, can be ordered with any number of different configurations. Bill's was originally ordered with four inputs, a solid faceplate and wood knobs. Tape loops and a phono section based on the Art Audio Vinyl Reference can also be added. Since that preamp was built, I have changed the location of the volume control. Moving the control to the front improved the feel with minimal sonic change.

The new digital volume control shown recently in NY is something I'm really excited about. The motorized potentiometer has been replaced with a custom series/shunt attenuation circuit I developed. Depending on the volume setting, different resistors are selected to shunt the signal to ground while only a few resistors are in series. The actual audio signal does not pass through any of the devices. A microprocessor controls the volume setting, balance, display, input selection and remote. Since I wrote the software, making changes to suit customer needs is simple. This might make an interesting follow up review to compare? This should be available for production in 2 months and because of the new display, can only be used with the open faceplate [see right].

The Alana has many design features that help it achieve the sound that Bill is enjoying. The high-voltage power supply is a choke-loaded design using a large Lundahl choke. In addition, each tube section is individually decoupled using only propylene capacitors for the final stages. The two 6DJ8/6299s are used for the gain section (one per channel) and the 6FQ7 is used for the output drive section. As noted, all components are first rate and selected for their performance.

Thanks again for the wonderful review. It was definitely worth the wait.

David Gill
Manufacturer's website