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Another area where the MiniMax doesn't sound stereotypically tubey is in the area of speed and, well, incisiveness. That is to say, it's fairly quick and dynamic. The MiniMax conveys a nice sense of beat and rhythm and it lays bare important timing cues with little if any smear. This may be one of the MiniMax's more alluring traits. When such speed is combined with that tube density and richness, the sense of real music abounds. Adding to that allure is the Eastern Electric's grain-free warmth-- the antithesis of electronic sterility.

One of the many records I threw at the MiniMax was one I haven't listened to in years. Truth is that the CD version sounds pretty good so I save Roger Waters' Amused To Death [Columbia 01-468761-20] on LP for special occasions. But I had never heard it like this before. The CD version of this 'Q Sound' surround-encoded music envelopes the listener in a panorama of sound effects that is tons of fun. But the LP takes that presentation a step forward. The CD's panorama is akin to a painted mural where with the LP, one senses real dimensionality. It was like standing in the woods surrounded by trees, some closer than the others but all clearly localizable in a layered sound field.

On "Perfect Sense Part 1", there's an explosion generally heard (at my place, anyway) as traveling over my head right-to-left. On this day, it traveled right to left but, as experienced via headphones, by going right through my head! Imaging spectaculars aside, the MiniMax made sure to get the basics of the LP right. Midrange transparency was first rate as Waters' voice rang clean and clear as a bell against the multitudes of screaming guitars. Bass guitar and low frequency effects both pounded the room with disciplined authority as I got my first taste of just how well the MiniMax does the bass thing.

It's been said that the virtues of your system will dictate the music you play through it. There may be some truth to that. Certainly the virtues of the MiniMax strongly suggested which LP to play next. I headed straight for Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense [Sire 25186-1]. Like the MiniMax, this LP is rhythmic in the extreme and contains punchy bass drums and deep synthesized bass lines. I wanted to hear if the MiniMax would keep pace. It did. Tina Weymouth's bass lines were superbly articulated but the really deep bass comes from Bernie Worrell's keyboards, treated fabulously by the MiniMax. Tonality, power and clarity were all there. Chris Frantz's drums snapped with equal clarity and exuberance and my room went wall-to-wall with main and backing vocals. If the MiniMax was obscuring any aspect of the performance, I couldn't detect it.

Kate Bush's Sensual World [Columbia OC44164] brought with it few surprises. Once you get past the MiniMax's shockingly low noise floor and its inherent transparency and neutrality which are somewhat unexpected at this price point, the MiniMax just gets out of the way of the music. That said, the Bush LP surprised me with a viscerally textured bass line that I felt inside my chest - and this with no boom or excess bloom at all. It was almost as if this bass was more felt than heard. This disc has a little trouble with sibilants and the MiniMax let me know it. It didn't accentuate it but didn't gloss over it either, demonstrating that the MiniMax produces a fundamentally honest treble. Kate's sometimes-shrill voice was reproduced just as it should be and there was never a hint of anything standing between she and I.

I referred earlier to the Eastern Electric's 'warmth' which is there as compared to some solid-state. This isn't overdone. That the MiniMax doesn't overtly telegraph tubes and is instead an organically benign sounding piece is good news for both tube and solid-state aficionados. Tube lovers who already have a tube preamplifier wouldn't want to double up on the flavor. Too much of a good thing never remains so. At the same time, if you own a solid-state pre and want to inject just a taste of thermionic righteousness, the MiniMax is a very safe bet. It'll give you a nice flavor of tubes and introduce some of the finer aspects that valves have to offer without taking you too far over the edge.

Prokofieff's Lieutenant Kije via Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony [RCA LSC 2150] just melted down the front wall of my room. If I had any lingering doubts regarding the MiniMax's suitability of purpose, they melted away along with it. This was the stuff goose bumps are made of. Such scale. Such liquidity and nuance - and all set within a positively cavernous hall just beyond my room. The MiniMax communicated the delicacy with the same finesse as it did the chaos, which only heightened the purposeful contrast of the music. As I say, goose bumps. String tone was luxurious and the sense of tactile texture coming from the cellos was amazing. Snare drums were crisp and woodwinds soared above it all. Just wonderful. Most tubed phono stages out there sell at multiples of what the MiniMax does and as I write this, I'm hard pressed to imagine what else they could possibly bring to the table. That's not to say that they won't - but the MiniMax is so good that I predict that most listeners won't be listening past it toward the next upgrade but will find deep satisfaction here.

As compared to the solid-state Bryston BP1 phono preamplifier that I've been using for about ten years, the differences were just about as you would expect. First, with its three inputs, the Eastern Electric was easier to use as you must open up the Bryston to access all but its gain controls. If you're a cartridge swapper, the MiniMax's ergonomic accessibility should appeal to you. Sonically, the two preamps had a lot in common. They are both transparent to the source and clean. No noise here and no overbearing personalities to be compensated for elsewhere in the chain. What you plug into them is pretty much what you get. I like that. The one edge that I have to give to the Bryston? It was the slightly more visceral of the two pieces. Bass seemed to have just a touch more punch and solidity. Through the treble, I actually thought that the two pieces ran neck-to-neck and once the music started playing, neither drew attention to this region. That's another thing. I've used the Bryston with an assortment of cartridges and found it to be a good general mate with a variety of voices. Now the same can be said of the MiniMax.

It was through the midrange where I developed a fairly strong partisanship for the tubed MiniMax. I like the added dimensionality and density that the tubes brought to the table. Music flowed with just a touch more organic fluidity and realism. And when I was using the Shelter 901, the experience was borderline religious - so smooth, expressive and non-mechanical. I believe my system reached a new landmark in realism with the Shelter/MiniMax combination.

Not being able to separate the phono stage from the line stage in my Shindo Partager means that no meaningful comparisons could be made. However, I can say that were the Partager exclusively a linestage, I wouldn't hesitate to use the MiniMax along with it. If the MiniMax had a stronger personality -- which is to say, were it not so neutral and transparent -- I would have concerns about pairing it with the Partager, which does most certainly have a personality. But the MiniMax is just about guaranteed to work alongside just about any linestage and either preserve its neutrality or perpetuate its personality.

The Eastern Electric MiniMax phono preamplifier is a stunner. I've read the various reviews of the Eastern Electric products and gathered that they are very good for the money. And that's pretty much what I expected.
What I didn't expect was that it would be as good as it really is. As I said earlier, I don't imagine that many owners of the MiniMax will spend much time dreaming of upgrading to more expensive phono stages. The MiniMax looks wonderful, sounds even better and is very nicely built. Owners with an itch to try something different can contact Eastern Electric/Morningstar Audio's Bill O'Connell who tells me that he's got some interesting news for tube rollers looking to spice things up.

Not that I'd be in any hurry to do so. As I write this, I own two different and fairly expensive preamplifiers, one tubed, the other solid-state, and each with a built-in phono stage. Still, I find myself tempted by the MiniMax. It would be very much at home in my decidedly non-budget system. It's that good.
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