This review page is supported in part by the sponsors whose ad banners are displayed below

The sound
Describing the TEP 3800 effect is easy. And brief for once because it's not subtle. This preamp is a gym. The signal enters somewhat tired and pale on one side but exits -- remember Hans & Franz of "vee vant to pump you up" fame? -- all flushed and energized. Pumped up. That's it. What follows merely expounds on this short paragraph.

Frank Blöhbaum already went on record for disliking the entire concept of signal processing. He insists that what come out of his devices be what went in. Okay, amplified. Well, cough. Have you ever conducted close comparisons between passive and active preamps? Then you'll be undoubtedly familiar with the signal conditioning a premium active-though-neutral preamp offers. It's academic to fret about calling it stabilizing the signal, making it more robust, adding current, lowering its impedance or what. It all points at a repeatable observation. With such a circuit in the loop, dynamics and resolution increase. Is that additive? Do passives subtract instead? Who knows. Should we care? Nyet. What matters is knowing the effect and whether you want it in your system or not. For example, the just reviewed Hegel P-10 is such a preamplifier. Its single-stage, zero-feedback, dual-diff single-ended FET circuit acts as a dynamic expander and detail magnifier. Then it throws a very subtle whiff of sweetness into the bargain.

Hitching such a preamp to a passive integrated, i.e. an amp plus attenuator, invariably nets improvements. Things get fuller, denser and make a bigger dynamic splash. I think of such preamps as activated passives. Esoteric's C-03 belongs into this category. As does Wyetech Lab's original Jade. From Frederic Beudot's
review in our pages, I'm confident Steve McCormack's SMc Audio VRE-1 also is one such design.

Then there's another class of preamplifiers which, in my experience, must use tubes. Yet the mere presence of tubes doesn't automatically imply belonging into this category. Some tube preamps deliberately emulate transistors. They hide their glowing bits. My 1
st-gen Wyetech Labs Jade comes to mind. Nor do tubes guarantee superior results. All too often their higher noise floors reduce resolution. Excessive THD acts as gelatin thickener. And restricted HF extension incurs phase shift and lack of upper-harmonic sophistication. Tubes needn't mean joy by any stretch.

In a best-case scenario however, such preamps give you exactly what the activated passives do. Plus give you the pumped-up, blood-under-the-skin, glowing-from-inside saturated tone colors and fleshiness. This autumn factor of rich colors can coexist with speed and incision power. Here one must distinguish between warmth and color. Warmth can be a byproduct of timing errors. Then transients get blurred. That's often the case with class A/B push/pull tube amps when power-tube bias isn't locked in enough. Warmth can also be the byproduct of excessive THD. That overlays everything with a blunting, dulling blanket that thickens up separation. Call it soft focus or watercolor transitions.

'Color' here refers to heightened timbre temperatures that don't negatively impact speed, timing and rhythmic fidelity. This uses oil or acrylics by comparison and a deeper richer palette. That renders the other palette somewhat washed out and bleached. A byproduct of more intense colors is apparent image density. This gets us back to Hans and Franz. Performers sound more in their bodies, with better muscle tone and a 3D presence that takes up space rather than being a see-thru slide. Psychoacoustics or how different audiophile aspects create subjective perceptions factor in as well. As tone colors fill out to enrich and make things more corporeal and dense, apparent separation (the ability to look between, or is it really through, performers, instruments and melodic or rhythmic lines) decreases. Molecules clump tighter together. The musical fabric's weave shrinks.

From this we realize that as preamps of this second category veer deeper into exploiting their particular assets, they'll eventually have to downplay some of the transparent, fast, articulated aspects of the first class. It's all a matter of balance. How do particular quantities of qualities interact with a system's other ingredients? Against this backdrop, we can now dig into this 2
nd-category TEP 3800 and tease out how it handles certain performance attributes versus the 1st-category Hegel P-10 and the 2nd-category ModWright DM 36.5*.

* Talking about categories obviously is just a semantic ploy. The lines separating them are blurry and elastic. But for the purposes of generalizations which is all reviews can ever be, it helps to communicate basic distinctions.

A big determinant might be gain. The Thorens has lots of it. That element reminds me of Mick Maloney's Supratek Cabernet Dual. It's just suspicion on my part but high gain in the preamp stage can directly assist this very ballsy sound with strongly dimensional image pop. The huge challenge is noise. Hi-gain circuits tend to be noisier and those of the tubed persuasion even more so. It's a credit to Blöhbaum's circuit design chops and the superior specs of his non-standard valves that the TEP 3800 can combine high gain with ultra-low noise. This preamp swings enough voltage to run FirstWatt's current-gain-only F4 into my 91dB ASI Tango Rs without drive issues. It means all the voltage gain comes from the preamp, none whatsoever from the amp which merely performs impedance matching and current sourcing.

Granted, theory and high preamp gain add up to redundant when most amplifiers today are driven to full output well below what our digital sources put out. Most preamps most the time operate below unity gain. They really need no gain of their own. To load them up with heaps of gain to throw most or all of it away again through attenuation seems foolhardy. And yet... evidence suggests the possibility that inherent in this process hides perhaps a rarely acknowledged signal conditioning benefit.

Be that as it may, the TEP 3800 not only has significantly more gain than my 12dB ModWright, it also packs more tonal heat to sound more overtly valve-powered. Compared to the Hegel but relevant mostly over ultra-resolved amplifiers like the FirstWatt F5 only, the TEP 3800 is edged out slightly in ambient recovery. On m.a. recordings famous for their natural and reverberant monastic acoustics, the cooler Hegel magnifies minutiae of space farther down to the bone. Over a premium SET like my Yamamoto A-09S fitted with EML 300B XLSs and one 5UR4 driven by C3gs -- i.e. a non-excessive 2
nd-order THD amp with a dose of pentode flavor and thus already a device of the second category -- the added triode 'densification' of the TEP 3800 approached overkill. That combination moved from lucid separation with stupendous tone into fat tone with impinged separation. Some could favor that effect. I preferred the Hegel on the Yammy.

Over my F5 however, the tables clearly turned. As a 3
rd-order THD amp of ultra-low distortion and noise, valve-oriented listeners like myself might want an infusion of girth. Not fat but a more pumped-up character. The TEP 3800 delivers that more than my ModWright DM 36.5 which fits halfway between the 1st and 2nd category of preamps pitched earlier. Unlike the wafting mien of the Supratek -- I referred to its rare 101D flavor as the hair-shampoo commercial where a pretty woman's mane is captured in slow motion -- the Thorens is more robust and grounded. In fact, just like its mono power amp mates. Their commentary, here and elsewhere, could be transcribed to fit the TEP 3800 with nary a correction.

So we come back at the page opener. It's that uncanny sensation of inner pressurization, of fully filling out one's skin or suit. That sensation doesn't operate in the time domain. It doesn't render things subjectively faster or nervous even. It works in the color and weight domains. The former makes the image of the deeply breathing, flush-faced athlete with the vibrant aura truly apt. All that needs mentioning about weight are piano chords whose hammers seem to fall from greater heights. Mass and heaviness increase. That's true even in the upper midrange and treble. Cymbals and triangles don't merely rush out with silvery tizz like champagne bubbles. They follow up with great physicality and substance. Subjectively, that's sweetness. It moves music from the immaterial, ephemeral sphere more fully into the material world. Since stereo is just an illusion, such substantiation does wonders for our suspension of disbelief.

Because my Ancient Audio Lektor Prime CD player comes with variable analog outputs and can swing up to 7 volts (i.e. well in excess of the industry standard), I experimented between feeding the Thorens pre a really high-level signal to invoke its attenuation more severely; vs. throttling down the input signal to well below 1V and letting the Thorens' high gain make up the difference. For what it might be worth, the first scenario sounded better. Let's collect our marbles now and start counting them for the wrap:

The Thorens TEP 3800 is that rare all-valve preamp which counters a premium transistor unit's raw resolving power blow for blow until the very end. Then something like Hegel's limited-edition P-10 retains the last word. But unlike transistor units, the TEP-3800 loads up the color saturation and heft scales something fierce. How it manages without taking away from resolution is a very good question. To answer it requires someone technically intelligent to decipher the tricks Frank Blöhbaum implemented in this circuit. Put differently, this preamp seems to maximally harvest from tubes what they're capable of but doesn't buy into any of their liabilities. There's no noise, limited bandwidth or compromised drive from high output impedance.

On top of that, the build quality is reassuringly tank-like, the remote works flawless and without clicks, the -14dB expander option is a truly smart feature and connectivity is comprehensive. The TEP 3800 even has the company cred. Upon closer inspection, something about that actually backfires. A/, Thorens has never been known for electronics. And B/, its one prior attempt at an electronics line failed rather miserably. Most dealers without short-term memory loss are hesitant to overcome deep-seated customer reluctance. As Djimon Hounsou's character reminded Russell Crowe's Gladiator, "make sure that name doesn't kill you" it is then.

Is it also "world-class" as Germany's two fiercely competitive print magazines insist? Whenever you invoke the whole world, familiarity with everything sure would be nice. My familiarity with 15,000 preamps is exactly zero. I'll shortly be compensatin' by doubling the stakes with Angelis Labor's 31,000 Sophia. TruLife Audio's massive Essence has been promised for some time as well. But
Illumination at max
for now, the TEP 3800 is my first encounter in these leagues. That said, it is also the preamp that drives up the 1st category resolution + 2nd category saturation game the highest without losing its balance between the two. How that doesn't make it unconditionally superior my SET comments noted. Two 2nd category machines in series could compromise the 1st category qualities. Should your needs (or desire) be for maximally weighted tone and image density however while offering all the other expected benefits of advanced transistor designs such as drive, S/N ratios and bandwidth, then Frank Blöhbaum's unique direct-coupled Circlotron implementation for Heinz Rohrer of Thorens is a truly massive statement. So yes, Stereo and Stereo Play had it right. We have nothing new to contribute. Again. Except for reaching the 'whole' world by being in English. Sniff and chuckle. Over and out.

Quality of packing: Good.
Reusability of packing: Multiple times.
Ease of unpacking/repacking: No issues.
Condition of component received: Perfect.
Completeness of delivery: Power cord, remote, owner's manual.
Quality of owner's manual: Good.
Website comments: Non-intuitive multi-layered structure makes it hard to find things. The brand deserves better.
Human interactions: Prompt and forthcoming on all info requested.
Pricing: Unapologetically expensive but you do buy an exclusive circuit stuck into a bomb-shelter enclosure.
Final comments & suggestions: Frank Blöhbaum seems to be one of the smartest tube gear designer working today. He has no interest in revisiting what's been done before. While most would swear by nothing new under the tube sun, Blöhbaum disagrees and already has one patent to prove it (never mind lots more in the real-life sector where he works). Those who overlook the TEP 3800 and TEM 3200 because the Thorens name doesn't suggest cutting-edge electronics, just turntables, practice hifi racism. It overlooks some of the most exciting tube kit currently made.
Thorens website