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Its tonal balance was splendid. The sound was very well balanced, better than most transistor preamplifiers which often imitate tubes like the Accuphase C-2810 or Luxman C-1000f—which are very good but I mentioned this trend in their reviews—and better also than the tube preamplifiers I listened to of late which sadly included my own reference. The sound of the Thrax is very open. It is not ‘electronic’ as today we perceive hi-end preamplifiers from 10 to 20 years ago. This is a much more immediate sound closer to what I hear from systems without a separate preamplifier as for example using the volume control integrated into my Ancient Audio player. Again this is a very open sound. The upper treble often gets problematic in lesser machines by becoming either glassy or annoying when the designers pursued the most open sound at any cost; or damped and warmed over when the same issues were to be exorcized by a slight withdrawal in this band. Here it was simply brilliant – precise and expressive without a trace of brightening or perceptible distortion (at least none I could identify).

This allowed the Dionysos to act very dynamic and expressive. To reiterate, expressiveness at this level of execution does not involve strategic coloration or irritation but simply shows events more verbatim like reality. This was aided by terrific dynamics. This overcomes the biggest issue of consumer hifi systems. It's not poor timbre or lack of resolution as much as it is a cardboardy lifeless, choked and muffled sound. Anyone who attends live concerts amplified or acoustic knows that live sound is completely different from what escapes loudspeakers. We must get used to the truth that we will never surpass reality. With the size of our listening rooms and the kind of electronics and loudspeakers we use, we simply cannot reproduce the intensity of the real thing. But we certainly cannot stop trying. We must try our best to fight our very real problems. Here the Dionysos shows how much can be done in that regard and how most other preamplifiers compress dynamics - to a bigger or lesser extent but they all do compress them.

The Bulgarian eliminated this common ‘intermediary buffering’. When on For Django Joe Pass’ guitar entered the title track, it instantly electrified. This of course was assisted by a good pressing (here a HiQualityCD) and good recording in the first place but even so, with other preamplifiers the sound was less tacit and exciting. The Dionysos captured the shape of the guitar and contours of the percussion. I had the same impression with the opening cut of Tori Amos’ Boys For Pele which was recorded in one take, unplugged without overdubs using Leslie and Marshall amplifiers for the harpsichord and piano. Both instruments had a very large volume, more than I would have expected from guitar amplifiers. Their timbre was warm—that was set by the amps—but neither muddy nor turning the sound warm per se.

The attacks were starkly direct, vibrating with emotion and transmitting the recorded acoustics into my listening room. Part of the secret was higher than usual resolution and with it the ability to differentiate. Here my experience suggests that the only competition for the Dionysos is successful direct drive of variable source and power amp. Naturally my experience with statement preamps is limited. It presently for example doesn’t include pieces like the Soulution 720 or Kondo M-1000MkII which could reset the scales. But any assessment requires a base and mine is personal experience up to this date. Again, I’ve only encountered this level of performance before by eliminating a preamp. This suggests to me that the Dionysos indeed is a very special achievement of a preamp. It's not only incredibly resolved and open but achieves this degree of speed and directness without relinquishing its organic sound, stripping back harmonics or artificially illuminating the treble.

The opposite end of the spectrum was equally noteworthy. The bass was exceptionally potent, full and dynamic. It had impact when needed, was fleshy and when prompted by the recording almost not discernable. Usually bass occurs ‘somewhere in the background’ and midrange and treble are built atop it like a crouching tiger and hidden dragon. I previously only heard such good low bass in my home during the review of Krell’s EVO222+402. Then it required a complete set because the EVO preamp and power amp on their own were less impressive. Regardless the Dionysos repeated this experience. It fashioned brilliant moods that took the performances into a different dimension, seemingly away from my familiar surroundings. This most certainly wasn’t about any brutal bass pounding. Yes Yoko Ono’s club mixes from Open Your Box were great and had terrific foundation weight, energy and impact. But more important to me was how this springy yet powerful bass allowed vocals, trumpets, guitars and everything else to be built above it.

Take for example Jun Fukamachi At Steinway (Take 2) recorded in Direct-To-Disc technology (which is not about recording to a classic carrier like tape or hard disk but straight to the master that will press the record as the most direct way of coupling microphone to vinyl) or rather its digital representation, a CD issued by First Impression Music on silver. The owner of the original Direct-To-Disc mastered vinyl is Mr. Winston Ma, FIM’s owner. He transferred the signal from his turntable to a digital DXD recorder working at 24/352.8. The signal was then down-sampled to 16/44.1 with wonderful results.

To make it more interesting still, Mr. Ma recorded the same tracks twice, once using a van den Hul Colibri cartridge, once the FIM Black Ebony. The result is overwhelming! You can clearly hear how the FIM cartridge is superior, more direct, better saturated, with the upper piano registers more energetic and more natural and similar to what you hear standing a few meters from a Steinway. I know this well because I did arrange microphones for many pianos to appreciate how a strong attack on the keyboard can thrust us out of our seats. That of course depends on a pianist’s technique and abilities but if everything is there then the force of the instrument’s midrange and treble register is incredibly powerful.

This transpired with the FIM cartridge. But I really meant to describe the bass. I’ll just say then that the moment the diamond lowered into the groove (Mr. Winston Ma recorded everything without edits), I experienced it exactly as I would listening to a real expensive turntable. Of course you listen to the music and not to distortion and extra-musical effects but because I know this analogue sound by heart, I can evaluate it and transfer it later to the sound of a given musical number. This familiar needle contact was low, well damped and set aside from the sound of the piano as a well-known phenomenon that repeated itself lucidly now from a CD. It wouldn’t have come off this well without a perfect continuity of treble to midrange and the fleshiness of the bass.

There isn’t much I can say about the midrange. It was simply wonderful - smooth, full, precise, energetic and superior to any preamplifier I've heard to date. It will be easiest then to compare the Dionysos to others. This will also be an opportunity to point at aspects where other top-drawer preamps are still slightly better. The most obvious comparison was to my Polaris III. The Austrian preamplifier is a bit heavier and smoother in the midrange but not as open. Only by comparison to the Thrax could I now hear that its upper midrange is slightly warm and withdrawn to embellish vocals as just a bit prettier and warmer. Because the Ayon slightly emphasizes the midband—and again I could only detect this now—voices like Brenda Lee’s from the Let me Sing Decca mono and male vocals like David Sylvain’s from Secrets of The Beehive  seemed nicer and freer from irritating recording artefacts.

Yet the Dionysos showed them better still, arguably not smoothing them as much but together with the acoustics providing better body and shape. It was similar with Stańko’s trumpet on Lontano which seemed bigger with the Ayon but in fact lacked some information in the upper part of the spectrum and thus was less true. To keep things real, during normal listening these differences were not as pronounced as they might read but I couldn’t pass by them indifferently.