Gain across the straight 'n' narrow wire. Preamps are a relic of the past when vinyl ruled and open-reel tape then cassette couldn't drive an amp to full output without extra gain. That's no longer true for modern digital sources. Plus now attenuation embeds as invisible code in converter chips or FPGA. That covers volume. A DAC's multiple inputs handle source selection. Done. If you spin vinyl to add a separate phono stage, you may not wish to first digitize it. Now the right DAC comes with analog volume and inputs. Preamps? Passé.
Into this argument descends the MZ3 like a flying saucer from Alpha Centauri. It proposes to offer more than a straight wire with gain. That doesn't make it crooked. For one, there's the headfi function. For two, your current setup might just be a bit too… stark or sober? It doesn't follow that inebriation is the cure. But what if your soundstage layering could improve and with it, the audibility of recorded space? What if textures could render less rigid and more fluid? What if the color palette pursued some rays to get just a bit more burnished? It's why pale white people suntan too; to look and feel healthier.
The full-size LTA alternative. Separationists could just prefer the MZ3's external power supply. And who these days needs a tape monitor loop? Choices.
Of course a tan doesn't last and some just get red in the face. The MZ3 proposes a lasting tan at just the right intensity to sound healthier without burns or peel. At least that was my read off its web page; and my hope based on actual experience from prior rounds with the two stablemate integrateds. Our solid-state quasi passive Wyred4Sound STP SE II would play judge and jury on noise floor, linearity and detail retrieval. Our wildly costlier Nagra Classic and Vinnie Rossi L2 Signature would weigh in on alternate tube flavors and doses. If the hifi gods were in a good mood, the MZ3 would land right between those two for pennies on their gilded Swiss franc and dollar. Chasing color isn't about garish saturation. It's about missing the monochromatic. So a little goes a long way. Likewise for more fluidity. It's not about getting sloshed either, just losing a certain stiffness. In short, the whole rationale for a modern tube preamp with the three lows of output Ω, noise and gain plus the solitary high of proper bandwidth is to do more than just volume and input switching. It's to get sonically involved so you get more involved in your tunes.
Because if a preamp today doesn't do more than trim voltage and select inputs, it's really no longer needed. Just stream WiFi/Bluetooth and adjust loudness in software.
I—cough!—don't do either. If I did, I'd probably still pull a Darko. Our all-things-streaming man in Berlin found that adding a preamp like Schiit's tubed Freya S sounds better than going DAC direct. At the very least, reasonable people ought to consider that a very real possibility. They ought to investigate whether they might find the same. CD died yet is still around. Vinyl died yet is back. Tubes disappeared only to make a strong comeback. There are even new reel-to-reel releases. Were obituaries for the modern linestage equally premature?
Regular readers know my answer. Our main system includes the Vinnie Rossi L2 Signature linestage with Elrog ER50 direct-coupled power triodes. That displaced the Nagra Classic which had displaced the Wyred. Having a COS Engineering D1 on hand which combines a DAC and analog preamp in one box, you can see that our household views a truly excellent tube preamplifier as a vital signal conditioner between solid-state source and solid-state amps. Sometimes less isn't more. Sometimes it's just a conveniently money-saving theory that sadly doesn't hold up in the sweet spot of the hot seat. So we give the theory a cold shoulder and avoid the sour grapes of rote application.
The Audio Beatnik summarized their findings of the LTA with "it breathes the breath and sound into music as I remember it from the wonderful Shindo preamps; and the powerful bass and extended top of the Pass Labs Xs preamp. And it even seems quieter than the Pass or any passive linestage I've heard… This preamplifier allows my system to have rich organic timbres, beautiful tonal colors and a sense of 'aliveness' that is so emotionally involving." InnerFidelity summarized theirs on the headfi function by calling it "an honest forthright amp that does that unique job of bringing warmth to music without sacrificing resolution. It excels at balance in its frequency response, does clean tight bass without exaggerated tube bloom and has flesh-and-blood treble and midrange reproduction capabilities that should leave both solid-state and tube fans feeling satisfied."
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