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Sound. Samples of music used during this review
. Paganini for two, Gil Shaham, Göran Söllscher, Deutsche Grammophon/JVC, 480 246-5, XRCD24 (1993/2009); Stereo Sound Reference Record. Jazz&Vocal, Stereo Sound, SSRR4, SACD/CD (2010); André Previn, After Hours, Telarc/Lasting Impression Music, LIM UHD 051, CD (1989/2011); Assemblage 23, Bruise, Accession Records, A 128, Limited Edition, 2 x CD (2012); Beverly Kenney, Beverly Kenney sings for Johnny Smith, Roost Records/EMI Music Japan, TOCJ-9731, CD (1956/2012); Beverly Kenney, Come Swing With Me, Roost Records/EMI Music Japan, TOCJ-9732, CD (1956/2012); Depeche Mode, Personal Jesus 2011, Sire/Reprise 21328-2, MS CD (2011)...

... Dominic Miller & Neil Stancey, New Dawn, Naim, naimcd066, CD (2002); e.s.t. Esbjörn Svenson Trio, 301, ACT Music + Vision, ACT 9029-2, CD (2012); Händel, La Maga Abbandonata, Simone Kermes, Maite Baumont, Il Complesso Barocco, dyr. Alan Curtis, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi/Sony Music Entertainment, CD 88697846212, CD (2003/2011); Kraftwerk, Minimum-Maximum, Kling-Klang Produkt/EMI, 3349962, 2 x SACD/CD (2005); McCoy Tyner, Nights of Ballads & Blues, Impulse!, IMP 12212, 20-bit Super Mapping, CD (1963/1997); Me Myself And I, Do Not Cover, Creative Music, 005, CD (2012); Pat Metheny Group, Offramp, ECM, ECM1216 422 817 138-2, CD (1982/1994); Portishead, Dummy, Go! Disc Limited/Universal Music Company [Japan], UICY-20164, SHM-CD (1994/2011); Sara K., Don’t I Know You From Somewhere?, Stockfisch, SFR 357.6055.2, CD (2008); The Beatles, 09.09.09 Sampler, Apple/EMI Music, 84414 2 5, 2 x CD; The Beatles, Rubber Soul, Parlophone/Apple/Toshiba-EMI, TOCP-51116, CD (1965/1998).

What's fascinating about audio is how our sonic perception can change when a single component is replaced. What's more, I am pretty sure that if we took measurements of say the Soulution 720, TAD C-600 and Avantgarde Acoustic preamps, the results would be similar. All these machines are extremely well built, all measure close to perfection and all were designed by bona fide engineers and finely calibrated after numerous listening sessions. Key features of them all are oversized power supplies, extremely short signal paths and attenuators based on resistor ladders. All also sport extremely rigid well-built enclosure. And all of them run on transistor gain stages.

Looking at all these similarities plus studying their tech specs, one might rightfully predict that they would more or less sound the same. And while there were actual similarities between them that might have been related to their solid-state circuits, there were in fact more differences. And each also had some common attributes with every other preamplifier I reviewed for the same issue, regardless of whether it was tube or transistor based, a two- or one-box design.

The PRE delivers very smooth sound. I found this description in my notes over and over again and it was true for all of these preamplifiers as a clearly important sonic aspect for each of their designers. The Avantgarde Acoustic preamplifier offered an extremely smooth sound almost like the Soulution 720. What I found interesting was that the Audio Research Ref5 SE, ModWright LS 36.5 and my personal Ayon—all of them tubed—were a bit more grainy and less clear by comparison. It might prove to be the case that at these extreme sound quality levels some engineering reservations about valve distortions (and there are some for sure) are indeed relevant and that in this regard transistors might be a better choice. That's only one aspect of the sound however. What really matters is the big picture. Yet listening to this PRE and comparing it to various top tube preamplifiers I started to understand those who prefer not to have tube distortions in their sound.

So once more, the PRE offers amazingly smooth sound - silky and regardless of recording. This preamplifier blends into the system very swell. Midrange and treble exhibit absolute clarity but are simultaneously rich and well saturated. Textures aren’t dry at all. In this regard only the TAD C-600 amongst the transistor machines and all the tube preamps offered more. But this difference wasn’t too big.

With the Avantgarde the tonal balance was slightly shifted up compared to the darker TAD and Ayon and this seemed more or less on par with the Soulution. There was also very well-extended very defined bass, a lovely midrange and amazing treble with a great sense of openness. The bass deserves special attention as here the solid-state preamps had an undeniable advantage over their tubed competitors. None of them, not even my own Ayon, had as well defined, differentiated and rich a bass as the AA. It was obvious to me that the no-capacitor-in-the-signal-path policy of DC coupling between input and output did its job very well indeed.

It translated brilliantly as bass differentiation on the “Eighteen” track from Pat Metheny's Offramp album. On this track piano and bass simultaneously play very fast. Both have very similar timbres and one cannot separate them continuously. Yet now I was rewarded with rich textures and well-defined space relations between those two instruments. They were not cut out from the background and not really separated from each other either but each still managed to be a separate entity on the stage and as such a clearly distinct and individuated sound source.

I definitely also liked the treble. Cymbals had their own proper weight and were nicely differentiated one from the other. There was no roughness to their sound, no edginess. They in fact sounded a bit like they do with tube preamps – not as much as with the TAD C-600 or Audio Research Ref5 SE but I most assuredly would not call this quality transistor like. There was this valve-familiar softness and silkiness but also a solid-state purity. That resulted in an amazing presentation of reverberations, acoustic ambiance and such which was depicted in a very distinct and strong way clearly superior to my reference preamplifier. The Ayon presents those performance cues in a shorter, fatter and thumpier fashion. Here each decay was extensive, clear and simply lovely. I believe credit for that goes to remarkable selectivity and impressive resolution. Obviously Matthias managed to achieve a perfect balance between these two attributes as there was clarity and depth to the sound without it becoming hyper detailed.