Reviewer: Mike Healey
Source: Audio Refinement CD player, Bel Canto Design DAC-2, Technics turntable
Preamp/Integrated: Audio Refinement Complete Integrated
Amp: BVaudio P-300 stereo amplifier
Speakers: Vienna Acoustics Haydn; Soliloquy Model 5.0
Cables: Analysis Plus Oval12 speaker cables, Analysis Plus Oval1 interconnects, Analysis Plus Digital Oval, 2 x Audio Magic Xstream power cables, 2 x Shunyata Research Diamondback power cables, Audience Conductor interconnects (balanced and unbalanced - in for review), 2 x Audience Power Chords (in for review)
Stands: Sumiko Foster & Lowell Standards, Soliloquy speaker stands (for review), StudioTech Ultra 5-shelf audio rack
Powerline conditioning: Shunyata Guardian 4-HT
Sundry accessories: Cardas Signature RCA caps, Bybee Plug & Play speaker purifiers (in for review)
Room size: 14' x 18' with low vaulted ceilings
Review component retail: $1,590

Having lived with an integrated amplifier as my reference for the past two years, I have been hesitant to step out of my 'comfort zone' into the land of separates. What could be more comfortable than a refined integrated that does not require another shelf on the audio rack, another set of power switches, another carefully matched set of interconnects and power cables? I realize the integrated route's potential compromise of pre- and power amp sections crammed into one single box - I once lived in a one-bedroom apartment. I know how noise carries through dividing walls. So when the BVaudio P-1 preamplifier arrived (as well as the other review samples of amplifiers, interconnects and power cables), I felt like having set foot into my first detached house: Break out the bubbly! The break-in experience was described in my review of the Outlaw Audio M-200 monoblock amplifiers. For this review, the P-1 was connected to the matching PA-300 amplifier. Luckily, once everything was connected and started to play music, I knew this was going to be a special assignment.

Thin is In!
The P-1 manages to offer technical sophistication without the unruliness of a mass-market receiver -
particularly those home theater preamp/processors with their terrifying array of input and output connectors on the back panel. The skinny brushed aluminum front of BVaudio's P-1 stereo preamp is very tidy in appearance. Eight black rubber buttons (for inputs 1-5, mute and volume down/up), a silk screened BV Audio logo and a cool blue indicator panel (green is standard, blue by special order) that lights up "BVaudio" when in standby are mirrored by an equally tidy back panel with RCA inputs for phono plus four sources (one also XLR), record-out connectors, XLR/RCA pre-outs (can be used simultaneously), a trigger switch connector to automatically power on a BVaudio amplifier, an IEC power inlet and mains switch. The preamp arrived with a power cable, a remote control, an owner's manual and an Italian cable to connect the P-1 to a BVaudio power amp and synchronize power on/off. I know it's Italian because it says so on the cable - in English.

I was excited to find that the P-1 includes an adjustable MM/MC phono stage because I'd finally have a chance to hear my old LPs through my reference system. The phono preamp is a nice touch because purchasers of the P-1 can upgrade their source equipment first and -- if deemed necessary -- worry about upgrading to a separate phono preamp later. Specifications for the P-1 are available from BVaudio's website, but the main attraction is clearly the choice of microprocessor-controlled analog potentiometer over the ubiquitous manual-wiper pot. This is said to result in inter-channel tracking accuracy of 0.6% tolerances and offers precise 0.5dB steps scanned in twin speeds depending on how long you hold down the respective button on the remote or front panel. The overall design objective of the P-1 follows the same philosophy as other BVaudio equipment: Neutrality, tonal accuracy and very low distortion. As a reviewer, I really appreciated the digital readout of the volume setting because it allowed me to maintain identical setting during A/B/A tests. The small plastic remote's functions far exceeded its diminutive dimensions. You can adjust volume, mute the signal, alter balance, adjust sensitivity for each input and even name each source. The display on the preamp (dimmed in standby) is big enough so adjustments are easily read from the listening seat.

BV and Butthead
That would be me, of course - Mr. Butterfingers who insists on learning things the hard way. Guess what I learned about separates? Rule #1: Switch off the power amps before powering down/unplugging the preamp! If you do not do this? Ka-Pow! I'm sure there are at least a few 6moons readers who have heard this sound before. It's the sound of a preamp sending one last transient to the amplifier, which in turn sends it amplified to your loudspeakers, which faithfully render this non-musical signal as Ka-Pow! None of the equipment was harmed in any way and my loudspeakers are just fine; but I thought to take the opportunity and remind any readers who might be 'accident prone'.

Electric Bass and Classical Piano
Ever since my 6-year old daughter discovered it at a music store listening station, I have really been enjoying Jaco Pastorius' Big Band Word of Mouth Revisited [Heads Up 3078, 2003]. "Punk Jazz" features astounding bass solos with excellent woodwind and horn progressions. The P-1 gave me all of the electric bass' warblings and pops with a greater sense of articulation than my integrated amplifier. My Complete adds a little warmth to the bass but does not define those snaps and pops as well as the P-1/PA-300 combo. It also does not have the authoritative control over the lower frequencies that the more powerful amplifier possesses.
This control became even more apparent when I used the Soliloquy 5.0 stand-mounted monitors. These speakers sport both a larger cabinet volume and 6" rather than 5.5" woofers over my Vienna Acoustics references. The 5.0s rendered the rhythm section as heavier sounding but the P-1 never lost control of the groove. The kick drum grew in more visceral impact and the bass guitar sounded more forward than with the Haydns. However, as good as the bass sounded on this track, I missed some of the warmth of my Audio Refinement. To these ears, the P-1's neutral presentation rendered the bass a little lean, albeit better defined.

My integrated does a fine job of making the music flow from the speakers, but it could not create the same dynamic impression of the P-1/PA-300 combination which placed the woodwinds extremely far back into the soundstage, well beyond my audio rack. The soundstage was exceedingly wide, with the horns extending beyond the outermost edges of the speakers. The horns were more forward than the rest of the instruments and had plenty of bite, perfectly appropriate for this recording. The P-1 didn't fudge the highs, nor did it make the upper frequencies sound relentless. It simply did its best to get out of the way of this excellent Jazz recording.

The P-1 sounded so good with Jazz that I wanted to hear classical music. I played Leif Ove Andsnes' recent recording of the one/two punch of the Grieg and Schumann piano concertos [EMI 57562, 2003] under Mariss Jansons and the Berlin Philharmonic. I really enjoy the way Andsnes conveys the emotional struggle within each work. He has brilliant technique yet doesn't exploit it at the expense of the music. The recording sounds airy and gives a good sense of hall acoustics; the piano is positioned correctly front/center soundstage without sounding overly spotlit.
In the Schumann concerto, the P-1 revealed the tone colors of the recordings yet wasn't guilty of Hollywood-style colorizations of classic black'n'white flicks. The piano during the second movement reminded me of the sound of pebbles being tossed into a pond - Andsnes' tone was that clear and beautiful! During the softer passages, I could hear the hammers hit the strings and even distinguish pedaling technique during one of Schumann's fits of lyricism. Andsnes made the music sound like sunshine on a warm Summer afternoon before Schumann's mood changed again and storm clouds appeared - not unlike the temperamental weather in North Carolina!

Through the P-1, the sharp string attacks of the Berlin Philharmonic were well defined without sounding hard. Like the bass guitar in Jaco's recording, the celli didn't have any fat on them but the tone of the instruments still rang true. The opening of the second movement includes the descending lines of plucked double basses. The P-1 rendered this with proper weight and emphasis. The music flowed and I was carried along with it.

The drawback to this neutrality? Unless a component added a little spice to the mix, the music can sound a bit flat. I was hearing everything without being overwhelmed by detail; yet the presentation was a little too cool. While I was glad that musical details weren't thrust in my face, the relaxed presentation wasn't as alluring as I would have liked. My integrated offers neither the dynamics nor control of the P-1/PA-300 combo and adds distinct sweetness and warmth to the mix - but it always makes the music sound compelling and draws me in for extended listening. Granted, the P-1 could be pointing at something in the audio chain [likely the absence of full-range speakers which wouldn't require added warmth to ameliorate inherent timbral thinness - Ed.]. However, I had enough time with the P-1 to test different power cable arrangements, different sources, different interconnects, different speakers, even different amplifiers. The neutrality of the P-1 is important for listeners who want to listen to music instead of equipment. Still, I wanted to hear the P-1 coax more presence from the midrange and add more weight to the instruments.

Don't Argue, Just Give 'em Whiskey and Whistle While You Work
Although my vinyl source is a 'classic' (more like a classic '76 Mustang II than a classic '67 Mustang convertible), it is not a good turntable to make an in-depth evaluation of the phono section of the P-1. That didn't stop me from having a blast playing my records from the '80s and earlier. I played Cabaret Voltaire Code [Arista], Colourbox [4AD], and Walt Disney's Snow White soundtrack/story book [Disney] when my daughter came upstairs to listen with me. For the younger readers, the '80s was the decade when people had to choose between purchasing an LP or the emerging CD. I remember purchasing some records because the store didn't have any copies of the CD in stock. Pretty weird, huh?

The sound was a revelation! I immediately ditched the DAC, pitched the CD player and threw out all of my CDs. Ha! Just kidding! The P-1 definitely pointed the way to the glories of vinyl playback, but my ancient turntable was not going to take me as far as I suspect the P-1's phono stage can go. That requires a better source component than I currently own or had at my disposal. The P-1 offered a very clear insight into the music that my turntable could still reproduce, yet this same clarity also exposed the weaknesses of an inadequate source - thin bass, rumbly motor, grainy presentation. And yet the music sounded exciting: Some air in the highs, warmth in the midrange, punch in the bass. The music was as thrilling as riding an old roller coaster that's not the biggest or fastest but takes cheap-thrill bets on whether it'll derail or not. I would expect a better turntable to increase the thrills while cleaning up the tracks. Regardless, I really enjoyed listening to music through the P-1's phono section, further emphasizing this preamp's clever versatility.

Mood Indigo
I seem to be making a habit of picking apples to compare with oranges, but I wanted to hear how a different preamplifier would sound in comparison with the P-1. My friend Dave Davenport recently completed a DIY tube preamp kit called the Mood Indigo for sale through K&K Audio. I haven't heard tubed equipment in my system before, so rather than get into the usual debate of tube versus solid state merits (apples and oranges), I'm going to focus on the sonic differences between the two preamps. At first, I felt like I had stepped from an air-conditioned room into a hot and humid forest. I only had the preamp for a week, but my impression was of a slightly forward presentation with lively highs, a wonderful midrange and warm though less controlled bass.

First, I played "Desperado" from my wife's copy of Don't Cry Now by Linda Ronstadt [Asylum 60625, 1973]. The recording was not properly mixed and mastered for CD, hence the rhythm section sounds pitiful, the guitars pale and wan and Linda's voice particularly hard on top. Even on this recording, the midrange on the Mood Indigo was compelling and evocative. This preamp clearly loves the human voice! The Mood Indigo made Linda sound fuller, with greater presence in the midrange. I could tell that the highs were sweetened because the hardness was reduced to a slight steeliness, more appropriate to her singing voice. The guitars also sounded meatier, the rhythm section almost respectable. I noticed that the lively highs of the Mood Indigo could sparkle with some recordings and sound a little relentless with others. After hearing the improvement in the Linda Ronstadt song, I was surprised that a really well-recorded cut like "Punk Jazz" could sound overcooked in the highs. The horns did sound appropriately brassy, but they weren't as crisply presented as with the P-1.

Also, even though the electric bass guitar sounded heavier with the Mood Indigo, the P-1's leaner presentation allowed me to hear more of what the bass player was doing during the solo. The soundstage with the Mood Indigo was not as big and the woodwinds occupied a smaller space not as deeply cast as by the P-1. With the Schumann recording, the difference was purely a matter of taste. While the Mood Indigo's swelling double basses and dramatic crescendos made the music sound more exciting, the P-1 seemed to present the music as it was recorded, without turning up the excitement or editorializing the sound. If you value neutrality, transparency and detail with excellent control over the bass, the P-1 strikes me as a clear winner. To my ears, massed strings too sounded better through the P-1, although the Mood Indigo added even more bite to the fierce bowing of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Where the Mood Indigo clearly outdistanced the P-1 was in representing the human voice. It had midrange magic in spades. To my ears, this magic invites the listener to explore just how wonderful the human voice can sound. The P-1 presentation was more matter-of-fact, more unflinchingly honest about the signal received from the source: GIGO, or garbage-in/garbage-out. The P-1 is not a component for listeners who insist on covering body odor with the fragrance of Patchouli. It's for those who use unscented deodorant.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time listening to the P-1! I was impressed by how very revealing of other equipment in the signal path it was; as well as how critical about the quality of recordings I chose while never turning fatiguing. Its only perceived limitations were a top end not as lively as I prefer and a midrange that seemed lean when compared to a tube preamp or my Audio Refinement Complete integrated mentioned.

I know this is going to sound weird, but the way classical music flowed through the P-1/PA-300 reminded me of the Kestrel2 loudspeakers I reviewed last year. Both of these components created very neutral presentations that were truthful to the recordings. This kind of neutrality and transparency is like clean and clear water, easily overlooked or taken for granted. Can you live without it?

The P-1 got out of the way of the music, subtracting its own presence by leaving no additive traces. The P-1 was not finicky about partnering equipment but revealing of what other equipment added or took away from the music. The P-1 performed well with the modified Outlaw Audio M-200 Monoblock amplifiers I reviewed in January but really shone with the matching BVaudio PA-300 amplifier used throughout this review. The P-1 is a thoughtfully designed balanced preamplifier with solid build quality, a phono section with adjustable gain for MM/MC cartridges, a full-function remote and a five year warranty. That's a lot of performance and features for just $1,590!

The P-1 clearly aspires to more than its asking price suggests. If you are looking for a versatile balanced preamplifier that eschews coloration and distortion to reveal the clarity and depth of your recordings, the P-1 can be confidently recommended for an audition!

More about the PA-300iX
After reading about my very positive experiences with the BVaudio PA-300 power amplifier, Ivo Stepansky and Ladislav Bunta let me know that a new model will be introduced - the PA-300iX. Will this be yet another sequel offering more or less of the same? Judging from the quality of the original PA-300 and the P-1, I would expect a revision to be something more. Ivo assured me that the newer unit still has "extremely low distortion" along with 120wpc over the 110 wpc of the PA-300. He went on to mention that I could expect "improved sonics, more detail, uncompromised reproduction based on true sound, plus a different look". Ivo added that an "amplifier is a unit that amplifies, not a box that process the signal to make it sound better with lots of distortion, phase shift and other unwanted signal interferences". I'm making dibs on the PA-300iX! Until I can get a unit for review, here's the latest spec list from Ivo.

Power Output: 2x120W RMS 8ohm, THD < 0.001%, 20Hz-22kHz 2x200W RMS 4ohm, THD < 0.005%, 20Hz-22kHz
Distortion IMD: max 0.0002% for 100W/8ohm (60 Hz/4 - 80kHz, 4:1)
Frequency Response: 20Hz-22kHz /0 dB - 0.1dB 3.3Hz and 190kHz / -1dB, 1.2Hz and 450kHz / - 3dB
Distortion THD+N (BW 80kHz): max 0.001% /120W/8ohm (20Hz-22kHz) max 0.005% /200W/4ohm (20Hz-22kHz) typical 0.003 % /1kHz, 0.008%/10kHz
Slew Rate: 50V / us /8ohm
Channel Separation: -140 dB, 20Hz-22kHz
Damping Factor: 500/1kHz/8ohm, 380/10kHz/ 8ohm
DC Offset: max 10mV, typical <5mV
Noise S/N: -130 dB (20Hz-22kHz) Input Sensitivity: 1.0V
Protection: activation delay, disconnection of output during malfunction, shorted out circuit, overheating, DC output protection, overcurrent protection
Connectors: Signal inputs and outputs - XLR NEUTRIK gold plated loudspeaker terminals 4x gold plated 5 way binding post for each channel
Inputs: XLR gold plated
Outputs: LINK OUT XLR gold plated, bi-amping optional
Dimensions/Weight: 17 ½ x 3 ½ x 14 ¼ inch, net weight 31 lb.
AC line voltage: 110-120 VAC, 60 Hz

BVaudio responds:
I was very pleased with the scope of Mike Healey's review. Unfortunately, his conclusions were based primarily on an integrated amplifier, and although excellent, modest loudspeakers. Under the right conditions, our A300S integrated is capable of giving our P-1/PA-300 a run for the money. In fact, unless someone has specific reasons for owning separates, it is the better choice. Considering all the compromises to actually achieving SOTA sound, there is something to be said for keeping a system as simple as possible. Most certainly it is less costly, which allows for more money to be spent on the source, and loudspeakers, often with far greater results.

FTR, one of our dealers uses the P-1/A300S in combination with $12,000 point-source loudspeakers and a powered sub. His total system MSRP is around $25,000! He says no matter what ancillaries he evaluates, their impact (or lack thereof) are immediate. His most dramatic results came when he inserted a modestly priced (and modified) tubed SACD player. Most definitely, the P-1 (and especially when mated with the PA-300) will let you know how the rest of your system sounds. Since all of our listening environments sound different, combined with the fact that we listen for different cues and have different music preferences, it seems logical to own an amplifier, preamplifier or integrated amplifier that delivers only what the artist recorded, without adding, or subtracting anything. Such equipment allows the owner to tailor the actual recorded sound to meet their personal preferences through careful evaluation of power cords, interconnects, speaker cables, power conditioners, isolation devices, loudspeakers and of course source components to achieve an overall sound most to their liking.

Alas, we do not have the big advertising budget of brands whose names you are more familiar with. However, we can assure you that if you compare our designs and put us head to head against them, BVaudio's value will become obvious as long as the rest of your system is at least in the same ball park. I would like to take a moment to personally thank 6moons for their consistent efforts to report only the facts, letting the chips fall where they may. This helps to level the playing field.

Ivo Stepansky,
Manufacturer's website