Regardless of whether plugged into the BPT and Walker conditioners or straight into the wall, the power transformer in the power supply of the Stealth hummed loud enough to be noticeable in the listening chair and, admittedly, in an environment of very low background noise. The 5.5-volt max output of the Audio Aero Prima DAC was too high and required attenuation to not overload the input stage of the Stealth. This isn't a problem for users of industry-standard 2V sources but will become an issue if you much exceed this input voltage into the Stealth. Even with the 1-volt Zanden DAC and my low-gain 30-watt monos, usual listening levels with the 12AX7 driver and my horns were reached 4 clicks up from mute, much faster than with the Wyetech Labs Pearl. Substituting the 12AU7 added two clicks of range for equivalent output. I did not have a 12AT7 on hand to experiment with the lowest-gain variant of this tube family but the results with the 12AU confirmed that reducing overall gain with the driver tube worked as claimed. This is how I used the Stealth for the remainder of its testing since it provided greater dynamic contrasts, as though the 12AX in my context was used below its optimal power band to never quite wake up and sound a bit stale and uninspired as a result.

Not so with the 12AU driver. Whether a function of 'torque curve' as compared to the 12AX7 or sonic qualities innate to that black-plate tube, the presentation now had finesse, speed, articulation and very good resolution nearly on par with my Bel Canto Design PRe2. Particularly on complex and involved material, the latter had even greater resolving power, likely due to its vanishingly low noise floor. However, in general and with most programming choices, both preamps were shockingly close which, depending on your allegiances, is either a phenomenal compliment to the Stealth or a waste of good tubes. After all, a demon would question why use 'em if you can't hear 'em while an angel would argue that output devices should remain invisible regardless of what they are.

Compared to the Wyetech at double the expense, the Stealth was timbrally a bit slimmer -- but not by much as the Pearl controls its THD extremely well -- but significantly less dynamic. I view this as less of a shortcoming on its part than a very rare attribute of the Wyetech Labs unit which, thus far, makes it unique in my experience. Another area where the more expensive tube preamp clearly bested the Stealth was in bass transients or the kind of taut yet not dry control and attack in the low frequencies. Mind you, the Emmeline was no slouch by any stretch but the Pearl simply proved that more money in these leagues still can equate to obvious and appreciable differences. Lastly and not surprising when considering what's been said thus far, that peculiar spatial sculpting I only hear with tubed components was mostly MIA with the Stealth as it is with the PR2 when compared to a champ like the Pearl.

Demonically speaking, the Stealth lacked the kind of advanced magic the Wyetech preamp is guilty of. However, compared to the drier and more matter-of-factly solid-state Bel Canto unit, most listeners would have one helluva time picking favorites. In that comparison, the PRe2 wins in connectivity options and comprehensive remote facilities, the Stealth on price and headphone compatibility. The PRe2 leads in ultimate resolution, the Stealth possibly ever so slightly in the tone domain - while it seems exceedingly neutral, I got suspicious at times that its valves are contributing just the faintest of billows around them notes. As I've explored previously with the Bel Canto PRe6, riffing endlessly about neutrality while remaining educational and entertaining is a task best left to better writers. In the end, invisibility is appropriately captured in a single sentence: "I couldn't see the bloody thing and drove right over it, your honor. I'm sorry, okay?"

Only when compared to a class leader like the Wyetech does the Emmeline II Stealth give away what it doesn't do. Compared to tube preamps that are either deliberately designed to be euphonic and editorializing or whose designers simply don't know their stuff, the Stealth is like a breath of fresh air without the cloying stench of cheap perfumes. And keeping in mind that the Bel Canto preamp is more expensive and without headphone provisions yet a clear benchmark in the invisible class of HighEnd preamps, Ray Samuels' Stealth must be called a fiercely competitive and very accomplished preamplifier. It's just not my kind of preamp now that the Wyetech has demonstrated how you can combine neutrality with accelerated dynamics and extra-dimensional soundstaging. But at $5,300, that's a moot point in many ways.

Where such thinking does become valid is in the headphone amplifier arena. There the <$1,200 optioned SinglePower MPX3 recently reviewed makes a very powerful argument in the Wyetech domain plus adds the kind of harmonically developed tone which, in a speaker system, otherwise requires either a euphonic preamp with the usual attendant compromises not suffered by the MPX3 or a truly superior tube power amplifier which likely will cost a very pretty penny. Headphone listening in certain regards is more critical than speaker listening. The relative lack of soundstaging focuses the experience on tone, timbre, transients and dynamics. The inescapable intimacy of having music broadcast into your skull without intermediary buffers means that you're more and not less reliant on emphasizing music's innate beauty rather than highlighting its many recording flaws. Here the Stealth strikes me as belonging more to the recording engineer/monitoring school of fidelity to the signal rather than the music lover's hope for fidelity to the power of music. But again, I can't fault the designer for setting a goal that isn't my own. I have to applaud him instead for sticking to his guns and realizing his ambitions.

Adding it all up, I arrive at the following: As a $2,495 preamplifier with an advanced headphone feature, the Emmeline II Stealth is a very fairly priced, extremely well-built piece directly competitive with outstanding high-resolution transistor designs. As a $2.5K headphone amplifier, it's very expensive and could arguably be duplicated for a lot less money with any number of very good solid-state designs. It thus makes perfect sense that designer Ray Samuels considers his creation first and foremost a preamplifier and not a stand-alone headphone amp for speakerless listeners. Taking him by his word, I have to declare the result a resounding success. Whether you agree will primarily depend on your conceptual proclivities about what a preamp should and shouldn't be about, do and accomplish. Put differently, if Ray's Stealth performed like Mikhail's MPX3, one of the two might as well pack his bags. This is all about offering more, not less distinct choices. And a reviewer's job isn't to take sides but to simply describe these sides in sufficiently clear terms so you can take sides and scale down your final options. Should that make you a demon when it comes to today's Stealth, simply turn the tables and call the other guys fanged creatures. In the end, it's always the customer who is the angel. Of course there are right-wing and left-wing and no-wing angels but - that's a story best left to the chatroom anarchists...
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