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Another female vocal but no longer as streamlined as the ACT recording. Is Kerstin Asbjornsen's typically raw delivery on her latest I'll meet you in the morning due to the typically high consumption of cod-liver oil in Northern Norway? Here the Accustic Arts preamp didn't really have the answer but Asbjornsen's slightly scratchy intro of the "Take my mother home" opener came off without prettification. This would calm suspicions that the use of bottles could mean soft play. Not here. I'd rather call it naturalness coupled to a good dose of calm.

Calm? Lest that suggest civilized boredom, not. There's nothing boring about the deck's stoic nonchalance which even during the densest melée applies highly specific image focus. On Ketil Bjornstad's Seafarer's Song opus it's again Kerstin Asbjornsen's voice which for "Dreaming of the North" has to compete with an ecstatic electric guitar and Nils Petter Molvaer's solo trumpet. Again the Accustic Arts didn't lose its composure. All three parallel melodic lines of vocals, guitar and trumpet remained effortlessly discrete. That's the great calm of this machine against which many usurpers lose the big picture when the going gets thick.

But most importantly, this preamp always sounds exceptionally natural. Which, you might demur, should only be expected from a top example in this category. 100% correct. Does this imply extraordinary neutrality then? If I apply the relentless neutrality of a classic studio linestage like Funk's MTX Monitor as a standard, this gets a bit iffy. But just how neutral can a valve preamp get before it begins to deny itself? The Preamp II Mk2 demonstrates how. After all, the company has its roots in pro. There's thus just a tad of enveloping warmth, just enough for that decisive dose which renders voices and instruments with more flow, life and impact. Benefits? With my Canadian OTL monos I had a clarinet sound which approached the concert experience perilously close (Antonio Casimir Cartellieri Concert für zwei Klarinetten in B-Dur, audio DVD, Dabringhaus & Grimm). Really close.

For that it's not enough to capture the timbre of the woodwinds. During the live concert I also enjoy instant data concerning their size, placement and relationship within the space. And at home? The Tube Preamp II captured the virtual sources with high outline sharpness and air. Three-dimensional? Yes but not to the extent of hyper realistic plasticity which some top contenders apply. Whether it's actually sensible to expect being able to walk around a stereo image is up to each individual. In my season-ticket seats in the 8th row, eyes close, I hear pretty much exactly the perspective which the Accustic Arts delivered.

Apparently a lot of Schwabian self reliance flowed into this preamp. It's no surprise then that even highly critical ears will take to its correct scaling. The type of zoom effect my Gryphon Elektra can apply to render soloists clearly larger than life wasn't invoked. Even during the superb cadence of the third movement, the two clarinets retained realistic sizing. Where exactly Dabringhaus & Grimm cut their concert with the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra I couldn't say but the Tube Preamp II clearly knew that it was a sizable if not exorbitant stage. The reduced orchestra was expertly layered in breadth and width. The Elektra casts its stage shallower if wider and less specific. If memory serves, a valve-fitted Nagra PL-L didn't manage to outdo the Accustic Arts either. Though I didn't have a price-matched current competitor handy, I'm quite certain that the Tube Preamp II on this score belongs at the top of this class.

For some dynamic water boarding I called on the choo-choo train to the coal mines of Johannesburg compliments of Hugh Masakela's Hope album and its "Stimela" track as an evergreen hifi show demo whose brachial impulses and unleashed dynamic eruptions stress a speaker to its ends. But it also contains quieter more poetic moments. Compared to the trumpet the outright soft-sounding Flügelhorn made for startling contrast which the German preamp handled nuanced and filigreed. A few moments later there are startling drum rolls and a few potent e-bass attacks. And the Tube Preamp II rendered these dynamically charged passages with the aplomb one expects of a top-flight contender. Valves 'n' bass is a theme that has transistor fans at ho-hum and tube lovers in pain. But Accustic Arts says, relax. Their machine reaches low and with control. As a hybrid, think of its bass as belonging purely into the semiconductor realm – even a tad better than the no-tube very bass-endowed Elektra. The Tube Preamp II's ability to contrast exact tone colours remains valid all the way into the abyss.