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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 11
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A Holiday Upgrade Story: The First Sound Presence Deluxe Mark II Preamp
by Gary L. Beard

 

I have asked Dave Clark, my omnipresent, omnipotent editor, to place this little upgrade story in the Audio Discourse section of PFO, partly because it doesn’t have enough nuts and bolts to be an actual review, but also because (I hope) it has too much entertainment value for those who think audio reviews can be fluffy. I recoil at the notion that good reviews can’t be simultaneously fun, imaginative, and informative, but this time I wanted fluff to be my caddy without having to make excuses for a bad hook (or bad analogies).

Several weeks ago, I received an email from Emmanuel Go, the owner of First Sound, Inc. and the designer/builder of my wonderful Presence Deluxe Mark II preamp. I have been corresponding with him on and off since I purchased it, and he has always been helpful. This time, the always-friendly Mr. Go informed me that my preamp, a February 2002 version, was eligible for a free upgrade! I may be a lot of things, but one of them is not being stupid enough to say "No" to that offer. I boxed my preamp and shipped it off to First Sound in early December. An audiophile’s Christmas present? Yeah, baby!

One Wise Man with Audio Sense

I began cyber-corresponding with audio writer Todd Warnke at an early stage of my quest for true high fidelity. He had been reviewing preamps under five big ones for quite some time, and had auditioned some of the most sought-after and praised preamps in the audio world. Because I was on my own preamplification search, I read his reports with keen interest and kept his email bag full of questions. My journey had taken me from the no-frills of a fine passive (the McCormack TLC-1) to the highly regarded, tube-based Audible Illusions Modulus 3A. I also had a short home audition of a VAC Standard preamp, which was a very, very nice preamp with a lot to offer for the money, but its big, bold soundstage, along with my (then) VAC Renaissance 30/30 amp’s 300B lushness, was simply too much butter and jam for my toast.

I spent a lot of time researching preamps, but kept coming back to the glowing review that Mr. Warnke had written about the First Sound Presence Deluxe Mark II. Being the lazy-ass I am, I wanted remote control, but Todd’s obvious love for the First Sound got my attention, remote or not. His words tumbled around in my head, and I couldn’t ignore them. I certainly do not recommend that anyone buy an audio component without auditioning it first, but I did exactly that, and after a three-month wait, my new preamp arrived. From the first listen, I knew I had chosen wisely, and I have enjoyed the Presence’s dynamic and refined qualities ever since. Unfortunately, there have not been many reviews of First Sound products, and while I considered committing my Presence Deluxe experiences to a digitally-encoded document many times, one thing kept stopping me—Todd Warnke’s short, sweet review had already said it all. Now I find myself with an upgraded unit and a good reason to add my thoughts about the differences between the preamp Mr. Warnke reviewed and the new version.

Christmas Presence: Better Late Than Never

Santa’s sleigh didn’t quite make it to my rooftop before Christmas, but the UPS man did deliver my revised preamp before the end of 2003. For weeks prior to my receiving it, Emmanuel Go had been asking me questions about my cables, power, isolation, speakers, and rack, to gain insight into my system and how I used his preamp. He then gave recommendations about how to utilize the Presence Deluxe with my gear. He noted (by the wear on the jacks, I presume) which inputs I used most frequently, giving me insight into the differences between the sound of the CD input and input #1. Talk about knowing your equipment!

The good news for original owners of Presence Deluxe Mark II preamps built between late winter 1999 and January 2003 is that they may be eligible for a free upgrade, although the customer must pay for shipping in both directions. According to Mr. Go, the upgrade consists of "the partial implementation of a new construction technique and the addition of certain elements that lower the noise floor." I couldn’t help myself, so in addition to the free upgrade, I had him revise my preamp to reflect the current (post-February 2003) standard. The additional upgrades consist of fully implementing the new construction techniques, adding two capacitors, changing the input resistors, and reconfiguring the grounding topology. Mr. Go also changed the tubes to the cryogenically treated 6N1Ps that he uses in current production. With one exception (my unit has automatic capacitor discharge, while the current units have manual capacitor discharge), my preamp is an up-to-date version of the Presence Deluxe Mark II. Emmanuel and I spoke at length on the phone after he had listened to my upgraded preamp. He seemed very pleased with the results, and told me what I could expect after inserting it into my system. He cautioned me to start from scratch with respect to setup and tweaking, stating that the sound of the upgraded Presence could make some of my current tweaks undesirable. I promised him I would begin with a blank slate.

Is It, or Isn’t It? Only Your Audio Designer Knows For Sure

The sight of the upgraded Presence Deluxe Mark II as it emerged from its packing gave me two distinct feelings. First, the Presence is an old friend that I have come to know well. It had been my anchor, and I felt relieved that it was once again ready to resume its duties in my system. I also had a twinge of excitement, the kind I feel only when getting to play with a new toy for the first time. I was eager to find out if Mr. Go’s upgrades were as substantial as his enthusiasm.

Though Emmanuel had told me that my preamp would require an additional burn-in period of three to five days, I doubt that any audiophile can burn in a component without sneaking a listen, and neither could I. As I let the unit warm up, I recalled Go’s assertion that the upgrade would increase the dynamics and bass, as well as lowering the noise floor. There was certainly more bass. In fact, this preamp had bass out the wazoo! I couldn’t believe the intensity, definition, and sheer amount of monster-truck low bass this "new" preamp pumped out, though the original version was no bass slouch. Large-scale dynamics had certainly improved as well—the difference between the loudest and softest sounds had become even greater. Whether a gutsy forte or delicate pianissimo, music emerged from the blackest background I had heard in my system. Emmanuel was certainly right about the lowered noise floor, and that my old preamp had a new persona. I continued to listen throughout the week, but at Emmanuel’s suggestion left my CD player on repeat.

New Year’s Day 2004: The New Sound of Music!

Dear Emmanuel;
Happy New Year! I hope you are having a wonderful holiday, and that your travels have been without complication. I have been enjoying the Presence that you sent me. It is even better than my expectations, and since my wife didn’t get me the red Ferrari she promised, it’s my favorite gift this year.

Sincerely,

Gary

Since I had avoided a hangover, New Year’s Day was about making minor adjustments to my system. I had planned to turn the volume of the sub down a notch, but the burn-in/acclimation process changed my mind. I spent some time with the speakers, moving them in slight increments until the sound locked into place, but the change was very slight. For the time being, I left the preamp sitting on the shelf with no isolation tweaks. Those finishing touches will take place over time, and with much experimentation.

Testing, One Two Three

My "new" preamp did take a few days to gel, and after giving it breathing room I decided to make a few more observations. The staging was now slightly wider and deeper, and images were more palpable than ever before. Sounds emanated from every part of the stage, and while they generally began at the front plane of the Merlins and extended back to the wall, more musical information was now being projected in front of the speakers, giving a more vivid, holographic sound. The effect was less one of razor sharpness (although there was some of that), more one of a cohesive, emotional whole. The fact that resolution was much improved was evident during the fadeout of musical tracks. Even at the extremely low volume levels near the end of the fade, words could be made out, instruments could be placed within the stage, and the music played on. These may have been the last fragments of the song, but no longer the end of the music. Low-level performance is very high on my list of listening needs, and the Presence did this extremely well. Attack and decay had also been enhanced by the upgrade. If the strike of a stick on a drumhead was supposed to be a quick beat that died quickly, it did so with impact. If the pluck of a guitar sting was supposed to be sustained for a long period, then disappear into blackness, it did so beautifully.

On the one hand, the Presence offers transparent neutrality, impact from blackness, terrific frequency extension, and a "what-comes-next?" musical tension. On the other five fingers you get liquidity and natural warmth, delicate contrasts, quiet resolution, and vibrant tonal color. Emmanuel Go likes to use the term "naturalness" to describe the sound of the Presence, and that is what I hear. My original preamp had all these wonderful elements, but the updated version brought additional refinement to Go's creative vision. This upgrade is nice—very nice.

The new construction techniques that were applied to my preamp are undoubtedly responsible for most of the sonic improvement. The change from the 6922 tube to the 6N1P was an unknown quantity, and while the 6N1P is well balanced from top to bottom, it does not have quite as much midrange bloom as the Amperex 7308 PQ. The 6N1P is more extended in the treble, has terrific bass, and seems to be well suited to my improved preamp. That said, I decided to put the 7308 PQs back in, to see how much more performance could be squeezed out of the upgraded Presence Deluxe. After installing the 7308 PQs, I let the unit warm up for a day to let the tubes settle in. My, how tubes can change the state of things.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

I now realized how great a difference the internal wiring made. I had thought that some of the improvement was due to the 6N1P tubes, but reinserting my reference tubes clearly showed me that the wire upgrade made more than just a minor improvement. I put Lyle Lovett's Pontiac CD in my player, and from the first note it was obvious that the Amperex is a fantastic tube, and that the 6N1P, while excellent, cannot play in the same league. The treble extension of the 6N1P is subjectively better than that of the Amperex, but the low-end wallop that I previously thought was partly due to the Russian tube did not diminish one bit with the 7308 PQ. The bass was just as deep and defined, but rounder, fuller and richer in the bargain. High frequencies were effortlessly smooth and without grain or glare of any kind, and I now discovered that the 6N1Ps had a tinge of hardness at the very top by comparison. The midrange of the Amperex is dazzling. There is additional texture and dimensionality, as well as just a touch of added bloom that enthralls, yet is not syrupy or overtly euphonic. As Mr. Go would likely say, the Presence/Amperex combination exudes naturalness.

My tube rolling experiment lead me to conclude that the Presence Deluxe's ability to bring out the best in great tubes is reason enough to search them out. I have proved to myself that in the rarified air of fine audio, some things are worth the expense. The cryogenically treated 6N1Ps are excellent tubes—quiet, extended, and solid performers. If I had to, I could live with them happily and never look back. Fortunately, I don't have to do that just yet, as my 7308 PQs are cranking out the jams. Perhaps I will be lucky enough to find a stash of NOS Amperexes in someone’s basement one day. It could happen.

Resolution for a New Year

It is easy to think of resolution and detail in the same context, though they are quite different. While listening to Chick Corea and the Elektric Band’s excellent 1988 release, Eye of the Beholder, I finally understood what breathtaking resolution can do for an audio system. It was not a gee-whiz, jaw-dropping realization, but one that rather slowly manifested during the playing of this CD. I have listened to this recording countless times, but never have I heard it sound so compelling. It was not the level of detail that had changed, and it wasn’t as simple as hearing the various instruments separately. I was hearing the soft tinkling of bells decaying into blackness, only to be followed by a furious drum attack. There was Corea’s deft touch on the piano, the soaring airy guitar, a sinewy bass line (played with noticeable restraint so as not to overshadow a quiet passage), and the mournful cry of the sax. I’ve heard that all before, too, so what was so different this time? Then it hit me like a giant, falling, crystal apple—all of these musical moments had varying degrees of dynamics and volume! While some sounds were rising to the surface, others were falling away. There were loud, soft, delicate, forceful, and persuasive sounds, all with different volume levels, all in different planes of the stage, yet all part of one musical passage. That, people, is my kind of New Year’s resolution.

She’s a Brick House...

I’d like to comment on the Presence Deluxe’s build quality. The all-black, copper-coated steel chassis is fronted by a black anodized machined aluminum faceplate and matching knobs for input and volume. The optional gold knobs are very beautiful, but alas, the ones that came with my preamp two years ago were meant for another owner, so I had to send them back. There are hefty chrome toggle switches for muting and tape loop duties, and the gold lettering sets off the black perfectly, giving the Presence an austere yet decidedly upscale look. The lid is held on by sixteen countersunk screws, and when gingerly lifted straight up (after the requisite capacitor discharge time), much of Emmanuel Go’s technical expertise can be seen. Simplicity, attention to detail, and extremely high quality is the order of the day. The wiring for each channel (located below the tubes on upside down chassis boards) is not in view, but the dual-mono hand-wired input selectors and volume attenuators are there in all their glory, as are the big caps, the extensive grounding network, and the four tubes—one 0A2 voltage regulator and one 6N1P driver per channel.

February 2004: Two Years Later—Will You Be My Valentine… Again? 

If it sounds like I am confessing undying love for my "new" First Sound Presence Deluxe Mark II, I really can’t do anything else. I have always loved her—sorry, it—and have said so in reviews of other equipment. I have always felt that she—sorry again, it—added the little things that made a good system better. However, the newly upgraded Presence does more than little things, and is now more than my audio system’s anchor. It is the Yin to my Berning ZH270's Yang. It—okay then, sheis my music system’s synergistic center.

I would once again like to thank Emmanuel Go for his expertise and his contagious enthusiasm for all things audio. He is one of the many wonderful people who make high end audio a special hobby, and my updated version of the First Sound Presence Deluxe Mark II Preamp is a marvelous display of the creativity and drive for perfection that he possesses. Is the First Sound Presence Deluxe Mark II the best preamp under five large? I can’t answer that question without having heard all of the other under-$5K preamps, and even if I had, I doubt there would be consensus. When gear is this good, which one is "best" is a matter of personal preference. In my experience, the First Sound is one hell of a preamp.

 

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