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Positive Feedback ISSUE45
Preamp 1 - Mk3
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
"Make sure you try out a variety of power cords," the importer of the solid-state, German import, Accustic Arts Preamp I - Mk 3 (the "AA") advised me before sending it over. So I did. His advice was prescient, for soon I was having a deuce of a time trying to nail this product's footprint. Every time I switched power cords, it would change—drastically.
The Harmonix Studio Master
I first settled on a Harmonix Studio Master, after allowing time for the unit to burn in. The Studio Master is known to be a "musical" cable. That means it has lots of body, a somewhat rolled top end and a plump lower midrange—it's what you might call an easy listening cable.
And that is what I heard with it powering the AA. I noted focus was quite good and dynamics were noteworthy, but it was also on the dry side and had a pervasive grayish cast produced by a restricted frequency range.
My search continued.
The TARA Labs The One
With the TARA Labs The One, a cable in the neutral camp, the window into the soundstage opened wide. I could hear right into the source, directly and without embellishment. Bass was outstanding—firm and really deep. There was little masking of problems and no "extra pleasure" or sweetening added to the top end. This meant that string tone on CD could be unpleasant—and often it was.
At this point, I still had no handle on the AA. Why was I having such difficulty, I wondered? It was becoming clear that the AA is uncommonly revealing, almost a pass-through. That first week I felt I was chasing my tail.
Then the importer sent over two more power cords. Again, I found myself in hot pursuit of the AA's elusive personality. Here are a few more of the personas I encountered.
The Accustic Arts Ferrite II
Accustic Arts also makes a full line of audio wires. Their Ferrite II power cord (MSRP $1300) was in many ways like TARA's The One—clear-sighted and straight up, with little embellishment. Both of these PCs favor neutrality. Again, I found string tone on digital could be bothersome.
In my solid-state system I wanted a bit more spin on the sound. However, many visitors enthused over this presentation.
The NAT AC Coupler Grey
The last power cord I tried was the NAT AC Coupler Grey (MSRP $900). NAT is a Serbian audio electronics manufacturer. They make a lot of single-ended tube amps. Their PC sounded like I imagine their amps would.
Bingo! The AA had found a synergistic mate.
I put on the Franck: Violin Sonata, with Erica Morini and Rudolf Firkusny, a highly sought after original American Decca LP (Decca DL 710038), and found myself transfixed. It was one of those moments where everything comes together and the music refuses to be relegated to the background. Morini's performance is more restrained than most, avoiding the romantic excesses so common in the many recordings of this work by the big guns. Her violin tone is round, it completely avoids stridency and it is properly sized.
For his part, Firkusny has decided to cede the foreground to the violin and play the role of supporting instrument. I note the piano's case resonances on low notes, just like I hear live.
With the NAT AC Coupler's bloom and weight in the fore, the presentation was loose enough to let the music breathe and yet, if you heard this pre and PC together, I'm sure you would find it acceptably neutral. It had directness, a lack of artifice—its charms managed to seduce me almost instantly.
What it got right was the overall gestalt. The stage was in the right place, neither forward nor recessed, and the instruments on it were in proper dynamic and spatial relationship.
"This is what an orchestra sounds like," my wife's oboe instructor volunteered. He was quite taken in. "It's a good presentation. It doesn't overemphasize anything—it doesn't screw around."
This was the PC I was waiting for.
On the downside, the NAT AC Coupler didn't have the dynamic range, bass control, treble extension or focus of the more expensive TARA The One (MSRP $1500).
And when I tried it on my mbl front-end, it resulted in unwanted exaggerations. I assumed this was because my mbl 5011 preamp is more colored than the AA. Color (NAT AC Coupler) + Color (mbl 5011) = Excess.
Granted that it is close to a pass-through, apart from the contributions of the power cords, what does the Accustic Arts Preamp I - Mk 3 bring to the table?
First, it is clean as a whistle. I don't hear grain or artifacts or noise. In fact, the distortion spec is unusually low. Frequency response is laboratory flat. I bet the transient would carve a good square shape on those Impulse Response graphs you see in audio ads, as opposed to one that slopes. These facts are not too surprising, considering the AAs pedigree in professional sound studios, where the brand is well represented throughout Germany.
Macro dynamics are outstanding. The AA is another of the recent crop of components with headroom to spare. It had me riding the volume control, spinning it clockwise on soft passages, and rotating it counter on crescendos. Dynamic peaks are clean and consistent; that is, quality doesn't change even on the grandest crescendos.
Tonally, the bottom is well represented, tuneful and tight. The top has more flesh than you would expect from solid-state. The middle is hard to describe. It is so well integrated that it doesn't register. The AA tends to the staccato side. It images discretely, with space separating instruments, and reverb trails don't linger.
PRAT is outstanding due to excellent transient coherency. Those transients benefit from the AAs moderate warmth and fulsome body, traits that are more often found in tube devices.
Comments on the soundstage ranged from, "Man, that's a wide stage!" to "Yeah, more wide than deep, however". Depth layering was a little constricted. Height was notable.
In other areas, such as micro dynamics, resolution, imaging and speed, the AA performed about average.
Design and Features
Front panel controls are spare: from left to right, there's a rotary Input Selector knob (four line level and one bypass); a push button to activate the Surround Bypass; another push button to Mute the unit's outputs; and another large rotary for Volume. That's it, other than a trio of blue indicator lights.
The aluminum remote provides volume control. Period. I would have liked mute, and maybe source selection, too.
Back on the main unit, a volume level display would be helpful. As it is, it's impossible to gauge the potentiometer level from the listening seat. It could also use an indicator to show when Mute is engaged.
Aside from the lack of conveniences, on a design level, the AA is interesting. It is a fully balanced design. Two signal paths are used per channel (one inverting and one non-inverting). That means a four-channel potentiometer is used instead of the standard stereo-potentiometer. Theoretically, a balanced signal coming in via the XLRs will wend its merry way through the AA and exit the balanced outputs without any change—excepting gain, of course.
So, by all means, use XLR in and out. The claimed design benefits are heard in the extremely low distortion and noise levels. With single-ended RCA inputs, the signal is immediately converted to balanced by a pair of BURR BROWN op-amps. Three sets of XLR inputs and two sets of XLR outputs are provided, along with two RCA ins and one out.
Also note, the output stage is 100% Class A.
Build quality and cosmetics are better than what you'd expect at this price point.
It is fair to say the Accustic Arts Preamp I - Mk 3 is an exceptionally revealing component. I could tailor the sound umpteen different ways just by swapping power cords.
Pair it with either the Accustic Arts Ferrite II or the TARA Labs The One power cords, and you're looking at a largely neutral component with a pass-through signature. This combination hit a home run with many visitors; however a neutral pass-through was not what I was looking for in my solid-state system.
Paired with the NAT AC Coupler Grey power cord, it was a music lovers' treat. Once I hit upon this pairing, it remained for the duration of the review. It had some decidedly attractive qualities, balancing the NAT's bloom and weight with the AA's accuracy and control, while managing to hew close to neutral.
On its own, the AA is decidedly accurate. It has no noise or distortions, frequency response is even and extended, and its treble is grain-free. But there's no added sweetness. These traits are offset by a modicum of warmth and full body, which lend it an ingratiating aspect.
All together, the AA offers an attractive package at its price point. I'm intrigued. Exposure to the Preamp I - Mk 3 has left me wanting to get acquainted with Accustic Arts' many other product offerings. Marshall Nack
Accustic Arts Preamp I - Mk 3
North American Importer