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Positive Feedback ISSUE46
Paeonia Passive Preamp Rev. 2.3 - Décor for Your Ears
as reviewed by Marshall Nack
First the Assumptions
When I opened the shipping box, I confess, my expectations plummeted. Inside I spied a diminutive, brightly decorated box… with RCAs poking out of one side. Hmmm, a most unlikely chassis—this does not augur well, I thought. If the look of a thing bears any correlation to its performance, the Paeonia Passive Preamp Rev.2.3 from Musical Laboratory* exhibited none of the external trappings I've come to associate with a serious High-End component. Thus, the best-value preamp to ever come through my front door inauspiciously arrived.
When the first audiophile to visit glanced upon it, his reaction was, "What a cute little thing. It looks like a nice object. Maybe it can go on Lynn's dresser?"
No, it goes on my rack, with all the basic black or silver chassis components. The Paeonia Passive Preamp Rev.2.3 is made by Musical Laboratory*, an audio company with twin goals: performance aimed at "the highest class of musical reproduction" and visual aesthetics. Appearance counts and they want their products to "harmonize with … our customers' listening space." Their company motto is, "Minimalist Ultra-Fi for your Music and Lifestyle Connection." OK, but what if your taste is more in line with Calvin Klein?
Let's move on.
Common wisdom has it that passive preamps are as honest as the day is long. The guts of these devices usually consist of nothing more than a volume pot and maybe a resistor or two. With so little to mess with the signal, you can't get any purer. Here comes point number one: While the Paeonia adheres to the circuit design and purity aesthetic of the genre, it cannot be described as neutral.
It sounds nothing like it looks. I put it in-line. Egads! Far from being dainty, it is decidedly brawny. This is not your typical passive. It's not just slightly different from other preamps I've had recently. It is dramatically different. This little box gave an energy boost to the low-end and imparted images with an amazing quantity of flesh—a lot more than even my mbl 5011 preamp (MSRP $10,550). Just about everyone wants more of these two commodities. The telling first assessment from my panel was, "Oh, boy! The audiophiles are gonna love this one!"
A High-Wattage Insight
Every once in a while I experience one of those high-wattage moments when a light bulb clicks on inside my head. This time it came while I was contemplating two aspects of the Paeonia's performance: its delivery of very satisfying, refined timbral signatures and how well it captured the dynamic flow of music. These two attributes and many others that we usually associate with the analog side of the ledger, as opposed to the digital, are stamped on the Paeonia's waveform. Music flows from this device, as it does from most passives.
I was struck when I switched back to my mbl 5011 preamp because it wasn't there. The mbl lacks the smooth flow as one note transitions to the next or even within a note, as when a guitarist might bend it.
And it's not just my mbl. I've been listening to a lot of preamps lately, and very few of them have this quality. It makes me think there's something about these active devices that gets in the way and creates a barrier, something like a signal threshold.
Perhaps it is the circuit design—the way all the transistors, capacitors, etc, are laid out—that is lossey and hence throws away small differences. Maybe the circuit sets up hurdles such that, if the signal changes in a small way, but doesn't jump high enough, these components don't register it and continue to pass the same sound. The result is stepped intervals, almost like a ratchet mechanism. After you hear a device like the Paeonia and go back, the continuous stream of live music is missing. You hear discrete steps. To a certain extent this reflects the designers' goals (and maybe budget, too). These designers don't place musical flow high on their list. Their minds and priorities are elsewhere.
The light bulb went on when I realized the Paeonia's rendering of timbre and musical flow are just the sort of things that distinguished the Art Audio Vinyl Reference phono stage. In my review, I went on at some length about the insistence of that product's designer on the importance of correct harmonic and dynamic relationships and the role step-up transformers play in preserving them. Now, this is my second major point: the Paeonia gets these same results, but there's no step-up involved. How it does this—what these two designs have in common from an engineering perspective—could be an intriguing topic for future discussion.
A Musical Sidebar
Now, don't mistake what we're talking about with density of information. That alone won't put back what's missing. Let me give you an analogy. I just got in the Nordic sound, a CD sampler from 2L (2L-RR1-SABD), a Norwegian audiophile label that's generating tons of buzz. Reviewers have been in playback delirium over the label's innovative engineering and sound quality. The sampler includes snippets demonstrating varying sampling rates, from 48kHz to 96kHz to 192kHz to 352.8kHz, all recorded with 24-bit word size.
The CD is instructive. I can tell you that the tracks with the higher sampling rates have virtually no noise or distortion and certainly up the clarity level. Garbage cleanup in the source is a good thing, but it does not put back what's missing. The problem is downstream with your electronics..
While we're on the subject, indulge me for a moment, because somebody has to step up to the plate concerning 2L. The pursuit of extreme purity is a vaunted goal, but it can be taken too far. Those CD selections with higher sampling rates were so damn clean as to leave an antiseptic residue in the ear, like they were made under laboratory conditions. They have no sense of the hall, no resonance at all. Indeed, the recording technique that's employed, as detailed in the enclosed booklet, considers this a major achievement. The 2L engineers sometimes go through days of tedious placement experimentation to situate the musicians and the microphones for this stated goal. As the booklet says, "the qualities we seek… are… openness due to the absence of close reflecting walls." These guys are keenly focused on this single technical aspect, to eliminate room boundaries as much as possible.
I have to question their priorities.
What happens when you have openness with reduced hall reinforcement? You get direct sound, like what you might hear from the conductor's podium. Who wants that? I always thought the goal was to faithfully capture the recording venue from the audience's perspective.
The other thing 2L strives to do is downscale the listening experience to make it more intimate and bring the musicians into your living room. Huh? I always thought the goal was the other way around.
Like the way the Paeonia does it. It brings you to the venue—the venue does not get shrunken and crammed into your living room. The soundstaging virtues of passives are well known. The Paeonia has very convincing dimensional cues, credible enough to transport you out of your living room and take you there.
My advice: avoid the label. End of the digression on 2L.
The Passive Profile
Looking at the bigger picture, the third and last major point about the Paeonia is the ease of delivery. Its presentation is the antithesis of "in your face." The Paeonia is incredibly easy on your ears.
This is another characteristic of the genre. You can detect the passive footprint in the longer lasting reverb trails and the laid back nature of the transient. The transient is unable to make the jump from p to f in one leap. Instead, it scoops up to the forte in a sloping curve. My mbl 5011 preamp, which I judge about average in terms of forwardness and speed, has a noticeably firmer and faster transient.
And, while the Paeonia has outstanding dynamic range for a component anywhere near its price point, it is not as wide as the mbl 5011. To its credit, dynamic peaks remain open and clear with no constriction, but bass grip is a little loose.
Going back to the point about ease, passives float a very large quantity of detail with all sorts of performance insights. The details are presented in an uninvasive manner. They are, you might say, passively thrust at you. They are there for the taking, but nothing is forced. It lets you make the decision to put them in the foreground or not.
Passives have great soundstaging and stereo separation. They all image like the devil. But where most of them make everything a bit oversize and create precisely demarcated image outlines with empty space between them, the Paeonia is less astute. It creates hazy borders, with some bleeding between. This results in a densely populated stage generally located behind the speakers.
Tonally, the Paeonia is a dead-ringer for a classic tube-like voicing. Bass is bountiful, if a bit warm and loose. The treble is rounded, a bit shelved and never, ever strident. Mids are luscious.
All of this is pretty wonderful, even if it is recessive. When the Paeonia's in line, I found it hard to ignore the system.
Setup and Features
It's so deceptive looking, quite small and featherweight. The Paeonia measures 4.5" L x 4.5" W x 4" H and weighs 0.66 Kg. Any one of your interconnects can tip it off balance and upset its level. When this happened and only the back footers were left in contact with the shelf, I didn't notice a sonic change. The Paeonia has a strong footprint, which makes it less revealing and less sensitive to its environment. As the bass is a bit loose, I tried a set of TAOC footers to tighten it up, which worked, but too much of the desirable musical flow was lost. The four built-in footers are rubberized silica gel, a compound selected for its vibration absorbing properties.
On the back of the inlaid box, the Paeonia features two sets of RCA inputs and one set of RCA outputs. Each input has a dedicated Volume control. This is an uncommon arrangement. Also uncommon, Musical Laboratory* decided to put attenuation on the input signals, not on the output side. This arrangement allows you to match volume levels between the two sources. Once you set the proper level for each, you can switch between them without further adjustment, a nice thing to have if you need to do A/B testing.
To operate, you completely remove the lid to access the controls, which are all located inside the box. Flip the Source Selection toggle switch to the left for Source 1 or right for Source 2. Adjust the Volume control for that side by turning it clockwise to desired listening level. The toggle switch middle position is Mute. As there is no AC in this box, there are no indicator lights or other cues to let you know where the controls are set; a little caution is advised.
The volume controls are chrome-plated brass made by Audio Note. The RCAs are solid silver. In the current Revision 2.3, all internal wiring uses Musical Laboratory*'s proprietary silk-insulated Silver Gold foils. Previous to 2009, the Paeonia used thinner, all silver conductors.
I generally used TARA Labs The 0.8 interconnects, as they firmed up the low-end.
Is It For You?
Apart from deciding whether the passive character is appealing or not, the next thing to consider is the issue of gain: will there be sufficient juice to drive your speakers? This is not so easy to determine. Among the considerations are the source output sensitivity, the amp input sensitivity and the efficiency of the speakers.
You also have to be concerned about cable lengths to the amplifier. Shorter is better. The rule of thumb is no more than two meters. If Musical Laboratory* supported balanced connections, this whole concern over cable lengths and drive signal strength would go away, as many source components practically double the output level when XLRs are used.
My CD source puts out 2 mv; the McIntosh Mc501 monoblocks I used during the review period have 2 mv input sensitivity; and my Kharma speakers are 89 dB sensitive. I was able to get satisfying SPLs with all of my jazz CDs, but not with most classical orchestral works.
Finally, what if mother-of-pearl and red lacquer are not your preferred décor? It would be nice if Musical Laboratory* offered a plain black chassis option.
"Oh, boy! The audiophiles are gonna love this one!" was the first comment received about the Paeonia Passive Preamp Rev.2.3 from Musical Laboratory*.
It is housed in a most unlikely chassis—a diminutive, lacquered, mother-of-pearl inlaid jewel box. The manufacturer is targeting his consumer's lifestyle, as well as their audio needs.
Fortunately, the machine doesn't sound dainty, the way it looks. Quite the contrary, it is decidedly brawny.
That is the first major point about the Paeonia: it veers decidedly to the fulsome, bloomy side.
The second major point is that it has uncommonly convincing timbre and allows music to flow.
The third and final point concerns how easy it is on the ears, the ease of listening.
While the second and third points come with the passive genre, the first point is an attractive coloration. The Paeonia also diverges from the passive model in its exceptional dynamics, generous bass punch and a tonal balance that is modeled after the classic tube style.
Put it all together and the net result is a recipe for musical satisfaction if I ever saw one. If your wish list is anything like mine, you're gonna find a lot to like in the Paeonia Passive Pre Rev.2.3 from Musical Laboratory*. Marshall Nack
Passive Preamp Rev.2.3
Sounds Of Silence