TP 2.2RcvB preamplifier
as reviewed by Jeff Parks
Treasures to be had
Like many audiophiles obsessed with this hobby not only do I peruse the internet for high-end audio reviews including those at Positive Feedback, I am also an avid AudiogoN and eBay home audio surfer. I love both EBay and Audiogon where each website is easy to navigate in my never ending search for gear to add to my already extensive audio collection. Last fall, while surfing the "goN" I found a preamplifier that looked really interesting—the Audio Horizons TP 2.2 tube based preamp. What caught my attention regarding this preamp was that it starts out as a reasonably priced tube based product loaded with features that can be upgraded to a reference quality instrument as funds become available. The affordable AH 2.2 provides an opportunity for many audiophiles to purchase a preamp that in my opinion gets to the crux what high-end audio is all about—that being getting to the truth of the music and presenting it in a manner that to my ears is as close to a live mike feed as is possible. Starting price is $2750 US.
Please note: The unit under review is very near the top of the line, and is designated as the TP 2.2RcvB. Knowing the alphabet soup that Joseph uses when describing each preamplifier can be a bit confusing, let me explain each designation. Speaking for the 2.2cv… the "C" stands for Clarity MR caps and the "V" stands for Vishay resistors. This is an added $650 over the base price of $2750 making the TP 2.2cv $3400, which for me is really the place to start. Other options are a remote ("R") and balanced outputs and inputs ("B"). More on that later at the end of the article where I have listed all of the options for the 2.2RcvB and the corresponding cost for each. With all of the goodies added to the review sample this particular TP 2.2RcvB retailed out at $4825 sans one last "g" upgrade—which is an added $500.
Now the big question is... can this preamplifier run with the big guys in high-end audio, bearing in mind its $5000 price places the TP 2.2RcvB with a lot of good company? From my point of view the simple answer to that question is an unbridled yes!
After receiving the 2.2RcvB last fall, within a week of it being in my main reference system I was so impressed that I gave it a Writer's Choice Award for the 2009 calendar year. This is quite an honor since each writer is limited to only two awards each per year. What is even more impressive, I based my brief comments for this award prior to the 2.2RcvB being fully broken in. Which, as time passed by, the 2.2RcvB got better and better where macro/micro-dynamic impact/range, pacing, depth of the soundstage, and inner detail all fell into focus.
For those of you unfamiliar with Audio Horizons, it is the brainchild of Joseph Chow. Joseph is an engineer who has been connected to the high-end audio industry as an audio engineer and designer for over 35 years. During this time Joseph has designed products for Kenwood, Sound Steam Electronics, MIT cables, and Proton. It is at Proton that Joseph acquired his knowledge and experience regarding tuner design as a part of the design team with Larry Schotz. Many of us audiophiles, especially us older guys and gals, know the Schotz designed tuner was pretty special during its tenure within the home electronics industry. For many audiophiles, Schotz designed tuners are still coveted to the present day.
Forging this experience regarding tuner design and tuner modification, Joseph created his own modification and repair company called Component Plus, USA (which he still runs to this day). At Component Plus, USA Joseph offers upgrades for high-end audio products, including most preamplifiers, amplifiers, DACs, and source components. Component Plus, USA served as the impetus for his current high-end audio company—Audio Horizons. Through Audio Horizons, Joseph offers a complete line of high-end audio products including a DAC, preamplifier, phono stage, tube buffer, and high-end signal cables. Plans in the near future are for a high-end amplifier. Soon audiophiles will be able to put together a complete Audio Horizons system if they so choose.
Yeah, it's true, Audio Horizons is another high-end audio modifier turned small high-end audio manufacturer. While that may not sound very impressive, something to bear in mind is that there are several differences, in my opinion, that place Audio Horizons at the top of the high-end audio manufacturer food chain: the ability as an end user to deal directly with the designer/owner of the product. At Audio Horizons the products being offered to the public have the distinct and unique advantage for the consumer to deal directly with the product's designer or his direct representative Victor Comerchero (AH's Marketing Director) as your product is being made specifically for you.
Try and get that kind of service from the majors in our industry. Right from the start Joseph will build you a unit based on your budget and personal taste. This clearly is a tweaker's dream knowing that as funds increase one can upgrade their Audio Horizons gear to their liking. Now instead of selling your preamp in order to upgrade to another preamp, as the design of the Audio Horizons TP 2.2 preamp improves over time all you need to do is contact Joseph and find out what upgrades are available for your existing unit and move up from there. Who knows... maybe this preamp will be finally your last.
Out with the old, and in with the new
The AH TP 2.1 has been replaced by the TP2.2. The TP 2.2 has several new upgrades installed as compared to what the 2.1 offered in 2008-09. The list is as follows:
Though an impressive list of features, it is the design paradigm as Joseph applies to the 2.2 that really makes this preamplifier sing. According to Joseph Chow, one of the key issues when designing a preamplifier is noise. Noise clearly is the designer's nemesis. Once you get noise below a certain threshold or Q (quality factor), this permits the designer to hear more clearly the very fine sonic differences as component and/or parts changes are made during the design phase of the unit. In Joseph's opinion this is what makes or breaks a preamplifier and whether or not it is ready to swim with the big fish of the high-end audio sea.
Joseph accomplishes this task by looking deeply into the circuit path and into the sound characteristics of the materials and components used in the TP 2.2. Joseph measures, listens, measures again, and then listens again throughout each stage within the development of the 2.2. Once Joseph has a design parameter created, only then does he populate the product. All products, once complete, are auditioned personally by Joseph prior to releasing to his customers. It is this dogged perfectionism that gives the 2.2RcvB its signal to noise ratio of -125dB when running balanced outputs. It is for this very reason I believe the 2.2RcvB is the quietest preamplifier I have ever heard or should I say NOT ever heard in my system! In my opinion, it is this dead quiet background from which the music emerges that gives the TP 2.2RcvB its greatest strengths. These include: lightning fast speed, visceral impact, coupled with outstanding dynamic range as it presents the performers in a large and well defined soundstage, thus giving the end user a "you are there" quality that is, rarely, if ever, achieved at this price point.
Which camp to choose. . . .
When designing products at Audio Horizons, including the AH 2.2, Joseph had several decisions to make: should he make a pure tube only design, a pure solid-state design, or a tube-hybrid design. As we all know there are positive and negatives aspects to each design. In addition to these concerns once a design protocol (tube v. solid-state v. hybrid) has been decided upon, Joseph's next decision is which design school or camp he is going to partake in—the minimalist design with as few parts as possible, thus an end goal of a "straight line" design, or a more complicated preamp where designers try to overcome a preamp's limitations and intrusions upon the source material by using elaborate circuits and feedback. Let's call this group of designers the exotic design camp.
As you know both camps have their fans and their distracters. What makes Audio Horizons' products different from all of the rest is that Joseph came up with a third design philosophy—one that is neither simple nor exotic. In short, the design philosophy that goes into all Audio Horizon products, one that looks deeply into the circuit function and the materials used within the design NEVER compromises Joseph's end goal of sonic bliss. I am going to call this third design philosophy based upon Joseph's parameters: exotic harmonic simplicity. Joseph achieves this goal by not eliminating components as the minimalist would, nor compensating for them as those from the exotic design school would, rather he seeks to embrace the inherent positive characteristics from both schools of thought while following his premise of never compromising the circuit itself. This third paradigm's goal is to create a harmonic synergy within the parts of the design where each are considered a "single voice within the final choir" of the end product—thus creating the sonic signature of the 2.2RcvB. Not only does the 2.2RcvB preserve the original recording as it was intended through the usage of Joseph's third philosophy of exotic harmonic simplicity, I believe the 2.2RcvB enhances the performance.
In order to obtain exotic harmonic simplicity within all Audio Horizon designs, Joseph is always looking for the best parts available (he incorporates many boutique parts like Clarity caps, Jensen and Lundahl transformers, and Vishay resistors). This practice is usually unheard of from many larger high-end audio manufacturers as the cost of these parts would price them out of the market. On the other hand, Joseph has the distinct advantage of being a small company with a very low overhead and when coupled with no dealer mark-up, he can incorporate these parts into his designs while maintaining a reasonable profit. This keeps the price of Joseph's products within the reach of most high-end audio consumers. In the end, Joseph creates a design that maximizes function while preserving as best as possible what is fed to it. For Joseph it is all about how a product sounds—no compromises!
"Houston, the eagle has landed"
The 2.2RcvB is loaded with enough features to please almost any audiophile. It has one XLR output and input (with provisions to add one more of each if needed) as well as one RCA output and four RCA inputs. Though not the most visually appealing preamplifier with its simplified utilitarian all aluminum ¼" front panel, coupled with three control knobs which appear a little too asymmetrical for my personal taste, I do wish Joseph would have spent more time and money in designing the TP 2.2RcvB's cosmetic appearance knowing high-end audio gear is a luxury item. I know that what really matters is how a product sounds, but at $5000 I really expected more regarding the overall look and feel from what otherwise is really a ground breaking design.
My review sample came in silver which in my opinion clearly doesn't look as good as black. To dress up the 2.2RcvB Joseph does offer solid wood knobs as opposed to the standard aluminum knobs (offered in black or silver)—my unit came with silver knobs. On the black units I could see where the black or wood knobs would look cool, but on silver I am not so sure. One nice touch I did like was the blue illuminated display. I wish more manufacturers would use this color rather than split pea green, yellow, or red. Knowing high-end audio products are purchased mostly by men, it makes sense to use a blue display since 10% of the male population is color blind. And since it is very rare for someone to be color blind to blue, making the display blue is an excellent choice.
For clarification as to why a blue display is worth noting, I am part of that male population that is color blind. Since blue is such an easy color to for me to see, maybe that is why each time I upgrade a piece of gear in my system I almost always replace the stock LED with a blue one. Anyhow, the blue display is a nice touch and "classes" up the 2.2.RcvB a little bit.
One last nit to pick. I was very disappointed with the TP 2.2RcvB top cover and chassis case. It is thin, and very lightweight making it rather cheap feeling. This is something I would not expect coming from a boutique operation like Audio Horizons. My guess as to why the cheap cover and chassis case as opposed to something more robust is simply cost. Saving money in this area allows Joseph to spend more money on the design of the product and on the parts inside where it really counts as opposed to making the 2.2RcvB heavy and robust. What is very clear me as I got to know Joseph Chow's designs, he will never cut corners regarding a decision that could affect the internal quality and sonic performance of his products. Taking this into consideration, I would still place the TP 2.2RcvB on my short list as a product to purchase.
Tweaking the 2.2RcvB
Getting this article out took a long amount of time complete. Instead of leaving things alone and reviewing the 2.2RcvB as it stood last November, I kept postponing the review as I embarked on a path of tweaking that changed things so much, and so often, that I had to stop the review and almost start all over again as each new part or upgrade needed break-in time. What has transpired from this experience is a review that has developed into a story detailing my eight month journey with the 2.2RcvB. This preamplifier had such a major impact upon my system, show casing its strengths and weaknesses that not only did I tweak the 2.2RcvB with the manufacturer's blessing and encouragement; it also had me tweaking my main reference system. While some of these changes are minor, some were global. One thing that is for sure, as I took each step in upgrading my system, the 2.2RcvB improved right alongside. These changes brought my review system to the point where I believe I have finally arrived with the sound I have been looking for all along—one of sonic bliss and musical involvement where I never want to leave my sound room.
As my experience with the 2.2RcvB grew, I realized this preamplifier was very sensitive to little upgrades like tube rolling, swapping cables in and out, choice of fuses, and replacing the OEM fuse holder with a superior silver-plated fuse holder.
For the purposes of the review I ran the 2.2RcvB completely balanced (XLR) or completely single-ended (RCA). The reason for this is when running the 2.2RcvB with a balanced input and a single-ended output, I kept experiencing input overload where my amplifier would enter premature clipping. With this in mind, I ran the 2.2RcvB balanced in and balanced out most of the time since I believe running the 2.2RcvB balanced does give a slight edge over running the preamplifier single-ended. Running the 2.2RcvB balanced truly sounds more open and dynamic as compared to single-ended output. Mind you both sound really good, and running single-ended does sound a bit warmer or rounder, and maybe just a bit more tube euphonic, thus, maybe for you running the preamplifier single-ended may be your cup of tea. However, for my personal tastes I usually found myself running the 2.2RcvB balanced, except when playing vinyl since my phono stage is single-ended.
Right from the start I really didn't like the stock tubes. They just didn't work in my system or with my audiophile agenda. So I tube rolled the 2.2RcvB until I found the set I liked the best. Victor also suggested I try different tubes with the unit while noting that the 2.2RcvB is very revealing to tube choices. I found this practice somewhat unusual for a manufacturer to recommend as often manufacturers recommend against tube rolling since new current OEM tubes can be bought in bulk, and for the most part are more stable than what can be finicky New Old Stock (NOS) type tubes. On the other hand tube rolling makes perfect sense to me—besides it's a hell'uva lot of fun.
About five years ago I remember reading an article discussing a very popular tube preamplifier where the writer from another high-end audio magazine gave a less than stellar, almost negative review of this product. As time rolled along, this preamplifier turned out to be one of those classic preamps many audiophiles seek.
As I said, this reviewer based his review upon stock OEM tubes. Later on that year this same reviewer revised his original review after tube rolling the preamplifier at the manufacturer's suggestion. In the revised version of the review, all was hunky dory and the product got the review it deserved—a positive one. Bearing this in mind, I thought I would do the same before proceeding with this review. I am not saying the stock tubes in the 2.2RcvB are terrible. In fact for many they will serve as a starting point from which to begin. Tube rolling the 2.2RcvB really does change how the unit is voiced, thus you can fine tune the 2.2RcvB without breaking the bank.
For the purpose of this review I ended up running NOS Siemens CCa tubes that come from the 6DJ8/6922 family of tubes. These are the gold pinned A-Frame Flat Top Disc CCa's from the 1970s. The change was rather dramatic when replacing the stock tubes with the CCa's. Swapping out the stock tubes some haze and brittleness was eliminated which allowed the 2.2RcvB to open up a bit with a smoother top to bottom balance, improved bass impact and depth, and a nice midrange bloom that I love to hear in a tube preamplifier. Needless to say the stock tubes went back in the OEM boxes and the Siemens CCa's have remained inside the 2.2RcvB ever since.
Here is a link to a great site to get you started when tube rolling small signal tubes—Joe's Tube Lore—a discussion room on Audio Asylum. Over the years I have found Joe's insight to be uncanny, most of the time he hits it just right in describing the various NOS tubes and how they sound so different from one another. Even 11 years after Joe's article was first published (1999) most of what he said then still remains true today. As an added bonus, the majority of the tubes Joe describes are still available today.
The next change in my system was swapping out my tried and true Cardas Golden Reference (GR) cables (interconnects and speaker cables) for the Audience Au24-e cables. These have served me well for almost 10 years as once I get stuck on a house sound I usually run with it. For the last two years I have been using Audience powerChord-e cables and really love what they do, so why not try an all for the Audience Au24-e loom of cables? This change also had a positive effect upon how the 2.2RcvB presented itself; now I am hearing all of the good qualities that I always had heard from it only now more pronounced in a more intimate and relaxed manner. Once again another improvement.
Shortly after receiving my review sample a new upgrade was made available for the 2.2: a new IEC connector from Furutech and the addition of a Gold HIFI Tuning fuse. These two upgrades are now included in all 2.2 preamplifiers. Once again it appeared as another series of veils had been removed along with what seems to be a power or current increase as the 2.2RcvB appeared to get a bit ballsier as compared to the past.
The last upgrade and one that was created at my suggestion is replacing the Gold HiFi Tuning Fuse with the HIFI SilverStar Tuning Fuse along with replacing the lesser quality OEM fuse holder with the superior Acme Audio Labs' Silver Plated Cryogenically treated chassis mounted fuse holder. No, Acme Audio Labs is not the same company as depicted in the Wile E. Coyote cartoons, but rather a small parts manufacturer out of Oregon that offers boutique high-end audio quality A/C parts. Both of these new modifications truly improved the performance once more as I heard increased inner detail, improved sound staging with improved focus and clarity. This alternative upgrade is now included as part of the "g" upgrade.
Ah, it's all about the music
Alright, enough talk about the 2.2RcvB and singing its praises, now it is time to give you the specifics as to the music I listened to during the review. I tried to pick music from various genres I am very familiar with (duh), along with music that would highlight the 2.2.RcvB's attributes.
Why did I choose the different genres as opposed to one? It is because if a product is truly outstanding it will sound great across the musical spectrum, not just one or two. To me it is hogwash and a sign of weakness when someone tells you a product was designed with a particular musical genre in mind. I know this may be up for debate, but coming from a retailer's point of view where I sold thousands of pieces of high-end audio gear from 1977 to 1989, the products that stood the test of time (for the most part) were products that sounded good across all types of music. With that being said, here are two examples that touched my heart and soul, and placed me either there with the musicians, or at a special place of transient peace, thought, and quiet reflection.
Ever buy a record and play it over and over again? You know what I mean. That is exactly what has happened to me regarding the recent Shelby Lynne CD that was inspired by Dusty Springfield [Shelby Lynne Just a little Lovin', Lost Highway 2008. B0009789-02]. This recording is such an intimate performance that places Shelby right there in front of you. Add to that Shelby's exquisite phrasing, along with the sound engineer's up upfront and close mike placement, and you have a recording that really brings the musicians into the room. This CD has become my "go to" recording for this review, and after a long day at work when I want to sit down, relax, and recharge my batteries.
The 2.2RcvB really brings out the best in this recording, it not only gets the proper size, depth, and scale of the performance, but also the ebb and flow of the music so perfectly, thus allowing the emotion of the performance to be right there in your living room. Each instrument settled in its proper place with outstanding clarity and definition. You can even hear the performers move back and forth as they would in real life. Guitars are simply amazing from the very first pluck of the strings to the descending reverberation as each note being played. Couple that with the 2.2Rcvb's dexterity to nail the harmonic structure of each instrument with the utmost accuracy you can even differentiate the unique signature of each within a soundstage. Often I found myself playing CD after CD late into the wee hours of the evening
Every once in a while there is a performance that takes you to a place that involves you so intensely and emotionally it grabs a hold of your spirit or soul. For me, it is the performance by Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman (track 14) on Andrea Bocelli's Romanza CD [Andrea Bocelli Romanza, 1996. Philips 461 807-2] as licensed by JVC XRCD2. This exquisite duet as performed by these two masters of their art form rings that emotional bell every time when played through a system that gets out of the way of the performance and lets the music flow. The 2.2RscvB accomplishes this task with great skill, timing, and precision. Often while listening to this piece of music it brings up tears as I remember the passing of my father whom I miss so much. Funny how it is only this song that brings this particular emotion to the forefront of my being.
The track starts out with a large orchestral soundstage presence where every instrument is located in its proper place and depth. This recording as reproduced by the 2.2RcvB places the listener dead center, mid floor around row H where the music totally encompasses you from front to back, top to bottom, and side to side with bass impact and dynamics that can rattle your soul. It is when Sara Brightman starts to sing that you realize how beautiful her voice is (God's gift in my opinion) as it is brought to the front of the stage just left of Andrea Bocelli. Listening to her silky voice as it is presented through 2.2Rcvb sends shivers up my spine as I can hear every note with such clarity and emotional presence; you really do forget you are in your living room as one is so easily connected to this performance. The same exact comments apply when describing Andrea Bocelli as he performs his solo. Andrea Bocelli has the most beautiful male singing voice!
This all adds up when both Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman start singing in perfect harmony while being supported by a full orchestra… you have magic. I am sure that this is one of the reasons that while listening to this track I often times cannot hold the emotions back and the tears begin to well up. Wonderful stuff.
This review has become more than just your everyday high-end audio review as my knowledge of the Audio Horizons 2.2rcvB has substantially grown based upon the eight months spent with this precision quality instrument. There are several people I need to thank, without their help in supporting me during this review period, I am not so sure this article would be have possible—at least not to this level of depth and detail. First off are Joseph Chow and Victor Comerchero who were so patient with me during this extended review period and who answered all of my questions promptly and succinctly. I would also like to thank Kyle Takenaga at Reference Audio Mods who installed my Acme fuse holder when I realized the chassis needed to be modified in order to install it. I also would like to thank Ryan Coleman who supported me with this endeavor throughout. Ryan has been a great resource from a DYI perspective regarding the 2.2RcvB. Don't forget to read Ryan's review of the Audio Horizons 2.2 in Issue 49. Ryan's review is quite comprehensive and takes a different twist when looking to the 2.2 from his DYI perspective.
In addition, I would also like the thank Alfred Kainz at HighEnd-Electronics, Inc who was so patient in supplying me the fuses I needed as I "fuse rolled" the 2.2RcvB, and John McDonald at Audience who loaned me a pair of Audience Au24-e XLR cables in order for me complete my 4.7 meter run from preamplifier to amplifier. Adding the cables into the system and being able to hear the TP 2.2RcvB in all of its balanced glory from input to output really made a huge difference with this review and its end result. Last, Dave Clark who has been so supportive of my endeavor and the enormous time it took to complete this article. Once more to all of you, a BIG thanks.
Okay, I know the TP 2.2RcvB may not be the best looking preamplifier of the bunch, but damn it sounds good. In my opinion, it is what the 2.2RcvB brings to your audiophile table that really matters, not its looks—there I said it Joseph. The TP 2.2 is a product even at its base price that gets the music right with its dead quiet background from which the music so rightly emerges, and when it is all dolled up like my review sample, it can compete with preamplifiers that cost many thousands of dollars more. The sound quality this preamplifier communicates to the listener is literally unheard of at its price point—the TP 2.2RcvB is a true reference instrument. It is not often a product comes along from a small one man operation (or a large one for that matter) like Audio Horizons where it competes with the big boys of high-end audio. Not only does Audio Horizons compete with the big boys, I believe it shows them up, takes names, and kicks some serious high-end audio tail.
By the way, if you haven't figured out by now, I purchased the review sample as I knew this was the preamplifier for me as it has taken me ever closer to my end goal of sonic nirvana. With the TP 2.2RcvB in my system, I really don't see how I can get much closer to that end goal without spending some very serious money, money that is way beyond my personal means. I believe the TP 2.2 RcvB is the preamp for me—one that will be in my reference system for a very, very, long time. Most Enthusiastically Recommended. Jeff Parks
"cv" Upgrade adds Clarity MR caps, and Vishay resistors, and harmonic alignment: $650
"R" Upgrade adds a volume only remote control: $375
Note: "B" Upgrade can be ordered in two parts, or as a complete upgrade incorporating the B1 and B2 upgrades as one.
"B1" Upgrade adds two line balancing output transformers and one or two pairs of XLR outputs: $625
"B2" Upgrade adds two input balancing transformers and one pair of XLR inputs: $425
"g" Upgrade adds two bias stabilizing transformers to the main circuit board, a proprietary tweak to the power supply voltage, an improved volume control potentiometer which adds another 3dB of separation, a fuse upgrade to a HIFI Silver Star Tuning Fuse, and an Acme cryogenically treated silver plated chassis mounted fuse holder. This last and final upgrade increases stereo separation, improves micro-detail retrieval, and presents the music in a manner so real it is down right spooky: $500
First, I'd like to thank Jeff for his thorough and very laudatory review. I'd also like to thank the people at Positive Feedback for allowing two reviews of our Audio Horizons TP 2.2 preamplifier to be published. It's rare that a manufacturer receives two such superb reviews from two experienced reviewers like Ryan and Jeff, and even rarer when both reviewers decide to buy the product they are reviewing.
A clarifying remark explaining why Jeff experienced overload when he ran balanced in and single-ended out. His CDP output in single-ended mode is 2.3 v and in balanced mode is 4.6 v. When we add 4.6 v to the already substantial gain of the 2.2 in single-ended mode of 20 dB, it was too much for the amp. Reducing that by 2.3 volts was enough to solve the problem. He was able to return to the 4.6 v balanced outputs of the CDP when he operated the 2.2 in balanced output mode because in balanced mode, the 2.2 has only 10 dB of gain, so in balanced mode he was well shy of the point where the amp overloaded.
Finally, while we don't think the 2.2 quite as unattractive as Ryan and Jeff do, we admit candidly that our money goes into component parts quality, even going so far as to personally cryo all component jacks and other miscellaneous hardware parts on the preamplifier that can handle the extreme cold, rather than into creating a jewel-like cosmetic finish. At these price points compromises have to be made. We have chosen to make them in the 2.2's appearance rather than in its performance.
In sum, we agree with the conclusion reached by both reviewers: The Audio Horizons TP 2.2 compares favorably in performance to that of preamplifiers costing far, far more. It is, we concur, a superb value.
Again, thank you, Jeff, for a wonderful review.