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Positive Feedback ISSUE49
Linestage No. 9 v2
as reviewed by Will Wright
In 1969, I purchased my first equipment that could be called high-end: a McIntosh C22 pre-amp and two McIntosh monoblock power amps. All of this was, of course, tube equipment. If memory serves, the C22 utilized six Telefunken 12AX7 twin triodes and included a phono section since, in that era, all pre-amps had one. It also sported tone controls, bass trim controls and balance controls.
I used the C22 until sometime in the early '80s, when it was replaced by a solid state Threshold pre. I actually still have the C22, and the monoblock power amps as well, although, to be usable at this stage, they would need to be completely refurbished. By now, all the capacitors have gone bad. Capacitors from that era have a life expectancy of no more than 25 to 30 years, if you're lucky. That was the last tube gear I ever used in my system. I hung on to it all imagining that at some point I would have it refurbished and either use it again or sell it to someone in Japan for a good price. However, at this juncture it is highly unlikely I'll ever follow through on that plan. In this day and age, pre-amps typically need features that didn't even exist in 1969, and I don't know what the current demand is for such "vintage" gear. 30 watts of tube power per channel is far too modest for my current needs, and, lastly, I'm amotivated.
At any rate, although tube equipment is still very popular among many audiophiles, I have done no reviews of tube gear and I have to admit to being a bit curious about what current tube designs might have to offer a system like mine.
Old Technology with a New Face
That brings me to the subject of this review: the Sound Master Linestage No. 9 V.2, distributed in the US by True Harmonix. The No. 9 employs seven tubes in its slim line chassis. They are the 6SN7 x 2, 6SL7 x 2, 6X5 x1, and WY3P x2.
Output level is specified as 6-15V Max and this is accomplished via two sets of single ended RCA outputs, a high level output pair and a low level output pair. The owner's manual is minimal and primarily restricted to specifications and safety, so no explanation was provided as to how the owner should decide which set of outputs is appropriate for a given application, or why the designers chose to provide this option. I used the low level outputs throughout the review period without any problems or limitations.
Other specifications included a frequency response of 20Hz - 25kHz: a signal to noise ratio of >90dB: input Sensitivity of <0.03% 20Hz to 20kHz @ 1v rms; and output impedance of <300 ohm @ 1kHz. Chassis dimensions are 17in (L) x 12in (W) x 3.5in (H) and weight is specified at 18lb. MSRP for the US market is set at $1500. Warranty is three years, parts and labor, except tubes, which are warranted for six months.
This is clearly a minimalist design, having only three user controls; a power switch; a volume control; and a source selector. No phono section, tape loop facilities or remote control are provided. In addition to the two sets of RCA outputs previously mentioned, the rear panel has four sets of RCA inputs, a user replaceable fuse and a standard IEC power connector. Chassis ventilation is primarily via the bottom plate with some additional vent holes along the top of the rear panel. The tubes are arranged horizontally within the chassis, allowing for the handsome slim line look of this piece.
Because the distributor, True Harmonix, is local to my area, the unit was dropped off at my house rather than shipped. The user's manual, which was provided via email, states that a True Harmonix Special Design power cord, the manual, a pair of gloves for handling the tubes and a spare fuse are included, in addition to the double boxed shipping carton and warranty card. I didn't see any of these items and so cannot comment further on them.
Setup and Use
At the time the No.9 linestage was delivered to my house, my reference preamp, the Alchemist Tim de Paravicini Signature Edition, (referred to by Alchemist as "The One,") was broken. Sadly, there is no local service center willing to work on Alchemist gear because of the lack of service info and the fact that all the good service departments in my area are tied to retail outlets who only service the brands they carry. Eventually, a friend who had been a service technician in a previous life agreed to help me with the repairs.
In the interim, I had been using a switching device, (I can't bring myself to call it a pre-amp,) from Pioneer called the RC-760 Remote Control Center Unit. I've had this thing for over fifteen years and kept it around for the occasional application not requiring high fidelity. It cost me all of approximately $50 and had a remote control. It also had a captive power cord as well as many of those features, except a phono section, which the No.9 eschewed.
What was even more laughable, I had the RC-760 sitting on my Halcyonics active isolation platform, ($8500 at the time of its review,) and connected with Soundstring interconnects, which alone cost many times the price of the Pioneer. It was all I had at hand and it was either that or no music. I probably don't even need to mention that it sounded like crap in the context of a reference system. I had been saving up for a real preamp in the event that the Alchemist did not return to life.
Needless to say, I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Adrian from True Harmonix with the No.9 in tow. At $1500, the price of the No.9 was modest in comparison to the Alchemist pre, which if sold new today would probably retail somewhere in the range of $12,000 or more, but was a huge step in the right direction from the perspective of the Pioneer RC-760.
I installed the No.9 in my system just as I had the Pioneer and the Alchemist before it, sitting on the Halcyonics platform and connected with Soundstring cables. I've become a big fan of equipment isolation. Tube equipment, given the microphonic sensitivity of tubes, stands to benefit greatly from proper isolation, so I was confident that I could squeeze performance out of the No.9.
One last thing I should mention about setup. My entire system is cabled with balanced connections. As with the Pioneer switching unit, I had to connect the No.9 with single-ended-to-balanced adaptors to the balanced lines connecting the pre-amp to my active crossovers, which have balanced only inputs; and I had to switch from balanced interconnects from my Esoteric universal player to single ended interconnects to the No.9.
I had the impression, not confirmed, that the review sample was not a fresh out of the box example. Even so, the sound of the No. 9 was brittle and constricted when initially powered up. Playing the Analogue Productions re-issue of the Duke Ellington, Ray Brown disc, "This One's For Blanton" produced edgy piano and indistinct bass. The edges of notes seemed a bit blurred. Also, the sound stage seem to inhabit the space from behind the speakers to slightly in front of the plane of the speakers, but did not extend much further into the room. This gave the impression of looking in upon the musical event rather than being immersed in it. Interestingly, even at this stage of break-in, the No. 9 created a nicely dimensional space around each instrument. I left the No.9 on during the entire review period and its sound continued to evolve for the next couple of weeks.
Eventually, the No.9 lost all its rough edges and started showing its true performance envelope. Everything about this preamp, including its audio performance, says to me that it is intended for use in the context of a modest setup, in a smallish room. There was a clear volume point above which the sound would start to bunch up. Even though it was sitting on an isolation platform that shielded it from structure born vibration, the No.9 was not protected from acoustic feedback and, I suspect, was sensitive to it. Below that critical volume point, however, the No.9 was an extremely adequate performer.
For a tube design, the No.9 had quite good extension at both ends of the spectrum. Bass went down reasonably deep and the treble was not dull or obviously rolled off. When the music required bombast and dynamic contrast, as with Ginger Baker's 1996 Atlantic HDCD release, Falling off the Roof with Bill Frisell and Charlie Haden, the No.9 provided a very listenable presentation. Dynamics were good, and the soundstage gave each player his own space with reasonably good width and depth. Rim shots and cymbal shimmer were well represented within the limitations allowed by the recording and the media.
Playing cut one on Ray Charles' Concord SACD release Genius Loves Company, a duet with Norah Jones, SACDs extra air and space and more relaxed and open presentation were all easily observable. The No.9 did not overly romanticize the sound or cover up flaws in the recordings the way some tube gear can. Bad recordings still sounded bad and good ones sounded good, but the No.9 erred on the forgiving side.
A disc that has been in heavy rotation, Lyrical Worker by the artist Katisse out of LA faired well with the No.9. This is a 2008 release and is Jazz fusion at its best: Katisse Buckingham: Tenor, Alto, Soprano Saxophones, Vocals, Flute, Alto Flute, Programming and Keyboards. There are a variety of other players as well but I'll leave you to discover on the artist website. All music and lyrics are by Katisse. Though he is adept at a variety of instruments, what really stands out on this disc is the flute playing. Not since Jethro Tull has an artist employed the flute to such good effect, albeit in a different Genre. If you are a fan of fusion, you need this disc, which incorporates elements of Hip Hop, Rap, Funk and R&B in a tasty Jazz workout. You can only pick this up at the artist's website: www.katisse.com or, if you're in LA, stop by the Baked Potato and catch his act. You won't be sorry.
In my listening experience, there are some things about a piece of equipment that are immediately noticeable when it is first introduced to my system, and some things that are more apparent at the point when the gear is removed and the system goes back to its original configuration. I believe this is a result of the ear/brain having adjusted to the sound so that certain aspects of the presentation no longer seem to stand out. This was true with the No.9. Right at the end of the review period, my reference Alchemist Preamp was returned. When I switched out the No.9 for the Alchemist there were some very interesting contrasts. The Alchemist was far superior at filling the room with a more open presentation. The soundstage was now immersive in a way that the No.9 simply couldn't pull off. Bass and dynamics were also noticeably better. It was also obvious that the No.9 had a much warmer sound, with the Alchemist sounding almost lean in contrast. This was not really a fair contest in many ways since the Alchemist is a much more ambitious design costing many times the price of the No .9, but it was certainly helpful for zeroing in on what the No.9 could and couldn't do.
Though clearly not a giant killer, I was impressed by just how much performance a $1500 entry level tube preamp could provide. For its price point, the No.9 is an excellent performer that will reward its owner with a very satisfying musical experience. The No.9 neatly sidesteps most of the traditionally weaknesses of tube design, providing excellent extension and a clean, clear presentation while retaining the warmth and space for which tube designs are admired. For anyone shopping in this price range, the No. 9 is an easy recommendation.
I only experienced one issue while this preamp was in my system. Midway through the review, I switched to a new interconnect I had in for try out. The No. 9 simply did not like this cable and sounded muddy and sluggish with it. Normally, I would blame such a result on the interaction of high output impedance with the cable impedance, but in this case, given the No.9's very reasonable <300 ohm spec, I'm at a loss to explain it.
Still, as always, you need to hear it for yourself to make sure it meets your requirements. It's definitely worth a listen, and to make it even better, Adrian of True Harmonix mentioned a limited time discount on this unit of $1200. If it sounds like it might be right for you, check it out now! Will Wright
Sound Master Linestage No. 9 V.2
Distributed by True Harmonix