…and Steve says – A modern preamp or
traditional line stage, two options for the budget minded enthusiast: the Wyred4Sound mPRE and Belles Soloist 3
Preamps and line stages are the heart of any component audio system, tying all the sources and inputs together and sending the signal to the amplifiers and speakers. Their position in the signal path puts them in a position to impose a great deal of character on the overall sound, making them difficult products to design and execute. This becomes more of an issue, of course, as the price range goes down, meaning there generally aren't a lot of great choices for budget minded audiophiles.
Also, since for many people looking in the under $2000 range for amplification, integrated amps seem to be the popular choice, it doesn't appear that too many companies are all that interested in building or selling high quality preamps or line stages in the near $1000 price point (assuming about a 50/50 split between preamp and power amp). It is hard to find a low cost preamp/power amp combination that performs at a really high level, or that can surpass a $1200 to $2000 integrated amp.
But still, there are those of us that want the flexibility of having separate components.
In the old days, before the advent of CD and the move for many people away from vinyl, there were mostly preamps, and very few line stages. Of course back then the defining aspect of a preamp was the inclusion of a phono stage, with the attendant additional amplification and equalization necessary for playing records, which were the primary source of music. Line stages, by definition, have only line level inputs.
Well, in spite of the resurgence of vinyl, and its continued use by many audiophiles, line stages dominate the market now, and it's generally up to the listener to acquire a separate phono stage for their record playback. Same with digital listeners; if you are using a music server or computer for your digital listening, you generally have to by a separate DAC to play your files.
Well, the new modern definition of preamp doesn't necessarily have to include a phono stage anymore. If your primary source is digital, why not include the DAC and linestage together to make a full function preamp for the modern listener? Wyred4Sound isn't the first company to do this, but after spending the last few months with their mPRE DAC/preamp, I'd say they certainly understand what this type of product needs to do.
On the other hand, what if you don't use a computer, but listen to your digital tunes from a disk player or a dedicated server with line level outputs? What if you already have acquired a good DAC for connecting your computer to your system? Or, what if you simply don't want to get tied into having your DAC combined into your preamp, and would just prefer a linestage, but still want to keep the price near or under the $1000 mark. There still aren't many choices that don't look like someone's DIY project. Well, Powermodules offers up the Belles Solist 3 just for that purpose; a classic, solid state line stage.
This wasn't really meant as a comparison, or one-on-one competition between these two components, but rather, a look at two examples of what a price conscious audiophile can look for when setting up a system without spending large sums of money. Both are the entry level (from a price standpoint) from their respective companies, and both companies offer preamps (or line stages) that are substantially more upscale in both design and pricing.
Both units also share a few basic similarities in that both appear fairly minimalist in nature, offering only minimal controls on their front panels, and eschewing such modern functions like bass management, subwoofer outputs, or internal crossovers (3). They do offer a few features that differ from each other. The Soloist 3 has a balance control, something I find highly valuable when listening to vinyl, and the mPRE has a built-in headphone amp. Also, they both come with relatively full function remotes. The W4S mPRE remote handles volume, mute, standby, and input switching, while the Belles Soloist remote also handles power, mute, volume, and switching a home theater bypass/monitor. The remote is required for switching inputs on the Soloist.
The other nice thing about both units is that, though they are very well built, both are relatively small and don't take up a lot of space. I suppose some audiophiles who need their large fancy cases might disagree about that being a good thing, I quite like the compact designs.
Okay, let's take a look at the two individually, and see what they offer. Both were used with a wide variety of gear (4) and given plenty of break-in time before being evaluated. Having just removed the full upgraded $2200 Jolida Fusion line stage from my system, these had big, if frustrating (5), shoes to fill.
Wyred4Sound mPRE ($1099)
Housed in the same sized (and relatively small) case as the W4S MiNT integrated amp, and the mAmp monoblocks (reviewed by Francisco Duran in issue 69), the mPRE combines a multiple input DAC (USB, SP/DIF and TOSLINK) with an active gain solid-state line stage. In addition to the three digital inputs, it also offers three line level inputs (two RCA, one balanced XLR), so you can hook up your phono pre, a physical disk player, tuner or other line level components. Switching inputs is easily handled by either scrolling through them with the remote or directly accessing each input with a button on the front panel. There is a bright blue LED for each input to let you know which you have selected. There is a front panel ¼ inch headphone jack that automatically mutes the output when you plug headphones in.
There are also three outputs; one XLR balanced, one standard RCA, and a second RCA that is selectable via a rear panel switch as either a fixed output (for recording or use with a headphone amp) or variable. There is a 12-volt trigger (in and out)
And of course, there are the three digital inputs.
I love the look and feel of the mPRE. Its modern, somewhat industrial appearance gives it a purposeful stance on the shelf. The layout of the front panel (digital on the left of the volume control, analog to the right) makes sense and is quick and easy to remember (something important when you are constantly switching gear in and out of your system). The rear panel is nicely laid out, though a little tight if you have oversized connectors on your cables. I had no trouble with my Morrow Audio MA1, but the Vermouth Audio Black Pearl (6) were a little tough to fit.
After hooking the mPRE up in my system (using a Straightwire USB LINK for the server PC), my first check (after giving it an hour to warm up) was simply a noise check. At first a nasty hum came through the speakers, but a quick reposition of the cables, and plugging the mPRE into a different input on my Monster HTS2000 power line conditioner resolved that. With the high efficiency Tekton Lore speakers hooked up, and the Jolida JD1000P amp (100 watts, EL34 tubes) there was effectively nothing. No noise, no hums, no whooshing sounds, even with the volume all the way up. Still not the eerie total absence of sound that I had with the ModWright KWI200 integrated amp, but no added noise was heard.
Though I knew I needed to give the mPRE 100 hours or so of break in, I did sit down and play some tunes from the server just to make sure it was working, and unfortunately, it was kind of a let down (7). Things just sounded dull, flat, just not involving. My son, who had recently spent a good deal of time listening to the system, walked in and actually commented "Hey pops, what wrong with the system?" I explained the new component and the need for break-in. He shook his head, obviously thinking it was just me and my obsessions.
Over the next week, I ran the system all day long while we were at work, which gave it about sixty hours of break in time, while not otherwise listening to it at all. Then, the following week, I gave it another shot. Some will dispute this, but that week of break in made a ton of difference. From the line level, listening to LPs, there was plenty of dynamics, clarity and resolution. Swapping between the various phono stages at my disposal, the differences, both the major ones and the subtlest, were still clearly rendered. There was a nice sense of precision, something I hear from better quality solid-state devices that sometimes is lacking in tube products (at least the lower cost ones).
Switching to the server, to try out the built in DAC, things were quite promising. I really liked the W4S mDAC when I had it in my system for my Computer Audio on the Cheap article (issue 66). I expected to get similar sound here, since this built in DAC is essentially the same as the mDAC (8). There was that powerful bottom end, the huge, relatively well fleshed out sound stage, yet something was missing. I knew at the end of my time with the mDAC, I had better sound than I was getting here. Something was amiss.
Of course, it was that I had, by the end of my time with the mDAC, acquired the iFi audio iUSB power supply, which made every USB DAC I used with it sound better. I checked with the fine folks at Wyred4Sound, to see if, with its internal power supply, the mPRE DAC still used the USB power source from the PC, and yes, it did. I quickly put the iUSB back in the system between the PC and preamp, and BANG! There was the sound I was looking for. This was a big part of reason the iUSB got my Writer's Choice Award!
Now, things were cooking.
Mixing up 16/44 (ripped from CD) and 24/96 files (mostly FLAC, some Apple Lossless, a few WAV either from HD Tracks or ripped form DVD or Blue Ray) on my server and playing for hours in shuffle mode, I was getting some exceptional sound. One thing I love about using a server instead of a disk player is that rather than finding myself using a handful of "reference disks" to evaluate gear, I find it much more insightful to have my system randomly play music instead. It lets me know fairly quickly what my system is doing with my music, rather than a few specific sounds from a few test tracks. Of course it makes it difficult to list specific musical references in the article. But then, I don't expect many readers to share my musical taste, so if I mention a guitar lick from Iron Kim Style's eponymous first (and only) album, or the cello tone on Oak & Gorski's Good Advice, Bad Advice, does it really mean much to you?
Over the next few months, I came to appreciate the mPRE a great deal. It doesn't sound like an inexpensive or budget preamp at all. Sure, it doesn't have that sense of aliveness or palpability that you can get from a much more expensive tube preamp, but what you do get is clarity, a good presentation of dynamics, extended grain free highs, and nicely defined extended bass. Voices are well rendered, with no tendency to cause any chestiness in male voice or nasally sounds from female vocalists.
In the context of my system, it made for an extremely easy to listen to, comfortable sound. Its presentation is a little close up, putting the soundstage right there in front of you. Again, spending twice the price or more on a tube line stage will put more apparent distance between you and the music, and hang the images in a more organic space, but you would have to decide for yourself if that difference is worth the money.
A few operational things need to be mentioned. One, whether due to the output impedance, or gain, or sensitivity or just the nature of all the power amps I used, I noticed I had to turn the volume up quite a bit. Normal listening was up past half-way on the dial, and slightly loud listening was two-thirds or more. This wasn't really an issue, as there was no increase in background noise doing this. In return, I found that, especially when using the remote, I could dial in really small changes in volume when needed. A quick tap on the remote resulted in a barely perceptible change in volume. I liked that. Too many times I've had remotes where I would want a volume in-between, but just couldn't achieve it.
Another thing, that wasn't really an issue for me but might be for some of you, is that the mPRE does sound better if left on all the time. When I would have to power it down completely, it would take a couple hours to really sound its best again after powering it up. I've noticed this in a lot of solid-state devices, so I'm not singling the mPRE out for this. I left it on whenever it was in my system.
The headphone amp included seems like a decent, functional amp as long as you have fairly easy to drive, or lower impedance headphones. It sounded fine with my son's Sennheiser HD201 headphones, but struggled with my Beyerdymanic DT770Pro 600 ohm headphones. Maybe it was an unfair comparison, since I have the wonderful sounding Schiit Audio Valhalla normally driving my Beyers. The mPRE's headphone amp did compete well with the headphone output of the Audioquest Dragonfly or the iFi iDAC, while allowing listening to any of my sources and using the remote for volume control. If you plan on using the headphone output the mPRE, just pick your headphones accordingly.
On the other hand, using the fixed output of the mPRE to drive the Schiit Valhalla, it was totally transparent when playing digital files from the server, and sounded wonderful when listening to vinyl. I did try switching the output to variable so I could make use of the remote for adjusting volume, but it did add a little noise and lessened transparency. The folks at both Schiit and W4S recommended against using it that way.
But in day-to-day use as both a DAC and preamp, I was happy as can be. I had a clear, dynamic, nicely transparent window in my whole musical collection. The mPRE turned out to be an exceptionally clean, neutral and lively preamp that I could listen to without complaint. Highly recommended.
Belles Soloist 3 Linestage ($939)
This is one of those cases where I have long wanted to try product from a company, but took many years to finally have the chance. I first heard of Belles amplifiers after they started up when an acquaintance bought a Belles 150 power amp shortly after it hit the market in the 1980s. Since then, whenever I've heard a system with Belles amplification, it always seemed to have beautiful sense of musicality that often is lacking in systems with higher power solid-state amps.
Nowadays, the Belles line includes three distinct levels of products. They have their Statement Series of pricey tube preamps and solid state power amps, and their Reference Series of tube hybrid preamps and moderately priced power amps (including the latest generation of the venerable Belles 150). They also now include the budget oriented Soloist series of solid-state components; line stage, power amp, integrated amp and phono stage. For this article, I requested and received the Soloist 3 Line Stage.
In many ways the Soloist 3 is a traditional line stage. It has five line level inputs (RCA only) and one "monitor" input. It has two main outputs and one monitor output (perfect for hooking up the headphone amp). Two knobs on the front handle volume and balance (9). As mentioned earlier, source switching is via the remote only, so don't lose it, and keep a spare set of batteries handy.
The Soloist 3 might put itself at a bit of a disadvantage with some audiophiles right off the bat, simply because it looks too small, feels too light, and doesn't fit the modern idea of what a "high-end" product should be. Don't be fooled though, this line stage is very well built, and very much designed and built with a purpose, and that purpose is to offer great sound at a reasonable price.
Setting up the Soloist 3 was easy, though the spacing of the inputs again made the larger connectors of the Vermouth cables a little tough to secure. The more standard sized connectors of the Morrow Audio cables (and my old Nordosts) fit easily. It had been suggested to me that the unit would need a hundred hours or more of break in, so this also went through the daily playing while I off at work, until it had enough hours on it. One quirk, that stumped me for a couple minutes, was that on initial power up, the Soloist put itself in "Monitor" mode, and no sound came out. Once I figured out that you have to select an input and turn off the monitor function, everything was fine. There were no issues with noise of any kind, being purely a consequence of which power amp I had in the system.
The end result was surprisingly good and totally musical. I guess modern solid-state design doesn't have to suffer from the graininess, the flatness, and the lack of liveness that would have been expected, especially from a moderately priced product, in the past. Those expectations, realized with other moderately priced products I've tried over the past twenty plus years, are largely why I've stayed with my old PS Audio 4H preamp (always operated in passive mode). It's been a little difficult for me to pinpoint exactly what it is about the Soloist 3 that just sounds so right, but I've been trying to figure out how to describe it for a couple of months now.
First, there was a level of transparency that I just wouldn't have expected from budget product, regardless of the technology behind it. Music just happened, just flowed into the room, with no added character. Whatever power amp I hooked up, that's the sound I got. Change phono stages, and that's the character I heard. Swap DACs (10) and that what my server sounded like.
The perspective was a little more distant, and less up front, giving a deep, very dimensional soundstage. Images were nicely sized, and not overly pinpointed in space, which, in my opinion, sounds more natural. Although imaging in most of the music I listen to is unnatural and made up by the recording and mastering engineers, it still does make a difference when it's done well. The perspective of the Soloist 3 fit my music extremely well.
Frequency response was certainly not an issue. Bass is deep, fast, and powerful, certainly more impacted by the choice of power amps than the line stage. High frequencies, often problematic for solid-state gear, were clear, pristine, and free of any anomalies. I will say there was more delicacy and airiness, more ability to float pure high frequencies out into the room, with the better tube line-stages I've tried over the past few years. Then again, that's probably why Belles has more expensive tube line stages in their lineup.
The output level of the Soloist 3 does appear to be quite high. Regardless of what power amp I used, or which speakers I had set up, I rarely had to turn the volume control up more than maybe a quarter turn to achieve a proper listening level. Just to check if it made a difference, I put a set of Harrison Labs 12dB attenuators (11) in line between the Soloist 3 and the power amp, so I could run it more wide-open, but truth be told, it didn't change the character at all. There were no issues with left to right balance or sound quality issues by running the volume control that low.
About the only quibble I had during my time using the Solist 3 was that the remote made it difficult to make really small changes in volume. Even the quickest tap often bumped the volume a little more than I had wanted. When listening to an LP or picking a complete album to listen to from the server it didn't really matter. Listening from the server in shuffle, however, it was a bit of an issue, as no two consecutive tracks ever seem to be at the same level. I don't trust the software based "auto level" adjustments that are supposed to fix that.
Summing up, the Soloist 3 is a thoroughly delightful line stage that can be the center of any two-channel system.
A summary and some further thoughts.
I remember back in the early 1980s, after getting my Linn P12, I decided I needed to upgrade the phono capability of my system. I was using a Sumo Elektra preamp, and thought it to be quite good, but knew I could do better. I kept looking for a preamp under $1500 (12) for my LP only system. All of the solid-state preamps I tried had a characteristic that turned me off. I heard Klyne was wonderful, but was out of my price range. Most of the tube preamps I tried at the time sounded nice (some nicer than others of course) but were generally too noisy. That may have been mostly due to the trend at the time of running low output MC cartridges direct into phono stages loaded at 47K ohms. It wasn't until some years later that I learned the benefits of a properly loaded cartridge.
After a good six months of shopping, evaluating, and listening to as many systems as I could that had a preamp in my price range, I decided to save money, and by the PS Audio 4H ($745 list, but the dealer that I bought my Linn from sold me his demo for $500). Although just an okay preamp when used with its line stage, it offered the ability to switch the line stage out, and run it as a passive device with the power supply just supporting the phono section. Used that way, it turned out to be a wonderfully neutral, transparent and enjoyable choice. It has served me well for close to thirty years. The phono section is still quite good, though certainly bested by something like the new Jolida JD9 with all the upgrades. And it does get a little noisy when loaded below 1000 ohms.
Based on that experience, I've rarely given solid-state preamps or line-stages much thought. Old biases are hard to break. Yet, I have to admit, have to accept, that both the W4S mPRE and Belles Soloist 3 sound better than the PS Audio or for that matter other passive devices I've tried in the past. Both offer the benefits of an active line stage (noticeable mostly in dynamic presentation) without any loss of what the passive device offers (mostly transparency). It might be time to finally retire the old boy, or more likely, save it to use in my son's system after he graduates from college.
But in the here and now, after several months with both the W4S mPRE and the Belles Soloist 3, it is clear that both of these products can be very highly recommended. It really depends on what you are looking for. Just as in the past, where your phono stage was inescapably linked to your preamp (and we were okay with that) if you are looking for a modern preamp for a system incorporating digital sources, the W4S mPRE might be everything you could ask for. It offers great handling of digital sources (just as a great preamp of the past handled your LPs), dynamite sound, plenty of versatility and an exceptional value. Just add a phono stage if you need one, and you have everything covered
On the other hand (there's always another hand…) with the Belles Soloist 3, as a pure and very high quality line-stage, you can pick and choose your DAC if you need one. There are many high quality DACs on the market these days, and with good ones starting at around $200, you start small and upgrade that part of your system later. Do whatever you want. Whatever you hook up, you will achieve a surprisingly high quality sound that will be limited only by the other pieces in your system.
Could I live with either of these pieces? Do I think either of them offers the possibility of being something that I might still be using thirty years from now? Hard to tell, and I'm not sure any product in this price range these days will be used that far down the road. But for the foreseeable future, yes, I certainly could.
Wyred 4 Sound LLC
(3) I had hoped to include the Emotiva XPS-1 in this article, which for $899 included all of these "modern" functions, as well as a MM/MC phono stage (though no internal DAC), but that just didn't work out.
Sources: Linn LP-12 (Ittok Arm,
Dynavector 19acartrtridge) used with either a Jolida JD9 upgraded, iFi iPhono or
the phono stage from my PS Audio 4H preamp; Dell E1505 notebook running JRiver
Media Center 18; iPod Classic on a Pure I-20 dock; iFi iUSB power supply, iFi
iDAC, CEntrance DACport LX.
(5) I have been working on a review of a full Jolida stack (the upgraded JD9 phono, the upgraded Fusion linestage and the JD1000P amp) for too long. I can't quite figure out why these pieces have been so difficult to write about. Short story, they sound wonderful, but have issues in my system that don't seem to manifest themselves in other environments.
(6) Vermouth Audio cables, made in Indonesia, are now available in the US, and are very fairly priced for the quality they offer. Review to come.
(7) Though my background is in the sciences (chemistry, physics, math and statistics) I'd like to have someone with more in depth knowledge of electronics to explain the break in of solid-state components to me. It is real, and most pieces I have tried over the years need a break in period, but I don't fully understand what's going on during that time.
(8) The mPRE's DAC is very similar to the mDAC I wrote about in issue 66, though with a better power supply and isolation, W4S indicated it could perform slightly better than the separate mDAC due to the better power supply. It uses the ESS Sabre DAC and supports 24/192 from all inputs, and of course runs asynchronous USB.
(9) Maybe I'm unnecessarily fixated on balance controls, but over the years I've simply found them to be very useful, especially when listening to LPs.
(10) I used mostly the iFi iDAC, switching in the CEntrance DACport LX occasionally. Both exclusively with the iUSB power supply.
(11) Harrison Labs attenuators are a great way to reduce output of a line level device. I keep a 6 and 12 dB pair handy just in case. They have been totally transparent and character free in any application I've tried them.
(12) A price point picked specifically to include the then new conrad-johnson PV5.