as reviewed by Carol Clark, Victor Chavira,Larry Cox, and Art Shapiro
Tuesday night, the house is quiet, so I had a perfect opportunity to listen to the Electrocompaniet EC 4.6 preamp. No distractions, or so I thought. I cued up Massive Attacks "Inertia Creeps," turned up the volume, and sat back to enjoy. Halfway through the song, I heard a frantic knocking on the front door. Fearing the worst, I leaped up without bothering to turn down the volume, only to find a door-to-door salesman! I fear I was rather rude, slamming the door in his face. I restarted the CD, and again sank back into relaxed listening mode. It sounded pretty nice, but more on that later. As the song was fading out, I realized the phone was ringing. It was Francisco, one of the audioMUSINGS partners. We had a brief conversation, then I hurried back to the EC. Finally, there were no further distractions.
I popped in This Timeless Turning, a favorite CD of mine by the band Sky Cries Mary. One track I really like is called "Every Iceberg is Afire." As it started, I remembered a note I had received from Ben Ireland, Sky Cries Marys drummer. He told me that while they were recording that track, a phone started ringing in the studio. Every time Ive listened to it since, I try to hear the phone, but the track sounded so incredible this time, I forgot to listen for it. All of a sudden, I heard it. In fact, I thought it was my phone. I picked up the cordless and, thinking that the answering machine had already taken the call, carried it all the way over there before I realized that the phone hadnt rung at all. With the EC, not only can you hear the phone ringing on this track, but it sounds real!
This preamp sounds incredible! The soundstage is wide and deep, and it projects into the room in front of the speakers, something that I always enjoy. The upper ranges are not brittle sounding, even on tracks that are poorly recorded. The lower ranges are deep, and not muddy. Vocals are very well reproduced. Dave and I are inveterate CD collectors, and have so many that I sometimes forget one, but Ive recently rediscovered a CD by the artist Lamb. I played the track called "Gorecki," which starts out slowly with just a female voice and some piano, then layers on other instruments until it becomes a full-fledged wall of sound. The EC projected sounds into the room in such a way that I thought some of them were coming from outside the house.
When I reviewed the Sim Moon I5 integrated amp in Issue 5, I discovered that some of my test recordings are poorly recorded. I found this to be true of Dead Can Dances Toward The Within and This Timeless Turning. Both CDs sounded brittle, even when I returned from the Moon to our Blue Circle BC3. On the EC, neither sounded brittle. Another track on This Timeless Turning that I like to use is called "These Old Bones." In the past, the female voice has tended to sound a bit bright. With the EC, it sounded smooth and pleasing. The same goes for "Dont Fade Away," my favorite track on Toward The Within.
EC is moderately priced; it actually costs less than the BC3 we currently use. When I
first heard the BC3, I fell in love with it for qualities similar to those I heard with
the Electrocompaniet. Considering its price, the EC4.6 is a steal.
Ive recently had a chance to listen to several Electrocompaniet products. What all have in common is an unusual level of quiet that accompanies their balanced operation and, to a slightly lesser extent, their single-ended operation. Melody is clearly presented, notes emerge from a transparent background, and there is a sense of immediacy to all music. This is good stuff. The EC 4.6 preamp is a really strong product, and should fly off the shelves of dealers throughout the world. To my way of thinking, this is the kind of mature product that the high end needs to see more of. It is physically small, and has a bomb-proof build. It controls volume and balance by remote. It sounds wonderful, transporting musical events into your living room. Oh, and its beautiful to look at. Why arent there more products like it? Ugly black boxes reflect the hobbyist origins of high fidelity, but were continually seeing really expensive products that are simply awful to look at. Lets have stuff thats easy to use, and looks and sounds great!
The 4.6 is a rich-sounding preamp that palpably presents the naturally occurring vibrato of violins, guitars, and vocals as sound emanating from the movement of air. In my system, music jelled into a corporeal excitation of my whole body. I connected my Classe CA100 amp to the EC 4.6 in balanced operation, using an Acrotec interconnect. Balanced mode was preferable, as there seemed to be less of a "hush" and perhaps less "speed" to music in single-ended operation, though the pairing still sounded good that way. Perhaps you know what I mean when I say the "hush" of a live event, where people wait somewhat breathlessly for music to start. Its a non-musical part of music reproduction, a sense that anything is possible at the next moment.. The quiet of the EC 4.6, whether in balanced or unbalanced mode, allows images to be presented precisely, in a way which is initially a little unnerving but ultimately quite satisfying. While image outlines werent as deeply inscribed in the soundstage as they are with some other preamps, there was a weight to the images that made the presentation very enjoyable. What I like about my E.A.R. 802 preamp, and tubes in general, is that they present vocals with a liquidity, or fullness and continuousness of tone that solid state generally doesnt have. When a female vocalist has an especially beautiful voice, like Johnatha Brown, Emmylou Harris, or Mary Black, vocals are just that much more bell-like in clarity and tone. In my system, the EC comes the closest to presenting the valued properties of tubes as any solid state preamp Ive heard.
The tonal balance of the EC was satisfying as well. If I were in the market right now, and didnt own the E.A.R. preamp, I could happily own the EC. The E.A.R. seemed ever so slightly better at sustained tone, though I confess that I had to switch back and forth between the two preamps four or five times to come up with a preference for the E.A.R. In fact, it was only in the comparison between the two that I noticed any graininess in the EC. It is possible that, over time, the graininess would rise more to the fore, but it didnt present itself during my listening. Tonally, the 802 and 4.6s presentations were very similar, and both strike me as being quite right. Frequency extension was good with the ECnot awesome, but providing a listening experience that called for more late night listening than more strikingly extended products. In comparing the E.A.R. to the EC, both seemed equally, though somewhat differently extended. The EC seemed to have slightly better definition of bottom end transients, but at the cost of the E.A.R.s slightly better pitch definition. With electric bass guitar you may not detect any difference; what Im describing only showed up on recordings of acoustic bass. The overall presentation of the EC was of the laid back variety. Nothing was "in your face," which is nice in my estimation. Horns can sometimes be quite "blary" and a little forward sounding, but those qualities usually show up during transient peaks, as is appropriate. Except when called for, little about the EC would qualify as "forward." In short, the Electrocompaniet 4.6 preamp presented all the detail I wanted, without shoving it in my face or requiring extra effort to hear music. That works for me.
Soundstaging, that (to me) unimportant audiophile gauge of performance, was again a slightly mixed bag compared to the E.A.R., but was in the upper echelon. Images, as with other exceptional preamps, were rock solid, at least in the left/right plane, lending a heightened sense of realism to the presentation. Image depth was less exceptional, but to me that parameter is mostly baloney. Image outlines are more clearly delineated than with the E.A.R., but Im not sure that this is musically significant to me. I include this "criticism" for the sake of completeness, not because the ECs performance was lacking in my mind.
makes some of the most balanced, enjoyable music-making equipment under the sun.
Isnt it nice to think that someone delivers a product whose looks imply the
craftsmanship of Cartier or Rolex, along with the equivalent sound quality?
Not long ago I was against adding anything between the Mullard-tubed output of my CD player and the input of my amp. Since then, Ive learned that my system truly sounds best when given a healthy signal to work with. Unfortunately, the analog output of my CD player barely qualifies. Over the past year, my system has been home to fine preamps from Alternate Audio, Blue Circle, and Reference Line. Why I continue to listen sans preamp is simple economics. A preamp of sufficient transparency costs serious money. Thankfully, SCEs Harmonic Recovery System passed my way, and was just the right thing for my system. The HRS strengthens my signal like a dose of Viagra.
Electrocompaniet is a Scandinavian company that has been producing highly regarded audio components for more than twenty years. Their trademark glass faceplates give EC products a stylish, high-tech, Euro look. The 4.6 is ECs top level preamp. Four machined brass knobs control input, tape monitor, volume, and balance. Tiny blue lights accent the brass knob settings. Inside, the 4.6 contains motorized volume and balance pots, a toroidal power transformer, and a densely packed circuit board. The preamp features fully balanced differential circuitry and a variety of grounding options. Interconnects with large RCAs might have trouble fitting, as the inputs are spaced rather close together in this slim design.
Before listening to the 4.6, I removed the HRS from the system to minimize component interaction and the need for another set of interconnects. The 4.6 was plugged directly into the wall and placed atop my CD player. I anticipated that the EC would have loads of drive, but I was disappointed to learn that it didnt. It provides a maximum output of 10mV, whereas the Alternate Audio BCAP and the Blue Circle deliver 15 and 25 mVs respectively. Before I describe the sound of the EC in my system, I should describe the sound of my system without it. The system sounds like the flavor of my favorite Starbucks drink: a nonfat, easy-on-the-chocolate mocha. The sound is warm, not too sweet, airy, with just the right amount of kick. With the 4.6 on board, the sound shifted towards neutral. In fact, I found it too neutral for my taste. For example, with the soundtrack from Mighty Joe Young, the vibrancy and spaciousness of sound became subdued. At the same time, bass was more controlled and orchestral images slightly more refined.
Elaine Elias Sings Jobim is a pleasant disc, although the word "sings in the title is a bit of a misnomer. Elias doesnt truly sing so much as vocalize the lyrics. Without the EC in the system, her understated voice sounds breathy and full. The EC made it sound somber. I realized that the EC doesnt enhance the transient edges of sounds as some preamps do, nor did I find that it conveyed a sense of air or bloom to the music. Rather, the EC safely stayed on the middle path, neither detracting nor adding to music. Its centrist nature was evident with other recordings, such as the excellent soundtrack from the movie Life is Beautiful. Without the EC, Offenbachs Barcarole sounded open and spacious. With it, the music was clean and direct, with noticeably less hall.
I cannot fault
the EC for doing its job too well. It faithfully passes on the signal to its next level of
amplification without distortion or coloration. Given my preference for dipolar panels and
tubes, it should come as no surprise that I prefer a more vibrant character in music
reproduction. Without getting into arguments of correctness, I found the EC 4.6 to be too
"safe" sounding for my ears.
Electrocompaniet, the Norwegian company with the almost unpronounceable name, is not extremely familiar to me. Their advertising, with its somewhat "retro" appearance, is distinctive, but I havent frequently encountered Electrocompaniet products in my audio pursuits. At the New York Stereophile Show three years ago, I was quite impressed by a system in which a Kharma speakers and DAC, driven by a CEC transport, were paired with Electrocompaniet electronics. It was one of the better systems in that years show but, to the best of my recollection, my only experience with this companys merchandise, so when audioMUSINGS offered me the chance to evaluate the Electrocompaniet EC4.6 remote-control preamp, I was delighted. Unfortunately, the remote control got left behind at the previous reviewers home, and the distance was sufficient to discourage me from fetching it, so my first encounter with a remotely controllable preamp was, alas, not to be. Sigh.
The EC4.6 is an attractive unit. I appreciated its gold-and-black aesthetics and solid construction. The well-made jacks were just far enough apart to allow the use of my Monster M-Sigma 2000 interconnects, with their bulky connectors. Cables are gripped extremely tightly, which was a bit of a hassle due to the constant cable switching needed to compare the EC to my existing preamp, but will be a virtue in most real-world situations. One unique touch was a tiny blue LED embedded in the surface of each of the knobs, allowing one to discern their positions from across the room. I liked it! The width of the unit posed some problems, as it slightly exceeded the capacity of the shelf in my rack-mount rack. As we rack-mounters are now an extreme minority, this shouldnt affect most potential buyers, but I had to jury-rig a ramshackle assembly of a chair and several unabridged dictionaries in order to situate the preamp where my 1-meter Monsters could be used.
I was never able to totally eliminate a moderate hum problem with the EC in my system, despite attention to cable dressing. Usually it was obscured by the slight traffic noise of Interstate 5 a couple hundred yards away, but at certain times the house was quiet enough that I could hear the hum from my listening position. Usually, although not always, various audiophile tricks will reduce hum to inaudibility. As I only had the preamp for a couple of weeks, I decided to just accept the problem and concentrate on assessing the sonics. Not being given an owners manual or any documentation, I cannot guess the purpose of several of the imposing array of input jacks, such as "CD-" and "CD+". I simply plugged the cables from my DAC into a pair of jacks labeled "CD" and fed the amplifiers from one of the sets of output jacks. Sensitivity in this configuration was fine, giving me a quite appropriate rotational range on the volume control. It was a real pleasure to have a continuous volume potentiometer, affording the luxury of playing at exactly the volume I desired. I just dont care for stepped volume controls such as the one on my Convergent (CAT) preamp, despite the theoretical advantages. Having no balanced equipment, I made no use of the Electrocompaniets balanced facilities. As this is a linestage preamp, my phono gear played no part in the evaluation. At first I used the CATs stock power cord with the EC, as well as my usual input and output cables. In my last couple of days with the unit, I discovered that Marigo RMX Reference C power cord sitting unused on the floor, was an excellent match with the Electrocompaniet. The Marigo remedied to some degree my sonic concerns with the unit, as well as allowing both preamps to be powered up at all time.
We reviewers are supposed to inform the readership of our personal biases, so as to contextualize our pontifications. One of mine is that I generally dont care for solid state preamps, despite having an otherwise solid state system. Solid state preampsIve tried manyjust dont provide the musical satisfaction I desire. When I tell you of my strong preference for tube preamps, I say so not as some snotty "tubes rule" audiophile, but rather as a martyr of the School of Hard Knocks. So did the solid-state Electrocompaniet EC4.6 have a chance in this system, compared against not only a considerably more expensive tube preamplifier, but one that is considered by many to be one of the finest products on the planet?
Upon installation of the EC in my system, my almost-immediate impressions remained constant over its tenure here. This is a very clean-sounding component, perhaps stereotypically solid state in this regard. While noticeably less warm than the CATitself perhaps a smidgen too dry for this system as currently tubedthe EC most decidedly does not cross the line into the horribly sterile sonics that plague some solid state units. It is revealing, but not brutally so. While I couldnt revel in the glorious nuances and harmonics of the music as portrayed by the CAT, I could appreciate the honest, direct presentation of melody and the consequent ability to reveal the complex intertwining of concurrent thematic lines. The EC is a very extended preamp at both ends of the musical spectrum.
The CAT is no slouch at the bass end, but the Electrocompaniet was better. The somewhat-suspect bottom octave of my ESP Concert Grand speakers was certainly aided by the formidable low end of the EC. Although my listening is almost entirely "classical," with an extreme emphasis on the piano repertoire, I keep several popular discs primarily to test and to show off The System. On Bela Flecks "Flight of the Cosmic Hippo," the subterranean, wallowing bottom notes of the electric bass never sounded better. Ditto for the electric bass on the Bruce Katz Bands "Crescent Crawl," on an Audioquest CD. There was lots of punch and impact, and it was a real plus in this system. Friend and fellow audioMUSINGS reviewer Mark Katz, who heard the unit on several instances, felt that this was not so much greater low-end extension but a better sense of control. Maybe so; in any event the bass presentation of the Electrocompaniet was marvelous.
My third impression, doubtlessly a byproduct of the first two, was of a very "powerful" preamplifier. Music wowed me with its projection and rhythmic drive when the EC was in my system. This was a decided asset to my musical enjoyment when I chose to listen at quieter volume levels. I played a track from Mahlers Des Knabens Wunderhorn, on a Sony CD featuring Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Daniel Barenboim. The lightly whacked bass drum that forms a rhythmic foundation to the "Revelge" movement was more prominent on the EC than with the CAT, a musically desirable difference. On the other hand, the rich resonance of Fischer-Dieskaus baritone voice was more glorious through the CAT, with a greater sense of palpability. The voice was more realistic with the tubed unit, but had a greater sense of power through the Electrocompaniet. Although relatively insensitive to imaging concerns, I thought the voice was better situated through the CAT.
Turning to a recital by the Russian piano virtuoso Sergei Tasarov, I chose the Fantasy in B Minor by Alexander Scriabin, a massive yet broodingly serious work. On this acoustically live concert performance, one cannot fail to appreciate the rich harmonic structure of the pieces huge chords as depicted by the CAT. On the other hand, the melodic framework was easier to discern when using the Electrocompaniet, by virtue of its drier, cleaner presentation. I could appreciate this benefit of the EC, although my ultimate preference would be for the CAT. At times I sensed a slight trace of hollowness in the solid state units portrayal of the piano that was not evident with the CAT. I have often commented on the slightly understated top end of the musical spectrum on a Dorian CD of pianist Ivan Moravec performing a Chopin recital, one that gives an trace of dullness to the sonics. The punchiness and exceptional treble extension of the EC counteracted that flaw of this particular recording, though again at the expense of a slight amount of the harmonic richness to which Im accustomed.
Perhaps the most curious dichotomy between the two preamps occurred in listening to a Sony recording of a Mozart flute trio featuring Jean-Pierre Rampal, Isaac Stern, and Mstislav Rostropovich. Through the CAT, the flute clearly is the star of the show, overshadowing the cello and violin; this strikes me as appropriate for this unusual combination of instruments. The balance was noticeably altered when the EC was substituted, with the three instruments now presented essentially as equals. I would not have suspected this was the same recording. The sound was generally less rich, and the flute somewhat flatter sounding. If anything, there was a slight emphasis to the cello through the Electrocompaniet. This was the only piece I encountered in my auditioning that gave me a substantially different sonic perspective with the two units.
To provide a spotlight on a diverse selection of orchestral instruments, I chose another Sony recording, that of the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra with Zubin Mehta conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. As before, the EC provided excellent resolution of the competing simultaneous melodic lines throughout this work. A massed viola passage that introduces the secondary theme of the Intermezzo movement was markedly richer through the CAT, and simply more realistic. This CD was only one among many that provoked Mark to comment on the somewhat flatter spatial imaging through the EC. The beautiful harmonic richness of the CAT is what leads me to deem it the component of choice.
My notes for numerous other pieces compared through both preamps are not further illuminating; over and over again it was a matter of the EC spotlighting the melodic fundamentals of the music, and the CAT providing a harmonically rich musical experience. We took the EC to Marks house one afternoon, comparing it with the slightly less expensive tubed Kora preamp in his main system. In that system, with his huge Melos 400wpc tubed monoblocks powering Sound Lab A-1 speakers, there were no surprises. The Electrocompaniet was discernibly cleaner and drier than the Kora, and on the types of music we both favor, the Kora was consistently preferred. Mark, far more sensitive and concerned about imaging and soundstaging than I, was consistently distressed with the image compression and flattening of the Norwegian preamp.
a nutshell, the Electrocompaniet EC4.6 might be used to illustrate the sonic
characteristics of a solid state preampno, make that a good solid state preamp. No
condescending, raised-nose, negative emotional implications are intended by that
statement. The EC is detailed and revealing without being antiseptic. There is no sense of
grain to diminish ones enjoyment. One gets an excellent sense of melodic flow,
though at the expense of some of the subtleties of the musical art. The ECs
cleanliness is augmented by an exceptionally dynamic, powerful, punchy presentation, while
the frequency extremes, especially the bottom end, can coax the best out of a woofer. On
the other hand, along with the reduced sense of harmonic richness, the EC4.6 does not
possess the glorious spaciousness of sound presented by a great tubed unit. Ergonomics and
aesthetics are intelligently implemented in this preamp, and it gives one an impression of
quality and solidarity. In my system, in which "classical" music, especially
piano music, forms the bulk of the listening, the sonic characteristics of the CAT readily
identified it as the product of choice. I suspect that the EC4.6 may well receive rave
comments from listeners more disposed toward popular music, a genre in which all of these
characteristics could be considered laudable.