When the cowboys and Arabs draw down on each other at noon. In the cool dusty air of the city boardroom. Will you stand by a passive spectator. (Roger Waters – Home from the album Kaos)
Ever since getting a Nord 500 Ncore power amplifier I have been looking for a good matching preamplifier. My Nuforce P9 made a good fist of it and was pressed into regular service but it is much more expensive than the Nord amplifier and is difficult to get hold of. The Khozmo resistor passive was a good match and gave great detail that suited the Nord power amplifier but it had the drawback of lessening the bass impact and dynamics. Still not bad for £300.
Allegri Passive Controller
Exploring the world of passive controllers there was more promise from transformer passives. There are at least two flavours of transformer passives. The more common transformer volume controllers (TVC) and the rarer Autoformers. TVCs consist of an input coil of wire coupled to a series of output taps (24/36) which gives the variable outputs. The best example being the Music First Amplifiers that have a wide range of controllers with prices going from about £1400 to £9000. Autoformers are different in that they share some parts of the winding between the input and output. They are reported to sound better than TVCs.
The best examples in the UK comes from Max Townshend with the Allegri and Glastonbury controllers. The Glastonbury is a full feature autoformer and costs £9K so was out of my consideration. So, it was the Allegri that I was interested in. Talking to a few people including reviewers and all I heard was very positive (exceedingly so in one case). I had to explore further. The Glastonbury is no longer on their web page so may no longer be in production. The Allegri is a much more reasonable £2,200.
The Allegri uses the same transformers as the Glastonbury and is connected with Max Townshend’s fractal wire. Fractal Wire is wire that has under gone ‘special’ cryogenic treatment. Max keeps the details of the fractal process under wraps. The controller is in a bog-standard metal case with 6 phono inputs and two phono outputs. The connectors are gold plated but they are not of the quality of other audiophile connectors. They are also quite close together which meant I could not use my favourite Cut Loose audio cables. The front of the controller is plain and has two knobs that control volume and source selection. The volume controllers have 24 steps and go from -60db to +4 db. There is also a useful mute switch. Clearly some compromises were needed with the aesthetics but they were sensible ones to keep costs down. The sound quality should be high. It is a very light affair and heavy cables will move the controller around.
What you have to accept with this controller is the limited inputs (no XLRs), no remote, not the best audiophile connectors and a light case. And the sound quality……..Well there were real surprises here.
Firstly, I connected the Allegri to the Nord power amplifier using Cardas Golden Reference cables with phono connectors. I had to use phono to XLR adaptors from Neutrik. There was certainly no lack of bass and dynamics here. The detail was superb and all the musical information was well integrated with the music. BUT…..it sounded confused. I tried a phono/XLR Van Damme cable but I did not like it. It removed some dynamics and detail and that ‘confusion’ was still there. By confusion I mean the individual instruments were not well separated and it was difficult to hear each musicians’ contribution. I tried tuning and putting the Allegri controller on its own Dbase shelf, use different footers and various other treatments……….to no avail………it still sounded confused. Puzzling. Maybe the Ncores need to be driven by XLRs/active power preamplifiers.
OK let’s try the Audionote valve power amplifiers. My Audionote set up consists of an M6 preamplifier and a set of Conquest monoblocks. I have read good reports about people using passives with valve amplifiers and I know a few people who use passives to drive their Audionote amplifiers. This may be a little unfair as the M6 is miles more expensive and it is very well matched to the Audionote system. But why not??? I use a Creek passive to drive my Audionote Kit1 power amp in my second system and it sounds excellent. I had to take all my precious Cut Loose phono cables out and use Cardas Golden Reference and Nordost. The Cut Loose connectors do not fit those connectors. No problem for Cardas and Nordost cables though.
This was more successful. The sound was very clear and clean. The dynamics really had the power to shock. There was no confusion and the whole set up sounded very, very good. The emotion in Norma as sung by Maria Callas was palpable and exceptionally atmospheric even though the recording is not brilliant. Dystopian Overture by Dream Theater (24-bit recording) came over with huge power and was 3D and cinematic. The drums were very fast and faster than on the M6. So far so good. But….when playing some well recorded classical and jazz the sound was just too clean. I know that hifi should not add anything but in this case, it was removing the reason I listen to music, to get the emotional message. It was there, but where was the intensity that the M6 gives? Music that can ‘force’ you to dance, bring you to the edge of tears (not quite, remember we are British!!). Considering the price differences of £2K vs £13K that was a damn good result but not earth shattering. That would have been the end of it and would have resulted in an overall positive review.
But……I previously owned a Naim Supernait2, which served me well and it played rock and pop really, really well and made a great job of classical. So, time to upgrade. I saw a very young Naim 300 power amp (non DR’d) for sale at Signals, who offered me an excellent trade in. They are great guys to deal with. Some reviewers whose ears I trust were also very positive about this particular combination. So, with a cable from Signals that allowed connection of the Allegri to the unique XLR connections of the 300, I started listening again. WOW. I mean double WOW. This was really, really good.
I went through my favourite tracks to really test this set up and make sure that it was not a super impressive one or two tracks. It was not. Playing Dream Theater’s Dystopian Overture at a loud lick was full on rock with an enormous cinematic soundstage. All the details of the instruments were clearly heard including the added effects. All this was done without taking the music apart. Drums were very percussive and had a very tight and fast sound. I thought the sound might be slightly lightweight but there was real power in the bass particularly with synths. On other tracks, where very low 20Hz material was present, it added a lot to the music especially for the atmospheric music of William Orb. It was easy to hear the emotion in voices even though it was a very clean sound. Odd as I had always associated emotional voices with SETs and high efficiency speakers such as Audionote Es. It was a different, cleaner sound but had the same emotional impact; super transparency. I also expected that my Audionote Es would burst into flame being powered by the diametrically opposed Naim amps, but not so. It was possible to play this system really loud (I mean LOUD 95-100db). What a surprise and what a bloody good sound.
In conclusion, I am still on the lookout for a better matched preamplifier for the Nord. I think the M series of preamplifiers better suit the Audionote power amplifiers but if money is tight then the Allegri provides a viable alternative. But for the Allegri/Naim amplifier this a brilliant combination and for you SS afficiandos I would say try this combination before buying other high end SS pre/power amps. It really is good and it would have given my Krell 202/600 combination a real run for their money.
—Written and review by HiFiWigwam (George47)