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In a digital system how important it an analogue preamp?


DomT
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... I recall visiting an audio buddy  before and after he made a substantial amplifier upgrade. He went from  few hundred pound of Musical Fidelity amp to a highly respected multi £k offering. 

Without any doubt many of the "hifi boxes" were obviously superior - transparency, resolution, imaging etc etc. 

But the dynamic life had been sucked out of the music - the system went from flawed but interesting to boring. I certainly know which I would rather listen to. 

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IME you have to use the best attenuator/volume control that you can, plus have it fed and buffered correctly to achieve best performance.

My choice is a stepped attenuator, currently using an Acoustic Dimension that aren't available now.

Unfortunately I see many expensive preamps and integrated amps that are using an Alps Blue as the volume control, such a bottleneck in some otherwise well designed kit.

Edited by Firebottle
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9 hours ago, rabski said:

Euphonic colouration and distortion? Maybe. Maybe not.

What that doesn't explain, as far as I can see, is how a good active (or possibly passive of some types) preamp can add to the apparent illusion of the soundstage by making it seem larger in every direction.

Harmonic distortion is signal-correlated so it is possible that it may produce an effect which will be perceived as "spaciousness".

As usual I refer to this interesting piece from Sound On Sound called "Analogue Warmth - The Sound Of Tubes, Tape & Transformers", which shows how distortion can be used efectively/euphonically in the studio (and at home):

https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/analogue-warmth

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1 hour ago, Fourlegs said:

The ‘drive and dynamics’ you refer to is almost certainly due to the pre amp departing from the accuracy of the original recording. If you prefer that then of course that is fine. (I am beginning to sound like Tuga!)

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1 hour ago, JANDL100 said:

 I don't think that's correct. 

Preamps don't add drive, but they can take it away. Oh boy, can they take it away! And ime that's what passive preamps usually/mostly/always do. 

Imo preamps are the most problematic of hifi electronics. They can change the signal in so many ways, musically they can be the most intrusive. 

In my experience, a good active pre is always better than a passive pre. But that comes down to my own musical priorities ; I'll always take the retaining of musical "pizzaz" or in the room presence over the last degree of tonal accuracy or resolution. It's what brings music to life for me. It's what makes it seem that real musicians are playing. 

Like I said earlier, anything that goes in the signal path will have a negative impact (of varying amplitude and importance depending on what).

Since there are no completely "transparent" or accurate sources, pre-, power- or integrated-amps all of them will affect the signal. Some topologies affect the signal more than others, but that is oversimplifying. Some types of distortion sound pleasing (at least to some people) and others are generally accepted to be damaging and so it takes a lot more of the former and a lot less of the latter to have a negative impact. To make matters more complicated, audibility depends on many factors from the listener's ability/training to the music programme, from the overall accuracy of the playback or the acoustics of the room, as well as personal preference in terms of sonic presentation (our "priorites"), and finally there's also electrical compatibility.

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When a more "transparent" or accurate equipment or setup is compared with a more euphonic one and the latter sounds "more" then it is certainly adding distortion. And ultimately it's for the end user to determine whether or not the euphony produces an "improvement", although it is my view and experience that such "improvements" always come with downsides.

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Edit: I should add that solid state is not "automatically" more accurate than valve; that assumption will lead to misunderstandings.

Edited by tuga
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1 hour ago, ziggy said:

My only experience of not using a preamp is with the Topping E30 in the second system.  The sound is a lot better through the NVA P20 passive pre amp.  The improvement is not subtle.

If you are using the volume control in the NVA then you are comparing two-things: digital vs analogue volume control and a bunch of (probably unnecessary) electronic components and an extra IC in the signal path. And a comparison with two variables is worthless/void.

Did you compare NVA (set to 0 attenuation) vs no-NVA using the Topping's (AKM chip) volume control?

Edited by tuga
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3 hours ago, JANDL100 said:

... I recall visiting an audio buddy  before and after he made a substantial amplifier upgrade. He went from  few hundred pound of Musical Fidelity amp to a highly respected multi £k offering. 

Without any doubt many of the "hifi boxes" were obviously superior - transparency, resolution, imaging etc etc. 

But the dynamic life had been sucked out of the music - the system went from flawed but interesting to boring. I certainly know which I would rather listen to. 

Very interesting and illustrates that there is no one ideal choice when it comes to hifi. Some need extra pizazz to tickle their music nerves into life, others find that distracts from the music and is an irritation. Perhaps an emotional versus intellectual approach.

I think I favoured the former but have moved to the latter approach. Much the same when it comes to performances of classical music. Back in the day when I listened to Mahler at the Festival Hall conducted by Solti or Haitink, I tended to prefer the “orgasm in every bar” lay it on with a trowel style of Solti, now I would go for the more considered approach of Haitink (RIP sadly, his death announced today).

So it is with hifi, Martin Logans and big valve amps to German Physiks fronted by Chord; oh, and very little Mahler and a lot of string quartets!

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3 hours ago, tuga said:

Harmonic distortion is signal-correlated so it is possible that it may produce an effect which will be perceived as "spaciousness".

As usual I refer to this interesting piece from Sound On Sound called "Analogue Warmth - The Sound Of Tubes, Tape & Transformers", which shows how distortion can be used efectively/euphonically in the studio (and at home):

https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/analogue-warmth

I've seen that article many times, but a lot of it is over-generalised, and some of it is simply wrong.

As always, implementation and context are vital. Transformers, valves, and anything else in the signal path for that matter, do not have to add distortion, harmonics or non-linearity. In fact, they can do the opposite. Valves and transformers (correctly operated and specified) can be incredibly linear and low distortion, and can attenuate high-frequency artefacts and resulting distortion.

In many cases, a preamplifier can help by simply ensuring that the impedance match between the source and power amplifier is correct, and that the gain ensures the power amplifier is running in a suitable operating range.

On the other hand, some preamplifiers deliberately add things. But then so do some power amplfiers, some sources, some cables, etc.

There is no 'one size fits all' approach, because equipment needs to match and work together properly from one end of the chain to the other.

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10 minutes ago, rabski said:

I've seen that article many times, but a lot of it is over-generalised, and some of it is simply wrong.

As always, implementation and context are vital. Transformers, valves, and anything else in the signal path for that matter, do not have to add distortion, harmonics or non-linearity. In fact, they can do the opposite. Valves and transformers (correctly operated and specified) can be incredibly linear and low distortion, and can attenuate high-frequency artefacts and resulting distortion.

In many cases, a preamplifier can help by simply ensuring that the impedance match between the source and power amplifier is correct, and that the gain ensures the power amplifier is running in a suitable operating range.

On the other hand, some preamplifiers deliberately add things. But then so do some power amplfiers, some sources, some cables, etc.

There is no 'one size fits all' approach, because equipment needs to match and work together properly from one end of the chain to the other.

I agree with all of this. Like I said in a post after the one you quoted, solid state is not "automatically" more accurate than valve; that assumption will lead to misunderstandings. Like you say, ultimately it's down to topology, implementation and suitability for a given purpose. And then taste takes over.

I am curious as to the whys and hows of equipment performing in the way it does audibly; it helps me make better, more informed decisions. This particular topic is a good illustration of how personal preference and system context make the extrapolation of a particular listening experience to other systems void.

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4 hours ago, tuga said:

Harmonic distortion is signal-correlated so it is possible that it may produce an effect which will be perceived as "spaciousness".

As usual I refer to this interesting piece from Sound On Sound called "Analogue Warmth - The Sound Of Tubes, Tape & Transformers", which shows how distortion can be used efectively/euphonically in the studio (and at home):

https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/analogue-warmth

Excellent knowledge of textbooks.

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5 hours ago, JANDL100 said:

 I don't think that's correct. 

Preamps don't add drive, but they can take it away. Oh boy, can they take it away! And ime that's what passive preamps usually/mostly/always do. 

Imo preamps are the most problematic of hifi electronics. They can change the signal in so many ways, musically they can be the most intrusive. 

In my experience, a good active pre is always better than a passive pre. But that comes down to my own musical priorities ; I'll always take the retaining of musical "pizzaz" or in the room presence over the last degree of tonal accuracy or resolution. It's what brings music to life for me. It's what makes it seem that real musicians are playing. 

I am guessing you are possibly not familiar with Transformer Volume Controls such as the Music First?

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6 minutes ago, Fourlegs said:

I am guessing you are possibly not familiar with Transformer Volume Controls such as the Music First?

I feel like most components TVCs also depend upon synergy. I was quite disappointed with the results when using a Townshend Allegri TVA with my active speakers, which sounded far better when driven directly by my DAC. 

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1 hour ago, wHIZZY said:

I feel like most components TVCs also depend upon synergy. I was quite disappointed with the results when using a Townshend Allegri TVA with my active speakers, which sounded far better when driven directly by my DAC. 

Whilst the Townshend Allegri is well thought of, all transformer preamps are not equal. I knew this before but then had it reinforced when I first heard the MFA Baby Ref V1 owned by @TheFlash at that time (and now owned by @Lurch) and then afterwards when I got my own Baby Ref V2.

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2 hours ago, wHIZZY said:

I feel like most components TVCs also depend upon synergy. I was quite disappointed with the results when using a Townshend Allegri TVA with my active speakers, which sounded far better when driven directly by my DAC. 

The Townshend is an Autotransformer not TVC as far as I know, but your point remains valid:

I don’t think any of us can, with confidence, say much about whether someone else is going to like something else somewhere else... We can report our own experiences but it’s hard to do much more.

Of course there wouldn’t be much of a forum if none of us extrapolated! No reviews, no suggestions, just a stock “there really is no substitute for...”. So we all press on, seeking and giving advice, and just accepting that it always always comes heavily caveated. Like here.

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3 hours ago, Fourlegs said:

I am guessing you are possibly not familiar with Transformer Volume Controls such as the Music First?

You guess wrong. :)

I've not had a Music First TVC, but I have had others. 

Imo I think there is a 'TVC sound' , but I don't think you'd agree with me about what it is! 

... Hmm, it's a bit pointless leaving it ambiguous, isn't it. So, my experience is that they sound delightfully tonally neutral and open, but a little  but noticeably dynamically smoothed over. I can't recall precisely offhand, but I think I've had 3 or 4. A well thought of Bent Audio TVC pre was one of them. All had those particular characteristics. Tbh ultimately I found them boring. 

Edited by JANDL100
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