03 September, 2010

Reivew: Nagra PL-P Tube Preamplifier

pic from Dagogo.

Reivew: Nagra PL-P Tube Preamplifier

Note: I now own one.

First, a million thanks to feikeung's generosity. Not many people would lend out so expensive an item.

For background, click here for an excellent pdf file from Nagra.

For a detailed review of both sound and features, this Stereophile article by Jonathan Scull is quite good, though some of my conclusions may be slightly different.

Basically, I agree with much of Stereophile's review. However, as I use at the end SET tube amp and Tannoy speakers, my conclusions in a couple of important aspects are quite different, and even more in Nagra's favor. What I used:

  • Clearaudio Champion turntable/Origin Live RB250/Ortophon MC15 super II
  • Revox C221 CD player
  • ICL 300B amp or AES 300B amp
  • Tannoy Canterbury HE
  • All Gotham cables and also AN AN-V
  • Counterpoint SA-3000 preamp for comparison
First, let me state my firm view on preamps: (1) No solid state preamp, no matter how expensive, can come close to a good tube preamp (not necessarily expensive) in conveying the full scale of music; (2) Only a few modern tube preamps (like Nagra, Verdier, EAR) match or surpass the level of classic preamps from the likes of Counterpoint, MFA and ARC; (3) Really old preamps from the likes of Marantz, McIntosh, Fisher etc, while possibly tonally alluring, just cannot compete with more modern tube preamps with serious attention paid to power regulation. These vintage preamps are only for people who want to play some songs, not for people into serious musical playback, like full-scale classicals.

That said, I find Nagra's PLP one of the very few modern products worth its price (the other for me would be EAR 912). This doesn't mean at all it's necessarily superior in all aspects to a reasonably priced older Counterpoint or ARC (not expensive new ARC), but aside from its smashing looks it has some qualities that are very special:

1. Remarkable "presence". The sense of a "live" occasion is rare. This is perhaps partly due to the somewhat forward stage it projects (which also means it has a less wide and deep soundstage than even the cheap Counterpoint). There is plenty of air though, and I'd opt for real presence (which is always tied to the music) over fake soundstage (which is almost never really related to the venue) every single time.

2. A subtle rhythmic savvy. This is usually difficult to appreciate when there are a lot of people. But in a small gathering one night, everyone heard a very different Mozart/Szigeti from that portrayed by Counterpoint. Tonal difference aside, the Nagra just makes you acutely aware of Szigeti's sinuous phrasing; the flow of the music being just more mellifluous. This quality is usually tied to excellence in microdynamics and truthful portrayal of the leading edge (like Naim). Here it's only partially true, as generally on some other musics the Counterpoint is at least as revealing of low-level dynamics and details (and possibly slightly more tonally balanced; it was preferred by some listeners in piano music). However, when it comes to portrayal of the leading edge, Nagra is superior. As an example, Nagra has some of the best portrayals of bow attacks I have heard anywhere. You "see" and feel the attack, and this helps in making something like 哮天犬 (or the harp and bass track 2 of AV show) less boring than it can be.

3. Phenomenal bass quality. This is a mighty plus for proper classical music replay. Deep and fast, you just hear more and feel you're getting at least a few more Hz of bass extension from your speakers (no mean feat in Tannoy 15")! The double basses are just delights, rather than background rumble as with lesser preamps!

4. Superb phono section with comprehensive loading options which, unlike many lesser phono sections and (mis-matched) MC input transformers, is able to render my Ortophon with natural timber and warmth (I used the 33 ohm jumper).

5. Superb dynamics. It plays even the largest scale music with ease, and make the flea-powered amps sound a little more powerful than they are.

With most of my NOS tubes stacked away in boxes, I managed to find 4x Holland Amperex 12AX7 and 2x Mullard 12AT7 for a little tube rolling (originals are Sovtek 12AX7WXT and GE 6201). There is a little difference, but I can assure you all of Nagra's strongest points mentioned, which (besides an even balance) have little to do with tonal quality, are just as easily audible with stock tubes and hence inherent. Those who only concentrate on rolling tubes and not music would do better with a vintage preamp perhaps.

Overall, the PL-P is a solid and surpisingly "NON-hifi" preamp. I find it quite balanced and not at all "soul-less" People into exaggerated and artificial soundstaging and more brightly lit vista may well find other preamps (like the Counterpoint) more enticing. For me, its subtle strengths are the more important and I like it a lot more than many tube preamps of more recent vintage, including ARC. If money is not an issue and you're an LP user, it's a good buy. If not, something like a much cheaper Counterpoint can be equally satisfying, if without a certain je-ne-sais-quoi quality, not to say prestige.

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