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ARE COSTLY PRE-AMPS NOW REDUNDANT? The Dude is in Town;

Coincident, Dodd, and Doge too!

by W.A.J.

The VTL TL-7.5 costs around $16.5k, Audio-Research's Reference 5 is around $12k, the Lamm LL1 Signature costs about $42k, Audio Note...naw...skip that one (this is not the place for hundred-grand obscenities) the Zanden 3000 is in the region of $17k, and conrad-johnson's GAT goes for around $20k. There are others, of course, at this elevated level in price and performance, but you catch the drift, I'm sure. These are some of the world's best line-stage pre-amps, without question!

But is it really necessary to pay these prices for their undoubtedly high level of quality? After all, there have been no really ground-breaking advancements in this realm for more than 20 years. That is; until now - arguably. But hold your horses, we'll come to that.

Indeed, I've always felt it un-necessary for astute, and budget-conscious, audiophiles to pay such prices. The way I see it, a budget-conscious audiophile who aspires to the best in perfomance, simply needs to purchase one of the past greats, at a fraction of the cost of the current top-of-the-liners. The result is a pre-amp that's very near to the performance of the current greats. A new ARC Ref. 5 may be better, but not that much better, than a vintage ARC SP11, for instance, when all is said and done. So why not consider the SP11 (at around $3k - just for the sake of argument) and save $9k (or a whole lot more, if you factor in the cost of the others) at the end of the day? That's three grand, or less, for performance that's in the same ball-park as a forty-grand Lamm. Strange, but true. Other vintage candidates that play in the same ball-park cost even less, or you may opt for a unit of more recent vintage, costing a little more, depending on your budget. Now that's my kind of a bargain. Modification of a vintage unit is also an option, with the potential of surpassing the performance of a new unit

Of course, there's good reason for my confidence in these controversial statements. The performance of all of the best pre-amps over most of the spectrum is pretty much the same, with minor variations, one way or the other, catering to different tastes - different flavors of one standard, more or less - this has been so for decades. Where they've struggled to best each other is at the top-end, where the differences between the good and the great are most pronounced. But none has been able to claim the ultimate in clarity and purity here. That distinction has always belonged to the passive pre-amp. The best passives are better, at upper-mid to high frequencies, than ALL of the best actives (though significantly flawed elsewhere, in my opinion). I'm generalizing, of course, there may be rare exceptions, relatively unkown to most. And there have been many units that inspire the enthusiasm of reviewers and owners, including yours truly. But  in so far as I'm aware, the foregoing is, generally, reflective of the status-quo.

I'll offer a similar explanation from a different tact: By all credible accounts, for nigh on thirty-years, the performance of the best active pre-amps have been at around the same (high) level, with very slight, mainly neglegible, incremental improvements, here or there, despite all the 'hype' and the 'hoopla' spewed by some, in industry and the press. (This is, mainly, why the best vintage units are still competitive with today's units). All are veiled, to some degree, at high-frequencies. This has always been their 'achilles-heel'. Though they are significantly superior to any passive pre-amp, overall, virtually none of these mega-buck actives can match the high-frequency purity and clarity of the best of the relatively cheap passives - none that I know of - until now!

Enter; the $5000 Coincident Statement Line-Stage pre-amplifier. Yep, that's right - only five-grand. Five measly grand for, arguably, the best line-stage pre-amp on the planet. Better than those that cost 12, 16, 20, 42, or even, most likely, those unmentionables above 100 grand. Why is it so great? Well, to my understanding, its achievement is 'ground-breaking'. This is, perhaps, the first real ground-breaking achievement, in the pre-amp realm, in over thirty years. To answer the question directly - the 'achilles-heel' is now cured!

OK, so it's 'only' about par with all other great pre-amps in most aspects of performance - except one. But this one aspect is what elevates it above those other excellent units. As far as I'm aware, the Coincident is the first (certainly the first that's affordable) active pre-amp with high-frequency performance that is virtually on par with the best passives, in terms of purity and clarity. For this reason, I reiterate; the Coincident Statement is, perhaps, the best line-stage pre-amplifier, in the world - and, absolutely, the best that is affordable. (It also eradicates the flawed passive's one advantage, its only claim to fame, its singular reason for existence, its very reason for being, since the passive cannot even approach the perfomance of active pre-amps in another important region of the audio-spectrum - its fatal flaw. See here, for more on that, and here).

Arguably, pre-amps that cost more are now redundant, irrelevant, and surplus to requirement - call it what you will. Hopefully, some sanity will now become more apparent, in the pricing-structures of others.

And, thankfully, the good news doesn't end there: Below the level of the Coincident, the remote-controlled, tubed Doge 8 pre-amp is virtually unbeatable, in the cost/performance sweepstakes, at a mere $1.3k. With a line-stage that approaches the performance of some of the better (not the best) available, combined with a phono-stage which is commensurate, at least, the Doge is perhaps one of the great bargains of our time.

Slotting between the Doge and Coincident, in price and performance, perhaps, is the battery-powered Dodd line-stage pre-amp. (A review by Stereo-Mojo is here) At a cost of little more than $3.3k, it reeks of glowing reviews by scribes who struggle to come to terms with its excellent performance, including pristine highs, and a vanishingly low noise-floor. (Images of ASR's Emmitter come, inevitably, to mind).

But I've, also, recently come across a review (at Audiogon's discussion forum) by an audiophile who feels that his newly acquired pre-amp  is better than all he's ever heard, or owned. Why would that be worth even a second glance? Well, allow me to list some of the pre-amps he's either owned, or had in his system - perhaps this will put his review into perspective:  Audio-Note M5,  Aesthetix Calypso, Audio Horizons TP2.1, Wavac PR X-1, Rowland Concerto, Cary SLP98, Belles 21A, Wright Sound WLA 12A, Rogue 99, Placette Passive, Tom Evans Vibe, Aloia 11.01, Tube Distinctions SoulMate, Thor 1000 mkII, Joule LA100 mkIII,  conrad-johnson LS16 V2, Supratek Cortese, and Syrah.

Whew! Quite an extensive list - exhaustive and impressive too - wouldn't you say? Then I guess it's safe to say this guy knows good sound, and the capabilities of some of the better pre-amps. So if he says there's a pre-amp out there that puts all of these to shame, then we ought to look into it, shouldn't we? Yeah, I knew that'd get your attention - it's the reason I thought I should bring it to your attention, after all.

Tube Research Labs' (TRL) The Dude, cost somewhere in the region of $3800.  It's a tubed (how did you guess?) line-stage pre-amp that's causing quite a stir in certain circles where word-of-mouth raves, by new owners of this unit, have inspired others to purchase, and rave about it - and so the cycle continues. To give a clearer understanding of the significance of The Dude, perhaps I should just paraphrase parts of our audiophile's review:

He tells us that The Dude benefits from TRL’s newly designed power supply which is something very special indeed. This pre-amp comes with two sets of outputs and three inputs. He further stipulates that, as you will have noticed, he has owned and heard many great preamps over the years. The Dude has far outclassed each of them in virtually every important performance area. He particularly liked the Audio Horizons and Tube Distinctions preamps on his list. The Dude simply recreates real music in his home well beyond the capabilities of these other fine units.  

The level of transparency is utterly shocking, he tells us. Details and musical lines now come alive, and his music sounds brand new to him. He was amazed at all the instruments and notes he was missing in his recordings.

Listening to solo acoustic guitar by Phil Keaggy, he's consistently astounded by the additional pic, string and guitar-body sounds completely hidden before. The string-plucks are so much more distinctive with every molecule of nuance presented to his senses. This is true at even the lowest of volumes on his system. Magic - he opines.

He goes on to relate that he has never known any preamp to dig as deep, taunt and powerful in the bass region as the Dude. Bass has incredible impact, drive and articulation. Easily the best bass he has yet to encounter in a preamp. This tube preamp will shatter your preconceptions of tube preamp bass performance. Bass is no longer this vague sort of deep running tone, but rather a distinct and articulate portion of the whole performance.

Tonality is so beautiful and right. Not a hint of listener-fatigue inducing artifacts to be found. The massive amount of detail is delivered with exquisite beauty, body, and even soul. The Dude does both in a way he felt was not even attainable, previously. Tonality is vitally important to him. Voices have weight when they should. Like the guitar nuances mentioned above, the human voice is rendered absolutely and completely naked before you. You will hear aspects of your favorite vocalist you have never heard before. More air, more texture, more nuance, more personality – just amazing.

The Dude sets the stage big, wide and deep. First time he has heard stage depth so 'profoundly' obvious. He now gets a sense of what some reviewers mean by 3D! Life sized performance is a consistent attribute of the music flowing from this preamp.

Highs seem to have no ceiling, or cap, as they extend smoothly and without any hint of hardness. The Dude is a smooth operator, and does so without robbing music of the precious detail and air we desire.

This 30-year veteran-audiophile assures us that The Dude is a revelation to him. It is the heart and soul of his current system, and really makes everything sound real and right.

In closing, he hopes his words were able to convey what he now experiences with TRL's The Dude line-stage pre-amp.

Indeed!

Paraphrased as closely as possible to the actual review, I hope the foregoing inspires the reader to investigate further. (Here's a link to the relevant thread at Audiogon - one of several about this Dude).

However, does The Dude rival the Coincident as the world's best line-stage (at an affordable price)? I'm not sure (a shoot-out should settle this, dude) but I'm sure it must be very close. Obviously, I can't be certain, but my bet would be on the Statement. You see the Coincident is unique in its make-up, and this is what, in my opinion, contributes to its unique achievements in H-F purity and clarity (unprecedented in over thirty-years). Refer to Arthur Salvatore's review of this unit, at the Audio Critique, and pay particular attention to its uncommon (in audio use) tubes, its dearth of resistors in the signal path, and its utilization of transformer-based volume controls. All of these unique features, I believe, contribute to the Coincident's unique achievements. So I'd be inclined to slot The Dude between the Coincident and the Dodd (or tied with the latter) in ranking, with the Doge bringing-up the rear, in this quartet. (This is purely speculative, you understand, Coincident and Dude could well be on the same level - no comparison has, yet, been made. Stereo-Mojo's review of the Coincident is, also, here).

So then, if arguably the world's best pre-amp sells for only 5-grand (and others that are close cost even less) does that mean those others that cost much more are now redundant, or irrelevant?

Gosh, that's a tough question. Let's see now, should I buy the best for less? Or should I buy less for more? Now, ain't this a real brain-racker! Tell you what......y'all gotta gimme some time on this one, while I work it out. I'll git back to ya!

In the mean-time, enjoy the music, dude. I'll be doin' the same, maself, coincidentally!

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