Howard Popeck: Recent very positive experiences with the Benchmark DAC-1 pre and the Manley Steelhead have caused me to re-evaluate the necessity of preamps. On only very rare occasions have I ever heard a consistent and noticeable sonic improvement (predominantly bass depth and control, ambience and extreme top end detail) achieved by the inclusion of a preamp – as distinct from bypassing the pre altogether.
That was via a very rare Krell 4-box pre from the early 1980s and very recently, the Manley Neoclassic 300B. Other than this, on every occasion I have found the sound to be consistently more engaging by removing the pre. This includes my Levinson ML28, Yamaha C1, Meridian 501, 502 and 601 and various upmarket Trio/Kenwood devices – all now sold, without regret.
However, the Benchmark DAC-1 pre and the Steelhead (it has one analogue input, like the Benchmark) seem to move toward the improvement I experienced with the 4-box Krell (and 300B) and away from the slight-to-marked veiling I have heard with all the others I mentioned.The drawback of course with one analogue input (the Benchmark) and one spare (non-phono) analogue input on the Steelhead is the lack of additional inputs, recording outlets and so on. This is easily and transparently rectified by the remarkable and unique Manley Skipjack.
So yes, in the same way I have moved away from stand-alone CD players (I now recommend one of the various Benchmark DACs with any decent used transport from eBay, usually £500 or less) I am now in my own system – and those I supply to customers – moving away from conventional preamps. A degree of nostalgia re this I have to admit.
The Manley 300B adds (or perhaps reveals) a degree of musical engagement (I really cannot find a more appropriate word than this) that is superior to anything I have heard here since that old 4-box Krell and the magnificent but infuriating (because of the Camac connectors) Mark Levinson ML6a / ML7 devices. Having said this, the LFD Linestage 3 remains the most musically engaging solid state preamp I’ve yet used here in the past few years.
All in all though, nostalgia apart and for those who aren’t engaged in transferring digital to analogue tape, the days of preamps – other than expensive state-of-the-art ones – seems numbered. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.