Aesthetix Calypso/Calypso Signature
The all-tube Calypso delivers most of the performance of Aesthetix’ two-box $13,000 Callisto linestage for about a third the price. Sonically, the Calypso is characterized by extremely good dynamics and dynamic nuance. Although the treble is smooth and somewhat laid-back, transparency and resolution are first-rate. Noise floor is highly dependent on tube quality, which has been variable. Competes with the megabuck preamps. The Signature version improves on the Calypso’s already terrific performance with an expanded soundstage, richer portfolio of instrumental textures, more air, longer decays, and better-defined bass. AT found that the Signature version imparted a warmer cast to timbres.
Classé Audio CP-800
The CP-800, Classé’s fully balanced solid-state preamp is well known for its neutral tonal character, exceptionally low noise floor, and supremely high-resolution treble. A recent and very welcome upgrade has added even more computer-audio high performance in the form of 192kHz resolution for USB, Ethernet for streaming AirPlay and DLNA, and IP control for use with the Classé App. The CP-800 is a spectacular performer that comes loaded with options, including parametric EQ and tone control, plus very sophisticated bass management. In a hobby that rewards minimalism and rails against convenience and flexibility, the CP-800 offers the best of both worlds.
$6590 (deluxe version)
This all-tube linestage preamp (with tube rectification) captures 80% of the sound of price-no-object preamps for a fraction of their cost, said our reviewer DO. Never in-your-face analytical, the LL2.1 frames details organically within the fabric of the music. Treble, bass, and transparency can be improved by using the right after-market tubes.
Aesthetix Janus/Janus Signature
The Janus combines Aesthetix’ Calypso linestage with a scaled-down Rhea phonostage in a single chassis. The Signature version features upgraded parts in the identical circuit. The units share numerous qualities: speed and detail; a low noise floor; precise rhythms; dynamics that are almost reference-caliber; and a laid-back perspective. The quiet background and smooth highs add up to long hours of glorious, fatigue-free listening.
Zesto Audio Leto
The Leto linestage preamplifier is cut completely from the same sonic cloth as the Andros PS1 phonostage PS reviewed last year. Like the Andros, the Leto is a contemporary all-tube design, boasting the roundedness, dimensionality, and body of classic tubes without their tonal anomalies, bass-end deficiencies, and relatively high noise levels. Also like the Andros, the really distinguishing characteristic here is a wonderful freedom from sonic hype and electromechanical artifacts.
VTL TL-5.5 Series II Signature
$8000 (linestage only), $10,500 (with internal phonostage)
Initially introduced in 1997, VTL’s latest TL-5.5 Series II Signature has been seriously improved using technologies found in the flagship TL-7.5 Reference Series III ($20,000) and TL-6.5 Signature Series II ($13,500). But those are linestage-only hybrid designs; the 5.5 is all-tube with a fine optional phonostage. It delivers an impressive sense of the musicians’ presence, with seamless bottom-to-top tonal coherence, dynamic push, and resolution that create a thrilling sense of aliveness and of the music-making process.
Pass Labs XP20
Very quiet, with no trace of solid-state hardness, excellent musical life, and the best low-level detail AHC has encountered. Soundstaging is as real in imaging, width, and depth as the recording permits. Excellent deep bass, and clean, detailed upper midrange and treble that get the most out of flute, clarinet, strings, piano, and the full range of male and female voice.
With civilized sonics, both airy and open, dynamics that are lively, and dimensionality and imaging that are exceptional, the C11 is a joy to use in concert with other Corona gear, where control and communication via Ethernet link is glitch-free. It is also equipped with one of the most sonically transparent analog volume controls (via a motorized potentiometer) that we’ve come across.
Cary Audio SLP-05
Sporting eight 6SN7 vacuum tubes in its main chassis and a 5AR4 rectifier tube in its outboard power supply, this zero-feedback, balanced linestage ranks among the best. Highly transparent, it transports you to the recorded event, combining tonal naturalness, a lifelike sense of instrumental body and weight, air, and dimensionality in a way that brings recordings to startling life.
Constellation Audio Inspiration Preamp 1.0
As with Constellation’s other Inspiration Series components, the Preamp 1.0 offers Constellation-grade sound quality at what is essentially breakthrough pricing for this maker of cost-no-object components. The Preamp 1.0 sports the same circuitry, chassis build-techniques, remote control, and display as the $24k Virgo 2. The sound is similar as well, with the trademark Constellation combination of resolution with ease, tremendous clarity and transparency to sources, and wonderful rendering of timbre.