Battle of the Titans: Who Makes the Best Solid-State Preamp and Amp?

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Battle of the Titans: Who Makes the Best Solid-State Preamp and Amp?

 An interesting shootout is shaping up chez Valin.

As some of you already know from previous posts and blogs (see www.avguide.com/blog/best-amp-ever-soulution-710-amplifier), I’ve had the Soulution 710 stereo amp, the Soulution 700 monoblock amplifiers, and the Soulution 720 preamplifier in house for quite awhile. As I’ve already noted, they’re simply terrific—standard-settingly low in distortion and extremely high in resolution. But they’re about to get some serious competition.

Next week I’ll be getting the BALabo (Bridge Audio Laboratory) BC-1 Mk II control amplifier (linestage preamp) and the BP-1 Mk II stereo amplifier, and roughly the week after that I will be getting the Technical Brain TBC-Zero preamp and TBP-Zero monoblocks. Both the BALabo stuff and the Technical Brain gear are every bit as expensive as the ultra-pricey Soulution gear—in fact, at $60k the BALabo control amplifier is the single most expensive linestage preamp I’ve ever come across. Both are also extremely innovative products from two of Japan’s foremost ultra-high-end designers, Fumio Ohashi of BALabo and Naoto Kurosawa of Technical Brain (whom I spent a good deal of very enjoyable time with on my recent trip to Japan and blogged about at www.avguide.com/blog/high-end-audio-japan-part-four-solid-state-technical-brain).

The Technical Brain amp and preamp, which I heard sound marvelous with Apogee Duettas at Mr. Kurosawa’s charming shop in Kawagoe, are truly remarkable products. (Robert Harley, who got a chance to “lift the hood” on TB’s TBP-Zero monoblocks and TBC-Zero preamp at a CES a couple of years ago, confirmed that their circuits are genuinely innovative and that their build-quality is outstanding even by ultra-high-end standards.) Neither the amp nor the preamp uses emitter resistors or mechanical contacts (relays, lines fuses). Both use newly developed flat-coil EI core transformers in chassis where the finest most carefully selected components and wires are painstakingly arranged to ensure the shortest signal paths and to eliminate vibration. Both are fully balanced. Both are handmade. Both have won every award that Japanese high-end audio magazines give out for excellence. Both are little known in the U.S.

I haven’t heard the BALabo amp and preamp in a well-designed listening room yet, like I have the Technical Brain products. But I did hear them sound positively marvelous three years ago at CES driving Magico M6s and again last year at CES driving Perfect8 Technologies' The Force. Like the Technical Brain amp and preamp (and the Soulution gear), the BALabo products are beautifully made and, technically, unusually innovative. The BC-1 Mk II preamp, for example, uses a novel “Post Attenuation” scheme that avoids signal degradation by amplifying line level signals immediately at the input stage prior to reaching the volume control. The volume control, which has 58 positions and is said to be accurate to within 0.2dB at every one of those positions, is itself a truly heroic bit of engineering that must cost a fortune to make (and certainly costs a fortune to buy). The BP-1 Mk II amp is just as amazing.

Naturally, both the BALabo and the Technical Brain electronics “spec out” extraordinarily well (although, in the game of specsmanship, any amp or preamp will be hard-pressed to outdo the Soulution gear). In any event, for a few months at least, I’m going to get the chance to hear some of the very best ultra-high-end solid-state components that East or West can offer. I will blog about BALabo and Technical Brain as soon as I’ve had a chance to listen to them and to form an opinion about their sound and how each compares to the other and to Soulution’s 700 and 720 with the great Magico M5 loudspeaker.

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