Hovland HP-200 Vacuum Tube Preamplifier

Equipment report
Tubed power amplifiers
Hovland HP-200
Hovland HP-200 Vacuum Tube Preamplifier

In last issue’s CES report, I described the sound in the Hovland Company’s room at the Alexis Park Hotel as “consistently elegant, detailed, and natural.” That listening experience dovetailed almost precisely with the installation in my system of Hovland’s HP-200 tube preamp, RADIA solid-state amplifier, and matching cable set. Having now lived with the Hovland gear in my system for the past few months, I still think those three words neatly summarize the Hovland sound. But I would add another (if overused) word to my original list: musical. Or to put it more precisely, the longer I live with this equipment the more it seems that the Hovland sound is not simply musical— as in seductive, flowing, involving— but at the service of the music. Yes, it is detailed, but doesn’t wow you in that “I never heard it like that before” sort of way, but rather in a way that reveals the inner workings of a performance. Yes, it is elegant, but not in the way some components are, i.e., overly polite or controlled- sounding. The Hovland sound is elegant in its ability to effortlessly connect musical dots and lines into an interconnected whole. And yes, it is natural, in that it allows instrumental and vocal timbres and textures to sound like themselves, but more importantly (to me, at least), in a way that brings the human element out of a recording—how a singer’s breath phrases a line, a guitarist’s touch adds meaning to a chord pattern or lead, or a violinist’s technique conveys the emotion in a score.

To many of us, Hovland is known primarily as the company that for years made the outstanding and aptly named MusiCap, [1] and more recently as the maker of its own line of critically acclaimed components. But the company’s current team—Michael Garges, head of production; Jeffrey Tonkin, CEO and chief industrial and mechanical designer; and Alex Crespi, head of sales and marketing—have been friends, long-time audiophiles, serious music lovers, and tireless tinkerers for more than 20 years. Over the course of time, they, along with partner Robert Hovland, who remains on the board but is no longer involved in the company’s day-to-day operations, also developed their own cables, custom speakers, and electronics, incorporating as the Hovland Company in 1999.

In a recent interview with the trio, it became apparent to me that not only did the Hovland Company take an unusually long time to gestate, but that each individual component underwent a similarly lengthy period from inception to birth. “We’re able to design and release just one major new component a year,” Crespi told me. “One of the plusses of having worked together for so long is that we hear and almost always agree on each of the hundreds of little decisions that go into a final design. We only want to release products that provide special performance as well as exceptional value.”

To date, Hovland’s line consists of just a handful of items. Its first release was the HP-100 tube preamp, which remains a strong seller and ranges in price from $4995 to $6495, depending on the phono option. Two power amplifiers followed, the $9000 Sapphire, a tube-hybrid design, and the $9500 solid-state RADIA (see sidebar). A new statement amplifier was shown at CES, the staggeringly cool-looking Stratos monoblock that should be released later this year (the projected price is also staggering—$ 34,000 the pair), alongside a nifty USB DAC, which will be part of a future CD player that accommodates USB and Ethernet connection to a media-storage computer. There are also some very good sounding and sanely priced interconnects and power cords (see second sidebar), and the HP-200 preamp, which sells for $7500 as a linestage and $9500 as reviewed here, with the optional and excellent P-200 solid-state phonostage.

As you can see from the accompanying photographs, the HP-200 is an uncommonly beautiful piece of audio gear (as are all of Hovland’s components). While it echoes certain visual elements found on the HP-100, such as the front panel’s three main circular controls (which are rotary knobs on the HP- 100 but soft-touch buttons here), gentle Pacific-blue backlighting, and the repeated triplets of screened holes on the top plate, it sports additional flair in the essentially flat polished aluminum facepanel layered on top of beaded acrylic that it borrowed from the RADIA. (The HP-200 and RADIA are also available in the dark nickel finish pictured on this issue’s cover, for an up-charge of $500 and $650, respectively.) Although I’m not normally dazzled by sexily-bathedin- light hi-fi gear, I would be lying if I claimed that I didn’t fall for the HP-200 in all its lit-up glory (though while actually listening I always shut off the backlight via the rear-panel switch). It’s dazzling in a darkened room and different enough to add an unusually cool design element to one’s space, along with a pride of ownership that says, “This stuff is something special.”

I normally avoid functional descriptions in my reviews, but in this case I’m departing from the norm because Hovland’s form follows function. I didn’t know it until our interview, but it didn’t surprise me to learn that design and layout man Jeffrey Tonkin is also an architect. “When it comes to putting together a product,” Tonkin said, “each is a complete whole, built from blocks. Everything is done in support of the basic circuitry, from the proximity of all internal parts to the circuit layout.” Since one of the few complaints about the HP-100 was its lack of remote control, from the start Hovland conceived the HP-200 as remote-controllable. But that, as the saying goes, was easier said than done. The absence of a remote control on the HP-100 didn’t reflect some retro-thinking on the designers’ part, but rather this group’s dedication to considering all aspects of a product as part of its reason for being. Not happy with the sonic degradation of potentiometers, Hovland developed its own handmade, silver-contact, 31-step discrete- resistor volume control—a decidedly remote-unfriendly device. For use in the HP-200, this pricey item morphed into an attenuator circuit of highly linear metal-film resistors with twin relays that have been rhodium-plated and hermetically sealed in glass. Connect all of this to a tiny, isolated logic board, et voilà, you get a sonically uncompromised remote volume control.

A similar remote-relay-process performs input selection and other functions. And because these controls sit directly next to the rear-panel jacks, they’re out of the signal path, and of course circuit paths have been made that much shorter. Although the HP-100 and HP-200 share the same three-tube linestage and solid-state power supply, these improvements are said by those who know both units—I have not had the chance to compare them—to bring greater degrees of detail and transparency to the sound of the HP-200.

By the way, a peek under the hood reveals a dedication to perfection as high as any I’ve seen—this unit is beautifully made. Aside from metal machining and plating, all work is performed at Hovland’s L.A. facility, where a staff of 12 hand-assembles each unit.

A pretty definitive example of how the Hovland gear serves the music arrived during one of my first listening sessions with it. The Stern/Bernstein reading of the Barber Violin Concerto [Sony CD] is one I know very well, not only from my own time with this gorgeous piece of music but also because it is one of the discs my colleague Johannes der Valin regularly carries to CES. In tandem with Kharma’s outstanding 3.2 and Mini-Exquisite speakers and MBL’s equally outstanding 1521a transport and 1511e DAC, the Hovland system brought this excellent “Golden Age”-era analog recording to vivid life, projecting an unusually deep and expansive soundstage, with notable cushions of air around the players. Instrumental timbres— woodwinds, brass choirs, massed strings, both bowed and plucked—are too-die-for-beautiful, yet never overly thick or romanticized. During lightly scored passages, one senses, say, a violin or flute projecting over the orchestra and co-mingling in space in a way that’s highly reminiscent of the concert hall. And Stern’s magnificent Guarnerius del Gesù, so beautifully captured here, is all aged-wood and rosin in the middle registers, sweet yet steely and ultra-extended up top (especially over the Kharma Mini, with its knock-’em-dead diamond tweeter). The dynamic range runs smoothly from whisper-delicate to full bloom. Through the HP-200 and RADIA, the disc was easy and natural sounding if not, ultimately, as explosively dynamic as it is when heard through something like the MBL 5011 linestage and Kharma MP-150 monoblock amps, which came in towards the end of my sessions with the Hovland. Nor were the Hovland’s tone colors quite as rich as they are with this combo, but that lightness of touch is part of the Hovland’s understated beauty.

Turning to the visceral soul-funk of Outkast’s “Love Hater,” from Speakerboxxx/The Love Below [Arista], the Hovland designs proved fully capable of moving some serious air. The tune’s throbbing electric bass reached way down and could be felt in the gut; horn accents popped; and a wailing wah-wah-soaked guitar cut through the mix while retaining exquisite clarity and composure, as did André 3000’s falsetto vocal. Good as the bass is, though, it didn’t quite have the grip or definition the Hovland displays in the rest of the frequency spectrum, and was also just a tad soft and light when compared to the MBL/Kharma duo.

Turning my focus to LP playback, the P-200 phonostage started off as a standalone phono preamp that would offer multiple inputs and options. But as the design developed and manufacturing costs were weighed, Hovland realized it was looking at a $5000–$6000 component. While that is hardly ultra-expensive in today’s market, the Hovland team determined that, along with the inherent sonic advantages of a single box, its customers would reap a far higher value by placing the P-200 directly inside the HP-200. A solid-state design, the P-200 is located at the rear-left of the chassis, with its dedicated power supply resting at the far right in the same bay that houses the linestage’s power supply. The P- 200 is compatible with virtually any cartridge whose output is 3mV or less. To adjust gain and impedance (see spec box for ranges), simply remove six hex screws from the left side plate to reveal two recessed screws. Match the screw slot to the printed legend, replace the plate, and you’re done.

Alex Crespi told me that the company wanted the P-200 to stand up against the best. And though some of the best I’ve heard are no longer inhouse (specifically the Manley Steelhead and Sutherland’s Ph.D.), I do have on hand the excellent Artemis Labs PL-1 that I raved about back in Issue 155. Though priced at $3150, the Artemis holds its own against the stellar Steelhead ($7300), so I know it’s among the finest out there.

The comparison was highly instructive, and didn’t prove Hovland’s claims about the P-200 to be at all off the mark. Not surprisingly, like the HP-200 linestage, the P-200 is an extremely clean and graceful performer. Listening to another favorite, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Nonesuch/Sundazed LP], singer Jeff Tweedy’s voice was easy, uncolored, and focused. Moreover, it lacked the “shouty,” slightly hooded quality one sometimes hears on certain tracks, specifically “Jesus, Etc.” The Artemis noticeably softened the presentation, and sounded slightly less focused. Though Tweedy’s voice was warmer on the Artemis (it’s a tube unit), and was more richly textured with a bit more air surrounding it, it did exhibit a hint of that “shout.” On the White Stripes’ Zeppelinesque shake-up of Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” the Hovland was lighter and brighter (but not “bright,” in the negative sense of the word) with plenty of air, terrific detail, and powerful punch on Meg White’s kick drum. The Artemis was richer, slightly more explosive dynamically, but not as defined. Finally, on the classic Vienna 1908-1914 [Mercury/Speakers’ Corner LP], the Artemis had a darker overall presentation, with a sweeter string tone, excellent dynamic shading, and a lovely impression of depth. Though the P- 200’s soundstage may not have been quite as deep or tall as that of the Artemis, it was more extended and airy up top, not as dark, more tightly focused, with equally good dynamic shading, plenty of transient snap, and transparent in the sense of “seeing into” the recording. Like the best of the highend, both were excellent and presented their own take on the music.