It’s possible, just possible, that the fertile mind of Ron Sutherland has created one of the great preamps of our day. Okay, being a less frequent contributor to these pages than I once was—and hence my exposure to other designs is simply not as deep as it used to be—please allow me to phrase that another way: At the very least, the Sutherland N1 is one of the great preamps of my experience.
That said, I’ve been around the block once or twice and have had another very fine preamp sharing duties in my system for more than the past year—namely the VTL TL-5.5 Series II Signature I waxed enthusiastic over in Issue 251.
This isn’t exactly the first time that Ron Sutherland’s talents have impressed me. Beginning with his days as a founding partner of MartinLogan, Sutherland has produced many innovative audio designs, showing an especially keen flair for phono preamps, from the AcousTech PH-1 that Ron designed for Chad Kassem’s Acoustic Sounds to several subsequent creations—both battery- and AC-powered—such as the PH3D, the 20/20, and the dual-mono PhonoBlock.
I’ll admit that in addition to its outstanding sonic performance, which I’ll address shortly, I’m fiercely drawn to the brilliant simplicity of the N1’s design and functionality, which perhaps qualify it as the coolest preamp I have ever used. Inspired by classic models of yesteryear, the $8000 N1 is an all-in-one preamp (hence the name, N1—get it? All N1). As it was with preamplifiers of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s—i.e., before the CD era—the N1’s phonostage, linestage, and power supply are all housed in the same chassis. Furthermore, like those old-school models, Sutherland conceived the N1 for the listener whose main passion is for spinning vinyl records.
The stacked, dual-mono phono boards—the same circuitry as found in the afore- mentioned PhonoBlock—occupy fully half of the unit’s interior space, which is substantially more serious than the plug-in phono cards so often found in the majority of today’s linestage-centric designs. Indeed, each section of the N1 comprises identical stacked mono circuitry, including that for volume control, input selection, and power-supply filtering and regulation. Additionally, and despite much of the industry’s preference for balanced designs, the N1’s circuitry is single-ended, as Sutherland prefers the simplicity and shorter signal paths that those classic circuits provide. “Abandoning single-ended is not an advancement,” he states.
The phono boards are shipped set to 200 ohms loading and 60dB gain. But additional gain options (45, 50, and 55dB) and loading cards (100, 475, 1k, and 10k—47k is no card) are supplied, and removing the top cover to swap them out is as simple as can be.
Now, trust me when I report that I rarely geek out over circuit boards. I just don’t find them that sexy. But I have to admit that examining the N1’s interior layout warmed this Virgo’s heart. It speaks to the way Sutherland thinks—clean, orderly, refined—as well as to a clear pride of craftsmanship that extends to the machined aluminum faceplate, tempered glass display window, and simple genius behind the N1’s operation.
You see, a single knob controls all of the N1’s functions. That’s it—the one and only thing on the front panel besides the super-cool-looking, amber-orange, Nixie-tube numeric display. Again inspired by the past, Sutherland has incorporated this retro-timeless technology—said to be the first type of numeric display developed in the mid-Fifties—into his modern design. It adds a nice Mad Men-era vibe to the pure, if otherwise rather nondescript-looking front plate. Because the N1 is designed to be left on at all times there is no power switch, not even on the rear panel. In addition to the phono input there are four linestage inputs—one being a unity gain pass-through for home-theater—that use the same circuitry found in Sutherland’s LineBlocks. A few paragraphs back I wrote that this might very well be the coolest preamp I’ve ever used. To explain why, and because I can’t improve on Sutherland’s own description of the N1’s operation, I’ll quote from the owner’s manual:
“When AC power is first applied to the N1, software begins a power-up sequence.
“The digital display will count down from 60 seconds. When 00 is reached, the initial selected input will be 1 and the initial selected volume will be 00.