Sutherland Engineering N1 Preamplifier

One of the Great Preamps of Our Day

Equipment report
Solid-state preamplifiers
Sutherland Engineering N1
Sutherland Engineering N1 Preamplifier

“To select a different input, press the control knob. The two digits of volume indication will go off. That leaves only the input display illuminated. The outputs are now muted and the knob is used for selecting an input. The N1 is unmuted by pressing the front panel knob again. The volume numeric indication comes back on and the volume level will then ramp up to the value last used with that particular input.

“The N1 has a timer feature that will automatically turn off the Nixie displays. If the N1 controls (knob or remote) are not used for a certain time period, the Nixie displays will go off and a yellow LED will go on. There is no change in audio settings. The Nixie display simply turns off. You can select the time period (in hours). To do so, press and hold the control knob in for five seconds. When it is released, the yellow LED will blink and you can select the time period with the control knob. When set to 0, the timer is disabled and the Nixie display will stay on continuously. After selecting the time period, press the knob again to return to normal preamp operation.”

But what I suspect you can’t imagine from reading this is how wonderfully intuitive the N1 is to operate. Being one of those guys who might get around to picking up the owner’s manual one day (perhaps like you?), I didn’t bother to actually read any of those words until a few days after first installing the N1. It just seemed obvious how the thing functions. That’s how intuitive it is. Now that’s my idea of cool!

And the N1’s three-button remote control—ah, so Zen-like compared to those hideously button-encrusted monsters we’re otherwise confronted by—is equally intuitive.

Oh, one other thoughtful feature. The N1 has something labeled Input 6, but in fact this triggers a built-in white-noise generator designed to hasten the preamp’s break-in period; or, if selected with your power amp on, to assist with the break-in time of your entire system.

As to the N1’s performance, well, it’s lovely in the best sense of that word. In a way, the sound perfectly reflects the conception and execution I’ve tried to describe above: clean, pure, uncluttered, open, neutral, balanced, at the service of the music.

Starting with an old favorite, the Juilliard Quartet’s reading of the six Bartók string quartets from 1966 [Columbia], I was taken by how harmonious the N1’s overall presentation is. I probably overuse the word “transparent,” as in sensing that a component is shedding layers of the electronic stardust that can cloud or create a sonic distance between a recorded performance and us, but that’s the first thing I wrote down about the N1. During the first movement of the Quartet No. 1, not only was each instrument’s tonal and textural makeup convincingly natural, but each was absolutely and distinctly its own voice. Moreover, there was a nearly visual sensation of the great Juilliard players physically creating this music in union. Dynamics were likewise impressive, swelling in volume both sonic and spatial, that “bloom” thing, as Jonathan Valin would say, as the music emerges from its quiet state through to the most intensely—almost violently—scored passages. Add a charged feeling of the recording space’s ambience and the result was thrilling to experience.

Since David Bowie’s death I can’t stop spinning Blackstar [Columbia], his final, glorious offering to the world. On one hand it’s depressing as hell; on the other, simply beautiful. Playing the title track, the Sutherland presented a huge, almost church-like sense of space in my room. Bowie’s vocal here, so haunting, floats above the well-textured stutter-step drums, shimmering synths, and throaty sax. When presented with this kind of detail, clarity, and wholeness the Sutherland delivers a heartbreaking emotional wallop.

I’ve also been enjoying guitarist/composer Anthony Wilson’s latest LP (which I’ll be reviewing next issue), Frogtown [Goat Hill Records]. On this quite well-recorded release, the Sutherland again showed its stuff. The opening track, a swaying stroll called “She Won’t Look Back,” showcases Wilson’s guitar sound—with its reverberant twang and sandy texture—alongside organ and piano. In addition, Jim Keltner’s loping drumming is presented with fine clarity and detail, while the stage feels large and wonderfully open to the musicians, and Wilson’s singing voice (vocals are somewhat of a new thing for him) came across as friendly and warm with a slight bluesy rasp.

Returning to the San Francisco Symphony’s Mahler Project, which I covered some years ago in these pages, one of the gems in that limited-edition 180-gram box set is a “bonus” 45rpm pressing of the piano score of Rückert-Lieder. Featuring mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and Michael Tilson Thomas, the LP is an uncommonly natural-sounding recording of voice and piano. There’s a great sense of ease and purity (there’s that word again) here, with convincing presentation both of the musicians’ positions relative to one another and their proper scale within the acoustic space. Graham’s vocal and the piano’s upper register are detailed, airy, and extended, while MTT’s instrument conveys a wonderful feeling of percussive weight without heaviness. There’s also a realistic feeling of the house’s charged air “breathing,” that is, swelling and fading with the pulse of the music.

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