Icon Audio LA4 MkIII Signature
The LA4 has been refined over time, and in its MkIII incarnation it features lower gain and improved feedback implementation. The Signature version includes premium Mundorf silver/gold coupling caps and premium tubes. It would seem that designer David Shaw has cracked the code for preamp excellence. His classic recipe consists of a 6SN7 gain stage, a tube buffer, a tube-rectified power supply, and point-to-point wiring. This elemental combination, together with excellent engineering, makes the LA4 Signature into a formidable line preamp. Tonal colors are reproduced with superb fidelity, vibrant and engaging. Dynamic shadings are nicely drawn out from soft to very loud, at times being nothing short of explosive. Although the stock tube complement isn’t particularly romantic sounding, it is responsible for exceptional bass definition and iconic 3D rendering of the soundstage. The LA4’s most compelling sonic attribute is tonal gravitas—an authoritative portrayal of the lower midrange, delivered with realistic timbral density. In all, the LA4 offers exceptional sound quality that does justice to the sonic promise of the 6SN7. Add superb build-quality and a bargain price, and you have our Tube Preamplifier of the Year Award winner.
The Bryston BR-20 is one of the most successful mergers of a solid-state analog preamp with a DAC and built-in streamer that we’ve seen or heard to date. A hub of the highest order, it operates like a precision timepiece. Visually, its brushed-aluminum faceplate and sharp display are models of preamp ergonomics. Operationally, it is glitch free. An honest broker in tonal accuracy, it hues to the straight and narrow, and reflects a “just the facts, ma’am” musical neutrality. The BR-20 is also superbly quiet, with bass response that offers a combination of grip and authority that are hallmarks of the best preamps of this type. And if that’s not enough, a superb headphone output comes standard. Since the BR-20 unwaveringly reproduces what’s actually on the recording, those who prefer a bit of sweet frosting on their music will find it stubbornly neutral. Tempting options include an HDMI board and phonostage. The BR-20 operates effectively via its web user interface, but a handy aluminum remote control is thoughtfully included.
Pass Labs XP-22 Linestage Preamplifier
The new XP-22 from Pass Labs is a significant upgrade from the previous model. Based on new semiconductors and a new volume control, the two-chassis XP-22 vaults performance into another league. The dual-mono power supplies feature double-shielded toroid transformers for even lower noise. The output stage is more robust, with the ability to drive longer cable runs. Five line inputs are provided, two balanced and one unbalanced. One of these is a theater pass-through for using the XP-22 as part of a theater system. The XP-22 is so transparent that it improves upon the sound of running a source component directly into a power amplifier—not something every linestage can claim. Musically meaningful detail and resolution are excellent. The XP-22 takes these parameters right up to the limit of what’s believable without crossing the line into sound that’s clinical or over-etched. Trumpet, cornet, and flugelhorn—three instruments of the same brass sub-family—were readily distinguished from each other. If the recording possesses the information, the rendering of space can be dramatic and dynamics startling. On its own or paired with Pass Labs’ XP-27 phonostage, the XP-22 is terrific sounding, and recipient of our 2021 Preamplifier of the Year Award.
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