The Challenge of Synergy
Before I plunge into the sound quality of the Progression duo, I should make some points about the practical problems in evaluating today’s best electronics. The more I review today’s finest preamps and amps, the more I hear levels of improvement that make the differences in the sonic nuances between them more matters of taste than clearer matters of superior sound quality.
Quite frankly, when I compare how the level of coloration or nuances in top-quality preamps and amplifiers interact with the much higher colorations in other elements of a system—particularly the colorations inflicted by the speaker and the listening room—the more I find that today’s best preamps and amplifiers have nuances that only add a subtle additional level of coloration—one that needs time and patience to characterize.
The problem this presents for both the reviewer and the audiophile is twofold. First, no reviewer can ever predict the extent to which there will be a positive synergy between a given preamp and amplifier and the rest of another audiophile’s system. Every experienced audiophile knows, however, that such synergy does make a difference when it is based on the strengths of components, rather than on an attempt to somehow use one set of colorations to correct those in another component. This is why I strongly advise any reader to listen for himself and—to the extent possible—audition a preamp or amplifier using as many of the other components in his own system as possible.
Second, when colorations are this low, I find myself becoming more and more careful about assuming that there is any one standard of musical “truth” to listen for. Harry Pearson—my mentor in reviewing—used to stress that listening to live music was the key reference standard, but he did so spending most of his time listening in one city and in a narrow range of halls.
I do most of my live music listening overseas. Part of my real job is to travel to parts of Europe and the Far East where there are plenty of concerts or live musical performances, but little entertainment in English. You can’t go from hall to hall and venue to venue in places like Prague, Berlin, Venice, Tokyo, and Beijing without becoming all too aware that the sound of live acoustic music has different nuances from place-to-place, or even from seating position-to-seating position.
Moreover, regardless of where you listen to live music, you become aware in listening to recorded music that some of the worst colorations occur in the recording rather than in the playback system. For all of the talk about digital versus analog, some of the worst colorations occur in the microphone.
Beyond that, placement of the mike and the musicians, choice of hall, the particular approach to selecting and tuning instruments—and the rest of the nuances and colorations in every aspect of the recording process—do as much to color the sound as any aspect of a really good home-stereo system and listening room, and sometimes this seems to be particularly true of recordings of great performances. It is one of the great ironies of the high end that the best equipment sometimes reveals more of these defects than mediocre components do.
The Sound of the Progression Preamplifier and Stereo Amplifier
That said, I have no problems in praising the two D’Agostino components under review. I compared the sound of the Progression preamplifier/DAC and stereo amplifier to two other sets of DACs, preamps, and amplifiers in my reference system through three pairs of speakers. I also took advantage of some obsessive audiophile friends to move the Progression preamp (easy) and stereo amplifier (hard) to two different systems and listening rooms outside my house.
In spite of all the issues I just mentioned, I heard the same sonic strengths from the Progression preamp and amplifier in every case. As I noted earlier, these included exceptional life, dynamic detail, and apparent power. Both Progression components did have a slight bit more midrange liveliness and detail than usual, and just a touch of added energy in the upper midrange. The end result was to make the low-level details of strings and woodwinds exceptional, and to do so without any added hardening of violin or brass timbre. Low-level guitar detail and soft, simple piano passages were unusually clear, as were the low-level details of male and female voices.
There was no blurring or loss of detail at higher levels of musical dynamics, even with relatively inefficient speakers and moderately loud preamp gain settings—where volume control sound quality issues sometimes appear. Orchestral and choral musical details and soundstage characteristics were limited by the recording, the speaker, or the room rather than by the electronics. Music that is nearly impossible to record—like Mahler’s Eighth or Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony—came through as clearly as my recordings permitted. Operatic voices and demanding female popular music opened up and became more involving.
As might be expected, soundstage width and imaging were excellent. Depth was not quite as good, but was still very good, and few recordings have realistic enough depth to make this a real-world issue. Going back to power and dynamics, amplifierpower ratings are often hard to tie to actual sound quality, but the power amp’s rating of 300 watts into 8 ohms and 600 watts into 4 ohms was matched at every level of apparent power. Dynamics were exceptionally defined and tight from the lowest to the highest levels I care to listen to.
The power amp had outstanding control over a range of speakers, including some that had problems with really deep bass transients. As is the case with most really good electronics, this may lead you to think you hear a bit less upper midbass when you first begin to listen, but you then become aware that this kind of power and control is providing more and better defined low bass and more bass detail. If you are into natural bass sound, rather than simply making the room move, you’ll appreciate the difference.