TAS Legacy: Cello Palette Equalizer-Preamplifier

Solid-state preamplifiers
TAS Legacy: Cello Palette Equalizer-Preamplifier

The Mark Levinson LNP-2 preamplifier (1973) set new standards for construction quality and performance specifications, while the ML-2 monoblock (1977) forever revised notions of what was sonically possible from a solid-state power amp. But perhaps the most iconic product in Mark Levinson’s storied career is the Cello Palette analog equalizer/preamplifier.

By 1992, when the Palette was introduced, the high-end industry had firmly eschewed built-in tone controls and external equalizers on the grounds that both corrupted signal purity. But the Cello Palette made a radical counter-argument. The ability to alter frequency balance, it attested, is not only beneficial but necessary. After all, every recording has already been EQ’d for at least two specific systems—the ones on which it was monitored and mastered. To the extent that your system differs from those, you aren’t hearing what the artists intended. Further, many recordings have an obviously-skewed frequency balance. Proper playback EQ is the only way to compensate for these realities.

Thus, the problem with “tone controls,” Cello declared, is found not in concept but rather in execution. Bass and treble controls, with their broad, non-overlapping ranges, were inherently crude devices. Equalizers of the day, hardly transparent, were guaranteed to compromise sonics. The Palette addressed both issues. Its six EQ knobs altered carefully chosen, mildly overlapping frequency spans (centered at 20Hz, 120Hz, 500Hz, 2kHz, 5kHz, and 20kHz) designed to allow judicious, musical results. As for sonic quality, the design featured Litz grounding wire, a solid-copper/nickel-plated ground plate, and an unusually high (1 mega-ohm) input impedance that enabled lower distortion and more consistent performance from differing source components.

The proof of the Palette’s philosophy and execution can be found in its enduring success. Despite a price tag of $6500 (plus $2000 for a phonostage)—a hefty sum in 1992—the unit met with rave reviews and robust sales. Today, good samples, if you can find them, run several times that amount. The reason is simple: Before the Palette, there was never a product like it—and there hasn’t been one since.