Tidal Prisma Preamplifier and Ferios Monoblock Power Amplifiers
It’s become a cliché for high-end audio manufacturers to claim that their products are so transparent that they “faithfully communicate the artist’s expression.” Although many designers aspire to this lofty ideal (or proclaim to), very few actually realize electronics that are truly transparent, or as transparent as today’s components can be. To be sure, there are many great-sounding preamplifiers and power amplifiers, but all have a particular sonic signature. That signature could even be one area of sonic performance that stands out as being better than other aspects of the amplifier’s qualities. It’s not a bad thing, but it is a departure from neutrality, and one that defines the amplifier’s characteristic “sound.”
No electronics are perfectly transparent, but the new Prisma preamplifier and Ferios monoblock power amplifiers from Germany’s Tidal are, to my ears, about as transparent and uncolored as electronics get. Their disappearing act goes beyond the cliché of “faithfully communicating the artist’s expression”; they possess a vivid immediacy,conveying a striking sense of hearing back through the playback system to the original musical event. This quality, combined with the pair’s innovative circuit design, elaborate execution, and beautiful build-quality, places them in the upper echelon of today’s best electronics.
Founded in 1999 by Jörn Janczak, Tidal isn’t to be confused with the streaming service of the same name. Rather, Tidal is a designer and manufacturer of a full line of preamplifiers, power amplifiers, a DAC, and some outstanding loudspeakers. One of these speakers, called La Assoluta, sells for a whopping $700,000 per pair (and Tidal has customers for it). Tidal is a company with high ideals and perfectionist standards, not a firm that creates products to a price point or to fill a perceived market niche.
The company’s three power amplifiers and three preamplifiers are all built to the same uncompromising standard. The Prisma full-function preamplifier reviewed here ($40,000) is the middle preamp in a three-preamp range. Similarly, Tidal makes three power amplifiers, of which the Ferios monoblock ($85,000 per pair) is the middle model.
Looking first at the Prisma, the product is a full-function preamplifier with an integral phonostage. Unlike virtually all full-function preamps in which a phono section is added to a linestage, the Prisma’s phono- and linestages form an integral circuit. This is an important aspect of the design, which I explain in detail in the “Under the Hood” sidebar. The Prisma is at once Spartan and lavish; the front panel has just two controls, volume and a rotary source-selector—no display or lights save for a power-on LED that flashes when the unit is muted. The on/off switch is incorporated in the source selector, further minimizing front-panel controls. Yet the materials, the feel of the knobs, and the finish work give the product an unmistakably upscale vibe. For example, the front panel is made from polished black acrylic that is reportedly seven times costlier than aluminum (and reportedly less prone to storing energy). The plate behind the volume control that looks like chrome is actually a solid block of stainless-steel polished to a mirror finish. The volume knob has a wonderful feel, like a “spoon in a honey jar.” Regrettably, there is no balance control.
The rear panel reveals that the Prisma’s three line inputs, one phono input, and two pairs of outputs are balanced only—no RCA jacks anywhere. Yes, the phono input is balanced; if you have RCA-terminated phono cables, you’ll need to replace the cable (if your tonearm’s cable is interchangeable) or re-terminate the phono cables with XLR plugs. Another option is using RCA-to-XLR adapters. (A balanced phono connection can be a bit confusing, so I explain how it works in a second sidebar.) The phono input is only compatible with moving-coil cartridges, and has just two gain settings, selectable from the front panel (“Phono Lo” and Phono Hi”). The high-gain setting provides an additional 10dB of output, although neither gain value is specified. (The “Phono Lo” setting was sufficient for the 0.45mV output of my Air Tight Opus cartridge.) Loading adjustment is realized with a rear-panel 12-step rotary knob (50 ohms to 2000 ohms). The actual impedance value isn’t indicated on the knob, but Tidal supplies a chart. Any of the three line inputs can be set to unity gain as a home-theater “pass-through” input. The eight-button remote control is, surprisingly for a product of this price and execution, made from plastic rather than metal.
The Ferios monoblock is rated at 300W into 8 ohms, 580W into 4 ohms, and 780W into 2 ohms. The amplifier is essentially a scaled down version of Tidal’s Assoluta flagship amp, with the same circuit topology, build-quality, and casework, and virtually all the same parts as the flagship, but a smaller power supply and output stage. A polished stainless-steel plate runs vertically through the center of the polished black-acrylic front panel, matching its look with the Prisma preamp. Inputs are balanced only, and the two sets of output terminals are beautifully made custom jobs with solid-silver contacts. RJ-45 jacks allow connection to the Prisma for automatic powering up when the Prisma is turned on. The casework and styling are exceptional. (See the sidebar for technical details on both products.)
The Tidal electronics drove the new flagship loudspeaker from Wilson Audio, the stunning Chronosonic XVX (review next issue). Doug White, Tidal’s premier U.S. dealer, accompanied the products for setup (see Q&A this issue). Doug has been a tireless cheerleader for Tidal in the U.S. for many years, demonstrating the products at shows and trying to gain recognition for the brand, which has previously had only minimal exposure in the States. In fact, this is the first American review of Tidal electronics in the company’s 21-year history. Hearing Doug’s excellent all-Tidal demos (including speakers) at shows piqued my interest in the brand. I’m glad that I took on this review; the Prisma and Ferios, individually and together, turned out to be outstanding, possessing some extraordinary qualities.
The pair’s sound is dominated by a powerful sense of presence and immediacy, but not because of a forward spatial perspective. Rather, the vividness stems from a startling transparency that renders instrumental and vocal timbre with the sense that nothing is standing between you and the performers. The term “transparency” in a narrow sense can mean a “see-through” quality to the soundstage that allows you to hear clearly instruments toward the back of the hall, or low in level within a mix. In a larger sense, “transparency” is the feeling of the electronics vanishing from the signal path, allowing you not just to hear to the back of the hall, but through the entire recording and reproduction chains to the original musical event. This latter definition of transparency is characterized by no dilution of timbral realism, no diminution of transient attacks, no loss of immediacy and vividness, and no congealing of images. That is, the electronics impose very little of themselves on every aspect of the presentation. When such transparency is present, we perceive the result as greater musical realism, which fosters a deeper immersion in the musical intent.
The Prisma and Ferios fit both the narrow and wider definitions of transparency. For example, the slight electronic haze that many amplifiers overlay on the soundfield was stripped away, laying bare a vivid timbral realism, purity, and clarity. Tone colors were beautifully portrayed, and lacked the patina of electronic “greyness” that robs instruments of their richness and complexity. In fact, instrumentals and voices were so real sounding that their entrance was sometimes startling—the primitive part of the brain reacting to what was perceived to be a person or object appearing suddenly in front of you. A good example is Eric Clapton’s voice on “Worried Life Blues” from his album with B.B. King Riding With the King on Tidal in MQA. The sense of being startled was repeated when King takes the second verse.
This sense of presence and realism was heightened by the Tidal pair’s absolutely gorgeous rendering of timbre, particularly through the upper midrange. The aforementioned absence of electronic haze was just the beginning; the Tidal electronics had an utterly liquid, even sensual rendering. The pair had a big, warm, and rich midrange that was the antithesis of clinical sterility. I didn’t perceive this as merely a pleasant coloration, but rather as the absence of the bleaching of tonal color that many solid-state electronics exhibit. Tenor saxophone was particularly well served by the Prisma and Ferios, from Dexter Gordon’s Go and Dexter Calling [Music Matters reissues], to Ben Webster’s Gentle Ben, to Illinois Jacquet’s Swing’s the Thing. This tonal beauty was also evident on Chet Baker’s trumpet on the terrific new LP box-set reissue of five titles on the Riverside label. His trumpet had a bell-like clarity and crystalline purity that perfectly conveyed his intimate expressiveness on tracks like “September Song” from Chet (The Lyrical Trumpet of Chet Baker). Or listen to the gorgeous sonority of Hillary Hahn’s violin on the direct-to-disc recording of the Mozart Violin Sonata in G Major (a 2018 Deutsche Gramophon release). The Prisma and Ferios are as grainless in texture as I’ve heard from any solid-state electronics. The Tidal pair made it easy to quickly relax into deep involvement throughout the listening session.
In these qualities, the Prisma and Ferios reminded me of three SET amplifiers that I hold in the highest regard—the David Berning 211/845, the Lamm ML1.2, and the Absolare 845 SET. That’s no coincidence. A great virtue of those SET designs is a very simple signal path—a trait shared with the Prisma and Ferios. There’s something so pure, immediate, and direct about the sound of those designs that they convey a more convincing illusion of musical realism. I once heard a wonderful analogy of the virtue of a short signal path: “An audio signal is like a fine pastry; the less it is handled the better the result.”
The Tidal pair’s resolution of musical information was simply astounding; the presentation was richly detailed and complex, with every musical line from each instrument clearly presented. I could easily shift my attention from one player to another, effortlessly picking out one instrument or section from the whole. This was particularly true of percussion and other transient sounds. The intricate Latin percussion instruments on “Armando’s Rhumba” from Antidote with Chick Corea’s Spanish Heart Band (MQA on Tidal) had realistic leading-edge transients that brought them to vivid life. Complex arrangements were “unraveled” with effortless precision, yet in a totally natural and organic way. Although the sound was very vivid, alive, and highly resolved, it was simultaneously relaxed and natural.
Another exemplary characteristic was the pair’s outstanding resolution of treble detail. The Tidal electronics didn’t just reveal high-frequency information, they also infused the sound with a very finely resolved portrayal of inner detail. For example, brushes on snare drum didn’t sound like a continuous burst of high-frequency energy; rather, it was as if they comprised a virtually infinite number of tiny transient components, each exquisitely resolved. The individual zills of a tambourine were clearly differentiated from each other, for example. Some electronics can make cymbal crashes sound like bursts from a spray can. The Tidal pair had a much more nuanced rendering. I didn’t appreciate this quality for its own sake, but rather because of the way the treble resolution contributed to the overall sense of realism. It made it that much easier to forget I was listening to a reproduction rather than simply to music. Most listeners will simply hear the Tidal electronics’ realism and the musical engagement it engenders, and not attribute that quality to any specific sonic attributes.
This resolution paid off in soundstaging, where the Tidal pair presented an outstanding spatial presentation. The soundstage wasn’t just wide, deep, and transparent; it was also very well resolved. The sense of air around instrumental outlines, the three-dimensionality, and the resolution of the acoustic around the performance space were all exceptional. The Tidal pair didn’t have quite the treble openness, air, and extension of Constellation electronics, which are unmatched in this regard. Similarly, the remarkable soundstage depth and dimensionality captured on the demonstration-quality sonic blockbuster John Williams at the Movies (176.4/24 files downloaded from Reference Recordings) were better portrayed through the Constellation electronics.
The Prisma and Ferios were extremely fast, portraying leading-edge transients with a realistic suddenness and impact. This was as true for large-scale dynamic impacts as it was for the very finest transient detail. I particularly enjoyed how the Tidal electronics beautifully resolved very delicate cymbal work, such as Jack DeJohnette’s playing on Keith Jarrett’s My Foolish Heart, or Michal Miskiewicz on the beautiful album January from the Marcin Wasileski Trio (MQA on Tidal).
The Ferios’ 300W into 8 ohms (680W into 4 ohms) was plenty of power to drive the Wilson Chronosonic XVX to any listening level with no compression, hardening on peaks, collapsing of the soundstage, or softening of the bass. The bottom end was satisfyingly solid and extended. The Tidal pair had a touch of warmth and weight in the midbass that complemented the electronics’ overall textural liquidity.
This description applies equally to the Prisma and Ferios individually. I listened to the Prisma at length with a different power amp, and to the Ferios with a different preamplifier, in addition to auditioning them collectively. They exhibit virtually identical virtues, which were only heightened when used together.
To assess the Prisma’s phonostage, I compared it to my reference, the Moon 810LP ($13,500), which I’ve been using for years. I switched the tonearm cables from the Prisma’s phono input to the Moon, and ran interconnects (Shunyata Sigma) from the Moon into one of the Prisma’s line inputs. The cartridge loading was identical at 400 ohms. The Prisma’s low-gain setting was, as noted, sufficient for the Air Tight Opus cartridge’s 0.45mV output.
The Moon had more bass weight with greater bottom-end extension; the Prisma was a little lighter and leaner, but tighter with greater bass definition. On the top end, the Moon was brighter, more forward, and extended. Not that the Prisma was dark or closed in, but the treble was a little less prominent, and also smoother in texture with less grain. If the Moon emphasized the frequency extremes, the midrange completely belonged to the Prisma. The Prisma’s midrange was unbelievably lush, liquid, and seductive. There was no hint of hardness, glare, grain, or of the slightly mechanical character of the Moon. For example, Dexter Gordon’s sax on the beautiful ballad “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” from Go [Music Matters] was better rendered through the Prisma, with a tube-like gorgeousness of timbre and richness of tone color. The Prisma also better portrayed the sense of expanding air around the instrument that followed each note’s dynamic envelope. The Prisma’s expressiveness of Gordon’s sensitive phrasing, combined with the preamp’s completely organic rendering of his full-bodied and robust tone, was particularly rewarding. Similarly, on the stunning 45rpm LP Vivaldi in Venice, the violin in the Giuseppe Tartini Violin Concerto in A Major was utterly liquid through the Prisma, without an emphasis on the strings at the expense of the instrument’s body. Of course, the Moon phonostage was at a disadvantage in that it’s a separate component that must operate as a stand-alone device, with multiple gain stages, connectors, and runs of interconnects. But that’s the point of the Prisma; Tidal believes that phono gain and equalization is best performed as an integral part of the preamplifier. In fact, Tidal doesn’t offer a stand-alone phonostage; all three of the company’s preamps include an elaborately executed phonostage.
The Prisma preamplifier and Ferios power amplifiers are among the best electronics I’ve heard. They combine a startling immediacy and transparency with a tonal beauty that simultaneously engages the head and the heart. Their resolution of individual instruments within complex arrangements was sensational. I was particularly impressed by the Prisma preamplifier with its sophisticated volume control and unique integration of the phonostage that greatly shortens the signal path. If you thought that the phonostage inside a full-function preamp was compromised compared with outboard units, you haven’t heard the Prisma.
These two products from Tidal aren’t inexpensive, but they represent a good value when compared with other top-flight electronics. Although just about every electronics company claims to “reproduce the artist’s intent,” the Tidal Prisma and Ferios actually deliver on that promise.
Specs & Pricing
Inputs: Three line, one phono (all balanced)
Outputs: Two stereo pairs (balanced)
Phono compatibility: Moving coil only
Phono gain: Two settings, gain not specified
Cartridge loading: 12 steps, 50 ohms to 2000 ohms
Dimensions: 17.3″ x 5.1″ x 15.3″
Weight: 31 lbs.
Ferios monoblock power amplifier
Output power: 300W into 8 ohms, 580W into 4 ohms, 700W into 2 ohms
Bandwidth: 1Hz–400kHz (–3dB)
Dimensions: 17.3″ x 12.4″ x 17.3″
Weight: 109 lbs. each
Price: $85,000 per pair
TIDAL AUDIO GMBH
THE VOICE THAT IS (Premier U.S. Dealer)
Analog source: Basis Audio A.J. Conti Transcendence turntable with SuperArm 12.5 tonearm; Air Tight Opus cartridge; Moon 810LP phonostage
Digital source: Aurender W20SE server, Berkeley Audio Design Alpha DAC Reference Series 3; Berkeley Alpha USB USB-to-AES/EBU converter; Shunyata Sigma USB cable; AudioQuest Wild Digital AES/EBU cable
Loudspeaker: Wilson Audio Specialties Chronosonic XVX, Wilson Subsonic subwoofers (x2), Wilson Active XO crossover
Amplification: Constellation Altair 2 preamplifier; Constellation Hercules 2 monoblock power amplifiers, Constellation Centaur II stereo (driving the Wilson Subsonic subwoofers)
AC power: Shunyata Triton V3, Typhon QR, Sigma power cords; Shunyata AC outlets, five dedicated 20A lines wired with 10AWG
Support: Critical Mass Systems Olympus equipment racks and Olympus amplifier stands; CenterStage2 isolation
Cables: Shunyata Sigma interconnects and loudspeaker cables; AudioQuest WEL Signature interconnects, AudioQuest Dragon Zero and Dragon Bass loudspeaker cables
Acoustics: Acoustic Geometry Pro Room Pack 12
Room: Acoustic Sciences Corporation Iso-Wall System
LP cleaning: Klaudio KD-CLN-LP200, Levin Design record brush
By Robert Harley
My older brother Stephen introduced me to music when I was about 12 years old. Stephen was a prodigious musical talent (he went on to get a degree in Composition) who generously shared his records and passion for music with his little brother.More articles from this editor