New hifi pre-amp: Less is now More (more or less)

Another instalment in the never-ending search for sound improvement

World-Designs-Pre3-pre-amplifier-1800-LJC

Welcoming a new addition to the LJC family: the custom built World Designs Pre 3 valve pre-amplifier

Evolution of a system

My music system has been built on Linn for over 25 years. What built Linn’s position in the branded hifi separates market is founder Ivor Teifenbrun’s conviction that everything in the signal path degrades the signal, the hierarchy of the sound chain starting with the turntable, and the destructive consequences of vibration on sound quality

Decades ago, when mainly Japanese consumer electronics were bristling with the  illusion of control, offering the ability to customise sound to your preferences, Linn hi-fi offered no tone controls, no graphic equalizer displays, no inessential components, just one on/off switch. How could you improve on the original music with tone controls? Linn had to make sense. However in more recent years another battleground opened up. Customers began to demand more and more functionality and connectivity: multi-room, multi-media, multi interface. The result, a precarious balance between engineering and marketing, and a losing battle for audio performance. All that connectivity – HDMI, Ethernet, SPDIF, 5.1, IR, TOSLINK, OPTICAL may be essential to run a multimedia multi-room home entertainment hub but it does the music no favours.

Running a separate preamplifier and main power amplifier was also a well proven sound  quality strategy compared with integrated amplifiers so the decision was made early on to follow that path with Linn equipment. And it also seemed to make sense at the time of building the system to partner the pre and main amplifier from the same manufacturer.

However, to support the new Dynavector TKR cartridge, bypassing the Linn preamplifier with a valve phono stage had paid handsome dividends . What now was  the purpose  the solid state pre-amplifier, apart from acting as a large and very expensive volume control?  Might a minimalist valve preamplifier, replacing the solid state circuitry and redundant connectivity of Linn’s pre-amp, allow yet further improvement from valves?

People told me valves and solid state power amps  wouldn’t work together. Lots of shaking of wise heads but a practical demonstration showed  conventional wisdom to be not very wise. A loan valve pre-amp showed, to the contrary, a valve pre-amp gets on very well with a large solid state power amplifier. There was an immediate and significant step up in sound quality.  All that expensive connectivity had been suffocating the signal. The idea of common manufacturer equipment  “designed to work together”- turns out to be just another marketing myth.

So true to the original principle that less is more, the time came for LJC hi-fi consultant man-in-a-shed to  design a custom component preamplifier based on the excellent World Design Pre3 kit.

Less-is-More---Linn-Akurate-Pre-amp-vs-World-Designs-Pre3

What’s inside the box?

I am indebted to Man-in-a-Shed for the selection of many of the all important ingredients. These include:

Stepped attenuator using Takman metal film resistors and Elma 24 step stereo switch
Charcroft ‘Z’ foil resistors in the signal path
Audio Note copper in foil capacitors in the signal path
Audio Note resistors for the anode resistor of the valves
Elna Cerafines for the cathode bypass capacitors
Takman metal film for the cathode bypass resistors
Silver wire and silver solder
TJ full Music ECC82 valves

WD circuit diagramCapture

No, I didn’t understand any of it either. Apparently it has very few components, but of very high quality, which is why it sounds so much better than what it replaced, at a fifth of the cost.

Deep inside, its got components.

I’m told this is the really important component.The big round thing that looks like a giant gatling gun . Or may be it’s that copper hot water cylinder behind it. Or possibly that retro-looking glass thing.  Oh dear,  I don’t know my Rs from my Elnas

pre3-inside

Another step towards the dark side – introducing further valves into the audio chain in place of solid state circuitry, though still dependent on the main four-channel Linn power amp, which I figure basically, “does as its told”. So now its a Gang of Three in charge of the early stages of amplification, closest to the precious signal.

Gang-of-Three-1800-LJC

The Linn Pre-amp was taking up a whole stage, which is freed up to take the three custom-build components.

The ensemble:

whole-system-20140217-1200x800-LJC

That’s it. Phew. What a journey. What does it sound like? Need you ask? Still needs time to settle, components time to burn in, but in a word, jaw-dropping.

Credits

My thanks to Mathew Snell’s World Designs for skilful assembly, John Caswell for testing, and amplifier designer Andy Grove, and Man-in-a-Shed for sourcing extra-special ingredients. Me?  I just do the listening.

43 thoughts on “New hifi pre-amp: Less is now More (more or less)

  1. so, if i understand correctly from my original comment, which started quite the fuss, a preamp is useful when using a cartridge that produces a very low signal, essentially? ok… then why use such a cartridge? why not a cartridge that better separates the music from the noise, as you say?

    • To paraphrase a response of Andy’s to one of my questions below, the lower voltage signal from a moving coil cartridge is argued to be more sensitive to the analogue movement of the groove wall than that of a moving magnet cartridge. His comments about noise were being made hypothetically: all moving coil preamplifiers have very high-quality, low-noise components because it’s even more important for them to not introduce a significant amount of noise into the signal path because they’re working with a lower voltage (but arguably more “accurate”) moving coil signal.

      Regarding preamps, every phono cartridge needs preamplification (unless you’re doing one of those purist-audiophile-minimal-signal-chain thingys). Moving magnet cartridges need a certain amount of preamplification (provided by Andy’s new “preamplifier”), but moving coil carts have an even lower voltage so they need extra preamplification, which is what his “phono amplifier” is for.

      I admittedly wasn’t very familiar with all this before because though I’ve looked into purchasing a moving coil cartridge in the past, I’ve never actually owned one…will definitely give it a try some day!

    • All cartridges need amplification. No surprise there! A moving coil cartridge needs loads more amplification than a moving magnet cartridge.

      A phono amplifier is needed for both types of cartridge. For a moving coil cartridge the phono amp has to amplify the signal a huge amount, for a moving magnet it has to amplify it a lot less.

      An integrated amplifier can include a phono amplifier, pre amplifier and power amplifier all in one box if the buyer wants it. Some integrated amplifiers don’t have a phono amp in them because not everyone has a record deck.

      Even if LJC was using a moving magnet cartridge and not a moving coil cartridge he would still need a phono amp. His previous pre amp, the Linn Akurate, had a phono amp included inside it. This could be configured to amplify either moving magnet or moving coil cartridges.

      This is why he has a phono amp; to amplify the tiny signals from the cartridge.

      Then he has the pre amp to select the source (vinyl or streamer), control the volume and feed the amplified signal to the power amp, which amplifies it further.

      A cartridge of any type can’t be fed straight into a pre amp which has no ability to amplify the cartridge first. There wouldn’t be enough signal to produce music at the other end!

      Moving coil cartridges with their very low output are generally preferred over moving magnet cartridges because of their delicacy of sound, high level of detail retrieval and a more natural ‘flow’ to the music.

      This is a generalisation, of course. Some moving magnet cartridges are better than some moving coil cartridges.

      Hope this helps!

      Guy

      • “(unless you’re doing one of those purist-audiophile-minimal-signal-chain thingys)”

        FTR, this comment was made to address the fact that I have heard of people creating playback systems without any preamplification…dunno the details of how it’s done, and it could have just been part of a theoretical conversation, I can’t remember, but I guess it makes sense in theory because amplification is just amplification at the end of the day (it should be noted however that one would still need to apply the RIAA curve in this fantasy situation).

        Slightly off topic, I think I remember reading in that Roy DuNann Stereophile interview that one of the reasons he got such clean signals from his mics was that he was doing something similar to what I am describing above where he didn’t use preamps on his channels and somehow must have boosted the signal some other way at a later stage…? Gonna have to go back and investigate this sometime…

        Pardon my ignorance, I really lose my footing at this level of scientific inquiry!

        • Mic reference AKG C-12: “condenser mikes had high output because of the tube preamps built into their heads… When Lester took them into a recording studio (like, for example, Capitol’s, which was set up for a variety of microphones, primarily dynamic), the signal coming off Lester’s mikes had to be attenuated so that they did not overload the equipment. So,” Roy continues, “it was my idea—why attenuate the microphones and then amplify the signal again? Why don’t we just take the signal out of the microphones and run it through variable attenuators, and we wouldn’t need any amplifiers?

          Not that I understand any of the technical stuff. Full text here:
          http://www.stereophile.com/interviews/402roy/

  2. (continued from below in reply to “thebeathunters”, to avoid drainpipe view)

    I fully understand that even technology itself can be addictive. But let’s talk some more about adequate reproduction of recorded music. One of my questions to the audiophile community is, for instance: How many of you guys are using a Nakamichi turntable, the only one that can handle eccentric vinyl? Eccentricity is a problem that is much more common than most audiophiles are ready to admit. I own some beautiful vinyl discs which, unfortunately, are off-centre. I never put them on the turntable but listen to the CD version instead. Now if eccentricity doesn’t bother you, why are you kept from sleeping by differences in sound that, more often than not, are so tiny that they are not even discernible in test situations? What the heck has all this got to do with the MUSIC?

    • well, i luckily managed to stay away from eccentric lps. i remember a pristine mono copy of a love supreme i had to return because of that. the experience of music is very different from one person to another. i remember being totally happy listening K7 on a small philips player when i was 11 and i suppose i’ll be happy with it if i had no other choice. but big boys enjoy bigger toys and though i’m trying to keep my system as simple and sophisticated as possible, searchin’ for the 13th note sometimes leads you to questionable ways and dead-ends. a very good phono-pre like andrew’s is definitely a logical and essential choice, as important as amp or speakers and hardly keeps him from sleeping i’m sure.
      ebay usually takes care of that

      • “Staying away” from eccentric LPs is not always easy. Exactly how eccentric is an LP allowed to be? If you get an aberration of 0,5 mm – which looks a considerable one but happens all too frequently – this will result in 0,7 percent “wow” for the inner groove. Enough to render your piano or vibraphone unlistenable! The maximum tolerable “wow” for a turntable (and I am not even talking about modern high fidelity standards here) used to be 0,2 percent according to DIN standards. Just a point to ponder…

    • Well there’s a lot of thing that keep me from uninhibitedly waving the “audiophile” flag, but I more or less think of myself as “an audiophile on a budget who is content with what he has”. I actually surprise myself in this respect because I am usually pretty particular, but for some reason it’s really easy for me to ignore any possible (minor) changes in sound reproduction that may be achievable with equipment that costs (disproportionally) more. I have always thought of the curve relating money spent with improvement in sound reproduction as logarithmic, meaning that I think the first few hundred bucks you spend go a long way but after that the improvements become increasingly more difficult to discern and thus justify (this is all relative to one’s budget, taste etc. of course).

      I’m pretty sure I understand your point, Eduard. I imagine it’s difficult for some audiophile to relax and enjoy the music because they get caught up in their particularity, and you’re right: sound reproduction can never really be “perfect”, and while it seems like some audiophiles unrealistically strive for that, I’m pretty sure Andy will tell you it’s not necessarily about perfection but *improvement*.

      But I think there’s a couple rational responses to your points. First, I am aware of eccentricity, and I have actually heard what it can do to playback in extreme cases. But in the vast majority of cases I honestly can’t hear any difference. Second, I think many audiophiles would jump right up to disagree with you about said differences in sound that supposedly can or cannot be discerned in test situations, but this is where I easily and happily bow out of the debate. Third, these theoretical and real-world improvements have everything to do with the music because I don’t think there is any utility in talking about sound without also considering the music.

      The longer I collect records, the more aware I become of how deep the rabbit hole goes regarding options and levels of improvement. I still don’t relate to those who walk this path of progress but I respect their desire to do so. Sometimes I hear a difference but I don’t think it’s worth the money, other times I don’t hear anything. But regardless, that doesn’t mean someone else isn’t hearing a dramatic difference. There are way too many factors involved in “hearing” to think of it objectively, and on an end note, I think one of the greatest factors that ironically is one of the most ignored in these kind of discussions is the *psychological* element of hearing…but that’s for another time 🙂

      • I think no one would have been able to put this more gracefully, Rich. To me, all that matters is decent (and I mean really decent!) reproduction of MUSIC. And for a musician, such things as pitch and “wow & flutter” are very, very important. In fact, they should be just as important to audiophiles because the word means “lovers of sound”, doesn’t it?

          • though i could probably qualify to the audiophile (some say idiophile) team, i usually don’t recognize myself in many problematics and issues relevant to the genre but i guess that de facto i belong to that crowd… nevertheless, just like you eduard – and everybody here at andrew’s jazz club – music is what matters the most. and i see the gear i use as somehow my “best” compromize to enjoy it to the fullest. bearing in mind we’re talking about reproduction techniques and supports here, not the real live deal. records have their own sound and groove and that’s what make them so appealing. the vinyl itself, the sleeve covers, the artwork, etc, all are part of a unique artistic experience – fetishism included. and blending it with vintage audio makes it even more addictive…

            • I can remember the times when I used to sit up late to catch some fragments of Willis Conover’s VOA Jazz Hour on shortwave (!!). MP3 would have meant paradise, audiophile nirvana, back then. Then we had reel-to-reel tape, followed by cassette decks, to record music from the radio – until finally everything we wanted was right there on demand, even free of charge, in comparatively decent, very decent, sound, thanks to the internet.

              To be honest, I find myself at home in both worlds (“vintage” and – what do you call it? – “straight”…?), and very much so. But what annoys me is when somebody is trying to mix up things and convince me that vintage audio is somehow technically better than modern state-of-the-art technology. I am glad to say that LJC has never tried to do this, and that’s why I feel quite comfortable in this surrounding.

              • mixing vintage and say “contemporary” gear is great and complementary. vintage preamps tend to be the weak part whereas amps, thanks to the quality of components, transformers or tubes, are hard to beat on a budget. what is crually missing in contemporary gear vs.vintage is design. the best looking items often have an old-school flavor, the majority tend to look so bland…h

  3. This is how it works:

    LJC’s phono amplifier takes the minute signal from the cartridge and amplifies is it to line level, about 2V. It uses step up transformers and then valves to do this.

    The pre-amplifier takes line level signals from the phono amplifier and LJCs streamer. It would also take line level inputs from any other sources, such as a tuner (radio) or any other auxiliary source.

    The pre-amplifier performs two essential functions. It allows the user to choose between sources, and it controls the volume.

    It could do this in a totally passive way by just having a selector switch and an attenuator as the volume control. But, as Eduard Lindhalm shows in his link, a pre-amplifier which performs in an active way, by giving gain to the signal, will sound better.

    It’s not possible to connect a phono amp directly to a power amplifier, there would be no way to control the volume, it would always be at maximum.

    LJCs pre-amplifier has a very simple design, minimising the number of components in the signal path. The components which are in the signal path are now very high quality, By which is meant, they should degrade the signal as little as possible.

    Guy

    • Sorry, “Me”, that’s not quite what I was driving at. I was referring to this part of the link:

      “Many internet contributors claim that this is the sound that was actually recorded, and that if you don’t like an aggressive, flat soundstage and lifeless dynamics, you simply can’t handle the truth. Some even conclude that an active preamp, which can provide effortless dynamics, a deep, wide soundstage, and palpable, 3-D imaging, is in fact generating artifacts or “enhancements” that are not on the recording. I don’t believe that these effects are artifacts, but information that is lost when those recordings are played on lesser systems.”

      I DO believe that these effects are artifacts, but they sound so good to audiophiles that they prefer them to the sound that was actually recorded. (No objection either – if it sounds good it IS good… )

  4. what exactly does a preamplifier DO for you in this situation that the amplifier couldn’t do? I understand what a preamplifier does to musical instruments, but not really to the record player. it seems, from an outside perspective, that anything the preamp does, the amplifier could do for you. but i admittedly am not an audiophile. i just like the music. but i do like to understand what changes i could make.

        • thanks! that is helpful. a new question arises, though. since it seems to be a question of signal strength before the amp, what is the preamp doing? the answer seems to be boosting the signal… but isn’t what an amp does? i have a better understanding now, but not a full one.

            • you need a specific “phono” preamp to convert to RIAA standard when you use an MM cartridge to listen to Lps. especially when in this age of digital source and for say, the last 20 years – phono inputs are not included anymore in preamps or integrated amps. on top of that, a transformer is needed to enhance the low level of MC carts to RIAA. some use valves for that task – with a risk of microphony that depends on the tube itself – other prefer transistors. as for power output, valves add a different tone than transistors (positive/negative harmonics) and then choice of special chosen components + soldering skills may bring the whole thing to the next level. whatever option you prefer, beauty still stands in the ear of the beholder.

              • Yeah, exactly, that’s what its for, thank you, saved hours of typing.

                Unlike cheaper moving magnet cartridges, a moving coil cartridge produces a tiny signal of only a few hundred microvolts, easily swamped by noise and induced hum. Thus it requires a preamplifier with extremely low noise inputs. A dedicated “step up transformer” (phono amp) is preferable, for just that one task.

                The Linn pre-amp supports both moving coil and moving magnet input but commercially has to split its budget between lots of different purposes, so it’s pared down to how much it could spend on its mm/mc stage – the only thing I needed. The Linn default is amazingly, moving magnet only and requires opening the case (creating work for Linn vendors) to switch to MC.

                The Linn Pre-amp did offer a step up the signal from the Dynavector MC cartridge, it just didn’t do the job as well as a dedicated phono stage of Rolls Royce components. The signal handling ability of task-specific components results in a better quality signal passed down the amplification chain. Especially through valves.The WD pre-amp provides a superior signal handling handover to the main power amp, through valves.

                The way I see it, everyone’s an audiophile, prefer things to sound better. Problem is they don’t identify with the label, and don’t want to navigate the knowhow. I can understand that.

                • No objection if you choose to call me an audiophile, LJC. I am a great lover of music, and I sometimes put my finger on some technical details that audiophiles seem to be rather permissive about. And this to “thebeathunters”: A lot of the equipment I am using is, in fact, more than 20 years old, with built-in preamps, and one of my three turntables also has an integrated preamp. I would never go so far as to put a preamp between a CD player and an amplifier as some people do.

                  • ok, eduard – you’re as old school as i am then 😉
                    about preamp with cdplayer or not, the subject is open to debate. interesting view in brad morrical’s article, too. issues of gain compatibility and impedance between amp and cdp can be resolved thru an active or passive pre. i used to believe limiting wires, circuits and else was the best way but in the case of valve preamps, whatever tone (or charm) they bring can really be addictive musically.
                    actually when you’ve found a very good preamp (even TR) you just forget about it and let the music play

                • Ok I think I get it now. So your “phono amplifier” is bringing the signal up to “moving magnet” level, then the new unit is bringing the signal up to “line level” along with the RIAA curve added…is this correct?

                  • Yes. An MC cart signal is a tenth the strength of a MM cart signal. By the time you have amped it up tenfold, the slightest difference in handling the smaller signal is magnified. The lesser MC signal is argued to be the more sensitive to the analogue movement of the groove wall, which is the point from which music starts. I am not an expert on any of this. I just know what I hear.

  5. nice improvment, attaboy! don’t stop on such good drive and get rid of that Linn amp, your lps – and speakers – deserve so much better…
    ok, just kidding (hum, hum). it’s true that valve preamps can match good solid state, the exact contrary is true, too (good TR preamp+good valve amps). as long as you hear improvment and enjoy your system even more, that’s terrific!
    if by any chance you ‘re able to hear some classD digital chip-amps (say a Bantam Gold) with your pre, you’ll be nicely surprised. here again the “less is more” motto do wonders…

  6. Andy, can you clarify something? I snooped around the site just now, but I’m still a bit confused about this, as I have always up to this point been an integrated guy. Does your phono preamp bypass the “preamp”? Is there another phono preamp inside the “preamp”?

    • Hopefully this simple explanation will help

      receivers , and integrated amps may have a phono input , (usually older or vintage and probably today’s high end . IDK ,as i prefer the tube equipment from the 60’s/70’s )- you can plug the turntable directly into those inputs.

      If the equipment does not have phono inputs you will need a phono pre-amp to amplify the signal , TT > phono pre-amp > aux input on receiver /integrated amp. ( not phono input )> sweet music

      separate phono pre-amps are of higher quality than those in an all-in-one unit. There is solid state ,and of course , tubes or valves depending which side of the ocean you reside.

      To make matters worse, there are 2 types of cartridges – MM and MC. You need a MC input for a MC cartridge because they need more boost – talking mv.

      • Thank you for responding Gary. I actually understand everything you just said, but I’m still confused about Andy’s setup because he has a “phono amplifier” (phono preamp I assume), but then he also has a “pre-amplifier” with a phono option. I suppose I understand that a general preamplifier like this is always present in an integrated amp to even out all the various voltages from different devices, but I wasn’t sure if he was bypassing the phono pre in the “pre-amplifier” or if there was something I was missing…?

        • Sounds like he is by-passing the phono input of the pre-amp and using a high quality , separate phono pre-amp.

          BTW, came across your blog this weekend – and have really enjoyed it. Can’t get to much jazz talk

  7. Did you audition the big boy Dynavector phono amps? I run DV power / pre separates with a P75 phono stage with excellent results. I’ve never had the chance to audition the full size DV phono amps… I hear they are spectacular.

    • Its a good question to which I have no answer. I am currently married to Wife 2, very happily, having moved on from Wife 1. Have I auditioned the many other potential Wives? No. Are there potentially more suitable Wives out there? Quite possibly.

      I’m not claiming what I have is “The Best” kit, not my intention at all. I hope I am not “boasting” either, not my intention. I am suggesting we should all look for ways of improving what we have, and consider “old technology” That I put my hand up for.

      Problem is very few manufacturers seem willing to lend out their kit for auditioning. Will Dynavector lend me a pre – come to my house and help me to A:B it? Commercial realities suggest it is uneconomic. So probably I won’t.

      • Understood. I’m friendly with the DV distributor here and even he has a tough time sourcing the DV electronics. Cartridges aren’t a problem but the electronics are manufactured by the Kiwi’s and their production times are… casual.

        We’re moving into a new house this spring which includes a larger music room which has me thinking about upgrades… casually.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s