The importance of the preamp
One of the latest arrivals here is Hegel’s new P20 preamp, a lower-cost alternative to their reference-level P30 that is nevertheless one of the most transparent and one of the best sounding preamps I’ve ever had in the store. It’s the first time I’ve had a Hegel preamp to accompany my H20 Hegel power amp (200wpc, fully balanced design), and the combination highlights the benefits of brand synergy. This is not surprising, as manufacturers will naturally use their own products as ancillary equipment when developing new components. What you may find surprising, though, is that the H20 power amp sounded much better with the P20 preamp than it did without ANY analog preamp at all (using the HD25 DAC as a digital preamp). One might think that removing a component and simplifying the signal path would naturally lead to better sound quality. But this did not happen. Wiring the P20 between the HD25 and H20 led to obvious sonic improvements in both dynamics and soundstage. This fact reminds me once again about how important the preamp is in the signal chain from source to speakers.
I’ve often heard it said that the preamp is the most difficult audio component to make. Not only is it switching sources and providing volume control, it is doing so when the signal is at its most vulnerable to noise and distortion. It’s a delicate operation: while the amp is like a power tool, the preamp is like a surgical instrument, gingerly performing its tasks without hurting the health of the “patient” (in this case, the signal that is destined to be transformed into music by the loudspeakers). Since every model of preamp is unique in its design and construction, the results from brand-to-brand (and even between different models of the same brand) vary significantly. All other variables being equal, it’s amazing how different a system sounds when swapping preamps. Detail, transparency, dynamic range, soundstage and imaging: all these areas (and more) are deeply effected by the choice of preamp. But don’t take my word for it: come in for a listen and let your ears convince you.