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Reviewer: Frederic Beudot
Digital Source: Esoteric X03SE
Analog source: Acoustic Solid Classic Wood with RB300, Grado Reference Sonata 1, Clearaudio Nano
Preamplifiers: NAT Symmetrical [in for review], Esoteric C03 [in for review]
Amplifier: McIntosh MA2275, Genesis GR360 & MDHR
Speakers: FJ OMs
Headphone: Musical Fidelity Xcanv3, AKG K701
Cables: Zu Varial, Zu Libtec, Slinkylinks RCA copper, Esoteric Mexcel balanced interconnects [on loan], Accustic Arts Silverline balanced [on loan]
Power Cords: Zu Mother, NAT AC coupler black (on loan), Accustic Arts Ferrite 2 [on loan]
Powerline conditioning: Monster Power HTS5100mkII
Sundry accessories: Isolpads under electronics and good 'ol wooden chest
Room size: 12' x 13.5' x 8'
Review component retail: $7000 / €3500

The more time I spend comparing preamplifiers, the more I'm fascinated by them. When one thinks about that, it really shouldn't be. After all, a preamplifier just switches sources, attenuates the signal and otherwise ought to be pretty invisible to our ears. (If you wince at the mixed metaphor, remember how soundstaging and imaging are intensely visual yet they exist as purely sonic attributes sans
Why then is it that I find great preamplifiers to exert certainly as much character as great sources (and far more than the 100th installment of the newest 192kHz oversampling CD player) and in many ways to influence the final personality of a system as much as a pair of speakers? Speakers tend to dictate whether a system sounds 'male' or 'female', big-headed or fat-bottomed, A cup or D cup. It's the preamp that birthes the inner character to determine whether the music will be shy or extrovert, involving or distant, rigorous or frivolous.

What also keeps amazing me about a piece of equipment that for all intents and purposes should strive to disappear is how sensitive preamplifiers are to interconnects, power cords and vibration control devices. The more time I spend with superior preamps, the more the myth of wire with gain dissipates into thin air. Whether you make your preamp the heart or brain of your system is up to you but whatever happens to those fragile small signals before they arrive at the amplifier power house is where it all begins.

Late last year I reviewed the impressive SMc VRE-1, an active i/o transformer-coupled affair without gain - 'impressive' because for the first time I felt like being inside the musical event, of no longer sensing a barrier between me and the music. Was that finally the concept of
any involvement of the eyes at all).
wire with (no) gain? I doubt it. I've never heard a passive preamplifier control an amplifier in this fashion and add the bass weight, slam and dynamics the VRE-1 is capable of. To this day it remains a baffling piece of gear in how it bridges the best of both worlds. But time moved on and the VRE-1 had to return to its rightful owner and appear in shows and demos where it continued to impress if show reports and forum discussions are to be trusted. It came time to go on a personal quest and find the preamplifier that would become my new reference.

Hence three preamplifiers currently sit in my music room for evaluation, comparison and to more or less greatly worry my wallet. The great news is that I could live with any one of them. Still they are sufficiently different to have a lot to talk about. Srajan already favorably though in passing reviewed the Esoteric C03 so I'll chime in with a formal follow-up. The Accustic Arts Preamp I Mk3 shall play the role of German immigrant that took me by surprise. The NAT Symmetrical participates in the no-compromise tube design from Serbia category (be ready to tremble, a giant is waking in the East).

First up in this triptych is the Preamp I Mk3 (AA henceforth) primarily because of the three it is the easiest described and also the most conventional in design. But don't discard it quite yet. This silvery box packs far more musical pleasure than I originally anticipated. Those who've read my Accustic Arts CD player review know that I was not taken by its aesthetics nor really enamored with its price/performance ratio. Now we are in completely different territory. Although closely related, the looks are far more understated and eschew the huge blue light on top of the CD player whilst retaining the broad fascia and solid build quality the brand is known for. So the good remains but the not so good has vanished. The AA gear is also available in black to then retain the chromed controls.

On the back are high-quality chassis-mount connectors (3 x XLR and 2 x RCA inputs, 2 x XLR and 1 x RCA outputs) to allow for just about any imaginable amplification scheme from single to bi amplification + subwoofer or even tri amplification. The power switch too resides on the back. Being solid state and a frugal energy consumptioner, I left the AA on most the time although it seemed to spring to life very quickly after turn on, never exceeding 15 minutes to fully come on song. The only thing lacking on this otherwise very well thought-out machine is a fixed or tape output from which to connect my headphone amplifier. This feature is getting rarer and rarer due to the disappearance of tape decks but designers must remember that tape decks aren't the only recipients for fixed outputs! As a sign of the times, only one of the three preamplifiers sharing the stage was so equipped - the Serbian.

In the front, sobriety rules - one knob selects sources with solid and reassuring clicks, the other controls volume in smooth and tactile fashion. One push button activates mute, another configures a sixth input as pass-through to enable easy integration of stereo and multi-channel systems. The solid and heavy remote provides volume control but nothing else. Mute would have been nice. So far so good. Removing eight hex screws allows a peek into the belly of this 22lb piece, a more than commendable weight for a preamplifier and testimony to the solid enclosure and toroidal transformer even though the AA Pre was the lightest of the three preamplifiers lined up for review.