Reviewer: Edgar Kramer
Source: Sony XA-5ES as transport; Bel Canto Designs DAC 2
Preamp/Integrated: Blue Circle BC21.1 with Shallco attenuator option
Amp: Gryphon Tabu 2/100 power amp; Blue Circle BC26 MKII
Speakers: Wilson Watt/Puppy System 6
Cables: Harmonic Technology Magic Digital; Harmonic Technology Magic and Truthlink; MIT MI-330; DanA Digital Reference Silver interconnect cable; Harmonic Technology PRO-9+ loudspeaker cable; Harmonic Technology Fantasy AC; Shunyata Research Diamondback power cords, Eichmann eXpress AC power cable
Stands: Lush 4-tier, partly sand filled
Powerline conditioning: PS Audio P-300 Power Plant
Sundry accessories: Sundry custom cones and shelves and mysterious rubber compounds, Stillpoints ERS paper in strategic positions around DAC, Densen CD demagnetizer
Room size: 16' w x 21' d x 10'/11' h [stepped ceiling] in short wall setup with open adjoining office room
Review Component Retail: $1,990 standard Sheoak and black finish [upper left], other options and finishes available [$2,195 upper right]

"The times they are a'changin" - Bob Dylan
After a particularly gratifying listening session a few days ago and for what seemed like no particular reason, my mind wandered off on a tangent. I thought about our little planet and our human existence on it. I pondered how in the last 10 to 20 years, the world has gone through dramatic social, cultural and technological changes. Physically, this once vast planet has been transformed into a small village. Like an unstoppably voracious virus, the geography of our cities is spreading further and further out, simultaneously consuming and excreting enormous waste to feed and grow. Under the cuts of the human chain saw, our wilderness is faltering, stumbling and slowly shrinking. Nature is finding it increasingly difficult to absorb the by-products of burgeoning overpopulation. For the time being, I live in the lucky country of Australia where these effects are still comparatively mild.

On a human level, the technological beast has turned personal time and seemingly infinite distances into murky mirages with half-cycles of nanoseconds. Email, cell phones, pagers, fax and satellite communications have contributed to a manic sense of permanent standby. Technology places us in a perpetual state of potential communication, instantly accessible, accountable and present - hardware-driven telepathy.

To the fortunate audiophile, music and the system reproducing it represent the distant island of refuge, the last bastion of personal time and space. Listening in that sweet spot? Ah... we are transported to an ethereal place where the volume control is our guardian angel, wielding a shield of impenetrable lead which protects us from the pollution generated by the relentless communication airwaves of the world - until the telephone rings.

And yet...
... we are saddle-tied to the technological beast and its carriage. Without the beast's hoofs marching onward to ever more advanced technical heights, we as audiophiles would not be able to enjoy sophisticated equipment and high-resolution realistic sound. Electronics have evolved over the last few years in what seems like miraculous feats of technological grandeur. Although not audio but video, one example of mindboggling engineering that blows my wig? Micro-mirror technology in video projectors. What kind of extra-terrestrial mind came up with not only the concept but the ability to implement and then manufacture a system that comprises thousands of minute,
micro-motor-driven mirrors that are electronically aligned individually so as to reflect light onto a rapidly spinning green, red and blue wheel which in turn and via a set of lenses miraculously projects the images onto the screen in all their glory?

Paradoxically, some ancient but presently rediscovered designs and technologies somehow manage to proudly sail alongside the "newer and better" armada with a full set of bulging canvas proudly above the water line. And thus - Mick Maloney's Supratek Chardonnay tube preamplifier from Perth in Western Australia, perfected over 20 years of experience and refinement. Although internally advanced, its external simplicity is a throwback into the shadows of bright displays, full-function input-programmable multi-configurable hi-tech wonders like the Mark Levinson No32, Halcro DM10, mbl Reference and other such beacons of bleeding-edge technology. Would the Chardonnay be overshadowed as well by other, more important criteria? We shall see. Join me in putting this little beauty to the test.

I stumble in the presence of true beauty
Perhaps not stumble but certainly stutter. Ma, mam, my oh my is this thing beautiful and flawlessly hand-assembled and styled. As they say, photos do not do it justice. The two-box 3/4-sized components are matched in design and finish. The overkill power supply with its hefty transformer feels heavy and connects to the main control unit via a twisted lead with 4-pin screw-lock connectors. An IEC receptacle allows for after-market AC cable experimentation. The large gold knobs controlling volume and input selection feel tight, solid and luxurious in operation. At Supratek's entry point, the Chardonnay comes in black metalwork/Sheoak wood finish. Models above it are even more gloriously styled and finished in laser-cut, artisan-crafted chrome and gold accessories and optional wood finishes. True audio jewels to die for!

However, a product's skin-deep outer magnificence equals meaningless vanity in the audiophile realm if its internals are sub-standard, sound quality notwithstanding. Internally, the story of breathtaking beauty continues in the same vein with exotic-core custom output transformers and high quality parts throughout the two matching boxes, the Sovtek 5AR4 tube rectified power supply and the control unit containing, unusually, two KT66s and two 6SN7s. Said tubes are run very conservatively. Expected life span is 10,000 hours, possibly longer. A high gain direct-coupled two-stage triode design, the Chardonnay uses a minimum of parts. Designer Mick Maloney explains:

"I favour these high gain designs because I've found them to sound more dynamic and alive, with less electronic reminders than the lower gain single-stage variations. The methods used to cut gain don't do as much damage as not having the gain in the first place. That part took a long time to get right! In fact, with the top gain switches set to low, the Chardonnay has an operative bandwidth of 5Hz to 150kHz. Many solid state preamps can't do that."

To counteract compatibility problems with solid-state high-gain amplifiers in particular, the Chardonnay has two methods of gain adjustment: Dual-mono high/low gain toggles on the control unit's top and a 6-position rear-panel switch which varies the load on the high quality output transformers. These twin methods of gain structure manipulation can be experimented with, resulting in potential sound quality improvements. With my transistor amps, I used the low- gain position on the top panel switch and the center position on the transformer load selector.

Given my high-sensitivity Wilson speakers and the fact
that this is a tube preamplifier, it 's worth noting that the Chardonnay was the quietest unit I have ever heard, tube or solid-state. Not a peep even with my ear almost touching the tweeter. Remarkable.

Mick further expanded on his design philosophy and circuit implementation: "The Chardonnay is a direct-coupled design. There's only one Auricap in the circuit and one could argue that it's not really in the signal path. The regulator of course is a shunt design which always sounds better than the series regulators commonly used. Another important factor is phase. The Chardonnay doesn't invert phase and I've paid particular attention to the phase characteristics of the whole circuit."

As far as the single-ended/balanced debate goes, Mick had this to say: "Balanced/unbalanced is a contentious subject. It comes from the pro audio world where you need to address the pickup noise from very long cables. True balanced operation involves either balancing transformers or turning a single-ended circuit (which most preamps are) into a push-pull affair with double the componentry, circuitry etc. That's the only way to achieve true balanced operation throughout a preamp. There's a lot of hype about it, with many so-called balanced designs really being pseudo-balanced by having an XLR socket wired to accept a balanced signal while internally converting it to unbalanced.

I personally prefer single-ended operation every time. There's an ease and effortlessness about it. True balanced designs sound more electronic to me, especially push-pull circuit variants. One area where balanced is useful is in addressing RF noise in big city environments. But it's not an issue for me in my country town isolation. However, places like NY can benefit from it. To my mind, the best way to achieve balanced operation is to tap off the output transformer of a preamp, which we can do with all our Supratek pres right at the transformer. This is a true and perfect balanced architecture with the minimum of circuitry to degrade the sound (actually, there's virtually no additional circuitry).

One balancing point in a preamp is all that's necessary - our output transformer turns the single-ended circuit into a balanced circuit with two phases and the noise common to both channels (hum, RF etc) is greatly reduced. Going for balanced throughout is sonic overkill that in my opinion does more harm than good though it has been a successful marketing campaign by some companies to sell amps."

The Chardonnay comes standard with 4 inputs and 2 outputs on high-quality RCA sockets plus a tape loop. Available options are XLR outputs, remote control, processor loop-thru and alternate high-quality finishes. A superb phono stage transforms the Chardonnay into a model called the Chenin [$2900 with 6922 & 6J6 valves - Ed.].