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Reviewer: Edward Barker
Analog: Scheu Premier II with Schroeder DPS arm and Allaerts MC1B MK II cartridge, Garrard 301 (custom plinth) with Hadcock 242 SE and Music Makers models 2 & 3; Systemdek Transcription with Mission 774 and Empire MC1000; Thorens 160/Thorens/Shure ED75; SME 20/2 turntable with SME 5 arm; Audiomeca Model 3 arm; Sansui 719 Tuner
Phonostages: Tom Evans Groove Plus; Loricraft Missing Link Mk II [on extended loan]; Gram Slee Era Gold Mk 5 [on extended loan]
Digital: Audiomeca Mephisto 2.X
Preamplifier: Canary 903 four-box preamplifier with NOS valves
Amplifier: Rogue 150 Monoblocks with Siemens EL34s; Rogue 88 Magnum; BBC AM84A Monoblocks restored & recapped
Speakers: Marten Design Coltrane Altos; Living Voice OBXR2 [on extended loan]
Ancillaries: Clearlight Audio NFT cabling; Audiomagic Mini Stealth conditioner for digital
Review Component Retail: £6,000 standard; £7,500 with WBT NextGen connectors, silver capacitors and pure silver wiring; £5,000 in line-stage version
Inevitably, the launch of a new Tron preamplifier is going to be a landmark event. While by no means a household name, among the cognoscenti Tron and designer Graham Tricker are considered to be one of the very few high-end companies that continue to focus exclusively on extreme audio performance, albeit without straying into either "let's charge ridiculous sums to those who don't know better plus the far East market" or the popular counterpoint of "making cheaper equipment that provides x percentage of performance for a lower price". With Tron, you always get the best. It's the only thing that interests designer Graham Tricker - to focus on the best he knows how to make, compromises be damned. Indeed, for an idea of quite how far Tron takes things, take a peek at Roland Kraft's review of the Tron Nucleus in Image Hi-Fi.
The Syren is Tron's latest assault at the single box, state of the art preamplifier. It measures 450mm wide x 335mm deep x 82mm high (96mm including feet). Its black fascia (available in blue at extra cost) displays the Tron logo and two flanking rotary but horizontally inset dials that recall vintage tuner wheels. The left dial controls inputs (marked RIAA, CD, tuner and AUX) while the right one adjusts volume, with further numbered indents marking zero to nine. At the rear sits a column of single-ended NextGen WBT RCAs. While setting them close together is a mark of concern to keep the signal path as short as possible, it does mean that the cables are stacked without much room. If you fancy really thick interconnects, you might find it a squeeze. As with all NextGen WBTs, these sockets are delicate. It's important to remember to twist off the RCAs on removal because at least with the earlier versions of the NextGens, there was a risk that a small plastic grommet could pop out otherwise. The on/off switch is found under the chassis at the extreme right front. Switching on lights up the center of the logo so you will know where you are - which, I'm sure you've guessed by now, is deep in pure minimalist territory.
Before switching the unit on, it's worth pausing to look at the casework. The Comet, Tron's previous preamplifier, did look odd, even primitive to some eyes. This one looks exceptional - stylish yet functional. But it's only when you look closer that you realize quite how serious of a component this is. Each panel is made from 6mm thick, finely brushed CNC milled aluminium. In fact, when you lift off the lid (with dozens of small stainless steel Torx screws requiring a special screwdriver, it means you likely won't do this often), you'll see that every single piece of the casework is made from the same 6mm CNC'd aluminium panels. Most of the statement valve preamps we see -- from the Conrad Johnson ART2 to the Kondo -- are built of pressed sheets nowhere near this quality. With the Tron, everything fits to perfection. The screws fit precisely into their slots. The active electronics and internal cabling are not the rat's nest one sometimes sees even at this level. No, it's like a white-coated German lab in there. Just look at the attention to detail, how the wires turn at 90 degrees. This is an object lesson in how to build a piece of electronic equipment.
While we're at it, let's also notice that while this preamplifier contains four tubes (2 x 12AX7s and 2 x 5687s), no EMF or RFI will leak in through the chassis cage to muck up the delicate signal - there are but a few tiny vents at the top of the rear panel. With use, the top panel warms up slightly but that's all. In fact, the 6mm aluminium is so effective a shield that it's also used for partitions between the power supply transformer, the phono stage transformers and the circuit boards. The need to keep electromagnetic pollution away from the signal is the primary reason why phono-stage and preamp designers often prefer circuit boards to point-to-point wiring. Speaking of which, the Tron boards are dual mono of course except for the common mains transformer and made of some proprietary organic material on sonic grounds. They are mil. spec and then treated with a special silver coating process that increases the conductivity of the tracks. Graham Tricker uses circuit boards for the critical amplifying stages because they provide shorter signal paths than hard wiring and hence offer a lower noise floor i.e. superior sonic performance. The model I tested came with the optional high purity silver hook-up wire (an added cost) and the valves themselves were NOS version, with replacements readily available from Tron's ample stock.
The whole thing is seriously heavy. Quite apart from the massive casework, there are four transformers, which make this into one strenuous lift. Each component has been chosen carefully after years of listening for subtle effects of interactions. Tron is well known for only using the best and most extreme components so I was surprised to not see a stepped attenuator. Graham explained to me -- with the kind of patience that shows he gets this kind of irritating question from non-experts on a regular basis -- that he has chosen his rotary silver attenuator after extensive tests. He believes it delivers the kind of ultimate performance he's been looking for. As I found out, this continuous dial became a real luxury in the wake of my in-house Canary 803s' stepped attenuators, which don't really provide for enough usable settings (I only get to use 1-8 out of the possible 24). It's great to be able to set volume exactly to what one wants to listen at. The Tron exudes luxury and sheer quality. It's miles more handsome that the Canarys, not to mention much more rack-friendly. The four-chassis Canary won't fit on any ordinary rack and should ideally be set up on two shelves. Imagine the amount of real estate they consume.
Tricker originally designed his Tron amplifiers because he was having problems finding valve amplifiers quiet enough for the German Avantgarde hornspeakers he champions. To achieve a match for those super-efficient speakers, he focused on the classic recipe: the shortest signal path, the highest quality components, no remote, extreme circuitry simplicity and above all, no negative feedback in any of the amplification stages. Great concept but far easier said than done. Getting valves to operate in complete silence without adding anything redundant to the circuitry is quite an achievement. I don't use Avantgardes but have heard the Syren along with Tron power amps with Avantgarde's 110dB Trios. There is no question that Tricker has achieved his design goal. At even low listening volumes, there isn't the slightest trace of hiss or hum. The thinking and care which also have gone into the Syren are about as extreme as one could imagine. Naturally, the transformers have been correctly tested and placed at 90 degrees to minimize hum and field effects but this obsession with sonic performance stretches right to the titanium and Teflon tube rings which are provided as standard issue.
|Tricker isn't merely one of the UK's foremost experts on valve amplification. Having started out in the communications industry (hence the 5687 in the line stage), he knows a great deal more than most about electronics in general. What's immediately obvious from even a cursory glance at any of Tron's innards is that he has great respect for the signal and how it flows naturally through the various stages of amplification. Tricker never stresses components. His philosophy is all about letting them operate at ease and unperturbed by even the smallest of interferences. This translates directly into a natural flow of music. Kondo, Lamm, Conrad Johnson and Canary (to name just a few) all work with some of these same criteria but to my ears, Tron is one of the more successful not just because the primacy of musical flow is achieved naturally. It's even more so because while all the
|coherence needed to create music is there, something much more mysterious and beguiling is present as well, particularly with the phono stage. There is something about the gait of the music, the way it flows, which has the delicacy of the finest dancing or fencing - extraordinary grace. It is simply more sensuous than anything else I've been lucky enough to hear. The price (£6,000 standard; £7,500 with WBT NextGen connectors, silver capacitors and pure silver wiring; £5,000 in line-stage version) might not suggest a full-scale assault on the ultimate preamp but do not be deceived. You're in fact getting something of a major sonic bargain. If you merely added up the cost of a few of the components (transformers, silver caps, NOS tubes, proprietary military spec. circuit board, naturally coated silver wiring let alone the CNC milled casework), you'd come up not with the usual 10% of retail but a figure way in excess of those parameters. And this is before you begin factoring in the fact that the preamp is exclusively hand-crafted by the designer himself (no subcontracting to inexperienced hands) and it takes him 70 hours of labor to build each one.
I listened to the Syren with a variety of power cords and cabling, from my own Clearlight Audio to the Silver Arrow and PHY (though not their speaker cable). I would have liked to hear a complete PHY loom but that will have to wait. In any event, I was happy with the results achieved with all three. The Syren is best understood as a piece of extreme audio in a beautiful suit so it must be treated with care. Once switched on, it's a good idea to leave the preamp to stabilize for a couple of minutes before turning the power amps on. As with all valved preamps, running it under signal without an attached load may damage the output stage so be careful not to.