To allow me the experience of a 'complete' Wyetech system, Roger Hebert also dispatched one of his second-from-the-top Pearl preamplifiers which took the place of my resident solid-state Bel Canto Design PRe2 halfway into the review process. Roger was clear that he did not expect a review of the Pearl. He merely wanted me to hear what the Sapphires would sound like driven by one his own creations. Being a bona fide audiophile floozy, I naturally said yes to his proposal. Being a reviewer of enthusiastic makeup when something goes under my skin, I naturally also said no to his considerate no-pressure no-review trick of getting his piece into my system. Simply put, the Pearl is far too impressive a tube preamp not to be introduced to our readers - review thus forthcoming. The secret to its allure, in one word, is plasticity.

Let's back-track. The reason I like the self-effacing neutrality of the PRe2 in my system is the TimbreLock facility of my Audiopax monos. Their sliding offset bias adjustability allows me to dial in just the right amount of bloom and image density I enjoy regardless of which speakers I use. To precede this feature with any other aural taste or flavor seemed counterproductive to your scribe, hence he's never seriously considered a tube preamp for his reference system.

The Wyetech Pearl is the first valve preamp that now makes me seriously question my allegiances. The reason is simple. The Pearl is as neutral as the Bel Canto in the tonal domain but then adds two distinct features the solid-state unit lacks in its vocabulary: Expanded micro-dynamics and, most importantly, plasticity by which I mean a far more three-dimensionally sculpted soundstage already at very subdued playback levels. This spatial specificity is uncanny, far from subtle and completely addictive once you realize that it doesn't arise in lockstep with the all-too-common tubular shadows of thickening, deceleration and euphony. With a -3dB upper extension of 950kHz, the Pearl is an ultra wide-bandwidth design without phase shift in the audible spectrum and extreme speed.

It thus is a far cry from the 'deep triode' school of thought whose archetypal presence often overshadows the existence of tube designs that are far more modern and neutral in their makeup. This statement now neatly segues into the performance review of the Sapphire monoblocks which represent a similar antithesis to common notions about voluptuous, bandwidth-restricted, midrange-centric 300Bs.

The most powerful quality which the fully broken-in Sapphires elicited practically from first turn-on was extreme articulation. Coupled with this incisive precision came the realization that if anything, their tonal mien was actually on the slightly lean rather than lush side of that mystical median called neutrality which reviewers love to invoke as though any of us really knew where it was. Forget everything you think you know about 300Bs which, perhaps more than any other direct-heated output triode, carry with them strongly drawn preconceptions based on 'classic' or 'old-fashioned' values. Those are continued by certain present-day makers in an attempt to turn away from the hyper-rez but cold tide that's sweeping the contemporary audio lands. While there's nothing whatsoever hard or strident about the Sapphires, they're most certainly not soft or fuzzy either. Simply put, the considerable visual warmth radiating from the mesh plates especially at night does not translate into an audible facsimile.

While you may believe that certain qualities are intrinsic to the 300B and thus inescapable, Roger Hebert proves that implementation, output transformers and power supplies can render a very different picture that has precious little in common with expectations reared on old circuits and over-the-counter transformers. The Sapphires are true high-resolution machines that play no second fiddle to microscopic champs like the bridged-balanced digital eVo but, just like the hinted-at preamp comparison above, add that peculiar dimensional-expander thing which tube aficionados know so well.

Another item that's often misattributed when it comes to tubes and 300Bs in particular are dynamics. It's popular to think that high-power transistor amps with blinding rise times and massive damping factors are prerequisites to achieve life-like dynamics. When you're thinking ultimate output potential sans distortion or sag, that might be true. But speaking in the macro domain, how dynamic are most CDs, really? Anyone who has ever made copies from CDs and watched the signal strength display surely knows that the dynamic envelope between the lowest and highest level on most discs is pitifully narrow. What's thus needed isn't macrodynamic broad-brush fortitude for pant-flapping excesses but a finely-tipped microdynamic brush that's capable of distinguishing between very minuscule differences of signal strength. And that happens to be the domain where -- if we allow ourselves a generalized statement -- tubes rule.

The Sapphires' powerful expressiveness of articulation is tied directly to their microdynamic resolution -- or agility if you will -- which creates more movement, more miniature peaks and valleys for that sculpted appearance I mentioned earlier. Precisely rendered leading edges and attacks emphasize the rhythmic life hiding in them pits to involve you emotionally which is only further underscored by the emphatic projection of especially lead vocals and instruments that showcase every little inflection and retraction even at low levels.

If it's romance you're after, the Sapphires won't be for you unless said romance is squarely on the recording. The Sapphires are just as happy dishing out the desert Blues-Funk of Tinariwen's Anassakoul [WorldVillage 468026] and the Afro-Peruvian festejos of Eva Ayllon's US debut Eva! Leyenda Peruana [Times Square Records 9040] as they are with the mystical Tibetan meditations of Chöying Drolma & Steve Tibbetts on Selwa [Six Degrees 657036 1104-2] or the elegiac Fado of Cristina Branco's Post-Scriptum [l'empreinte digitale ED 13131]. Put differently, these are not amplifiers in need of a restricted diet or devices which favor one style of music over another and thus pigeon-hole the listener into a little box.

Of course that's exactly how it should be. But it's also fair to say that those listeners comfortable in a particular box -- especially the quintessential aural sex equivalent of the female Jazz ballad which seems to be the genre outsiders believe is the only thing lonely middle-aged audiophiles listen to -- might feel better served by a more euphonic device. The Sapphires have plenty of innate speed and discretion to distinguish between languid/mellow and feisty/hard-hitting fare. If a Blues guitar twangs or a Rock axe screams, you'll hear the edge and blister without sugar-coating or blunting. On the massive tribal/ambient drum fest of "Dub Gubbi" with percussionist extraordinaire Geoffrey Gordon [Tulku's A Universe to Come - New Earth 2111-2], the Sapphires unleashed all the infrasonic waves of Jim Wilson's programming, the sharply pungent attacks of sticks and drum skins and the talking effects of the Indian dub gubbi.

The following "Ayahusca Healing" that mixes halluciogenic Pucalpa/Peru location recordings of authentic Ayahusca Shaman chanting with truly massive earthshaking drums had all the power and scale I could have wanted and predictably drove my wife out of the house. And lest you blame the self-powered bass systems of my Avantgarde Duos for this majesty, the Sapphires pulled the same stunt on the passive Gallo Acoustics Reference 3s with just a bit less control in the subterranean reaches which would necessitate more current (something the upcoming bass amp or Reference 3 SA will provide to make a 'triodes from 50kHz - 40Hz, transistors from 40 to 22Hz' scheme the proverbial dream match).