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Soliloquy.  It's from the Latin solus and loqui for alone and to speak. For today's purposes its ring is nicer than obituary. Or, shiver, necrologue. Of course there's eulogy. And really, it's supposed to be a swan song for a deceased. Component though, not person. So let's get on with a soliloquy then. The machine in question is John Chapman's Bent Audio Tap-X. It's dead in the sense of no longer being made. Why talk it up then? Why not leave fallen heroes in peace?

First off, the reason the axe man cameth were three little letters. OEM. John's custom Slagleformer modules and very trick remote interface is popular with upscale preamp manufacturers who want a turnkey autoformer volume control. For his own value brand John could naturally package these modules far more cost-effectively. Thus the Tap-X competed directly with far pricier efforts from his buyers. While those might have certain performance advantages or just differences from add-on valve buffers, active gain stages, extra features and general bling, their efforts would come under scrutiny for sharing a—or really the—core solution with the Tap-X. That's good for the X of course. It's less so for keeping OEMs happily tapping their feet.

Though it's something most consumers rarely do, consider this from a business perspective. You're a purveyor of passive preamps. That means a small-time operator in a niche within a niche. You've engineered a popular ultra-performance AVC in your own modest box. Would you rather sell a few of those whilst handling all pre/post sales support, billing, advertising and related time/costs to maximize brand awareness and sales with end users; or would you prefer selling raw parts in small bulk orders where the other guys had to deal with all the fun stuff like getting reviews, maintaining brand visibility, managing forum feedback, answering emails, babysitting customers, playing bank to dealers, getting dealers in the first place, attending trade shows and that whole bundle of joy?

Now add creative satisfaction. There's the very limited number of folks who'd enjoy your own machine versus the broader audience from tucking yourself into any number of brands. For creators there's great pleasure in a larger audience. Turning the Tap-X into an off-the-shelf module to be found in products from Chapman's OEM clients accomplished that. Pulling the plug on (the wall wart that powered) the Tap-X (display and relays) worked on multiple levels. The death of the original meant rebirth in its many offspring.

The disappointment is to the frugalites amongst us. The Tap-X outperformed and still does some seriously more expensive gear like my €12.000 Esoteric C-03. Unlike most passives, it also offered every important remote feature in the book (balance, source, volume, mute, display) and added phase on the fascia. All it lacked were XLR i/o ports, a battleship front and the overweight deep chassis. And gain of course. Though there are 7dB of autoformer stepup gain above unity.

Switching tenses was deliberate. I know that the Tap-X is no more. Past. And I'm enjoying mine tremendously. Present. If you have opportunity to pick up one used, pounce. If you come across another preamp with the virtual Tap inside sticker (the usual giveaway is the twin-field display), check it out. I hadn't listened to mine in a while. I was getting distracted by other arrivals and various assignments. Recently a comparison of various D/A converters—this category requires more hairsplitting by the day to tell apart—had me try hard to maximize differences. Increasing system resolution does that. Out with active line stages, in with my awesome passive. The up click in lucidity was uncanny. Sometimes you forget what you know. Sometimes you have to get lost to return home.

Passives aren't universal solutions. To my mind they really get heavy in upscale mature finely calibrated systems where components no longer want voicing/tuning help. The fact that passives neither need nor should cost a lot implies that owners of perfect systems often overlook them. SET/horn rigs are naturals. They are terribly noise sensitive. They require very little gain. And superior SETs on a whole don't benefit from additional upstream flavorization. But, even more conventional systems like mine above (high-power transistor amp, 87dB multi-way speakers) can be tailor-made. A premium source should be key. The latest Alex Peychev makeover of Esoteric's UX-1 universal machine in NWO-M guise is such a one. With an E182CC/7119 zero feedback output stage, 20 latest-gen AKM chips per side in a massively paralleled hand-soldered stack, Lundahl amorphous-core output iron and switchable inputs of BNC and 24/192 async USB (the latter via a modified M2Tech OEM hiFace board), this machine is an Esoteric only by chassis and VRDS sled. The rest is gutted and rebuilt by APL Hifi. The result is the best digital player I've encountered on the terra firma of my own rig.

With the Tap-X and NWO-M I have a beautifully legible remote volume control with balance but zero injection of gelatin to obscure the very tiny stuff which high-end hifi goes after to earn its keep. Lucidity like a summer day on the wide-open prairie. Top acceleration for those tiny flutters on the gas in instrumental or vocal lines. A removal of barriers and in-between stuff. If passives work by subtraction, it's vital that what's left after their strip search be of the very highest quality. With a well-matched pairing between amp and speakers plus superior source, a passive preamp can show actives a clean set of heels. It matters not how costly the latter might be. Really

Again, source supremacy is a must. Vinylists who eye digital with suspicion for lacking image density and general cojones whilst suffering a bleached color palette will agree. Going amp direct with digital could put you on a Twiggy diet. But run a gutsy full color digital source which also excels in 'ultra' resolution and a passive like the Tap-X could be the perfect solution to hear it all.

Bent Audio's Tap-X is in production no more I'm told. But its beating heart of Slagle autoformers with top-quality relay switching to shorten signal paths and enable remote control has been transplanted into various machines by other makers already. It's likely that more will follow. If the above described your own scenario and made sense, keep your eyes peeled for those Tap Inside giveaways. They are the green twin-field numerical displays that run from 0 to 61; the staggered ports of the rear panel with 6 inputs and three outputs; and perhaps also that super chunky elegantly minimalist remote wand from John Chapman.

And now I'll leave this unsung hero rest in peace. X marks the spot. Many happy returns. Tap tap...

Bent Audio website