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I have all 3 of these fine preamps to audition now and it has been an interesting comparison. I received the B&K and Lux in non-operational condition - both had simple gunk inside switches and were fixed easily. These are well-made units from the golden age of vinyl that had been in and out of my system over many years, had gone out to the family, and now are home to roost. Comments apply only to the phono inputs.
I was interested in keeping only one so I staged a little sound-off. It was casual; with me just listening to each for a day or two, over both headphones and speakers, in the order below. A separate discussion of the 3 units' MC performance is in the last section.
FORTE MODEL 2
I've been using to the Forte as a standalone phono stage for years now with several different MC and MM carts. Its performance has been impeccable at every point. It is smooth and solid, free of noise, and has a delightfully deep, stable soundstage. If I can put a finger on it, what it does best is create a highly detailed sound without overdoing it, such that it never seems bright, shiny or "over-detailed." It plays back every little note perfectly in balance, I assume due to good octave-to-octave balance and extraordinary dynamic capability. Beautiful construction- very few components and all the highest quality. Thanks Nelson Pass! This beautiful unit stays in the main Bearcave system.
B&K MC-10 SONATA
The B&K went in next and was lovely through the MM inputs. Almost indistinguishable from the Forte- very solid and smooth. I think it falls a little short in terms of liveliness compared to the Forte but the tiny, qualitative difference is negligible in my book. The music just flows. One small disappointment is the onboard headphone amp is unlistenable- I did use my little Schiit unit and it sounded great driven by the B&K however. Tremendous build quality- fine-looking circuit board, controls, and stuffed with top grade components- lots of 'em!
One might be tempted to dismiss this preamp given its status as a collector/vanity sort of piece- full of knobs and weird tone controls etc. But the proof of the pudding is listening with the "bypass" switch engaged. The sound is a little warmer than the others (perhaps due to the presence of electrolytics in the signal path) but very listenable if a tiny bit muffled. The dynamics and soundstage ditto. In a system with countervailing traits it can work a little magic however- read below. The construction may be Lux's last gasp around the time of the Alpine takeover and uses wire-wrap terminals (which have survived the years perfectly, I must note) and lots of tiny mic cables running all over the place inside; 100% discrete transistors- not one IC to be seen!
Each of these units has both MM and MC inputs- the B&K with a fixed-gain headamp, the Lux with a built-in transformer, and the Forte with an adjustable gain headamp. This past month I did not use an MC, but I go on my recollection from playing my Denon DL-103D and later my Dynavector XX-1 through the three. As far as the sound of the headamps: the B&K is listenable but adds an undesirable harshness to the otherwise smooth character of the preamp. The Forte headamp is very sweet and solid, its effect vanishing leaving nothing but musical enjoyment. The best MC sound overall came from the Lux but was likely a synergetic effect with my other equipment at the time. That said, I used the Lux as a standalone MC phone stage for a year, keeping it hidden in a box in the listening room feeding the line-level output to my main preamp. Excellent balanced sound, a bit added warmth and silkiness, and just the right gain for the Dynavector.
I am familiar with exacly NONE of the preamps you mentioned. In my experience the two preamps that stand out as audio bargains (relatively speaking) are the Nakamichi CA-5 (which has more than doubled in price in the last 3 years) and the Yamaha C-80 (a close second to the Nakamichi CA-5).
The best I've heard was a Convergent Sound Technologies SL-1, but that's in a whole nuther price class, and should be.
However, we had a Luxman preamp through that had been uglified (missing knob and someone had glued a big blue plastic jewel to the volume knob (why I can't imagine). It sounded really good, but wasn't worth much especially in the shape it was in, so we sold it to someone who was more interested in sound quality that in appearance for $100, which may have been the aural bargain of the year.
which brands do you represent?
I have owned two of the three preamps you have. The Forte 2 and the B&K Sonata Pro 10 MC. Your descriptions of the sounds of the preamps is spot on....
... wait! Lucky Bear has both of 'em!
Just sold the Luxman clearly noted as "MM phono" only-- got good price to boot- after gently removing the MCT. I'm putting it in a little metal chassis to use as the step-up for my Dynavector XX. Got some fancy silver coax, some actual useful advice from the Cable Asylum (!), etc.
The synergy of the Lux MCT was quite good before through the Lux; we'll see how it sounds through the Forte. There's no signposts along this road- the interactions of cart/loading/trafo/premp are complex. Maybe I'll get lucky.
You will love those Luxman SUTs through your Forte. They were custom-wound to Lux spec and they are perhaps the most transformer-savvy designers of all the Japanese manufacturers. I know that preamp well, including the phono sections.
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