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REVIEW: Audiomat Prelude Reference Amplifier (Tube)

Model: Prelude Reference
Category: Amplifier (Tube)
Suggested Retail Price: $3490
Description: EL34 Integrated Amplifier
Manufacturer URL: Audiomat
Model Picture: View

Review by s.hum (A) on December 31, 2002 at 12:09:58
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for the Prelude Reference

-- Preamble --

After well more than a year of enjoying my Audiomat Arpege with my Magneplanar MG1.6's, the endles tweak road eventually cycled around to revisiting amplification. The general consensus of the planar community seemed to favour bi-amping and I considered it long and hard (maybe not hard enough :) but in the end decided to upgrade to the same lowly 30W of the Prelude!


System simplicity - I am a minimalist at heart or, more accurately, have become one having in a previous audio incarnation had far too many components in the system chain and consequently too many parameters to ever sort out for my level of competence and patience (friends always thought my various systems sounded great but I felt I never quite got it right with system synergies, cabling, etc).

Arguments can be made for the flexibility of separates (and I have gone through my share of sand pre's and amps) but there is an allure to the simplicity of an integrated amp, a big advantage being one less IC parameter and a somewhat shorter signal path. The designer has complete control over their pre/amp parameters.

Of course, none of that would make any difference if the unit didn't sound any good! The Clarisse brother's of Audiomat are famous for their limited product line and especially their integrated's. The Arpege was my first foray into valves, a unit I had coveted after reading Soundstage reviews it about a couple of years prior and remembered when I decided to dump the sand amp I wasn't too fond of. Despite the lowly 30W rating, I decided to take the plunge after some conversations with Pascal at Mutine who had experience with maggies in some European installations. I was assured the Arpege could make music with my maggies and it did. While it would not be a home theatre choice, it's musicality and tonality excelled anything I had ever had - it became the "heart and soul" of my system.

That it trashed the sand amp I was previously using which was rated at 6 times more wattage into 4 ohms in dynamics and volume made me realize the addage that "not all watts are the same". Wanting to preserve that "heart and soul" signature musicality and tonality of the Arpege, I opted out for the Prelude solution despite the same 30W rating! (as engaging in complexity a bi-amp scenario might have provided me to tweak with on these winter nights).

-- The Unit --

The Prelude is much like the Arpege, which should come as no surprise as the Arpege was derived from the Prelude, hence the similar wattage specs and form factor.

Cosmetically, the sexy translucent smoked lucite faceplace of the Arpege is replaced with a thick machined silver aircraft aluminum one. Volume and selector knobs are the same (though the Prelude has 5 input selects, as opposed to 4 for the Arpege). Similarly, the Arpege's hefty machined steel outer case is replaced with machined aircraft aluminum - a stunning piece of machining and eloquence, as well as, weight saving (though the Prelude still does tip the scales at 50+ lbs).

Internally, the same build quality exists. The simplicity and symmetry of board layout provide a glimpse of the designer's insight - I just love it for the artistry! Solder joins are the best I have ever seen. The overall PCB layout is similar between the Arpege and the Prelude with the main difference in quality components (I'm told the Prelude PCB is teflon for whatever that is worth). The major difference lies in the custom Audiomat transformers - some serious iron there - and the HUGE transformer coupled caps which, with the other component upgrades reputedly accounts for the sonic enhancements (having done the MG1.6 XO upgrade know how dramatic this can be).

The Prelude has one other significant difference from the Arpege: it has a diminutive volume remote which controls the motorized volume knob. The Prelude's faceplate has a left toggle which enables the mute (and corresponding red LED) and a right toggle which powers on the unit (and corresponding green LED which flashes during the power on sequence as the volume knob resets to zero volume).

The back of the unit can accommodate tape out and in, 5 input selects and speaker bi-wiring.

-- Sound --

Various qualities of the Prelude came out over its burn in period. But it took over 800 hours for it all to come together, those caps and transformers I am sure needing to properly settle in.

Compared to the Arpege, the Prelude is more neutral, where in comparison the Arpege now sounds ever so slightly euphonic. Because of that forgiving nature of the Arpege, it made everything sound good (even my cable signal when I wasn't listening to music!) - but don't get me wrong, the Arpege still captivated with its outstanding tonality.

The Prelude is more correct but not so much so as to lose the "fun" nature of the Audiomat. That might be an unusual attribute to affix to a piece of audio equipment but it is that engaging quality of the Audiomat (or perhaps it's the EL34 output tubes or whatever) that makes them such great components in my mind. They do not allow your system to sound indifferent - there have been many a time when I have thrown on music in an ambivalent fashion (for backgrond music while working) only to find myself totally engaged in the performance later on (work be damned!). The Arpege did that for me and the Prelude, thankfully, does that too.

While rated at the same 30W the Prelude does not "feel" like such. Dynamics are significantly noticeable on the planars. Bottom end control and timbral definition are improved, as well as bottom end extension. I find myself leaping for the mute button on the remote every now and then on those classical pieces with more dynamic range than I remembered on the Arpege! The Prelude still probably wouldn't be a home theatre choice with the maggies but it is still very capable of cavernous tones and presence - with more efficient speakers I could imagine that the Prelude might the only amp you could ever want to shake your fillings loose.

The imaging is more precise and the soundstage width and depth increased. The MG1.6's now seem enveloped in the soundstage. At the same time, voices are not quite as forward. Soundstage height also improved along with the sense of more ambient cues.

The tonality of the Prelude excels. Voice, piano are noticeably correct. To my surprise, the top end of the Arpege is bettered, with more air in the upper registers. It is less forgiving of the front end. Minor tweaks are noticeable.

-- Quirks --

Those French! The remote is a curious affair. This I surmise will be very much a speaker sensitivity thing. I've never found a remote I liked for volume controlas it seems less tactile and difficult to fine adjust. Besides, the Prelude's volume knob just exude silky refinement. Overshoot is inevitable with the remote but the diminutive remote does have a "precise" volume adjustment button as well. Unfortunately the coarse button seems too coarse and the "precise" button too fine (high efficiency speaker folks may find it just perfect).

I liked the manual nature of the Arpege just fine. The silky smooth controls were a joy to use (plus I hate just having yet one more remote that inevitably gets misplaced when you need it). So a remote on the Prelude was not a selling point for me. The mute, though, I have found useful (as alluded to above) due the Prelude's ability to render dynamics.

The volume control on my unit took several months to break in. At first it was quirky: sometimes, on power up it would not reset to zero, other times, using the remote it would not adjust the volume. That stickiness in the volume control mechanism self corrected itself, I presume, from the friction(?) based mechanism wearing itself into operation. Knowing the Audiomat folks, this seemingly crude volume control mechanism was probably designed for its non-audible effects on the amp design - the price of high end design that takes unusual approaches.

-- Conclusion --

I like the Prelude - a LOT. It retains everything I loved about the Arpege (sorry folks for not talking about the Prelude in absolutes - 'twas much easier to use the Arpege as a baseline - I still think it is the cat's meow at its price point and destined to be one of the all time classics of musical amps).

That I am happy using it driving maggies says a lot. 30W and all, it sounds like a much more capable amp than the specs would indicate. And those EL34's? Well, they just make music. Music that makes you drop everything to listen and get lost in it.

The Prelude, like the Arpege, not only make music. They make it in a totally engaging and unfatiguing way. I listen to way too much music - hours at a time, mornings, afternoons and evenings. Before the Audiomat's, I could never do so.

The Prelude with its silver finish is not as bold or sexy as the black Arpege. But it prefers to eloquently do one thing: present music with even greater finesse and grandeur when called. Very much worth the difference to the Arpege for those considering.

Product Weakness: Quirky remote; for some 30W may not cut it (but the Prelude is deceptive and can best higher rated amps)
Product Strengths: Equal of separates; musicality and tonality; dynamic range; can handle diffifult speaker loads; build quality and design

Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: Audiomat Prelude Reference
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): None
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Vecteur L-4 w/Audio Note DAC1.2
Speakers: Magneplanar MG1.6
Cables/Interconnects: JPS Superconductor FX+, JPS Ultra speaker cables
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Jazz, Classical (opera, choral)
Room Size (LxWxH): 21 x 13 x 8.5
Room Comments/Treatments: Rear wall room lenses
Time Period/Length of Audition: 4 months
Other (Power Conditioner etc.): ESP Power Cord and Distributor
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner

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Topic - REVIEW: Audiomat Prelude Reference Amplifier (Tube) - s.hum 12:09:58 12/31/02 (0)

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