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REVIEW: CTC Blowtorch preamp Preamplifier (SS)

If the High End ever returns to its hobbyist/enthusiast roots, where dedicated recluses literally devote their lives to cobbling together the best sounding gear by dint of their own efforts, their own money, and their own labor, then the CTC Blowtorch preamp should lead the way.

This is a two piece (outboard power supply) SS preamp. There are seven inputs, two outputs (balanced and unbalanced), a selector switch, polarity switch, and dual volume knobs, one per channel. There are no other features, not even a pilot light. You only know it's working when you plug it in and your line current sags: the unit draws over 300W on turnon and then a steady 130W in use. It gets hot, and it weighs a lot: at least 100 lbs. I lugged it around for a week in its dual airline-style airtight cases and nearly broke both arms. An umbilical connects the two parts and they can be placed quite close together if desired.

The circuit design by John Curl with layout by Carl Thompson and final assembly/burnin/voicing by Bob Crump is a storybook of the best parts working in the simplest symmetrical, direct-coupled configuration. PC boards are teflon, as are the capacitors. It takes three months to build one unit. If you think the price is high, do the math: three guys divide the profits of about $7500 per unit. 90 days work is required. That figures out to $833 per man per month, below-poverty-line wages. There are no dealers, no dealer pricing, no phony discounts. You want one, call Bob Crump at 713-721-4756 and send all the dough in advance, then wait. You'll hear from Bob eventually.

I used John Curl's personal unit at CES for four days this January and my impressions are based on this usage. Maybe you think $15,000 (with MC phono) is too much, maybe you hoot at the very idea that three guys living 1500 miles apart could, in this day and age, compete against the Krells and Levinsons of this world, working by themselves out of their house or apartments. Maybe you think highend gear needs to be sexy, offer remote control, have more than two channels or processors built in. There is none of that here.

What is here is the finest sounding piece of audio gear I have ever run
across. No I can't afford it and will have to wait until next CES to spend time with it again. I speak as a tube aficionado who has had glass audio preamps for over 20 years. To say the Blowtorch scorches them is putting it mildly. In fact, the product's name is no hype. This is an entirely new level of performance.

The glory of the preamp is its MC phono section, basically an updated Vendetta pre-preamp. Loading is variable from 47 k Ohms down to 5 Ohms. At the Show I used 47 k with a Benz Glider MC cartridge mounted in an SME IV tonearm riding the never-produced Oakland-CA-made $900 list Onix turntable. I admit I took unusual care setting this up: mounting the cartridge in the headshell, attaching clip leads, checking for parallel tonearm mounting, adjusting antiskate and tracking force occuplied just over six minutes. I played my own vinyl, no superdiscs, just ordinary stuff, original pressings I bought 30 to 40 years ago some of which I had never played on a highend rig before (just my Garrard Lab 80 with its 10g ceramic cartridge). You want musicality? You want accuracy? How about the sound of Joseph Roisman's violin, speaking to us direct sweetly and with passion, from a time gap of 42 years. Or his colleagues plus Walter Trampler limning the five glorious voices of the Brahms first string quintet. You want transient response? How 'bout Dick Shory's Percussion ensemble on stage in Chicago Orchestral Hall in 1958, each instrument razor sharp without edge or harshness. You want SACD? Doesn't sound so super anymore compared to a record, any record, regardless of when recorded, even pre-stereo. One of the highlights of the show was an original Superphon pressing (thanks to estimable vinyl collector Roger Gordon) of the 1955 Talich/Czech Phil "Ma Vlast" which you'd have sworn was both recorded a few years ago and in stereo, to say nothing of the overwhelming emotional impact of the musical performance. "Desert Island" disc, indeed.

Not that CD was in any way a slouch. I played the Solti/Perahia Brahms "Haydn' variations for two pianos for Marty DeWulf, a CD he was familiar with: never before have the "mechanicals" of two pianos been laid out with such penetrating detail and naturalness, to say nothing of the "transients" of this most difficult percussion instrument. Same could be said of Jim Morrison's "LA Woman", Doc Watson/Dave Grisman's "Doc and Dawg", or anything and everything else we played over four days of 10-hour-a-day music.

If you're an equipment hound you'd probably be happier with something flashier like the mlb or Swiss Physics or whatever. If you're a music lover you should own this preamp. That's all there is to it.

I don't know if you'll be reading a lot of magazine reviews on the Blowtorch, and this review will disappear into archives in less than a week. I plan to post these words on our website, www.vmpsaudio.com and leave them there, maybe Carl and John and Bob will sell a unit or two because of them. I certainly hope so.

You don't know what you're missing.


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Topic - REVIEW: CTC Blowtorch preamp Preamplifier (SS) Review by Brian Cheney at Audio Asylum - Brian Cheney 03:59:57 01/30/00 (20)

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