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Amp/Preamp Asylum: REVIEW: CTC Blowtorch preamp Preamplifier (SS) by Mike Currie

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REVIEW: CTC Blowtorch preamp Preamplifier (SS)

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Model: Blowtorch preamp
Category: Preamplifier (SS)
Suggested Retail Price: $10,000; w/phono $15,000
Description: SS stereo preamplifier
Manufacturer URL: Not Available
Manufacturer URL: Not Available

Review by Mike Currie ( A ) on May 19, 2006 at 09:26:32
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for the Blowtorch preamp

I'm not sure if I should even be submitting this, as the Blowtorch tends to qualify for 'unobtainium' status. I believe that there were roughly 45 units built. I know that John Curl has one or two left to complete and then they're done. I was extremely fortunate to be able to purchase a used example. It was designed by the team of John Curl, Carl Thompson, and Bob Crump, and was a cost-no-object exercise. If something sounded better, they used it and damn the expense. I understand that just the milled aluminum cases carried some outrageous cost by themselves (the rumor is $1500 each, and there is one for the gain stage and one for the power supply).

The CTC Blowtorch is quite simply the finest line stage preamp I have ever heard. I have owned many preamps over the past 30 years, including those from c-j, CAT, Atma-Sphere, Art Audio, and Aesthetix, and of course have auditioned many others. You will note my predilection towards tubes. It may be a cliché, but I must say it - the Blowtorch, as far as I can tell, does not have an identifiable character of its own. There is no doubt that the best aspects of tube and solid state amplification have been converging over the years, yet I had not, up to this point, heard any preamp that did not betray its modus operandi. I personally value harmonic integrity above all else in music reproduction, hence the former tube-based systems. The CTC Blowtorch is at least equal to, if not better than, any valved preamp at reproducing proper timbres throughout the vital midrange and highs. Edgar Meyer plays his double bass over a tremendous range in 'Zigeunerweisen' from "Uncommon Ritual" (Sony). I know from past experience that if the electronics aren't doing their jobs, this piece isn't going to sound right. The Blowtorch literally suspends belief in this instance. I KNOW that Meyer was in the room with me. On the LP front, Cisco's "Young People's Guide to the Orchestra" was - and is - jaw-dropping stuff. I consider massed strings to be one of the ultimate tests of an audio system. As a rough guess, I'd say 90% of the gear that I have heard doesn't even come close to getting it right. A further 8-9% have been tolerable. The Blowtorch nailed them. Bass definition and extent is astonishing. While I have relatively less experience with solid state preamps, it's difficult to imagine much better performance in this area. Chesky's LP entitled "The Power of the Orchestra" provides a great all around workout, but of particular note are the bass drum whacks in 'Pictures at an Exhibition'. Massively powerful, yet with almost a graceful sense of attack, pitch, and decay.

The Blowtorch presents an extremely wide and deep soundstage. In my large(ish) room, small groups are seen as very nearly life size. We all know that we'll never achieve the same sort of illusion with a full orchestra, yet the scale - while 'smaller' - is proportionally perfect. I find this characteristic to be quite appealing, and it's one that I had not previously experienced to this degree. Individual images are presented beautifully in 3D. Instruments and vocalists, assuming that the recording allows it, typically are heard as having quite specific dimensions. Nojima's piano, for example, on Chesky's "Nojima Plays Liszt" is exactly sized as a grand should be. This, combined with the aforementioned harmonic richness, truly progresses the illusion.

In common with all other tube afficionados, I have had to listen through the noise to get at the good stuff. Certain designs are quieter than others and low noise tubes helped, but always there was something there in between the listener and the music. The Blowtorch has proved revelatory in this regard. It is completely and utterly silent. Low level detail that was formerly obscured is now clear. At the opposite end of the spectrum, macrodynamics are unfettered, and more importantly, the rate of change in dynamic contrasts is unparalleled. 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice' from Reference Recordings' "Mephisto and Company" illustrates this vividly. I find that the increased dynamic range and speed at which said contrasts are handled provides an extremely satisfying experience.

If all of this sounds like the CTC Blowtorch is the perfect preamp, well, maybe it is - at least for some. On the downside, it is very expensive, it is extremely rare to find one on the used market, and I could diplomatically describe it as 'minimalist' i.e. it has dual volume controls, input selector, and thankfully the most massively useful (IMO) and least implemented control of all - the phase switch. That's it. Couch potatoes need not apply.

I have every intention of keeping the Blowtorch for life. Unless huge advances are made in the area of multichannel or whatever else comes along, this stereo is about as good as it gets. I have put my Janus up for sale, and in spite of the excellence of this preamp and its multitude of features, this is one instance in which I am 100% sure that there will be no buyer's/seller's remorse.

Product Weakness: Expensive, hard to find, minimalist controls
Product Strengths: Everything else

Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: Parasound JC-1, Bob Crump modified
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): CTC Blowtorch
Sources (CDP/Turntable): VPI Aries, JMW Memorial 10.5, Graham Nightingale, Ayre C-5xe
Speakers: SoundLab A-1
Cables/Interconnects: Acoustic Zen, Jena Labs, TG Audio
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Wide range of classical, bluegrass, folk, jazz
Room Size (LxWxH): 32 x 15 x avg 11
Room Comments/Treatments: RealTraps, first reflection
Time Period/Length of Audition: 3 weeks
Other (Power Conditioner etc.): Running Springs Duke, TG Audio
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner

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Topic - REVIEW: CTC Blowtorch preamp Preamplifier (SS) - Mike Currie 09:26:32 05/19/06 ( 31)