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Amp/Preamp Asylum: REVIEW: Sonic Frontiers Line 1 Preamplifier (Tube) by jbmcb

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REVIEW: Sonic Frontiers Line 1 Preamplifier (Tube)

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Model: Line 1
Category: Preamplifier (Tube)
Suggested Retail Price: $2600.00
Description: Tube Preamp
Manufacturer URL: Sonic Frontiers
Model Picture: View

Review by jbmcb on January 03, 2005 at 11:17:31
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for the Line 1

I was looking around for a good preamp a few years ago, my requirements were the following:

1. Remote
2. Headphone section
3. Lots of inputs
4. Phono stage

I was bouncing between the Audio Research SP-14, Sonic Frontiers Line 1, and Adcom GFP-565. The SP-14 had a great phono section, but it didn't have a remote or headphone output. The GFP-565 didn't have too many inputs, and also no remote. They were both running about $1000 used on Audiogon & eBay, with the GFP running around $600. I ended up selecting the Line 1 because it had a few more inputs and a remote, I'll be building a seperate phono stage for fun :)

The Line 1 is built pretty solid, as is to be expected for a $2.5K retail piece of audio hardware. The RCA & XLR connectors on the back are spaced well apart, which may be a problem with some interconnects that don't split apart very far. I build my own interconnects and they aren't connected at all so not a problem for me. The power cable is seperate with an IEC socket if you are in to fancy power cables. The stock power cables (which is farily heavy-duty) seems to supply AC to the unit just fine for me :)

There are plenty of inputs: 4 single-ended RCA, 2 balanced XLR, a tape loop, and a SSP input for surround processors that bypasses the volume and balance controls.

The preamp has a Headroom amplifier built into it, which I was really excited about. Headroom processing makes it sound like you are hearing the sound from in front of you, instead of on the extreme left and right, as if you are listening to speakers. It works really well, and the amp is powerful enough to play my Sennheiser HD-580's & HD-414II's painfully loud, or, at normal listening levels, with plenty of bass.

Controls are pretty bare-bones, again as to be expected with a high end preamp. You get volume, balance, phase, mono/stereo and mute. That's it, and that's all I really want when listening to two-channel. You can set a default volume level for each input, a really useful feature. Volume is read out as two numbers, one for each channel. You can adjust the brightness of the display, which is nice for watching movies.

The remote is super-cool, a solid aluminum disc that fits the palm of your hand. It does just about everything the front panel buttons do, except you have to cycle through inputs instead of direct-access selection, not really a big deal for me.

There are a lot of nice little features that show an attention to detail. Plugging in headphones mutes the amplifier outputs, but if you hit the mute button again it will mute the headphones as well. Holding down the mute will also reset the balance to the higher of the two levels, much easier than holding down the somewhat clunky-to-use balance buttons. When switching inputs the volume quickly is muted, then gradually raised up over the course of a couple seconds, so you don't get immediatly blasted by a high level input. If you lower the volume within the first few seconds of selecting an input, it will drop the input WAY down quickly, again for the above reason. Nice.

A tube amp wasn't really a criteria for me, but this preamp had a ton of features for a good price so I went for it. It has 6 6922 type tubes, a fairly common preamp tube. It's power-on sequence is fairly complicated. You flip a "hard-power" switch on the back, and after about 10 seconds of warming up, the display comes on with "... ..." indicating it's in standby. A press of the "Standby" button puts the preamp into a 22-second warmup cycle, where it let's the tubes power up and stabilize before letting audio play through them. I'm not a tube specialist, but from what I know it's a good idea to let tubes warm up a bit before using them, they can behave nasty when run cold.

As far as the sound goes, I don't really notice any evidence of the common "tube sound." My Audio Alchemy ACD-1, running throught the Line 1, into a Krell KSA-100S, into a pair of Magnepan MGMC1's, they sound very crisp with plenty of bass. Well, make that as much as the MGMC1's can put out. I haven't heard another preamp in my system, but when compared to other Magnepan setups I've heard, there isn't anything missing, or anything bad added. I've heard a pair of MG-20.1's run through an all Audio Research tube system, and there is quite a bit of tube "warmth" there that isn't present in my system. I don't feel I really need it, the Line 1 does what it's supposed to do and doesn't do anything it's not.

Anthem, the company Sonic Frontiers became, still has plenty of info on their old products on the website. The Parts Connexion, the bifrucated DIY wing of Anthem, will still do work on Sonic Frontiers products (at a much reduced rate, they claim) so having work done on these probably won't be a problem. I bought mine from a second owner in almost mint condition, and haven't noticed anything wrong with it. It seems like a very reliable preamp and will probably last for years.

In short, I highly reccomend this preamp. It will have all the features you'll probably need for a two-channel setup, expandable for surround sound, you can swap tubes out if you want to be tweaky, it's well built and will likely outlast you, lifespan-wise.

Product Weakness: Being tube based it kicks out quite a bit of heat. Startup time is almost half a minute from a cold start, but is to be expected from tube gear. Balance control is kind of clunky.
Product Strengths: Loads of features, high quality headphone amp, easy to use, looks beautiful with the gold and silver face. Sonically, it doesn't do anything wrong.

Associated Equipment for this Review:
Amplifier: Krell KSA-100S
Preamplifier (or None if Integrated): Sonic Frontiers Line 1
Sources (CDP/Turntable): Audio Alchemy ACD-1, ProJect 6.1 'table
Speakers: Magnepan MGMC1, MG-1.4
Cables/Interconnects: Homemade
Music Used (Genre/Selections): Classic, jazz, ambient, IDM, rock
Type of Audition/Review: Product Owner

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Topic - REVIEW: Sonic Frontiers Line 1 Preamplifier (Tube) - jbmcb 11:17:31 01/3/05 ( 2)