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Redwine Audio Isabella Preamplifier
Ah Isabella- -Che Bella Bambina!

 

 September 2009

 


 
Great minds generally dream up and pursue only one legendarily great and defining idea. Sadly, it seems that’s all eighty years (give or take) really gives you time for. With John Keats it was poetic ‘negative capability.’ With Newton, it was ‘why is all this stuff falling?’ With Einstein it was ‘what if one of us was standing on some of this falling stuff and the other guy wasn’t?’ And with Vinnie Rossi, it’s ’how come we gotta plug all this stuff in!?’

I reviewed Red Wine Audio’s by-now multiple-award-winning battery powered 30.2 integrated amplifier for ST a year or so back and since that time it has been a reliable and unwavering denizen of my electronic stable, partnering well with all manner of transducers. Giving my rig the once over, it seems only my trusty Lector CD player has been with me longer and there’s a ‘Cold Dead Hands’, NRA-style bumper sticker on top of that one!

You didn’t have to ask me twice then, to review Vinnie’s now not-quite-so-new matching Isabella preamplifier equipped with, in the case of my review unit, internal Isabellina NOS (non-oversampling) DAC with USB input as standard. Namesake of Vinnie’s now equally not-quite-so-new baby girl Isabella (hey- is she in college yet?), the Isabella preamplifier shares the 30.2’s svelte unassuming stance and dimension, its dual (heavy!) sealed lead acid batteries and its brainy SMART re-charge module which automatically starts charging the unit when you absentmindedly leave it on and drain it. Along these lines, Isabella adds two nifty features the 30.2 integrated lacks; namely and firstly, a toggle switch which allows you to select A/C or battery power and second, a much appreciated step-less volume attenuator.

In the case of the former, switching Isabella into A/C mode lets you charge the batteries up while listening in preparation for your next foray into ‘off the grid’ living.

As for the change in attenuator genre, let me state shamelessly and unequivocally my disdain for stepped attenuators. Yes - I know all the advantages in terms of discrete Vishay or platinum-plated Rhodium resistors or what have you, but no matter how small the steps, I never seem to be able with certain recordings to find just the right volume level . Dual mono stepped attenuators with 1.5 db steps inhabit my nightmares. Stepped attenuation was one of my few nits to pick with the 30.2 integrated and I am happy to see Vinnie has stepped up to step-less-ness.

Soooooo much better!

As for the A/C-or-battery toggle switch, this is really not only a nifty but also a much needed feature on Isabella as, like her namesake, she is not quite capable of the marathon 16 or 18 hour listening sessions her partnering Red Wine amps are.

Fortunately, should your make-out sessions run to 12 or 15 Barry White and/or Kenny G discs back to back, all you’ll hear is a little muted ‘click,’ at which point your pre-amp goes into charge mode and your system goes silent. You then, in a low, gravelly voice, excuse yourself, amble deftly over to Ms. Isabella, flick the toggle into A/C mode, power the unit on once more, and saunter back to the couch, where your sweetie and your glass of cuvosier no doubt eagerly anticipate the continuation of your… negotiations.

Smooooooth - just like glass and Teddy Pendergrass. I confess I did it. Several times during the review period, in fact.

Good enough is the Enemy of Better
During the early part of my review period, with my consent of course, my 30.2 integrated underwent a sex change. I didn’t even have to send the unit to Colorado or Sweden. Rather, Vinnie Rossi himself was the moyle, deftly snipping off my 30.2’s integrated amp’s volume control and whatever else he felt he needed to in order to transform the unit from one of my favorite integrated amplifiers to one of my favorite amplifiers.

While the 30.2 integrated amp is a perfectly fine mate for Isabella, Vinnie figures the circumcision/transformation of a 30.2 integrated nets you roughly a 5 or 10 percent gain in performance, particularly in areas such as detail and dynamics. And while I didn’t get to do a formal head to head comparison, sonic memory gives me no cause to doubt that statement. In any case, once I heard the ‘new and improved’ 30.2 amp with Isabella, I had no urge whatsoever to call Vinnie and have him put the naughty bits back in place.

Better Enough
The 6922, (aka E88cc, 6DJ8 etc.) is my favorite tube. There I said it. Not the 300B - not the 2a3 and definitely not the 6H30, which, in the several applications I have heard it, has never managed to sound to me anything but somewhat sterile and very detailed. It is for example, perhaps the main reason my Audio Research LS-17 preamp, a very well made and reliable piece, ended up on Audiogon. Very -what’s the word… linear. But I wanted more emotion- more music.

       

Ah but the 6922; now THERE’s a tube. It’s all the rage these days for a company to design and market products utilizing a 6H30 or two as a replacement for the former product’s 6922’s and hail the retrofitted model as a ‘big upgrade.’ They’ll call it an ‘SE’ or attach a ‘Mark 2’ to the moniker. Au contraire mon frere; I’ve yet to hear a 6H30 product improve upon a 6922 product in any meaningful regard except detail , and mo’ detail is emphatically NOT always mo’ better. It certainly isn’t more musical; not to these ears.

Yes. Neither too tubey nor too, uhhhh, solid-statey, the 6922 wears a monk’s robe and walks the middle way. Isabella uses a pair of them. I knew I would like her.

So you think you can dance
Pace was the first thing Isabella put across. Tone is the first commandment of high end audio- for if a trumpet sounds like a tuba, it ain’t hi-fi. Though assuming all is well in that department, you’ll be bored into turning on your television if your hi-fi can’t do Pace Rhythm and Timing. Even if you think you can’t define it, I put to you that you know it when you hear/feel it; it’s a huge contributor to the ‘pull’ factor a system has; that ineffable force that keeps you in your recliner even when the demands of a normal life require other things be done.

While it’s debatable whether a good preamp generates pace, a bad one can certainly clumsy up the proceedings. Isabella did no such thing. It lays no finger upon the rhythm coming out of your front-end and serves it up to the amplifier undiminished. Both my Lector CD player and the Red Wine 30.2 amplifier are noteworthy in their ability to put across rhythm and thereby generate ‘pull’ and I was pleased to hear Isabella join the party.

When your system does pace really well, you find yourself totally involved and tapping your toes to all kinds of things you might not think you would, such as the sonorous Naxos recording of two of the Taneyev string quartets [Naxos ]. I confess I had only an inkling as to whom Sergey Taneyev was before hearing this recording. Feeling adventurous, I decided to order a few new recordings with which to christen Isabella and this was one of them. Color me impressed and involved and a bit sad I didn’t discover this wonderful pupil of Tchaikovsky’s sooner. Via Isabella, my first lengthy exposure to Taneyev (quartets 1 and 3) was completely involving and left me wanting more. I found myself not only marveling at the rich string tone, broad soundstage and occasional effortful breathing of the players (!), but tapping my feet and conducting like a mad man at times. Granted I had just had a double espresso, but still!

All the joi de vivre of my fave Donizetti and Mozart operas came across splendidly in this regard as well and also caused me to explore my inner James Levine outwardly.

I suppose it was so easy for me to get carried away by the pace and fun contained in all these recordings because from the offing, Isabella allowed me effectively to forget my generally domineering and nagging tonal concerns.

To this end, Bound For Sound’s Marty DeWulf has written at some length about the concept and pleasure of a given system’s overall ‘rightness’; that all too often elusive, fleeting feeling that comes over us when things just sound right. Forget someone else’s notion of say, tonal ‘neutrality’ - what matters to you and me is that our system sounds right to us.
For me, that’s where Luciano Pavarotti comes in. When I hear operatic arias in my head and sing them in the shower, this is the voice I hear them in and imagine I’m singing them in and when I play his recordings on my stereo as I often do, he must sound just so. Or something isn’t right. I wasn’t there at the making of a single one of his recordings and I only heard him sing live once; I Pagliacci at the Metropolitan opera in the early 90’s. But I know immediately and damn well when Luciano Pavarotti doesn’t sound like I know he can and should.

Via my new reference speakers, the Daedalus Audio DA-RMa’s, the Red Wine Audio Isabella preamp gave me Luciano as I know him to be; all the intensity, the color, the metal, the sheer density of the voice; all of it. So much so I went digging through the cardboard boxes that house the bulk of my CD collection because at one point I simply had to hear a certain passage from Puccini’s Turandot [Decca] - the part where prince Calaf (Luciano) exults in his prize, the fair princess Turandot (Joan Sutherland), after correctly answering the three riddles proposed to him. Now, I didn’t mine this ‘old’ recorded treasure to hear previously ‘unheard’ details, mind you.
No, this brief, exciting exultation culminates in one of the most white hot and shining high C’s on record and I have rarely if ever heard either it or the preceding exultation and concurrent dramatic conclusion delivered with more intensity and ‘rightness’ than it was with Isabella in my system.

Comparatively Speaking
My Plinius P10 amplifier is a splendid exemplar of solid-state done well. It is beautifully built, quiet, powerful, engaging and among a very few amps I even slightly prefer in a few particular regards to Red Wine’s own 30.2. Its stable mate in both design and price point, the Plinius M8 pre-amp is very obviously cut from the same high thread-count cloth. All the more reason I was rather keen to see how well Isabella might fare paired with the P10 in the place of this amplifiers dedicated ‘soul mate.’ Of course, pairing the Plinius pre with my 30.2 RWA amp asks it to prove itself in similar fashion, as Isabella was voiced, at least in part, with this pairing in mind.

The wiles of system synergy became apparent after only a few hours of listening. Pairing the M8 with Plinius after spending an hour or so with Isabella in the system, rendered my Daedalus Audio DA-RMa’s just a bit less special. Even yoked to its blood brother the P10, the M8 turned what was for me an amazing system, into a merely very good one. While the M8 in its own right was a highly musical and balanced performer, there were diminishments in several areas key to the systems ‘pull’ factor.

Notably, there was a slight blunting of transients with the M8 and a bit of reduction in top-end air. In conjunction with the slightly warm Daedalus speakers, this made for a bit less edge and excitement, scooting things more toward say, a classic Spendor or Harbeth sound (sorry - haven’t heard the newest models). Coupled with a slight shaving off of bass heft, the M8/P10 pairing made for what seemed a warmer, less extended, more mid-forward sound. In other words, the sound was a bit more old-school tubey than with the tubed preamp!
There was also a modicum less pace on offer with the M8 in the system. Curious, as PRaT is one of the reasons I love the P10. Isabella just danced harder is all. Lastly, the tonal density and sheer presence Isabella either provided or let through, escaped the M8. This is perhaps the quality that the Signal Cable Magic Power power cord I added later assisted the M8 most with, yet it still fell somewhat short of the mark set by Isabella in this regard. Hmmm… NO A/C trumps PURE(R) A/C?!

In sum, I still have warm feelings for the M8; it’s a beautiful piece, but by way of comparison with the RWA Isabella, I can only call the system with the M8 in place somewhat ‘canned’ sounding. Good yes - even excellent, but special? Well, I didn’t stop paying my bills or pick up the phone to call an audio buddy about it like I did during and after my first solo listening session with Isabella. For those of you who are curious - the M8/30.2 pairing did little if anything to change my mind. I know ‘right’ when I hear it!

DACing Off
Hi! Billy Mays (God rest his soul) here for the Isabella deluxe preamp!! It’s not just a can opener - it’s a paring knife, a nail clipper, a toothpick… You can have your Isabella sunny side up or over easy - with installed Kusonoki-inspired Isabellina non-oversampling DAC or without. A headphone amp in addition to or sans DAC is also on offer, and web buzz is it’s a good one! Me? All I had was a built in USB-capable Isabellina DAC option and a burning curiosity as to whether my Lector CD player would once and for all be sent to the nearby Shady Pines retirement community to play polkas in the makeshift library for the remainder of its life. I also had on hand the S/PDIF only, multi-award winning, exquisite (yes that’s the word- review forthcoming) Neko Audio DAC100 for an added dash of comparative panache.

I’ll spare you the obligatory USB DAC riff about how things are moving toward a world without spinning silver discs and the rise of the computer audio community etc. Rather, I offer you the succinct and timeless words of Bill Murray’s character from the movie Stripes; “Thas the fack Jack!!.”

Fed AIFF and Lossless files from my iPhone-controlled Macbook via USB input, Isabellina performed admirably. The sound was lively and certainly not rolled off up top  - a characteristic of poorly designed NOS DACs. There seemed to a bit more soundstage depth apparent when called for than with either my Lector player or with the Neko D100, albeit a bit less width than either. There was no blunting of transients.

However, most USB DACS I’ve heard, even really tuneful ones like the MHDT Paradisea+ (older version), seem to share a certain slight artificiality regarding tonal color and texture when used via the USB input. To this end, via the USB input with my admittedly ‘stock’ cable, Isabellina sounded slightly more ‘papery’ and less ‘alive’ than either my Lector player or than Lector player feeding the Neko DAC via the excellent Skywire Audio 1200 digital cable. Several times for visitors I played AIFF or Lossless tracks from ITunes via the USB input on Isabellina and then played these same tracks on the original CD, taking care to match volume. Each time, the outcome was similar - people commented the USB setup sounded slightly ‘artificial’ by comparison.

Now, when I utilized the Lector player as a transport and fed the signal to Isabellina’s S/PDIF input, tonal colors came closer to spec and things sounded all around more natural and present. I felt I was now getting more the measure of what Isabellina was capable of doing. There was a touch less detail on offer than with the standalone Lector player (as might be expected with a NOS DAC), and certainly less detail on offer than with the Lector feeding the Neko D100, but musical flow; the sine qua non of the Red Wine sound, kept me in my chair track after track. Perhaps a Red Wine Audio USB to S/PDIF converter/de-jitterer for the USBers among us? Vinnie- are you listening? (Or uh…reading?). Bottom line - the Lector player can breathe easy once again - snatched from the clutches of a hellish life of retired bliss.

Incidentally, in perusing various webzines and print-zines, it seems I’m not by any means alone in my judgment that USB as a musical interface still has a bit to go before we all agree it’s not just the more convenient conveyance, but the more musical one as well. As a caveat, the standalone Isabellina DAC, which I have not heard, almost certainly takes things to yet a higher level in that the DAC circuitry gets its very own metal case in which to roam free and the battery banks it sits among therein, exist solely for its happiness and well-being.

Pour me another glass of Red Wine and “I’m not drinking any F---ing Merlot!”
I bought some things recently. I’m trying to stimulate the economy. Okay I’m not. I simply had to have the Daedalus Audio DA-RMa speakers. They sang out to me at lovely length from their respective left-right positions at the apices of the invisible equilateral triangle overlying what some might refer to as my living room. But they do not speak alone.
After listening for a good many years to a number of black and silver boxes, these walnut songsters played a leading role in facilitation of my decision making process as to how next to do my part for America and its products. I am buying Isabella.

I know. Two review pieces in a row?! Have I gone mad with subjectivist power? Has my Ponzi scheme continued to perform above expectation? Do I just buy everything anyone sends me to write about?! I have not, it has not and I do not.

As with the DA-RMa’s, it became apparent to me during the review process that while a number of preamps I have heard excel the unit under review in certain sonic specifics, few preamps in my experience combine quietude, transparency to source, PRaT and tonal veracity with fuss-free operation and friendly, non-Machiavellian designers in quite the way Isabella does. Paired either with its sister amp or for that matter, any amp to which it was not blood-related, like a great accompanist, Isabella self-effacingly stepped aside and allowed its partnering ancillaries to dance and shine or, without mentioning names, show themselves to be less than shining.

Yes sir - The Red Wine Audio Isabella; versatile, eco-conscious and American made. I ordered ‘er straight up; no head amp, no DAC, no chaser. Stimulating the economy - - it’s just so musically right!!
I bid you peace.




Specifications:
Included Tubes: 6922/E88CC dual triode (one tube per channel)
Accepted Tubes: 6922/E88CC, 6DJ8/ECC88, 7308/E188CC, 7DJ8/PCC88, 6N23, 6H23, and 6N11
Input Impedance: 50k
Output Impedance: Less than 1k
Frequency Response: 10Hz - 120kHz (+/- 0.5 dB)
Gain: 0dB / 12dB (selectable)
Power supply transformer / rectifiers / transformers in signal path: None
Batteries: 2 x 12V, 5Ah Sealed Lead-Acid (SLA) batteries connected in series (24V system)
Battery charger: Rapid-speed, 24V, 2,000mA SLA “Auto-Charger,” custom-modified for use with Red Wine Audio SMART module.

Universal input voltage (100 – 240Vac, 50/60Hz), IEC power input jack, and output cable featuring a heavy duty XLR plug.
Typical play time between full battery charges Approx. 6 to 8 hours in battery mode / Continuous playback in AC power mode (see above for details)

Dimensions: 12" width x 10.5" depth (including volume knob and rear panel jacks) x 3.5" height (including feet)
Weight (without charger): Approx. 15 lbs.
Package weight: Approx. 20 lbs.

Price: $5,500.00 including Isabellina Dac

Mailing and Shipping Address
Red Wine Audio
50 High St., Unit 2B
Meriden, CT 06450
USA

Website: http://www.redwineaudio.com/