Golden Heart

Nelson Brill

 August 2004

In his reference book, The Complete Guide to High End Audio, Robert Harley states that the preamplifier represents the “Grand Central Station of a hi-fi system.” His image is quite useful and illustrates on an intellectual plane, how a preamp can have a profound effect on a music system’s overall performance. Since each source signal must go through the preamp, its imposition of its own sonic signature can color the end result, no matter the sound or quality of other system components. Harley rightly concludes that a preamp can establish “the lowest performance level of your system.” Emmanuel Go, the founder of First Sound, Inc., (which designs and manufactures only preamplifiers), offers a different image of the preamp in an audiophile system. To Emmanuel, the preamp is the emotional heart of a listening system, as opposed to the brain, and is the component most responsible for the emotive presentation of the music. He asserts that a preamp should provide the emotional guidance to the listener to understand and be moved by, the specific musical intention of the artistic work performed and recorded. Emmanuel talks of how a preamp should ideally provide sonic clues as to the precise location of players on a stage, the “smell of the brass,” the sonic difference between a trumpet and a flugelhorn and even the sense of materials in the flooring upon which the artists stand or sit to perform. These qualities are what First Sound strives for in the design of their preamps, pursing greater degrees of dynamics, lower noise floors and instantaneous contrasts and transient responses in each new technical advance.

The Anatomy of the Heart

Both the First Sound Presence Deluxe MKII ($4,200) and its upgraded siblings, the Presence Deluxe 4.0 ($6,900) and Presence Deluxe 4.0 with Paramount upgrade ($8,100) share a common topology and build philosophy. These are active linestages with true dual mono construction, employing vacuum tubes as their gain devices as well as in the regulation of the power supplies. A class A Triode circuit is employed, with emphasis on keeping the design as simple as possible. All controls and components are repeated for both left and right channels, enhancing channel separation and decreasing the possibility of crosstalk between channels. In keeping with simple is better, my units offered no balanced or tone controls. The main chassis is made out of .06 inch cold rolled steel, plated with copper, as the best protection against spurious radiation. Circular damping materials are employed along with other vibration absorption devices to help tune the units’ overall performance. These units utilize step attenuators to set volume control, as opposed to volume potentiometers. There is no remote offered on these units, which may be an obstacle for some, but for me, I’d take the inconvenient hands-on approach to volume control, especially when it reflects technology to maintain the purest signal possible. First Sound utilizes discrete resistors with specific values to set the attenuation level, far superior and accurate, states Emmanuel, from a potentiometer, which gains resistance by utilizing a film of carbon spread on a plastic film. Holco resistors, made with no ferrous material, are utilized in these step attenuators. A look inside the main chassis of these units reveals simple yet great build prowess, with four long stainless steel rods extending the controls for the volume and selector switches to the back of the unit. Keeping the switches at the back of the unit helps maintain a very short signal path. Even in the circuit boards, the copper traces are kept to a very minimal length, keeping with this design philosophy. Emmanuel discusses the special copper solder that is used in dozens of soldering connections in the main unit. He chose this special copper solder after hours of listening tests, and is particularly proud of the extra steps he employs in soldering (after heavy crimping) of the ring terminals, which are critical in the proper delivery of power to and from the capacitors and also in the grounding of those capacitor units. Speaking of power, all of these units come with external power supplies connected to the main chassis via a dedicated umbilical cord. Removing the power supply from the main chassis ensures the purity of the signal from different kinds of radiation from the power transformers. First Sound reasons that having an overly large supply of capacitance provides stability and filtering in the power supply, and coupled with the high ampere ratings of the bridge rectifiers employed, provides a lowering of the noise floor and increased transient power “to allow the music to unfold in a space as black as space itself.” Connectors on all First Sound preamps are by RCA only, and serious solid body gold-plated RCA connectors are chosen here, reflecting the impeccable build quality of these units. 

The main difference between the Presence Deluxe and the Presence Deluxe 4.0 is the addition in the Presence Deluxe 4.0 of a second external power supply, (“total dual mono circuit topology”) providing a separate power supply for each channel. This addition increases both channel separation and power supply capacitance, which is increased to more than 180,000mfd, with current rating of up to 12 amps. The Paramount upgrade substitutes MIT Tin Foil capacitors for MIT aluminum foil capacitors, increases power supply capacitance further and adds more extensive grounding topology. Emmanuel highlights the change in capacitor material as fundamental to the Paramount upgrade’s sonic signature, which he suggests adds a further emotional excitement or involvement, or what he calls “flow,” to the musical experience with the Paramount upgrade in place.

Eubanks has an amazing way of blowing his horn to deliver two or more simultaneous notes in a single burst – a great sonic treat and one captured with clarity and precision by the Presence Deluxe.

The Spirit of the Heart

There are many wonders in this life, but I propose that one of the very minute yet precious of these is the feeling of expectation and renewal that one feels in the first few bars of music emanating from the strings of Mark Knopfler’s guitar on his “Golden Heart” from the album of the same name [Warner Bros. 946026-2]. The cut starts with a wondrous acoustic shimmer of guitars followed by a pause in which Knopfler takes a deep breath. His voice then pushes towards gorgeous crescendos and waves of guitar, bass and keyboards, over such optimistic verses such as: “Nothing in the world that I love more than your golden heart.” What a wonder this simple song is through the First Sound preamp! Listening through the Presence Deluxe (without the upgrades) is a revelation of space, breathe and detail, as Knopfler enters with a perfect sense of ease and transparency. The timbre of his deep voice is perfectly rendered, (a hard thing to do, to avoid excess huskiness). At one point early in the tune, Knopfler talks about putting an “amulet around her neck,” and the Presence Deluxe grabs the word “neck” and perfectly captures Knopfler’s emphasis on the “k”, of “neck” letting it hang in the air for a moment. I had never heard this small vocal gem before with such clarity. This brief but significant moment crystallizes for me what this preamp is all about: a transparent window and guide to the musical intention of the artist. When this same song is listened to through the Presence Deluxe 4.0 with Paramount upgrades, Emmanuel’s vision of “smelling the brass” is perfectly realized. I not only sense every nuance of Knopfler’s vocal and instrument delivery but I also get a clearer sense of the recording space itself. Particularly noticeable is that I now hear better the electricity or heat generated by Knopfler’s guitar, pick-ups and amp, which really is an essential character of his unique and lovely guitar style. I have always found Knopfler’s electric guitar style to possess a deep sense of air and heat around his notes, in comparison to someone like Clapton, whose electric guitar style to my ears is much less atmospheric and more precise in its delivery. I once was fortunate enough to hear both of these greats on one stage together, and I still recall this distinct contrast in their guitar styles and deliveries. The Presence Deluxe with the extra power supply and Paramount upgrade brought this clearly into focus for me, a gift to any audiophile looking to venture further into the intent of the artist and the particular recorded performance. 

Lets venture from electric guitars to the marimba, shall we? I offer the opinion that one of the masters of the marimba today has to be Steve Nelson, in his revelatory mallet work with the Dave Holland Quintet. (DHQ) I recently attended a concert by the DHQ here in Cambridge, MA., and not only chatted with Steve but was fortunate to sit right next to his marimba set at the concert and enjoy his artistry live. The DHQ has been captured in all of their individual and group magnificence on their recent disc, Extended Play Live At Birdland [ECM 1864/65]. Check out “Juggler’s Parade” for an introduction to the marimba mastery of Nelson, as he begins this tune in a duet with Billy Kilson on drums. With the original Presence Deluxe preamp in the mix, Nelson’s marimba’s come alive in all of their splashy wooden tone, with great low level detail and again, a perfect sense of ease on stage. Substituting the upgraded unit, with 4.0 and Paramount upgrade, the sense of Nelson’s mallet strokes on the wooden platform of the marimba comes even more into focus, with lots more sonic clues as to the nature of his tender, and then furious, mallet strokes. Particularly revelatory was the new sensation of the air surrounding Nelson on the left of the stage, placing him in perfect juxtaposition to Kilson’s drumkit, (accurately rendered in space and time) on the right of the stage at Birdland. All of this musical action takes place in a blacker than black soundstage, with no grain or thickening of any kind. Musical ideas ebb and flow effortlessly, like the gliding of Holland’s bass. One additional note: watch out for the great Robin Eubanks on this tune too, as his unique trombone work is showcased by the Presence Deluxe. Eubanks has an amazing way of blowing his horn to deliver two or more simultaneous notes in a single burst – a great sonic treat and one captured with clarity and precision by the Presence Deluxe.

How about big, broad and beautiful? Nothing better than the title track from Peter Gabriel’s “Secret World”, [Geffen 2-24722]. With the Presence Deluxe in place, we get the wallop of the great Tony Levin’s bass motivating the mix forward, with all of the chiming quality of the guitar work of David Rhodes. Substituting in the Presence Deluxe with the Paramount upgrade, we are treated to a fuller rendition of the huge arena of the Palasport Nuovo, Modena, Italy, where this live performance was held in 1993. Towards the end of this driving tune, Gabriel sings with a simple accompaniment of keyboards, with silence all around him. It is during this quiet moment that the upgraded Presence Deluxe offers large doses of air, spaciousness and audience heat around Gabriel, giving a wonderful rendition and emotional guide to this spirited live event: you can almost “smell the sweat.” 

Finally, what about small-scale intimacy? The Presence Deluxe will guide you into this world as well, with every nuance and low level detail that the rest of your system, (if it is up to it), should be able to convey. In the intimate setting of Brahms Violin Sonatas, performed with panache by Ilya Kaler, violin, and Alexander Peskanov, piano [Naxos 8.554828], the Presence Deluxe places the players on an accurate and transparent soundstage, with no grain or thinness to Kaler’s violin. The addition of the Presence Deluxe with 4.0 and Paramount upgrades moves the performance to another level of detail. For instance, now we can clearly sense the wooden body of the violin and Kaler’s breathing, as well as the hands of Peskanov on the keys in a more three dimensional space. The same conclusions can be drawn from a careful listen to the wonderfully intimate recording of the sweet chanteuse, Carla Lother, on her 100 Lovers [Chesky JD250]. The precious tune, “Simply Put” has Lother soaring on gentle vocals backed by solo acoustic guitar and harmonic vocals. As usual, the Chesky Brothers have captured this intimate delivery in all its clarity. In the hands of the Presence Deluxe, with 4.0 and Paramount upgrades in place, the acoustic space of St. Peter’s Church in New York where this recording was done, comes alive, with Lother’s voice taking on a beautiful tonal color, with an edge of delicacy that is, simply put, revelatory.

The Heart Comes To Rest

There are numerous vacuum tube preamps on the market offered in the First Sound’s price range, and I have not listened extensively to many of them. However, I have been fortunate to spend some time with the wonderful Hovland HP 100 ($4995-line stage only), courtesy of my generous colleague, Malcom Becker, of Goodwin’s High End Audio. In these listening sessions with my reference system, substituting the Hovland for the Presence Deluxe (both original and upgraded units) yielded the following comparisons. Aesthetically, the Hovland was in a category all its own, with its lustrous art deco-styled balance, input and level rotary controls backlit by a lovely blue hue. The Hovland shares much of the “simpler is better” build philosophy with the First Sound, including lack of remote control, (although it does have a balance control) and shares similar components like Halco resisters and level attenuator technology in the volume control arena. The Hovland utilizes proprietary film and foil capacitors and does not possess an external power supply(s), like the First Sound. Playing many of the same tracks of music discussed above, the conclusion drawn was that the Hovland consistently presented a warmer, rounder sound than the First Sound, with a slightly less expansive soundstage and less transient dynamics than the First Sound. My notes on the Hovland regularly referred to how the music unfolded sweetly and confidently, never with edge or harshness. Treble sweetness was particularly noteworthy, for example, Carla Lother’s delicate high vocals were even more enticing with the Hovland than with the First Sound. In contrast, the First Sound preamps displayed a larger soundstage, with better pinpoint position of players and more dynamic attack. Both preamps are wonderful windows into the musical performance; with the Hovland working its magic in the area of smoothness and seductiveness, and the Presence Deluxe 4.0 with Paramount upgrade clearly the champ in soundstaging, capturing ambience and transient dynamics.

In conclusion, I believe the First Sound Presence MK II preamp should be on anyone’s short list of essential building blocks in constructing a true audiophile system. If one can afford it, the Presence 4.0 with Paramount Upgrade offers another emotional realm of possibilities, a richness of space and detail that would make any audiophile heart beat that much faster with delight. 

First Sound Presence Deluxe MK II ($4,200): Dual Mono Construction using copper plated steel chassis; step attenuators. Ladder Type using Holco Resistors, designated as LTH 92 custom machined 3/8 inch black anodized aluminum faceplate; SPS 2.0 external power supply; 2 chassis unit
First Sound Presence Deluxe 4.0 MK II ($6,900): same as above with addition of total dual mono circuit topology; DPS 4.0 External power supply using 2 SPS 2.0 power supplies; 3 chassis unit
First Sound Presence Deluxe 4.0 MK II with Paramount Upgrade($8,100): Same as Deluxe 4.0 with addition of MIT tin foil capacitors; increase in power supply (additional 106,800 mfd) and more extensive grounding topology

First Sound, Inc.
833 SW Sunset Blvd. Ste. L57
Renton, WA 98055

Telephone: 425-271-7486
Fax: 1-425-277-8653


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