Finally…sigh…a component that does exactly what the manufacturer says it does and nothing more. This is the first component in my experience that has so little identifiable character as to be, in the most exact meaning of the word, transparent. But before I tell you how I really feel about this little gem, let’s address the two major stereotypes of the passive preamplifier breed.
- Stereotype Number 1: Passive preamps have poor dynamic ability. Yes, I have heard this with passive preamps, even in my own tweaked design. No, the Placette does not exhibit this trait. Placette attributes this to the use of Vishay S-102 resistors. These are bulk foil resistors that are very expensive to make. Only 80 resistors, or 10 per hour, can be made during a normal work day shift. According to Placette, the workers at Vishay were complaining a bit that this level of output was hard to achieve, considering the care and attention it takes to hand-trim each resistor to the correct value.
- Stereotype Number 2: Passive preamps have wimpy bass. We’re not talking about Popeye’s tubby friend, Wimpy, who will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. (I wonder if Popeye would have gotten into so much trouble if he had been dating Betty Boop instead of Olive Oyl.) Passives have a reputation for being weak and lean in the lower registers. I have found this to be true with some passives, probably due to the impedance interactions with other gear and the inferior quality resistors used in most other passive preamplifiers. This is a bigger subject than I want to get into here, but used in an appropriate system, the Placette’s bass is fully competitive with any active preamp I have heard. At least competitive, and often better.
Transparency, defined as the absence of change from input to output, is not that easy to observe. We need some kind of bypass setup where we can listen to a source connected directly to the input of the power amplifier, and compare that sound quality to the sound with the Placette in-circuit. The source needs a volume control, and we need to add one pair of interconnects. Alternatively, we could add two pairs of interconnects and use another preamplifier’s tape loop or add the Placette after the current preamp. I used the former configuration with my Conrad Johnson DV-2b CD player which has its own internal volume control.
The rest of the system was either a Conrad Johnson Premier 350SA or Quicksilver V4 amplifier. Both amps have inputs with 100k Ohm impedances, which makes the relatively high 2k Ohm output resistance of the Placette effectively irrelevant. (I italicized “resistance” because the purely resistive nature of the Placette means that there is no change in output resistance with frequency. This change is measured with an impedance specification.) I would not recommend using this preamp with Pass Labs amps and their 20k Ohm input impedances, but with a short run of low capacitance cables, the pairing might be fine. Speakers were either Magnepan MG10, MG10.1, or Fostex “S-168”, each used with a pair of Perfect Subwoofers. Cables included Oritek X-1 and X-2, Nordost Valkyrja, and Nirvana S-X Ltd. interconnects, and PS Audio Resolution Reference and Acoustic Zen Satori speaker cables. After the bypass tests were done (in a few hours), listening was back with the usual Ortofon Jubilee and other cartridges on a Graham Phantom tonearm mounted on a Kuzma Stabi Reference turntable connected with Graham IC-70 tonearm cable to a Conrad Johnson Premier 15 Series 2 phono stage with Jensen step-up transformers.
Back to our stereotypes. The dynamic ability of the Placette is not so much different from other preamps in the relative loudness between very soft and very loud, but by how stunningly FAST the Placette tracks these changes. We’re not talking about any tricks of altering the frequency response, for example, by highlighting the upper midrange. We’re talking about rim shots that happen NOW. There is no build up to the sound of a drum stick hitting the metal rim. Other excellent preamps slightly blur this kind of event, but the Placette presents it perfectly. The Placette takes the very enjoyable and generally superior bass resolution of the CJ Premier 17 (Series 1 and 2) preamplifiers and adds the powerful leading edge impact that is largely missing in the Series 1, and to a lesser degree, the Teflon capacitor-equipped Series 2. Resolution and speed. It is a time issue, and this preamp has no lag, no blur, and no waiting! The result is a noticeable increase in excitement and drama, energy and enjoyment. This is the kind of sound that will make you think about deleting your shortcut to AudiogoN.
On first listen, I thought there was some emphasis in the upper midrange and lower treble. Not that this region was louder or out of proportion, but it was just more “there”. I was right and wrong in this early impression, coming after listening mostly to the CJ Premier 17 Series 2. There was no emphasis, but there was most certainly more happening in the mids and treble than I had been hearing recently. Clarity – detail – speed – resolution. The difference between the improved clarity offered by those expensive CJ Teflon capacitors and the no-cap Placette was not subtle. If the CJ Premier 17 Series 1 rated a “1” and the relative increase in clarity of the Series 2 earned it a “2”, then the Placette gets a “5”. I hope this illustration gets my point across to you, because the Placette has noticeably higher resolution than other preamps I have heard while eliminating the added distortions we either take for granted, or spend ever-greater amounts of money in futile attempts at removing. The Premier 17 Series 2 is very good, but the Placette makes it sound obviously grainy and muffled. There was a large difference between the sound of the two preamps, meaning it required just a few minutes of listening to hear how much better the Placette sounds.
The upper midrange and treble is uncommonly smooth and easy to listen to, but with apparently limitless resolution. Think tubes, with solid state extension and speed. On the other hand, that analogy would really be an injustice to the Placette which easily transcends both common descriptors. The Placette’s sound stage is nothing extraordinary. Other top preamps present realistic image width and depth, and the Placette is in good company by its realistic and believable stage presentation. If you like to listen loud, but frequently turn it down because your system sounds rough or coarse at higher levels, you must try the Placette in your system. Just don’t blame me if A) your spouse/kids/neighbors complain, or B) you blow up your speakers, which just prior to melting down sounded better than they have ever sounded before.
One gripe, and this is just personal preference. I consider remote control of a preamplifier even more essential than remote control of a CD player. But what’s up with the Sony remote that comes with the Placette? It works well, but is big, bulky, and has far more buttons than needed to operate the volume and source selection options of the line stage. (Even though it is a “universal” remote control, I could not get it to work with the C-J CD player.) A custom remote would be a welcome upgrade. I would also prefer a numeric readout for volume instead of the binary light array, but after using the Placette for a few weeks, I became accustomed to the lights and could repeat my favorite volume settings fairly easily. After the first couple of volume steps, which were all too loud for quiet background listening, the 125 step volume control allows very precise adjustment to suit any listening requirement, associated gear, or mood.
The Placette is sold factory-direct for $1595. There are a number of configuration options available, such as balanced operation, an additional input instead of two sets of outputs, etc. Just don’t assume that just because some feature your system requires is not listed, that it is not available. Contact Placette Audio and get the facts. The Placette Web site seems almost evangelical in trying to spread the word about the potential of passive preamps. Well, brothers and sisters, I have “seen the light”: this is a superior method of providing the source switching and volume control that we previously – and erroneously – believed requires an active and expensive component to implement effectively.
To allow the Placette to work well in your system, you might need a source with more gain, or a power amplifier with higher input impedance. Change whatever needs changing in your system, because this is a different paradigm for the component commonly called “preamplifier”. It is not that the Placette does it better, Guy Hammel’s creation does it right.
Overall Rating: 10 LPs
Note to readers: Please demote all previous preamplifier ratings on 10 Audio by one “LP”. After you listen to the Placette in a compatible system, you will agree with me.
Link to manufacturer’s Web site: Placette Audio