Sugg. Retail: $1899.00 (CAN)
Manufacturer: Sonic Frontiers Inc
2790 Brighton Rod., Oakville,
Ontario L6H 5T4
(905) 829-3838 FAX 829-3033
(Reprinted from the Spring 2001 Audio Ideas Guide)
After having worked through reviews of Anthem’s Pre 1L phono stage and Amp 2 hybrid power amplifier, I’m finally getting around to writing about their Pre 2L line level preamp. Like the other separates in the Anthem line, the Pre 2L is a big, stylish, slightly retro looking, silver faced piece of gear (also available in black) with tubes at its heart and value on its mind. It may sound like a minimalist, purist design, but the Pre 2L is about as flexible and feature packed as audiophile grade stereo preamps get.
Let’s start with a little circuitry. Anthem describes the topology as a “three stage non-inverting” type “configured as a cathode coupled amplifier driving a current-sourced cathode follower. The outcome is a design which has extremely low output impedance and distortion, combined with an extended frequency response and low noise floor. The extremely low noise floor is also a result of the extensive efforts invested in grounding configuration and power supply layout.” The power supply itself features “6 stages of regulation, 2 of which are high voltage, precision tracking shunt types - a trickle down technology from the Sonic Frontiers Line 3 reference line stage preamplifier.” These efforts clearly paid off, the Pre 2L being very quiet and microdynamic, and remarkably so for a tube based design.
On paper, the Pre 2L continues to impress, boasting a list of features which makes most audiophile preamps, especially tube models, look positively spartan by comparison. Not only is there the now almost obligatory remote, the Pre 2L also has an excellent, high current headphone amp (located downstream of the preamplification stages and thus using the tube signal path), two sets of outputs, a tape loop, a bypass loop for use in conjunction with an outboard surround processor, three different internal gain settings (24, 16 and 8 dB), a balance control, a mono switch, and four line level inputs.
With Anthem’s close ties to sister company The Parts Connection, it should come as no surprise that the Pre 2L also features high quality parts throughout. These include MultiCap output coupling capacitors, “1% German-made metal film resistors, Russian 6922/E88CC tubes, Noble volume and balance controls,” and Kimber internal wiring. Not surprisingly, build quality is on par with standards set everywhere else in the Pre 2L, not to mention the rest of the Anthem line.
Elegant but robust, the Anthem features a thick, lustrous aluminum faceplate, a super solid vented steel chassis, and very high quality, widely spaced, gold plated RCA jacks directly mounted to their circuit board. With such well separated, well positioned connectors, hookup and cable wrangling doesn’t get much easier than this. In what seems to be becoming a ubiquitous trend in high end electronics, there is also a detachable power cord.
Please Rise for the Playing of The Anthem
For a variety of reasons I ended up having the Pre 2L around for quite a long time, listening to it with a variety of power amps (including the Anthem Amp 2, Rotel RB 1090, Musical Fidelity A3CR) and other combinations of gear. If I don’t have urges to pack up a particular piece of gear and get it out of the house it’s always a good sign, and there were certainly no such inclinations with the Pre 2L. I was in no hurry to see it go, and not just because it was so darn pretty.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the sound of the Pre 2L is the absolutely huge soundstage it’s capable of conjuring up. Enormously wide and cavernously deep, the sound with the Rotel RB 1090 (equally capable in this regard) was thrilling in its portrayal of acoustic space. The Pre 2L is one of those components that really seems to breathe: with the right music it can project huge, luscious, airy soundscapes that obliterate the back wall of your listening room. If you’re a sucker for a good soundstage, you’ll want to hear this Anthem sing.
Treble performance was also exemplary. It may not have had the microscopic detail of the Musical Fidelity A3CR but the Anthem sure could do cymbals, a key benchmark (for me anyway) of high frequency performance. The most recent Belle and Sebastian Record (Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like Peasant, Matador OLE 429-2) may be “Wuss-Rock”, as a friend describes it, but it’s well recorded and sounded silky smooth through the Pre 2L feeding the Rotel RB 1090. Soundstage well outside the speakers, super dark backgrounds, great image depth, and a damn convincing, shimmering high-hat made for a very involving listen indeed. So did Art Pepper +11 (Fantasy, JC-341), which I played on LP immediately afterwards, on that particular afternoon. Impressive dynamic drive and transparency were on offer here, with enough ambient detail to bring the whole studio space into my listening room very compellingly. Enjoying myself thoroughly by this point I fired up Sketches of Spain on LP (Columbia WKCS 8271) and ensconced myself in the enveloping studio sound. Clearly, the music was getting through. The detail on the castanets, decaying deep into the background, was impressive, and obligingly percussive, but on this recording, and in general, the Pre 2L was always smooth up top, never sounding splashy, edgy, or harsh. As a result it was enormously listenable on mediocre recordings with edgy tipped up treble.
As you might expect of a tubed preamp, the Anthem leaned a little to the warm side of the tonal spectrum in the midrange, but not by much. This made for vocals with great body and presence but didn’t, I think, err on the side of being euphonic. It was a similar trend in the bass, which although fuller and rounder than what I heard through the Musical Fidelity A3CR, was by no means bloated or soft. In this regard the Pre 2L makes an excellent match for Anthem’s Amp 2, which, as I discovered, was possessed of magnificent low end grip and authority when I reviewed it a couple of columns back (Wtr/Sprng 2000). Together the duo made extremely satisfying, meaty, but very well controlled bottom end.
The only significant problem I encountered with the Pre 2L was not a sonic issue at all, but an operational one. Even with the gain switches (there’s one for each channel, mounted directly on the main circuit board) on the minimum setting (8 dB), the volume control was extremely sensitive. Specifically, with a high level source like a CD player, cranking the knob only a few percent of its travel resulted in considerable volume level variation. When operated by hand this was of little concern, requiring a slightly more delicate touch than average to find the right level. With the remote, however, it became very difficult to dial in a particular volume at the low end of the knob’s travel, the motorized control jumping ahead and behind the ideal spot I was aiming for. Getting it somewhere in the middle, with the remote anyway, was usually impossible. As a result, low level listening could be a little frustrating.
Otherwise the Pre 2L was a joy to live with. Because of the tubes it runs a little warmer than most preamps, but I was perfectly comfortable with leaving it on for long periods of time, and, aside from a noisy tube (Anthem sent me a replacement set within a week) its time in my system was without drama. I didn’t make use of the surround processor pass through (which allows the front left and right outputs of a surround decoder to pass through, bypassing the preamp circuit), but this feature will no doubt prove very handy to audiophiles with combination two channel/home theatre systems. I didn’t have much use for the mono switch either, but I did occasionally appreciate having a balance control at my disposal, not to mention the headphone jack. In fact, it’s a lot more than a jack, it’s a proper headphone amp, capable of driving the most esoteric low impedance headphones. They may not be very exotic cans, but it sounded excellent with a pair of Koss A/250’s, bringing the smooth sweet sound of the preamp right into my noggin.
From both a sonic and functional standpoint the Pre 2L is an awful lot of preamp for the money, especially considering what a well designed tube preamp can end up costing. A glance through our last A/V Almanac suggests that finding a well designed tube preamp with the kind of functionality and flexibility that the Anthem offers seems to be a lost cause at any price, much less $1899. Some may quibble about the lack of phono stage, which I guess is fair enough, but I would argue that most people shopping at this price point who are serious about vinyl, are likely to be more interested in a high performance, outboard phono stage like Anthem’s own Pre 1P (Smr/Fall 2000). Even if you’re only moderately serious about vinyl, Rotel’s excellent RQ-970 BX (Smr/Fall 2000) phono preamp will only set you back $300. As with the Musical Fidelity separates there is also an integrated amp option in the line (the Integrated 2), which, while sacrificing the 200 watts you would get with Anthem’s Amp 2 for 90, gets you what appears to be a very similar preamp section and almost identical features, all for only $2599 (compared to $1899 for the Pre 2L and $2599 for the Amp 2). While the Pre 2L will shine in a serious, two channel, audio-only system, it should definitely be on the short list of anyone trying to assemble a system that can do double duty as a home theatre and simultaneously maintain serious traditional stereo capability.