Legend Audio LAD-L1 Line Stage Preamp
|Legend Audio LAD-L1 Line Stage Preamp|
2 January 2000
PRE-AMP Output Level (Rated) 1.5V
Frequency Response: 10 Hz to 85 kHz +/-0.5dB
Signal to Noise Ratio "A" Weighted >102 dB
Input Impedance: 250 k ohms
Output Impedance: 5 k ohms
Input Sensitivity :120mV, 2 volt out Total Gain 15dB
Chassis Dimensions: 4.25" × 19.50" × 9.50" (H×W×D)
Weight: 22 lbs.
Legend IV, 1 m: $515.
Legend VI, 1 m: $975.
Legend Power II, 6 foot $250.
Manufacturer: Legend Audio Design
2430 Fifth St. Unit G & H
Berkeley, CA 94710
Tel: 800-783-7360 or (510) 843-2288 ; Fax: (510) 843-3298
Are You A Passive Kinda Guy?
We just finished up a listening session. I asked my friend Sheldon, "Do you miss the passive pre-amp?" Without any hesitation or qualification he replied succinctly, "No. Now you have a real audiophile system." It was his first impression of the Legend LAD-L1 in my system. In the main I would agree with him, but I do have some reservations. What follows is the rest of the story.
By happenstance, I was graced with the Legend Audio LAD-L1 line stage pre-amp. I wasn't looking forward to the audition. I felt pretty sure that my McCormack TLC1 passive pre-amp would be the equal of any comers. This assurance was based on my experiences with various active pre-amps, most recently the tube Audible Illusions Modulus 3 and the solid state BAT VK20.
They all had their strengths, but they also had similar shortcomings, and I always returned to the TLC1. Since some readers may not be familiar with passives, and also to clear up some misunderstandings, I've made a list of the dominant qualities of the two types of pre-amps. If you have something to add on this topic, please leave me a note.
Strengths of Active pre-amps
Wide dynamic range--enhanced macro-dynamics.
Wide frequency range--more and better-controlled bass and extended treble.
Soundstage is more focused with more defined, usually smaller images.
On a technical level, actives allow you independence from the type and length of interconnect, and the strength of the source signal. Those wonderful low-output moving coils become feasible.
Weaknesses of Active pre-amps
Loss or masking of inner detail.
Likewise, some of the hall acoustic is lost.
The introduction of an array of electronic artifacts. This could be heard as unnatural dynamic scaling, where changes in dynamics happen in steps rather than continuously. Or as a layer of grain, especially on string tone, or as timbre/tonal alteration. A noted soprano will sound like an alto or mezzo.
The listener is conscious of components creating sound. It sounds like a stereo system.
Strengths of Passives
More micro dynamics.
Natural dynamic scaling.
Believable / credible sound stage. The space is so real you can walk into it.
Enveloping, even comforting, presentation. Sound seems to wash over you effortlessly.
Weaknesses of Passives
Less macro dynamics.
Warm and soft bass.
Somewhat dark and recessive presentation.
System synergies are critical. Signal strength, cable capacitance, and cable length become paramount.
Wes Phillips summed up passives nicely as "open, open, open," in his review of the Adcom GFP-750 in Stereophile, March 1999. Likewise, I would describe the quality of most actives as "attack, attack, attack." If you are an alpha type male, I expect you would go for the active. Al Gore and I have a preference for the passive.
The BAT VK20 was in house about a year ago and the Audible Illusions Modulus 3 sometime before that. As I mentioned, I found these two active pre-amps had weaknesses on the list above and they were replaced. The TLC1 has been in residence for several years and it continues to please. For the purposes of this review, I'll confine myself to comparing the TLC1 and the LAD-L1.
Legend LAD-L1 Product Description
The LAD-L1 is a line stage pre-amp in the middle of the Legend lineup. It has two 5814A tubes in the driver stage. It's meant to be left on all the time. Because the tubes operate at a very low bias, the unit is cool to the touch. The manufacturer claims the tubes will last about eight years. It runs in pure class A, and is very quiet in operation. With a matte black finish, it's somewhat plain in appearance. The front panel features a source selector, tape monitor, mute and volume control. On the rear there's power on/off, main fuse, and the following complement of gold-plated RCA jacks: two sets of outputs, tape-in, tape-out, three sets of inputs labeled AUX, TUNER, CD. It is single-ended only. That's it for controls. I personally miss a balance control, stereo/mono switch, and remote control.
This heavy pre-amp came with a dedicated Legend Power 1 AC cord, so no p.c. scrabble was possible. It has four little black feet built in. I tried the usual assortment of isolation accessories, including a Bright Star Big Rock, a Little Rock, and a Rosinante DarkMatter platform. The only accessory that made an improvement was three of the Air Tight graphite blocks placed under the unit. This gave slightly better dynamics and naturalism. The upshot is you won't need to spend a lot of money or time on setup.
How the Active Won Out After Nine Rounds
"But what really impressed me was the fact that there was no added grain and, secondly, the expected electronic artifacts didn't make their appearance. It was like having the best features of both types of pre-amps."
With a day or so of break-in, I was struck by how clear and defined the soundstage had become versus the TLC1. Instruments were separated out, but at the cost of having harder edges. Front to back depth had improved. Transients were quicker. Macro dynamics were impressively wider. Bass was tighter and there was more of it. Treble was extended, but sometimes became strident on crescendos. The tonal balance shifted after about three days -- the midrange came into better balance and the treble stridency disappeared. Very surprisingly, I didn't detect any added grain.
The LAD-L1 got out of the way of the signal. It didn't gussy up the sound or make it more euphonic. Some components do this and are said to be "musical". That's fine if it's what you like. While the LAD-L1 does not impart a golden, burnished glow, it also doesn't give you electric blue shocks; it is neutral. I think this is where virtue lies, if sonic virtue is defined as approximating reality.
In direct comparison to the TLC1, the presentation was a little thin and less warm. This may or may not bother you. I grew to like it. After a while, it was the TLC1 that seemed a little soft and swampy. The LAD-L1 had more life, more vivid colors, and greater impact. And it was very fast. So fast that when I initially considered that it was also cool to the touch, I assumed it was solid state.
But what really impressed me was the fact that there was no added grain and, secondly, the expected electronic artifacts didn't make their appearance. It was like having the best features of both types of pre-amps. The LAD-L1 managed to avoid almost all of the sins of active pre-amps. Hall acoustics were the equal of the TLC1. Only in the area of micro dynamics and inner detail did it suffer compared to the TLC1.
This month I began taking cello lessons. Occasionally, I listen to the system after practicing on the instrument. I know this will strike some as exceeding hubris, but I can make this transition between activities without being aware of mentally down-shifting and compensating. Wow. The first time I reflected on this, I was caught up short and sought other opinions for a reality check, which corroborated my impression. This tells me the current system configuration including the LAD-L1 is sending the brain whatever it is that makes the brain believe it's hearing the real thing. Mind you, I'm talking about chamber music here. To say this about full orchestra would not hold true. And even with chamber music, my living room will never support the full weight and presence of even a single cello. What does come through is enough auditory cues to believe you're hearing the unique sounds of a cello.
When connected to the LAD-L1, I found the Legend IV wire provided more focus and more stable images when compared with Harmonic Tech Pro Silway MK II. The IV was more lifelike, bigger, and more dynamic. The rear of the stage opened up. The HT, on the other hand, sounded acoustic, smooth, warm and friendly, but also slow and bloated when used with the LAD-L1. You'll note that this wire description coincides nicely with the LAD-L1 pre-amp description. However, when I swapped back to the McCormack TLC1, I preferred the HT to the Legend wire.
The top of the line Legend VI wire arrived after a couple of weeks and the results were similar to the less expensive Legend IV, but even more so. It was clearer and smoother with less edge. Front to back depth perception was enhanced. Back of stage was still further defined. But again, when I swapped back to the TLC1, I preferred the HT.
The Harmonic Tech Pro AC II is smoother, warmer and more forgiving than the Legend Power II. The Legend Power II had more contrast and a quality of vividness. These observations were based when used with the power supply to the phono pre-amp. Based on the products auditioned, it's clear this manufacturer has a consistent sonic goal in mind.
Which wire you prefer depends on the ancillary components, your taste for warmth and smoothness or detail and definition. Performance is dependent on the synergy between the wire and the component. The TLC1 / HT match was arrived at after much cable swapping. The Legend wires have the same kind of synergy with the Legend component. Price-wise the power cords are in the same ballpark, but the top of the line Legend VI interconnects are about double the price of the HT. I would say that if you go for the LAD-L1 you must audition the Legend wires.
The reference LP most frequently played for this review was the Mahler Songs of a Wayfarer, with Zubin Mehta, Marilyn Horne and the L A Philharmonic (London OS26578). This album is part of the famous set of recordings demonstrating the synergism between Zubin Mehta, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and London Records engineering. All are worth collecting and repeated listening. The funny thing is, I didn't always feel this way. Years ago, when I put on Richard Strauss's Don Quixote by this combo (London CS6849) what I heard was a BIG sound, somewhat forward, with spot miking and lots of clarity, and good hall acoustics. I didn't think they were particularly distinguished performances. Competent for sure, but suffering from some Mehta exuberance--not on my Desert Island list.
Then some of that wonderful audio sorcery started to happen. As time passed and the system evolved, these recordings not only sounded better, but I became aware of some terrific playing in them. Zubin et al. went from being categorized as a second-rate outfit to a prime contender. Now, when I do a face off of Strauss' Don Quixote, I'll put them up against George Szell and the Cleveland, or Rudolph Kempe and the Dresden State Orchestra. What I'm saying is the bucks you put into system improvements can pay you back in musical discoveries and hence greater appreciation.
Also seeing playtime was George Friedrich Handel's Duetti E Cantate DaCamera, by the Concerto Vocale (Harmonia Mundi 1004) recorded in 1978. This group features the luminaries of the western European early music scene, including Judith Nelson, soprano; Rene Jacobs, counter-tenor; Wieland Kuijken, cello; William Christie, harpsichord; and Konrad Junghanel, theorbo. First, it surprised me that Handel composed songs like these at all. It turns out they are the product of his three-year sojourn in Italy when he was 21 years old. They are sung in baroque bel canto style, which means they are highly charged emotionally. The love duets between Judith Nelson and Rene Jacobs exude sensual seductiveness. One doesn't associate the popular Handel of "Messiah" fame with intimate sensuality. Ms. Nelson in particular soars, assured and powerful on this recording.
The LAD-L1 is the first pre-amp I've tried that makes me want to pack up the McCormack TLC1. It radiates neither a golden glow nor an electric blue light, but illuminates the performance with a balanced, neutral spectrum that is close to the real thing. It has the best qualities of active pre-amps without their associated flaws and belongs on your list of contenders if you're shopping at this price-point. Other pre-amps on my short list are the Sim Audio Moon P-5, for $3995, and the Audible Illusions Mod 3A in its latest revision for $2295. Also, if you spring for the extra bucks, the top of the line Legend LAD L2 unit is a must hear.