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PS Audio Trio P-200 preamp

21.09.2012..
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Introduction

I think that PS Audio, from Boulder, Colorado, is an underestimated company, at least here in Italy.

The Italian average enthusiast usually prefers choosing among well-known and affirmed brands. The brands that receive more reviews from magazines, the brands that cause less insomniac nights because of “unknown” performances that push people to write to magazines asking “I have bought this amplifier or these speakers, please tell me how they perform!”. The company of Paul Mc Gowan, the P of “PS”, and of Stan Warren, the “S”, does not xerox other products, does not follow known and overknown schemes. It pursues the research of the new and reasoned refining of designs already known and valid.

One example is the GCPH phono preamplifier: the solid-state implementation of a typical scheme that pertains to the tube phono preamps, where the equalization circuit of the passive RIAA is preceded and followed by a proprietary Gain Cell stage. I will tell you later about this stage of amplification in tension at variable gain.

 

Born in 1974, PS Audio debuts with a phono preamp. In 1985, come out preamps and power amps become famous like the PS IV and the 200. In 1989 the PS 4.6 and the PS 200 C, in 1994 the Reference Link, and then the Digital Link, an audiophile DAC. Quite soon, sees the light the Lambda transport and the Ultralink DAC, maybe the most successful products. In 2006, the GC line composed of the GCP 200 preamp and the GCA 250 and 500 power amps, and the less expensive Trio line. Very recent are the innovative, well performing and well reviewed Perfect Transports - a system of storage and data transfer based on a solid state memory capable of eliminating the need of error correction and of releasing the audio data from the clock – and the D/A converter Perfect Wave. The Perfect Wave Bridge, to better connect the DAC with the PC and enjoy the listening of the new streaming music, has followed these devices. As last, I have to mention a valid series of power cords and a very interesting line of power conditioners and regenerators.

 

Description and overall impressions

The product reviewed here or, if I may say, the description and the listening impressions of an object that comes out of the traditional schemes, is the linestage PS Audio Trio P 200. A product more interesting than the series companions, the A 100 power amp and the C 100 integrated amp, both in class D. Its main feature is the volume control designed not as an attenuator - as in the ninety percent of the devices - since it causes the deteriorating of the input signal with losses in dynamics and detail. Here we have a Gain Cell module.

Ps Audio gain cell

This feature has really struck me and I decided to buy the P200. I will tell you why. We are talking of a stage of amplification in tension at variable gain. That means that there is no need of attenuating the signal to vary the volume. For the company this is the closest approximation to the perfect gain stage and “the most revolutionary progress in the analogue audio from the constitution of PS Audio”. The details of the design and the functioning have been kept secret to the competitors. We only know that the design is completely balanced with: an adjustable gain from -100 dB to +30 dB, 0.001 dB of phase resolution, noise less than -100 dB, frequency response 1 Hz-50 KHz, THD <0.005%, 47 Kohm of input impedance and 100 ohm of output impedance, 0.1 dB of channels separation.

I bring to your attention the interesting article by Michael Mardis 

What is gain structure? published on ReMusic. It helps understanding the reasons of the choice of the Gain Cell made by PS Audio.

In my opinion, all these positive features affect the sound of this preamp. The tone is correct, the instrument and its harmonics are faithfully reproduced, and the voices are very beautiful. The dynamics is excellent. The detail is present at low volume and in the full orchestra. The image is very good, especially the sense of presence and, as far as the tonality is concerned, the performance is not like a classic solid state, nor like a classic tube amp. It does not have its own sound and for a preamp, this a great merit. To keep in mind: the P200 and the more expensive GCP200 share the same design. The manufacturer states that the sound qualities of both preamplifiers are virtually identical.

With the PS Audio and its technology, there is an evident improvement in the interface with the power amplifier: connected firstly to an Audiogram PW 9 and then to the power stage of a Roksan Kandy K2, our preamp adapt itself at best to the different impedances of the two devices. In my opinion, there is no comparison with the preamp stage of the English amp, although very good. Differently from the traditional preamps, where there is a correct linearity only when the potentiometer works between ten hours and fourteen hours, here this important parameter is better. Also the noise floor is lower. This parameter generates unavoidably from the preamp input when the gain scheme is incorrect. Maybe the purists would not appreciate the fact that there is more complex circuitry than in a minimalist pre, maybe passive, but at the listening, the advantages seem remarkable.

 

Listening

To describe my impressions on the device I have played many reference records, like Café Blue by Patricia Barber or Jazz at the Pawnshop or Folia de Espaňa by Paniagua… Nevertheless, I would like to talk of one record only.

Gary Peacock | Guamba

The record is Guamba, by the American bassist Gary Peacock, performing in a quartet with Peter Erskine, on drums, Jan Garbarek, on sax, Palle Mikkelborg, on trumpet. I remind that Peacock has played with artists such Barney Kessel, Paul Bley, Art Pepper, Bill Evans, for a short time with Miles Davis, and from 1983 with Keith Jarrett.

The ECM’s recording goes back to 1987.

Strangely, this is the only record made by Peacock with this ensemble. I say strangely because, considering the musical quality, the great interplay of the group and the skills of the single interpreters, a follow up would have been desirable. Maybe the leader’s wish of experimentation – he has played with many ensembles and has studied Zen philosophy in Japan for some years – has not allowed another occasion for a meeting. What a pity!

 

Guamba. A leader’ solo. The double bass plays an almost obsessive melody, which does not want to tense up but, on the contrary, seems to nurture our senses towards moments of interior thinking. The playback of the instrument has a great realism and you can detect the dimensions of the loudspeaker that, vibrating in unison with the strings, creates a sound very rich of harmonic codas.

Requiem. Perfect follow up of the previous track and here you can see the bravura of the composer. The attack is sustained by trumpet and drum set. The first ringing without being too sharp and precise, the second without being bothersome. The beginning is very rhythmical, somehow solemn and introduces the bass. For the most curious of you: you can hear a light cry made by Peacock, with his voice. There is micro-detail! And then the bodied saxophone. The atmosphere becomes dreamy. The sound of the sax is like a lament, maybe the track is dedicated to the past memory of someone or something.

Celina. After the sustained opening of the bass, the trumpet enters with a relaxed attack and perceptibly in the background but then gradually on the same level of the leading instrument. Is that because Mikkelborg has made some steps forwards or is the magic of the recording? In any case, the PS Audio underlines that in correctly.

Thyme Time. A great rhythm, almost frenetic. Is life continuing after a painful departure? Bass and drum set begin, the second one switches between the cymbals rightly metallic and particular percussions, I think computerized. Then comes Garbarek’s sax played vehemently, almost percussively, with a velocity that the PS Audio can give back without getting flustered until the highest notes. Also when the rhythmical sound of the trumpet arrives together with sax and drums, the small preamp surprises me for its ability of not mixing the sounds.

Lila. 13.02 minutes of evocative and visionary music, the most “free” track of the record. The sax seems to improvise sound embroideries and the trumpet follows it on a line, sometimes parallel, sometimes divergent, and sometimes superimposed. Towards the end of the track, you can clearly hear the lips blowing air in the trumpet mouthpiece, but be careful in not making these audiophile subtleties the ultimate aim of the listening. Even if the realism of the reproduction, together with dynamics and timbric correctness, is one of the fundamental parameter for a listening of quality. Back to Lila: it is poetry in music.

Introending is the introduction to the last track. Initially the tone is still solemn, like a ceremony. Erskine beats hard on the drums and he is delicate on the cymbals. It is a very good piece to evaluate the dynamics of the preamp and of the whole system. On the worthy rhythmic floor of the battery, the trumpet and the sax insert themselves in a quite measured tone maybe to accent the peremptory entry of the doublebass.

Gardenia. The atmosphere is malinconic like in other parts of the opera. Still the instruments are palpable, bright, never overflowing beyond their correct sonorities. The little preamp makes everything enjoyable. The sense of heartache that Peacock’s music suggests gives emotions not so easy to describe.

 

Conclusions

All the things you have read so far refer to a preamp which list price is 1,350.00 euro!

I do not want to say that it performs at the same level of devices that cost ten times higher, but it is faithful to its design and if inserted in a correct chain at its level, also from the price point of view, the enjoyment is guaranteed and will never envies systems that are more expensive. Taken by Gain Cell and sound, I forgot to say that the manufacture is good, minimal but with all the necessary. There are three power cords with three different plugs, American, English and Schuko. The dimensions are 8.5" x 8.5" x14.75" (WxHxD) and the weight is12,12 lb. The remote control is minimal, not that great, and there are three RCA unbalanced inputs, one XLR balanced output and one RCA unbalanced output that can operate at the same time, for bi-amping or for a subwoofer. There is no ON/OFF button, only on the remote control. On the front panel are a small volume switch and a button to select the line-level inputs, whose blue led lights match with the gray-silver colour of the front panel. Below the four feet are very small, minimalist like the remote control, I suggest to change them with something better.

Look for it, maybe to improve an integrated amplifier of average value provided with the split preamp-power stage. Look for it to assemble a minimal system as to the cost, but not as to the sound. Look for it, also second-hand, and you will have a jewel at a discount price. Yes, I know, there are other tempting brands but, sometimes, if badly matched or badly designed – it happens – they do not perform as they could and/or would. Lastly, with the saved money, records and records, or files at will!

 

Soon, I hope. And do not forget that a good preamplifier can give that quid that can make our systems to perform at best.

 

Official technical specifications:

Gain: from -100dB to +30dB

Noise: less than -100dB

Frequency response: 1Hz-50KHz

THD: <0.005%

Input impedance: 47kohm

Output impedance: 100ohm

Channel separation: 0.1dB

Dimensions: 21,5x7x37,5 cm/8.5" x 8.5" x14.75" (WxHxD)

Weight: 5.5kg/12,12lb

Official Italian dealer: to MPI Electronic website

Official current price in Italy: 1,350.00 EUR, no longer in the MPI catalogue

Associated equipment: to Ulisse Pisoni system

by Ulisse Pisoni
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