GOODSOUND!GoodSound! "Equipment" Archives

Published July 1, 2005

 

Tube Audio Design TAD-150 Signature Series Preamplifier

Sometime last year I paid a visit to Paul Gryzbek, of Tube Audio Design, to have him modify my Cayin TA-30 integrated amplifier. My wife was in class in Chicago all day, so I hung out while Gryzbek worked on my amp. We talked about a little of everything, and eventually the conversation got around to what he’d been working on lately, which brought us to the TAD-150 hybrid (tube and solid-state) preamplifier. He didn’t have the prototype on hand that day, but wanted to know if I’d be interested in a review sample after the initial order backlog had been filled. Duh!

If you don’t yet know about Tube Audio Design, give them a little time -- I think you’ll be hearing more in the years to come. Paul Gryzbek is one of those rare individuals who has built a following of extremely loyal customers while doing business over the Internet. This is not an easy thing to do, but when you read the comments of TAD customers on Internet forums, you soon begin to understand that a lot of it has to do with the integrity of the man behind the product. Rarely have I seen customers endorse a product as overwhelmingly as do Gryzbek’s customers; they’ll all tell you that Paul (he appears to be on a first-name basis with every one of his customers) is one of the best reasons to buy from TAD. Add to this TAD’s reputation for building audio products of high quality and high value, and you have a recipe for success.

There are two versions of the TAD-150. The one reviewed here is the Signature Series ($1537 USD), but TAD also offers a standard version ($1299) that forgoes about a dozen circuitry upgrades. Those of you who’ve paid attention to the tube-preamp market over the last few years might get the nagging feeling that you’ve seen the TAD-150 somewhere before. The likely reason is that Gryzbek has Audcom build the TAD-150 to his specs on the chassis of Audcom’s AP-120 preamp, thereby saving a lot of tooling and manufacturing cost. He’s retained some of the Audcom’s internal components, but has specified changes where they impacted sound quality. Once the TAD-150/AP-120 lands here in the States from China, Gryzbek completes the process by hand-finishing each unit with some proprietary circuit changes. The resulting tube/solid-state hybrid preamp is long on quality and short on price.

On first unpacking the TAD-150, my wife and I commented on how attractive it is. The champagne tint of the anodized-aluminum front panel is a shade or two lighter than the Cayin TA-30’s but otherwise looks very similar. The power button is on the left, the volume and input controls on the right. In the center are two large windows, behind which reside a pair of backlit 12AT7 driver tubes in a chrome shadow box. (If you’re into rolling tubes, the TAD-150 will also accept 12AX7s and 12AU7s.) There is a headphone jack directly under the power switch, and bright blue LED indicators for power, each of the four inputs, and the volume control. The remainder of the 21-pound preamp is encased in a heavy, textured, black-finished steel enclosure.

The TAD-150 provides switching for four source components via either the front-panel selector knob or the supplied remote control. One of the four inputs is a high-quality solid-state phono stage that works best with moving-magnet cartridges. The other three inputs and the phono stage run through the tube line stage on the way to two pairs of output jacks. The second pair of output jacks allow simple biamplification, or you can use them as dedicated subwoofer outputs -- a novel and useful feature for a tube preamp.

The rear panel sports heavy-duty, gold-plated RCA input and output jacks, a switch to select between MM and MC cartridges for the phono input, and a ground terminal. Power is supplied to the unit via a standard-grade, IEC-type removable power cord, allowing upgrades as desired. Among the features you can’t see from the outside is the power supply: a toroidal transformer and two independent filter banks. The remote-control input relays are placed close to the input jacks to help shorten the audio signal path, and the motor-driven Alps volume control is isolated between a pair of triodes, thus providing fixed resistive input loads to the upstream source components.

I installed the TAD-150 on a shelf in my equipment rack and supported it with four Vibrapod Isolators. I connected an Adcom GCD-600 CD player ($600 a long time ago) and a Sony DVP-S755 SACD/CD player ($229) to a pair of the line inputs, and a Music Hall MMF-5 turntable ($629 with standard Goldring G1012 MM cartridge) to the Phono input for the duration of the test. Amplification was provided by the Cayin TA-30 integrated amp ($899) or a Chiro C-300 solid-state power amplifier ($1500). Loudspeakers were the Silverline Sonatinas. The TAD-150’s ground post proved a bit too big for the relatively small spade on my turntable’s ground wire, requiring a bit of force to get the spade’s legs past the post for a solid connection. Other than this, setup was as simple as it gets.

The remote control is a basic affair: buttons for the four inputs, mute, and volume. My only quibble is that the remote adjusts the volume in unusually large increments, making it somewhat difficult to set the volume at just the right level. I could mostly sidestep this problem by lightly tapping on the volume-control buttons instead of giving them a normal press and release. The TAD-150’s only other operational quirk was that it resets itself to the CD input each time it’s powered on. I can’t imagine that anyone would have an issue with this, but it is a bit unusual in my experience.

Listening notes

On "Crazy," from Cassandra Wilson’s Glamoured [CD, Blue Note 81860], the combo of TAD-150 and Cayin TA-30 provided tighter, deeper bass, with more punch from the kick bass, than I’ve heard from any solid-state amp and preamp with the Silverlines. Wilson’s finger snaps were suspended in space with near-perfect precision -- variations in placement of mere inches were distinctly audible. One weakness of the EL34 tube is lack of high-frequency extension, but with the TAD-150 in the system, this issue was almost entirely resolved, with plenty of extension to convincingly portray the breath of a female vocalist or the decay of a cymbal crash. All this, and the TAD retained the best characteristic of the EL34: deep, tight bass.

John Prine has been around the music scene about as long as I can remember, but while he’s won much critical acclaim and respect, he’s never enjoyed great commercial success. This has never seemed to bother him much, and when things went sour with Asylum he formed his own label and continued his work. His newest album, Fair & Square [CD, OhBoy OBR-034], is another fine example of the folksy, lyrical wit that we’ve come to expect from Prine. His voice, husky and at times a little craggy on "Some Humans Ain’t Human," came through the TAD-150 with such clarity that it sounded live.

The last time I was in Chicago, I ran across a nearly pristine MFSL Original Master Recording of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Live at the Lighthouse at an incredible price [LP, Mobile Fidelity 1-090]. This was a special find -- Lighthouse is one of those albums that just doesn’t sound the same on CD and/or solid-state. With the TAD-150 and Cayin TA-30 in the system, the decay of the notes of Milt Jackson’s vibes took on a quality that no pairing of solid-state amp and preamp has been able to reproduce in my listening space.

Listening to recordings of classical music, I frequently noted a distinct layering of the instruments that I have not heard in my room with lesser equipment. This was evident on Brahms’ Symphony No.3 [CD, Deutsche Grammophon 492 765-2], where the violins just begin to show some separation in space. After I’d added the TAD-150 to the system, the violins became more of a chorus of instruments than a single mass in the background. Before the TAD-150, I had not heard this on this disc.

For something completely different, I put Michael Nyman’s Sangam [Warner Bros. 59551-2] in the CD player. This work came about as an effort by the Asian Music Council and the British Council to produce a collaborative work by a contemporary British composer and leading Indian musicians. Many might find Sangam an acquired taste, but I rather enjoy it. The TAD-150 made "First Rain" come alive with amazing senses of soundstage depth and height. Furthermore, the Indian chant that runs throughout this movement produced a layering of voices I’d never before heard from this track, much less from a product in this price class.

Comparison

The TAD-150 replaced the preamp section of the Cayin TA-30 integrated tube amp ($800) in my current setup, this made possible by the fact that, at full volume, the Cayin is essentially a straight gain path. If you think you wouldn’t be able to hear much difference with this type of setup, you’d be wrong. As good as Tube Audio Design’s modification of Cayin’s TA-30 is, the addition of the TAD-150 preamp opened up the soundstage, added depth, tightened up the bass response ever so slightly, and extended the top end. With the TA-30, I’d been using an inexpensive external phono preamp left over from when I was using a cheaper turntable. The contest was over before it began: The TAD-150 produced deeper bass, better imaging and soundstage, and a much lower noise floor.

Conclusion

I’ve had the Tube Audio Design TAD-150 on my review list for far too long. Once in a great while, a component comes along that’s so involving that its review keeps getting postponed. I spend a lot of time listening to music in this system, but time after time, I put my laptop down so I could just sit and listen. Even as I type this conclusion, a CD is spinning in the player and I’m bobbing my head to the music. For someone with my poor typing skills, this is something of an issue.

But with the TAD-150 in the system, I feel more connected to the music than I ever have before. And that, my friends, is what it’s all about.

...Jeff Van Dyne

Price of equipment reviewed


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