Tube Audio Design TAD-150
Signature Series Preamplifier
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 hed been working on lately, which brought us to the
TAD-150 hybrid (tube and solid-state) preamplifier. He didnt have the prototype on
hand that day, but wanted to know if Id be interested in a review sample after the
initial order backlog had been filled. Duh!
If you dont yet know about Tube Audio Design, give
them a little time -- I think youll 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 Gryzbeks
customers; theyll 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
TADs 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 whove paid attention to
the tube-preamp market over the last few years might get the nagging feeling that
youve 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 Audcoms AP-120 preamp,
thereby saving a lot of tooling and manufacturing cost. Hes retained some of the
Audcoms 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-30s 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 youre 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 cant 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-150s ground post proved a bit too big for the
relatively small spade on my turntables ground wire, requiring a bit of force to get
the spades 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-150s only other
operational quirk was that it resets itself to the CD input each time its powered
on. I cant imagine that anyone would have an issue with this, but it is a bit
unusual in my experience.
On "Crazy," from Cassandra Wilsons 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 Ive heard from any solid-state amp and
preamp with the Silverlines. Wilsons 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 hes won much critical acclaim and respect, hes 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 weve come to expect from Prine. His voice, husky and at
times a little craggy on "Some Humans Aint 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 Quartets 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 doesnt 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 Jacksons 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 Id
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
Nymans 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 Id never before
heard from this track, much less from a product in this price class.
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 wouldnt
be able to hear much difference with this type of setup, youd be wrong. As good as
Tube Audio Designs modification of Cayins 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, Id 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.
Ive had the Tube Audio Design TAD-150 on my review
list for far too long. Once in a great while, a component comes along thats 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 Im
bobbing my head to the music. For someone with my poor typing skills, this is something of
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 its all about.
...Jeff Van Dyne
Price of equipment reviewed