Home Listening to the PrimaLuna EVO 300 Tube Preamplifier.
Written by Hendrik Wagenaar – Vienna, Austria.
About a week ago UPS delivered an EVO300 preamplifier to my apartment in Vienna, Austria. Below you will find some listening impressions. To put things in perspective: I am not a high-end audio buff. In fact, I have only slowly come to appreciate the pleasures of high-end musical reproduction. I own a set of Pied Piper Mark III active speakers plus ditto subwoofer. Pied Piper was a small boutique speaker company in the Netherlands. The speakers were powered by a Vincent SA-31 preamplifier. That thing was 25 years old, began to develop a persistent hum and was ready for replacement. The EVO300 was a big step up for me. I only listen to CDs – via a PureSound A8000 CD player that I once bought, heavily discounted as a demonstration model, from my local hifi store in London. I don’t understand the technology of hifi equipment, and I can’t compare one set of high-end speakers or amplifier with another, because I only listen to the stuff I own. So, in audiophile terms I am Joe Average. But I am a frequent, enthusiastic classical concert goer: opera, orchestral, chamber music and so on. My reference is the real thing; in the Staatsoper, the Musikverein, the Konzerthaus and the occasional recital in someone’s living room.
So how does the EVO300 sound? In one word: stunning. Herman van den Dungen had predicted improvement, but I was not prepared for the amount of improvement. The EVO300 represents a quantum jump in quality with my equipment. Let me break that down for you.
Orchestral music is overwhelming. My reference recording (Mahler 3, Concertgebouw Orchestra with Ricardo Chailly) gives a huge, wide, deep, three-dimensional sound stage with every instrument group exactly placed. The massive opening fanfare of the 8 horns rips through the room with a satisfying rasp. The subsequent orchestral tutti having a downright visceral impact. The music then settles in almost motionless suspension with the soft taps on the timpani (upper right) like heartbeats. I have always believed that nothing can come close to the sudden crescendo from pp to a ffff of a full symphony orchestra in the Musikverein for example. The wide dynamics and the sudden large displacements of air in the hall, are simply too much for the small space of a living room, but the EVO300 is a pretty good approximation. The sudden ‘attaque’, the violent blast of the full orchestra and the silence that follows are all handled effortlessly, while the orchestration always remains fully transparent. In fact, ‘analytic warmth’ is one of the overriding characteristics of the EVO300. Brass never glares, strings are silky smooth. At the end of Debussy’s Nuages (Nocturnes, Haitink, Philips) the composer introduces a short stretch of quiet, very low bass chords into the softly undulating, gossamer fabric of the orchestra. They consist of three elements and the EVO300 distinguishes clearly between them: the soft thuds on the bass timpani as well as the plucked and the bowed strings of the contrabasses. I had never heard this before.
Pierre Boulez recording of his own Eclat brings out another characteristic of the EVO300, its ability to accurately reproduce instrumental hues and timbres. I never really liked Boulez’ music. I heard some of his pieces in the concert hall and found them boring. A friend persuaded me to try this disc. Eclats is 8 minutes of seemingly unconnected sounds, made by a.o. a piano, celesta, harp, viola, trumpet, glockenspiel, vibraphone, mandolin, 15 instruments in total. So far, I never warmed up to it. Now, with the EVO300 it has become a riveting experience. Boulez coaxes the most unusual sounds and timbres from the instrument weaving a diaphanous fabric of constantly shifting sounds. The equipment must be able to reproduce very high-pitched sounds, sudden blows on the glockenspiel, eternally held quiet resonances, small pings, soft rustling. The piece must sound scintillant and crystalline. And it all takes place against a completely silent background. It is a cliché perhaps, but whole sections of Eclat sounded so life-like that they detached from the speakers and took place in my living room.
Instrumental. The EVO300’s ability to reproduce instrumental colors comes out beautifully in Ronald Brautigam’s set of Beethoven piano sonatas on a period fortepiano (BIS). The fortepiano has infinitely more timbres than a modern grand. It is smaller so that it can be played with more extremes. Brautigam perfectly brings out Beethoven’s revolutionary genius. The Apassionata Sonate is a good example. The violent F Minor chords with which it opens are handled with an aplomb that makes you sit up in your chair. You hear the striking of the keys fuse with the resonances of the strings and the housing of the piano. The registers of the instrument do not just sound one or more octaves lower or higher in pitch but have their own distinct sound characteristics. Halfway the first movement Beethoven goes berserk and hammers out at full force some hugely complex chords on the instrument. Until now this always sounded like a loud, undifferentiated ‘blur’; now it is fully transparent and incredibly musical and exciting.
What about a concert hall Steinway? Piano recordings are notoriously difficult, often too bright or too recessed or with an idiotically wide soundscape, or whatnot. I have a few reference recordings. One is ‘Liszt. Opera and Song for Solo Piano’ with Gábor Farkas on Steinway & Sons label. I like the recording because of its warm colors and extreme precision. The first piece ‘Paraphrase on a Waltz from Gounod’s Faust’ must be heard to be believed. Liszt contribution to the piano literature is an expansion of the piano’s technical possibilities and added virtuosity. For many people this amounts to empty pianistic pyrotechnics. This CD brings out Liszt’s program as he intended it. For example, for extended periods the pianist plays trills on the extreme high keys. One hears the hammers hit the ultra-short strings and make a sound of small pebbles being thrown on a marble surface. A series of loud chords in the mid-bass range on the other hand presents the strings being hit by the felt hammers and ‘forcing’ the large wooden box of the Steinway to vibrate, resulting in warm resonances slightly colored by the metal ‘zing’ of the tightly wound strings. Once the big box is in full resonance mode, adding the deep bass strings adds layers of gorgeous deep resonance to the soundstage. One hears immediately through the shifting sound colors when the pedals kick in and are lifted again. It goes without saying that the EVO handles this dramatic piece effortlessly, with its usual impression of endless reserves. Steven Osborne’s Liszt recital on Hyperion (Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses) sounds less analytic and more generalized, as if the piano has been recorded with one microphone from the middle of the hall, but equally exciting. I can easily imagine myself sitting in the middle of the large auditorium of the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ in Amsterdam (one of the acoustically most satisfying halls that I know), with Osborne and his Steinway on the stage.
The piano a good example where the reproduction of sound deviates from reality. It so happened that two days ago I attended a living room recital in a friend’s apartment. Cello sonatas from Beethoven and Rachmaninov. From 4 meters away the piano (a small grand) sounds different from the Farkas or Osborne recordings. Less analytical, very loud and with an upper middle register that had a metallic twang and was slightly out of tune. Such are the imperfections of the real thing. But the cello’s sound was not much different from what I had heard through my sound system. All the virtues that the EVO300 brings to Boulez’ Eclat, it also brings to Mozart’s Divertimento for string trio (Trio Zimmermannon BIS). The instruments are easily recognizable and clearly positioned. Lifelike reproduction depends a lot on the additional accidental sounds: the soft scraping of the bow on the strings of the cello a moment before the actual chord sounds, an sudden intake of breath, the vibrations of a pizzicato, the rustling of turning a page of music.
Vocal. A few words finally on the reproduction of voices. In Allegri’s Miserere (Tallis Scholars) one hears the cathedral in which it was recorded. Beautiful spacious, reverberating sounds with the singers positioned in various parts of that vast space.
With Krenek’s song cycle Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen (a Philips recording from 1995) Wolfgang Holzmair’s voice nicely detaches from the speakers and stands in the room, slightly to the right of the piano. Every inflection of his supple baritone can be heard, and the EVO300 effortlessly handles his fortissimos.
Finally, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is test for any music system with the complex choral counterpoints, four soloists, a full orchestra and an organ. The Missa’s complexities are in fact too much for the human brain to process. In a live performance you take in the large mass of sound picking out a detail here and there, a solo voice, a hushed orchestral passage, or the thrilling waves of counterpoint swirling around you. Needless to say that with lesser equipment the Missa sounds like generalised noise. The Missa with the Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century under Daniel Reuss (Glossa) is remarkably life-like. It is spacious, three-dimensional, the four voice types of the chores nicely separated and articulated until they blend again in more forceful passages, and it is easy to imagine that you are in the Hall of the Vredenburg Music Centre in Utrecht where it was recorded. The Missa with Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonik is a wholly different experience. It has clearly been engineered. The engineers do the highlighting for you: an oboe here, a flute there, the long sweet violin solo of the Sanctus nicely spot lit, Fritz Wunderlich’s incomparable voice, the Berlin’s silken strings. Both recordings are rewarding experiences in their own way.
In sum, the PrimaLuna EVO300 is a remarkable piece of hifi equipment. It has attracted enthusiastic reviews from people who are much more knowledgeable than I am. These reviews are not exaggerated. Above all else, the EVO300 delivers a deeply musical experience, one that combines analytical clarity with natural, life-like, warm sound. With good recordings the speakers disappear. I find that I can listen to my CDs without ever getting tired. As I said, I am not a hifi buff. I sometimes read in wonder about equipment that costs tens of thousands of Euros. Perhaps there are high-end preamplifiers that have a slight edge in this or that over the EVO300. But I am sure that the law of diminishing returns is at work here; an incremental improvement will cost you a multiple of the price of the EVO300. Esthetically, with its softly glowing tubes, the EVO300 is a satisfying experience too. For me the EVO300 was a considerable investment. I can only say that it is worth every penny of its price. The manufacturer of my loudspeakers was an iconoclast boasting that he built speakers that made you forget you were listening to speakers. It took the EVO300 to make his claim come true. I look forward to many hours of rediscovering my CD collection.
Hereby we would like to thank Mr Hendrik Wagenaar for sharing with us his experience about his PrimaLuna EVO 300 Tube Preamplifier. Highly appreciated!