James L. Darby
Coincident Speaker Technology is, not surprisingly, best known for their speakers. We have previously reviewed their new Super Victory, a world’s first review, which we found to be not only musically superior with a very broad frequency response, but also one of the most efficient and amplifier friendly speakers we have ever reviewed, capable of being driven effectively by amps producing as little as five watts. Usually those two qualities; wide response and high sensitivity/efficiency are rarely found in one speaker, a testament to ingenious design and quality.
We also reviewed a pair of monoblock amps dubbed the Frankensteins that we found were one of, if not THE best sounding amps we’ve every reviewed. The “Franks” were also designed and made in Canada by Israel Blume of Coincident Speaker Technology. Right. A speaker company that makes amplifiers. Really good amplfiers. He also makes another pair of monoblocks he calls the Dragons. I have just finished the evaluation period of those and hopefully the review will find its way here soon.
At the last CES, I asked Mr. Blume why he had not produced a preamp since he has spawned two different power amp models. With a devious glint in his eye he told me he was working on one. He didn’t want to spill all the beans about it, but he said matter-of-factly that it would be one of the best preamps in the world – at any price. Now, I have talked to Israel Blume several times and I know he is not a man given to making extravagant claims, so when he said that, he really got my attention. Of course, there are many preamps that cost more than a good car - or small house - but Isreal’s other products are priced very conservatively considering their quality and performance, so when he said it was going to be dual chassis and sell for somewhere around “five grand”, I was floored. Even coming from Isreal Blume, I secretly thought, “I’ll believe that when I see it…”.
Well…I have not only seen it, I have heard it. A lot. In my own home in my own system. It actually exists and priced exactly like Israel said. All that’s left to be determined is whether he was telling the truth or engaging in the same sort of smarmy hyperpole associated with late-night infomercials.
MAKING A STATEMENT
Usually the first thing I ask of a designer is to relate his design goal for the product we are reviewing. This time I didn’t have to – it’s stated right in the owner’s manual: “The design goal of the Coincident Statement Line Stage was to provide the purest, most transparent active preamplifier ever offered”. No room for equivocation of misinterpretation there! Blume goes on to say, “The input signal travels from the transformer based volume pots to the transformer input and then to the 101D tubes for gaina dn lastly out through the output transformer. The 101D tubes are directly heated triodes that are the most linear amplifying devices ever invented. There are not circuit boards to detriorate the signal transfer. Everything in the Line Stage is hard wired. There are no capacitors in the signal path and all parts are the finest available.
The separate power supply has enough capacity and energy storage to power a 100 watt amplifier. There are separate transformers for the high voltage and low filaments. Furthermore, the high and low voltage sections have independent choke and large capacity filtering”.
After receiving and setting up the Statement Linestage but before ever turning it on, I shook my head in disbelief wondering how in the world this thing could be made for the $4,999 asking price. Noteven in China, I mused. And this is made in Canada. Normally the first thing that is cut is the casing which can be as much as 50% of the manufacturing cost. That’s certainly not the “Case” here, no pun intended, because there are two separate cases: the linestage and the power supply. That doubles the cost right there. Ok, so there has to be a lot of cheap plastic in the case or thin aluminum or just sheet metal to shave dollars. Nope. Both cases are sheathed in thick stainless steel that has been polished to the point you could confidently shave with a straight razor in their flawless mirror finish. The chunky front faceplates are extra thick and look at how the bases of the big balloon main tubes on the line side are concealed by twin sculptures that ascend from the baseplate. I mean, the linestage side weighs over 30 pounds and the power supply edifice weighs over 40! No. This is just not possible.
Not one, but two ultra-quality volume controls grace the front of the linestage (one for each channel) with detents that are so sure and solid that you know instantly that you are dealing with extremely high quality pots. It also makes it easy to set each channel at the proper balance. Blume uses transformer coupling and volume attenuation as opposed to capacitor coupling and variable resistor attenuation for an exceedingly low and quiet noise floor. There are also two toggle switches on the front panel, one that mutes and unmutes the sound and the other that toggles between the two available inputs labeled “CD” and “AUX”. While there are only two inputs provided, you do have the choice of either RCA or XLR inputs on the back, configured by another toggle on the rear. According to the maker, the XLR’s include a true fully balanced circuit – another pricey inclusion. I’ve had several amp designers tell me they couldn’t include a real balanced circuit because it simply costs too much. A second toggle in back lifts the ground if needed to eliminate hum in your system.
There is no on/off switch on the linestage. You will find that on the power supply. The back of the power supply, which is not the most convenient placement in the world, but Blume doesn’t claim it to be the most convenient preamp in the world – just the best. To have located the power switch on the front panel would have necessitated a longer length of high voltage cable near hum and noise components within the power supply chassis which would corrupt the sound - just a little. But even that was too much compromise for a product that aspires to perfection. Joining the on/off switch on the back of the power supply is a second toggle that lifts the ground if needed to eliminate hum in your system, a 115/230V selector, a fuse and a standard power chord receptacle so you can upgrade the power cable if you want. Blume included one of his own which is a significant improvement, but it’s an option.
UP, UP and AWAY….
..in our beautiful balloon(s), stealing a lyric from the Fifth Dimension. The balloons here are the tennis ball-sized 101D tubes that drive the Statement. The original version was made in the early 1900’s by Western Electric and are very hard to find. It is a directly heated triode, very similar to 300B’s but with very low output capability. It was designed for low-level amplification and intended to provide the greatest fidelity and linearity at all frequencies in telephony, not hi-fi. Blume tells me that Western Electric refused to license its use to any other company and consequently, despite it being the most accurate tube in existence it was not widely used. After patents expired, the only companies manufacturing the tube currently are Shuagang and TJ Full Music, which produces a mesh plate version of it. Israel says both tubes provide excellent results in his Line Stage. These rotund bottles were copies made by Shuguang with 4 pin bases
Blume goes on to say that while the 101 tube is an exceptionally accurate device it is difficult to use for 2 reasons: it is very sensitive to noise in the circuit and it is prone to microphonics.
Consequently it must be used in a superior design which is not prone to excessive noise levels. The circuit devised for the Coincident Statement Line Stage, he says, was designed to specifically use the 101D.
He’s not kidding. These tubes are easily the most telephonic I have ever experienced. With the volume up moderately but no music playing, adjusting the volume with the chunky detents, flipping a toggle or just lightly tapping on the case and you will hear the tubes resonate through your speakers, sort of like tapping on a microphone but a different sound. It sounds more like shaking a big burned out light bulb - you hear the filaments vibrating. This is not a good quality to have in a preamp at any price, but there is more to the story.
Obviously, Blume was aware of this when he designed the unit, so he addressed the microphonics in 3 ways he reports: Firstly, the chassis of the Statement is not only exceptionally rigid it is internally damped with sorbothane layering.
Secondly, he supplies Pearl Tube Coolers (see picture) with the tubes to damp the glass and minimize resonances.
Thirdly, they now suspend the Teflon tube sockets with rubber isolation pads.
The unit I had (the very first) did not have the rubber isolation pads. Perhaps more importantly, my description of the telephonics above was BEFORE I installed the included Pearl tube coolers. They helped a lot. In fact, I can honestly goes as far to say that at no time during the use of the Statement Line Stage – and that was hundreds of hours at every volume level – did I ever detect any intrusion of tube microphonics. I should say that I have an excellent Stillpoints rack
which is a real isolationist that supported the preamp. Blume claims the production model is “virtually silent”.
The manual states that Statement will “achieve its full sonic potential after it has been played for approximately 200 hours.” Some audiophiles (and reviewers for that matter) still claim that new equipment needs no burn it. Tube, solid state, Class D, it matters not. They all need break in. So do cables, speakers, turntables, cartridges and automobile engines. There’s no debate. Israel courteously put about 150 hours on the unit before he shipped it, so I gave it another 50 before I really dug into its sound.
THE BEST PREAMP IS NO PREAMP AT ALL?
As I said, I was able to spend a good amount of time with the Statement, employing several different configurations including taking it out of the system altogether and going direct into a power amp. Several sources were implemented such as the superb Ayon CD-2 (tube CD player at about $5,500) and the PS Audio Perfect Wave System ($6,000). Both have provisions for standard RCA outputs and balanced XLR. They also are designed to be used directly without a preamp if need be. The Perfect Wave allowed me to use ultra high rez recordings (24/192) by Reference Recordings and Linn. As always, my TW Acustic Raven One turntable with Graham Phantom arm and The Voice cartridge was also a major player. Preamps by Dodd, Halcro and the passive TAP-X by Bent Audio are comparable. Power amps by Coincident (Dragon monoblocks), Halcro, Sanders Audio and the power amp section (bypassing the preamp) of the LSA Statement hybrid integrated amp.
Let’s take a look at the above statement that is heard or read frequently in audio circles and internet sites : The best preamp is no preamp at all. Not true in most cases. Why? Without getting too technical, every device needs some sort of amplification (or preamplification) whether it’s a phono cartridge or a CD player and most everything in between. The tiny current produced by reading devices is so miniscule it has to be boosted by something to get it to the levels needed by power amps to drive speakers. Therefore, what we are really talking about is inserting another preamp or linestage into the system.
I’ll go into a little greater detail in a moment, but right now you want to know the bottom line, don’t you? The sound I preferred playing digital music was the Perfect Wave System playing ultra-high resolution WAV files running into the Statement Linestage then into the Dragon Monoblock amplifiers - even better than going direct without any preamp in place. However, playing standard Redbook CD’s, the Ayon CD-2 running into the Statement Preamp then into the Coincident Dragon monoblocks was better than the Perfect Wave when it was playing the same CD’s. So yes – in this case, having a preamp in line was better than no preamp at all, but that doesn’t mean that is always the case. Certainly having a lesser quality preamp between the Ayon or the Perfect Wave would do more to denigrate the sound than improve it. I thought perhaps it was the synergy between the Coincident Statement and its sibling Dragons, but with the same sources the Statement sounded better with all the power amp sections I used. The biggest difference being the Halcro MC-20 400 wpc Class D power amp. The Statement made a big statement with it adding some sparkle and “less dryness” to the upper mids and highs. The LSA Statement integrated soared to another level when mated to the Coincident Statement, making a incredibly musical joint “statement” if you will.
Logic might tell you running directly with no preamp between the player and the power amps would sound better. After all, less circuitry in the signal path is always superior, true? Not always. Logic would also tell you that big speakers always sound better than little ones and 100 watts is always better than 50 watts. How about this: $50,000 speakers always sound better than $500 speakers. On the surface, all those statements seem absolutely indisputable. But they are not only debatable, they are simply wrong. I’ll never forget the if/then illustration one of my college professors used; If the Virgin Mary was a virgin, then all women named Mary must be virgins. Smart guy. Talking to college students, he knew mentioning the word “virgin” would get everyone’s attention. (Notice I did avoid using the phrase “prick up our ears). I also know some of you electrical engineers are shaking your fists and scowling right about now, but I have to report what I heard, but what I heard is a preference on my part. With the Statement preamp in place the sound, according to my wife Linda, was “fuller”. She heard it, too. It wasn’t night and day difference mind you, maybe just early morning to early afternoon. It’s not that the overall image was bigger or the soundstage deeper or even changed at all. What we both consistently heard and felt was the increased texture and timbre of instruments and voices, particularly piano, reed instruments like oboe, bassoon and saxophone, some percussion like tympani, closely mic’d strings and both male and female vocal. A little bit more bite and a more roundness.
Try this; picture a solo female voice as a basketball suspended between the speakers. Viewing it from your chair with the lights on you can see that it appears to be round, even though you can’t see the full 360 degrees in both dimensions. You can’t see all the way round back. Then, depending on how it is lit and the accompanying shadows, you will see even less of the sphere. To me, some systems would render that basketball as a totally flat orange blob – like a picture (not real) of an orange circle. Worse, some systems would project that flat picture with bad focus or clear focus only in the center and deteriorating outward from there. Here…let me show you graphically...
This is a basketball which for this illustration, represents a female solo as it sounds on a poor system. It’s vaguely orange, misshapen, out of focus and completely flat. You can hear that it’s a female vocal and probably identify the singer if you are very familiar with her. Low to mid-fi.
This is the same basketball with better shape and focus, less noise and granular sound. Still lacks any depth or detail –flat. Entry level high end.
Now it’s starting to take on a little more shape and suggests there is some depth with a little more detail. Mid level high end.
Now we have a good amount of detail. Why, it even looks like a real basketball! You can look at this for a while without your eyes hurting if you want to. If this were sound, you would be tempted to say that it’s not a picture at all, but more like a real basketball. Not quite sure if it’s plastic, rubber or genuine leather and we don’t know what brand of ball it is. Near state of the art.
The ultimate step as best as I can represent it here. A real basketball (voice) or as real as it can be in our homes right now. It has depth, shading, texture and you can tell what kind it is without being over inflated or details so etched it hurts your eyes – or ears. You forget you are listening to a rendering or recording of a real female voice. It’s so good you want to go play with it. And maybe it even inspires you to imagine you are Michael Jordan. This is what the high-end is all about. True high-end is not something to which you listen. It never makes you work – it is effortless. You never strain to hear it, feel it or interpret it – the music happens to you, immerses you.
As in everything, it all depends on the user as to what level satisfies him. In this case, for me the Coincident Statement Linestage sits firmly in the last category. The Dodd probably somewhere between the last two. All the others a little less. That includes the Bent Audio TAP-X which is a passive preamp. You would think a passive preamp would be the next best thing to no preamp at all. That may be true depending on the preamp to which it’s being compared. Like this one.
Here are some examples of what I’m talking about. Winston Ma and FIM Records makes the highest quality CD audio on the planet I believe. That belief is supported by some facts about how he approaches and executes the process from choosing the original masters that he reissues to the type and quality of the CD blanks he uses to copy to – which leads us to one of our famous…
The fact is that not all blank CD media is the same. In fact, according to Winston who has extensively tested and listened to every available brand and model of blanks, they vary quite widely. There are pinholes in the metal foil layer of CD’s, sometimes a lot of them. The quality and smoothness of the reflective backing material is all over the place. Winston has found that the best is virtually pure gold followed by (99.9999%) pure silver made by one particular vendor and that’s what he uses. The gold is used in Ultimate Disc series, but the pure silver is used as the base standard in all FIM discs. But disks also suffer in the quality of the polycarbonate used, the roundness and the thickness of the disks, all which effect the laser’s ability to read the pits as well as resonance issues and thus ultimate errors.
All CD’s have errors. It’s a matter of how many. There’s even a name for it; Block Error Rate (BLER). The industry standard BLER is 200 – 200 errors per block of data. That’s a standard – not a guarantee, so the real life BLER could be much higher. And how are we to know? Dirty indeed. Winston, for example, guarantees his products to average only 20 – 10 times better, but everything else you see online or at your local Walmart is a crapshoot at best.
THE OSCAR PLEASE
Oscar Peterson was the best jazz pianist that ever lived, an opinion I share with millions around the world. I have many of his recordings on vinyl and CD. At CES with that inscrutable gleam in his eye, Winston revealed to me that he was going to release one of Oscar’s biggest selling recordings, “We Get Requests” with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen on bass and drums on a 24bit/100K mastered K2HD disc. “In fact”, he smiled, “I have the digital master with me. Would you like to hear it?”. I’m not sure if I literally drooled or not as he carefully (and excruciatingly slowly it seemed) placed the disk in the player, but the sound I hear was stunning. It was also stunning when I placed it in the Ayon here at home, 99.9999% silver lining and all.
I talked about basketballs earlier, but one of the Statement’s most outstanding qualities is that it sonically has one of the biggest pair I’ve ever heard. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the two tubes are rather testicular looking because OP’s piano and Ray’s acoustic bass sounded as if they’d been injected with human growth hormone with the Statement inserted in the system. The low end was more full and grippier and the piano was more fleshed out with the harmonics better sorted out and audible. And yes it sounded like a Steinway rather than the Bosendoerfer he later embraced. With the sources going direct, this disk still sounds superb, but those listed qualities disappear.
Another FIM K2HD disk that was sonically even more stunning than the OP is a rather odd classical Spanish piece called “Misa Criolla” by Ariel Ramirez, featuring a young Jose Carreras as the main soloist. I’ve heard Jose live once and recorded several times, but never sounding like this. But what this disk’s most remarkable quality is its soundstage. Forget Belafonte at Carnegie or Noah’s Flood (which Winston also started to remaster until he discovered the original was too dilapidated). By the way, the musical content to me is superior to either of those other recordings. I have played this recording for people who are mainly into country or jazz or rock and all of them enjoyed this music. Yes, it’s in Spanish, but it is so musical and listenable that I think anyone who enjoys quality music no matter what genre would love this. I am not an opera buff nor a Spanish music lover, but I cherish this. The fact that the soundstage is one of the most natural with the unique ability to recreate in a listening room I have ever heard makes this disk a must listen of not a must have. How many times have you heard me say that? This is definitely a Stereomojo Recording of the Year 2009 selection. Needless to say, the Coincident’s two boxes lapped this up like a bear finding a honey factory while everyone’s at lunch. Listening to this Misa Criolla (Creole Mass) disk through it is my definition of a reality show.
With the Statement Linestage, Coincident has taken direct aim at the very best linestages in the world and to my ears, has scored a direct hit. All that is left to ponder is how this product can be made in Canada and sold at such a remarkably low price for its performance level, quality of parts and even its rather luxurious appearance. Rather than wonder, I asked Blume how he did it. It seems the low price is due to his strong beliefs about markups. “Our mark up structure is the lowest of any manufacturer in the industry”, he said. “We price our products according to standard manufacturing practices, not the exorbitant mark ups indigenous to high end audio”. Well, I do know that in many cases, profit margins can be enormous, he is certainly right there. But not all manufactures engage in that. He went on to say that he prices his goods based on what they actually cost and not how they compare to competitors. There is a lot of “So they price theirs at $10,000 so I’ll price mine the same even though my cost is lower. That way I have more profit and even more dollars to market with high-priced, slick, sexy ads! Yeah…that’s it!”. Finally he added that his electronics prices are calculated on direct sales basis, eliminating the middle-man which can add as much as 50%.I know that to be true, too. Several times we have seen products at audio shows priced at something like $5,000 when sold directly from the show or via the internet. The company then signs with a distributor and the price suddenly goes to $7,500 for the same exact piece. That is not to say all distributors are greedy bastards just out to make tons of money. In fact, in most cases the exact opposite is true. Many distributors have second and third jobs just to stay afloat and it is a pretty nasty business. Some manufactures are on a constant merry-go-round of distributors and it’s usually the distributor that takes it in the neck. One of the biggest decisions a businessman must make is whether to use a distributor or go it alone. There are advantages and disadvantages to both the business and to you as a consumer for both positions.
Newsflash! We have just been informed the Concident is about to release a new phono preamplifier. It looks and sounds, Israel says, every bit a great as the Linestage. First pictures:
The Coincident Statement Linestage at $4,995, given its ultra-high level of performance, is a true bargain for those looking for the ultimate in amplifier preamplification. Its transparency and the vitality of its sound ranks it among the very best at any price. Its quality and classy good looks belies its price and could certainly be the last preamp you would ever buy. If you have a high quality system but feel an upgraded preamp is what your system lacks and are looking for something around this price range or even considerably more, you should definitely give this a listen.
Though it employs two large tubes, they do not put out much heat, nor do they glow particularly bright - important factors for many people.
Downsides are few but noteworthy. Obviously, it contains no phono section so you’ll need an extra device for a turntable. There is no remote control at all and there are only two inputs, however a fully balanced circuit is standard adding to its value and performance. If you mainly use only two sources such as CD and something else, you're golden. If you listen to many sources on a regular basis, you would have to do some cable switching, so that would give you pause. Without the tube jackets, you may experience some telephonic noises when music is played at very loud levels, but this should not be an issue for the vast majority of people, and the maker assures me that the added rubber tube isolation that my early sample lacked pretty much eliminates the telephonics. Knowing Mr. Blume, I tend to believe him, but I have to report my experience with the unit I had which was fine with the jackets in place. While there are no tube type substitutions, new replacements are easy to find and are not particularly expensive. Because it is a dual chassis design, it has a large footprint if space is an issue. Its inclusion of a ground lift can be a real lifesaver if your system is prone to buzzes or even if you add a new component later that has ground problems.
As you know, we do not hand out awards profusely at Stereomojo like other publications – a product has to be truly special. And this one is, both from a performance and price perspective. For that reason we bestow our rare Maximum Mojo Award on the Coincident Statement Linestage.
In addition, it has garnered an even rarer Product of the Year - New Preamplifiers award for 2009. Congratulations to Israel Blume and Coincident.
Back to Reviews
Link to LP reviews mentioned above
Back to other audio reviews