We may as well admit that a UHF review of equipment from Audio Refinement is way overdue. Sure it's an equipment line built in the Far East (Taiwan to be exact) to sell for a price, but its pedigree is not that of a mid-fi brand. Its designer is Yves-Bernard André, and it is in a real sense YBA's economy line.
So we knew we finally had to get down to listening seriously to one or the other of these products, but this one grabbed our attention for a special reason. Yes, it's an inexpensive preamplifier, but it has a unique feature: 5.1 channels.
The significance? Pretty well all audiophiles know that a good music system should be built around a good preamplifier and power amplifier, or at least a quality integrated amplifier, not a receiver. Reality is often something else. You decide to add video to your music system, and you visit a high end video store to look over the merchandise. All of a sudden you need a receiver, right? Not necessarily.
Someone could build a good receiver, no doubt, but no one we're aware of does. Receivers are designed to be sold in big noisy barns, alongside blenders, cell phones and sometimes even dishwashers. Who's going to sweat the details on a product like that? In any case, the sheer density of circuitry in modern receivers militates against quality. The designer needs to squeeze in what is essentially a computer into a package the size of a table radio, with a lot of channels of analog amplification besides.
Fortunately, there are alternatives.
If you have a lot of money, you can get a unified preamp-processor, such as the ones from EAD, Lexicon or SimAudio. High end home theatre systems will use one of these, and perhaps your own system will ultimately migrate to such a unit. If you need to begin more modestly, a few (very few) two-channel preamps and integrated amps offer a special "video" input which bypasses the volume control; control of volume is left to an outboard processor.
Enter the Pre 5, which should perhaps have been called the Pre 5.1. It is a six-channel preamp, capable of handling all of the outputs of a Dolby Digital, DTS or Pro Logic processor. What's more, it does it without the use of a VCA.
A VCA? Yes, we figured that might need a word of explanation. It stands for "voltage controlled amplifier." A/V receivers pretty much all have them. For a clue as to why you might not want one, see the sidebar So What's a VCA on page 48.
But the only alternative to a VCA is either a switched resistor array (too expensive for gear of this price), or else the good old potentiometer. How do you get a potentiometer, motorized or not, to control six channels. Wouldn't you need two people to turn it? Well no, not necessarily, as Yves-Bernard André has now proved. The six-section volume control has the depth of a two-section unit.
There are just two rotary controls on the Pre 5: an input selector and the volume control. The selector knob is electronic, and both functions can be controlled from the optional remote control (our Pre 5 came without). Switching is done by a bank of relays, though not sealed reed relays. The neat circuit board is populated with discrete transistors, though there are integrated circuits present to handle the switching circuits. The power transformer is an open-frame type, which might surprise those who don't know that Yves-Bernard has never liked toroidal transformers.
The jacks are not the best we've ever seen, but since there are 26 of them and the entire unit has a three-digit US price tag, it could scarcely be otherwise. One pair of jacks is a duplicate: the preamp out jacks do the same thing as the "front" output jacks.
The fuse is accessible from the rear. The power switch is also on the rear panel. The front power button actually puts the preamp in standby position, at which point the volume knob rotates all the way down and the orange power light turns red.
A red warning light also accompanies the "monitor" button (which switches between a tape deck and whatever input is selected). The color is well chosen, because lots of users bring their gear in for repairs when all that was wrong was that the tape was selected on the tape/source switch.
Of course, actually having a 5.1-channel preamp is of little use if the preamp is no better than the one in a receiver. And although it costs more than most complete receivers, it is much cheaper than preamps we usually recommend, so we had doubts about this test. Would we really be able to recommend it?
Model: Audio Refinement Pre 5
Price: C$1250/US$850. Optional remote C$75/US$40
Warranty: 3 years, transferable
Dimensions: 44.5 x 28 x 9 cm
(We know you'd like to have the answer to our provocative question. To read the entire article, just order issue 61 at our secure server. It's as little as $4.99 in the US and Canada)
Complete articles from this issue:
The Battle of the Super Discs, Cambridge Isomagic Converter, Soundcare Superspikes, State of the Art
Excerpted articles from this issue:
New Surround Formats, Defeating DVD Zoning, Vegas 2001, Audiomat Tempo & Vecteur D-2, Audio Refinement Pre 5 Preamp, Osborn Mini Tower Speakers, Mirage OM-9 Speakers