Mention TIDAL AUDIO and many people will first think of Loudspeakers but the truth is that their electronics are at least the equal of the speakers in terms of performance, build and finish. The PREOS is such a unique and special piece and will represent such a major entry point to the brand for many people that it seems fitting to appoint it as the subject of my very first Tidal blog.
Customers who are familiar with my blogs will know that I try my utmost to tell it how it is. I am not given to hyperbole or embroidering the truth. I obviously would never wish to set myself up to look like a fibber or a cheap salesman so when you yourself get around to listening or comparing equipment which I have spoken about, what you read here is pretty much exactly what you will discover with your own ears. Put simply, you can’t create false expectations about home audio and regular customers put an awful lot of faith in me to introduce them to products which live up to their reputation and fully deliver. Time and time again people demo equipment at LOTUS and come back to me saying “Richard, what you wrote in your blog was spot on and exactly what I found”. This is something i’m genuinely proud of and its pleases me greatly.
With that in mind, let’s get the fundamental PREOS headline dealt with; The Preos is a £25,000 Preamp, Dac and Phonostage all in one box. Sounds expensive doesn’t it ? That is until you understand that firstly as a Linestage, it performs at AND BEYOND the £25,000 level seen amongst its peers; it is simply one of the finest linestages anywhere at any price. Secondly, the inbuilt Phonostage performs at the level of a £15,000+ Phonostage and as if that wasn’t enough the Preos-D DAC will go head to head with DACs in the marketplace that also cost around ~£15,000.
The PREOS therefore behaves as though it should cost well in excess of £50,000. That is the sort of money you will probably need to spend to match it with separate boxes from other manufacturers. In short, it’s the biggest Highend bargain I have probably ever come across. It is certain to become the heart of many a UK system, attracting a glut of part exchange (thus hugely assisting its affordability) and allowing people to get on to the Tidal ladder and massively simplify their systems in the process.
How do we know all this ? Well, for the last few months or so myself and Kog Audio have been extensively trialling our demo Tidal stock and getting to understand it better, mixing it with other product and squaring it off against other known quantities to see just how high it can punch. In addition, there have been a number of early UK sales including a complete back to back Tidal system. Let’s just say that the part exchange that was displaced in all instances was very lofty high performing gear, some of the most coveted pieces in Highend Audio. In real UK homes, with real customers and their actual musical tastes, we are starting to understand exactly where this amazing equipment sits and just high we can pitch expectations.
FIT AND FINISH
Tidal speakers will wow you in pictures. The drop dead gorgeous finishes, the perfect reflections from the thick gloss, the immaculate piano bars, the abundance of elegance and fine taste, their intoxicating grandeur and majesty. The electronics however, perhaps need to be seen in the flesh to be fully realised.
In person the Preos really is an object of supreme craftsmanship. The deep liquid black fascia, the gleaming faceplate with perfect reflections, the beautifully polished sides and of course that incredible volume knob – three pieces of hand polished jewellery steel, worked to below 1μm to give a stunning mirror finish. The alignment of the chassis pieces, the perfectly countersunk screws, the solidity and thickness of the rear and top panels, the print quality on the backplate, the beautifully milled feet, the sheer weightyness and substantialness of it all combine to powerful effect. This is a beautifully manufactured piece of equipment with a perfectly judged balance of teutonic design flair versus ergonomics.
It’s when you start to touch this stuff though that the penny really drops. I don’t even know how to describe the sensations you get with that volume control, its sheer heft and the way it rotates in the fingers and best of all the soft damping as it reaches the lower stop. The selector and power buttons are similarly exquisite in touch and feel and overall everything about the Preos from a fit and finish point of view is an absolute delight and more than delivers for a product of this statute and pricetag.
The original Tidal Preos preamplifier with phono ran for about 10 years. In 2012 it was improved with the addition of the built in NOS ladder DAC and also improvements to the phono and the linestage sections and is sometimes referred to as the “Preos-D”. Let’s take a look at it’s overall design and consider it as a pure linestage.
The philosophy behind the Preos is the same for all Tidal linestages in that the less you hear it, the better it is as the music will flow from the source completely untouched and untainted and will not lose anything as it moves down the Hifi chain. Crucial to this ‘invisibility’ is the Tidal Ultra Precision level Control (UPLC) and I would encourage you to explore the “Making of” pdf document linked below to understand the technology behind the ingenious volume control more fully. Of course the Preos is an absolute feast of all sorts of design and engineering details; four separate low electromagnetic dispersion power supplies, a complete absence of signal cabling, extreme bandwidth amplification modules, cryogeninc treatment and yes that amazing volume control, an optically decoupled x128 single resistor relay network. The attention to detail and the deep technology of the Preos-D demands your complete attention and the “Making of” article will give you a rich and profound appreciation for exactly what goes into a TIDAL product like the Preos.
So in essence, as a linestage, we have an ultra high bandwidth, extreme low distortion design. Indeed the manufacturers of the best available audio measurement equipment “Rohde & Schwarz” and “Audioprecision”, found that the flagship Presencio linestage was beyond the capability of their equipment in terms of noise and channel separation. Their measurement devices simply reported back their own inherent static noise !
If you want some strong flavouring to your system, if you want to listen to your music through a ‘lens’ which has significant presentational persuasions then the Preos perhaps won’t be for you (although we would argue still get the Preos and put that flavouring elsewhere in the chain !). If you wish however to have your music sounding as real as possible, exactly as it was recorded, every single last nuance, unadulterated clarity and purity, then the Preos is most definitely one of the most transparent linestages in existence and it will wow you from the very first note.
Looking at overall functionality we have three digital SPDIF inputs, the MC phono RCA inputs and two further line level single ended inputs (one of which can be configured as a pass through where the preout volume will be fixed to the input level). The two sets of pre outputs are both XLR balanced and there is also a single ended line out. Two inputs for control cables to remotely power up your Tidal amplifiers complete the socketry on the back panel.
THE PHONO STAGE
The moving coil phono stage in the Preos-D has adjustable impedance from 10 Ohm – 1.2 kOhms. This is selectable from an access panel on the underside of the unit. There is also a regular and high gain setting (67db & 75db). On the back you have left and right RCA inputs and a ground terminal. Plenty of functionality there then and enough adjustability to accomodate any moving coil you care to throw at it.
What can we say about the phono ? Well without going into too much detail it might help to explain in simple form that the Preos as a design is more accurately described as a Phono Stage with volume control. Now of course some ‘digital’ customers won’t actually need or use the Phono Stage and don’t let that put you off; the redundnacy is neither here nor there given the price and the performance of the Linestage and DAC. For those of you who will be running a turntable though, I point this out to you so you know that the phono inside the Preos is not some afterthought or add-on like a bank of two PCB modules just slotted somewhere at the back of the unit. No Siree, not in a month of sundays ! When the Preos was originally conceived it was primarily built by Tidal to be THE EVERY BEST PHONO STAGE IT POSSIBLY COULD BE. Here then is where a lot of your money goes and its one hell of a design so expect big things when you drop that needle !
And what are those big things you ask ? Well for a start it is totally silent affording the blackest backgrounds imaginable. Secondly, like the linestage it has a sense of invisibility that is rare in this great hobby of ours. Vinyl sounds so natural and alive and so very dynamic. Nothing is being sculpted or shaped or fashioned here; you feel like you are being granted unrestricted access to the grooves in a way that is so very neutral and truthful. Like all Tidal products the balance seems spot on. The detail and transparency levels are exhaustive yet the sound is not bright or analytical in any way. The sense of flow and timing is up there with the very best phono preamps I have heard but at the same time, the phono section is also not smooth or soft. It sounds just right, just natural but there is a sense that nothing has been ‘adjusted’ to achieve that. The music seems to take on a sense of life which gives the listener a strong feeling of invisibility. Listening to Vinyl, the Preos really does just disappear.
At the time of writing the Preos is already sitting in a couple UK homes and these customers both have a pretty heavyweight history when it comes to phono preamps. We know that the Preos phono is operating at a very very high level and offers a grade of performance seen only with the very best phono preamps in the industry. As a dealer it’s almost inconceivable to me that you get something of this type of calibre effectively bundled in for free.
The DAC is a 24bit/192kHz NOS ladder DAC with three S/PDIF inputs. At the factory they will generally use an Aurender W20 to feed it. You can use similar or the lower priced N10 or of course a transport or any other streamer you care to mention that has SPDIF out. We do know that the Aurender works extremely well though with similar sensibilities.
As you are probably expecting by now, the Preos Dac is comfortably at the upper end of what is possible. Again, what stands out is its naturalness and how balanced and together it is. It has a flow and an absence of artifice or electronic signature which is a rare thing indeed. As with all Tidal products it’s also very alive and just sounds ‘there’. It’s important to note though that it does NOT achieve its naturalness and its fluidity by rounding, softening or by trimming the frequency extremes; it is hugely dynamic and capable of massive shifts in bandwidth and energy.
Dynamics aside, the flow of music is also one of its strongest suits; in this respect it’s as good as the best tube DACs I have heard but there won’t be a tube dac in existence which could at the same time be as pure, as uncoloured and invisible. When we tried a few heavyweight standalone solid state DACs against it (most of which cost more than the asking price of the whole Preos) we found that whilst some had a little more microdetail, a little more space and air, the Tidal could at times make some of them sound a touch awkward as if they were tripping over themselves on certain passages of music.
This I think is the key to the Preos DAC. It’s a solution which gets you off the eternal merry go round. One simple single box which is so utterly compelling and complete and easy to listen to. The commonplace digital evils of brightness, sterility, hardness are simply nowehere to be seen yet the sound is so extended, alive and holds nothing back; this is digital reproduction which one can drown oneself in for hours, days, weeks on end.
That then concludes our investigation of the Tidal Preos-D. I hope I have been able to convey just how powerful this unit is and not do a diservice in way to any one of the three components which you get for your money. Of course there are a further three preamps higher up the product line and also the flagship two box Camira DAC but for most mortals the Preos-D will be more than enough and quite possibly an out and out revelation compared to the system you will leave behind. Suffice to say that all the customers we have so far put in front of the Preos + Impulse combination have been totally gobsmcaked by what they’ve heard.
It only remains for me to briefly touch about the extreme neutrality and transparency of Tidal equipment. Between myself and Kog Audio we have a fairly vast experience with all sorts of highend equipment. However we have found in our trials that a Tidal system or a Tidal component is unlike other equipment that we have experienced before but something completely different. Such is the lack of distortion or colouration that a piece like the Preos will genuinely act as a new learning experience and force you to re-evaluate not just your hifi knowledge base but also your actual music collection. We have been going through dozens of albums here and each one can really surprise you in its newfangledness. It’s like you are being re-educated on the mastering and the content. Certain recordings that you thought sounded a certain way suddenly sound completely different. Even whole artists can seem very very different through a Tidal system. It’s a learning experience, a re-appraisal of prior dogma, a new bar in terms of musical truth and out and out realism. As a dealer, these first few months of relationship with Tidal have been suprising, intriguing and quite wonderful. In a sense, things will never be quite the same again.
“Hi Rich, I had a couple of hours with the Tidals last night. I started with the Preos against my monos so I could gauge what the Impulse did when it replaced the monos. The Impulse is Incredible, no-brainier, better in every respect. No point in describing differences, everything just better. The inbuilt DAC on the Tidal is now sounding better on some tracks than I remember on the Trinity combination. Maybe it is improving, or maybe it suits dynamic tracks better. Upshot is yes, I would like them both.