Products: Tisbury Mini, BRZHIFI PAP-FV3-2, BRZHIFI VOL-02, Akliam/Domelec - line preamplifiers
Manufacturers: Tisbury Audio (UK), BRZHIFI (China), Akliam/Domelec (China)
Approx. price: from 50 to 200€/$ (see review text)
Reviewer: Lucio Cadeddu - TNT Italy
Reviewed: June, 2022
This is the second part of my comparison test of four inexpensive preamps, so please refer to the first part for technical details, pictures and features of the four contenders.
The main scope of this review is two-fold:
First of all, a general remark: two of the four contenders offer a variety of features, which have not been tested, such as the Bluetooth input, tone controls, internal DAC etc. I am mainly interested to determine the sound quality of these components, considering them as pure and simple stereo line preamps. Of course, the extra features will add a plus when it comes to evaluate the quality/price ratio.
Secondly, if you need a preamp that boosts the level of the line source you're using, then the two passive preamps are not for you: being passive, they can't add anything to the signal. On the other hand, the Tisbury Mini Pre can lower the level of the line input, for a precise match with the power amp(s).
Thirdly, two preamps offer a remote control, but the Akliam/Domelec remote unit controls just the small module with USB, Bluetooth and FM radio. You can't use it to adjust general volume level or select the inputs.
Finally, consider that the performance of the passive preamps might be influenced by source/power amp impedance matching and cables. In other words, results might differ using different sparring partners.
I'll start with the overall winner of this test: the Tisbury Mini Pre. Yes, it is the most expensive of the lot, but it sounds significantly better than the others. It is transparent, precise, detailed, fast and clean. For sure, it punches way above its weight, as our previous review stated clearly. This is what our reviewer Andy Norman wrote in 2016:
It's a good sound in a well-made and attractive small enclosure and the commercial offer, in terms of price, returns policy and warranty make it a pretty unbeatable offer. Highly recommended.Other reviews worldwide acclaimed this tiny preamp, even when compared with much more expensive competitors. Perhaps its clean layout, paired with the high quality volume potentiometer, are responsible for such a fine result. Indeed, a direct comparison with the other passive preamp of the lot shows there's simply no match. The diminutive (and extremely inexpensive!) BRZHIFI PAP-FV3-2 - despite its good ALPS pot and CMCA connectors, sounds more confused, blurred and lifeless. It does not sound bad, but the Tisbury wins hands down. Even the two active preamps of the lot sound better than the BRZHIFI PAP-FV3-2, though.
On the other hand, if you consider the price difference (200€ vs 50€) the BRZHIFI quality/price ratio transforms it into a serious contender, if extremely low budget scores high on your wish list or if money is too tight to mention. In other words: if you budget is tiny, choose the BRZHIFI PAP-FV3-2; it will get the job done for peanuts. If sound quality is your main concern, the Tisbury Mini Pre should be your choice. Once I've decided the best and the worst sounding preamps of the group, comparing the other two contenders becomes easier.
First of all, they perform surprisingly well for the price. If you add their extra features, the quality/price ratio becomes simply unbelievable. The tubed Akliam/Domelec has the highest output, with its whopping 13.5 volts level, so it can drive any power amp connected to any line source. The solid state BRZHIFI VOL-02 has a low output, instead, so much that I wonder if it is a zero-gain preamp. This is not a real problem, as long as your source has a standard 2V level output and your power amp input is sensitive enough. In any case, you might have the same problem with the two passive preamps under test.
Line output level aside, the two active preamps are quite different also in terms of sound. The tubed one sounds, guess what?, tubey! It is warm, relaxed and trades precision for overall listenability. Not extremely transparent, it delivers a good, fat and extended bass range, a bit overblown and slow, that can be welcomed by dry sounding set ups. The upper mid range might appear shouty and blurred, at times, while the mid bass seems a bit shy. The highest range has a gentle roll-off, making every voice and instrument softer than it should be. For this reason, pop/rock music might sound a bit too relaxed, while jazz and classical music can benefit from this velvet touch in the highs. Consider that I'm no big fan of old-style tubey sound.
The BRZHIFI VOL02, instead, is precise, agile, fast and controlled. The bass range is punchy and fast, and the mid range is clean, though not as transparent and natural as one might desire. Crowded musical patterns might sound confused, at times. Traces of distortion appear here and there, as well. The tubed preamp suffers from the same problems, though.
Overall, the performance of these two preamps isn't on a par with the Tisbury Mini Pre: both lack the same level of precision and transparency. Moreover, the soundstage the Tisbury can create is airy and much, much wider. In other words, the sound of the British preamp belongs to a completely different league. Yes, the tubed preamp might sound more emotionally involving, personal, warm, a tad coloured, velvety, and if you're after that kind of sound it should be your choice, but the Tisbury is definitely closer both to the real thing and to much more expensive preamps. You wouldn't believe it costs less than 200€.
In term of quality/price ratio, if you consider all the extra features, the BRZHIFI VOL02 (with its REAL remote!) and the Akliam/Domelec are the real winners of this comparison test. The choice depends on what you're looking for in terms of tonal balance. If you're after a tubey sound, the Akliam will not disappoint you. If you need something more precise and linear, the BRZHIFI VOL02 is the one to consider.
If all their extra features and inputs aren't on your wish list, go for the Tisbury Mini Pre, it is the best sounding unit of the lot. And if you budget is minimal, go for the BRZHIFI passive preamp.
Considering the ZeroZone power amps deliver a powerful, weighty and unforgiving sound, perhaps one might think the tubed preamp is the best choice. Well, yes and no. The lack of transparency can be harmful, and the overblown bass might be too much of a good thing, considering the already wall-shaking bass of the ZeroZone's. I still consider the Tisbury the best choice, then comes the BRZHIFI VOL02, the Akliam and the BRZHIFI PAP-FV3-2.
The flawless preamp of the lot is the Tisbury Audio Mini Pre: easy to use, nicely made and graced by an amazingly simple look. No complaints.
The passive BRZHIFI PAP-FV3-2, being the simplest of the lot, works flawlessly too. My only complaint is its diminutive weight (and size) that makes it flip even with thin interconnects. Considering placing something heavy on the top of it. It is the only one to use a non-stepped volume pot, so adjusting listening level is as easy as it gets.
The Akliam/Domelec is a tube preamp, hence it generates heat, especially from the rectifier tube. Let it warm up for at least 15 minutes before judging its sound. The supplied cheap remote controls just the ugly integrated module with Bluetooth and DAC, not the main functions (volume and input selection). Hint for the manufacturer: trash this module and sell the unit as a pure and simple tube preamp. It has a very high output level, hence it could be hard to precisely adjust the volume with high output sources or high sensitivity/power amps. For sure, with the high-power ZeroZone amplifiers, you can only use a portion of the volume pot travel, and since this is stepped, you may end up with a listening level which is either too high or too low, with no options in between.
The BRZHIFI VOL02 uses relays for volume control and input selection. Switching different inputs generates an annoying tick on the speakers. Nothing harmful, but unpleasant (and unavoidable, I'm afraid). The stepped volume control is noiseless, though. The quality of the RCA connectors, though gold-plated, is minimal. Be careful while using tight RCAs male connectors, as unplugging them can easily detach the female RCA socket from the preamp. You can insert this back (as it is not soldered) but, definitely, this is an issue the manufacturer should take care of.
For more details please refer to the first part of this test. Briefly summarizing (prices may vary depending on shipping, VAT, customs fees etc.): Tisbury Mini Pre: ∼190€, Akliam/Dorelec: ∼130€, BRZHIFI VOL02: ∼100€, BRZHIFI PAP-FV3-2: ∼50€.
Since I was searching for an inexpensive preamp that could drive the ZeroZone monoblocks, I can say my search is over. In terms of sound quality, these four preamps get the job done and, though not being in the same league as the amps in terms of sound quality, they can let you appreciate their virtues with not too many regrets. Of course, the Tisbury Audio Mini Pre should be your ideal choice in terms of sound quality.
Generally, I'm astonished to discover how much sound quality one can get for such silly money.
© Copyright 2022 Lucio Cadeddu - firstname.lastname@example.org - www.tnt-audio.com