Product: Mapletree Audio Design Ultra 4A Tubed Preamp and PS1 Power Supply
Manufacturer: Mapletree Audio Design - USA
Approx.cost: $ 505 USD (as reviewed)
Reviewer: Scott Faller - TNT USA
Published: September, 2003
The deeper I go into the nether regions of the Audiophile realm, the harder it is to get off this damned equipment merry-go-round. Worst part is it just keeps spinning faster and faster. Just about the time I think it's slowing down, some big bastard gives it a shove again. It almost defies the laws of perpetual motion.
We all (seem to) keep going after that perfect sound. The best bass, creamiest midrange, clearest treble, all in one nice neat little package. I'm seriously beginning to think it doesn't exist (at least on my audio budget, I'd suspect yours is about the same). Left in that aftermath, is the music....... remember that? In the midst of your latest tweak or those ultra expensive rhodium plated, cryo'ed cables that have been blessed by no less than seventeen Audio Shaman, your music has lost all of it's involvement without you even realizing it.
See where I'm going yet?.... No?....... Not quite? Well here, let me open the shades so you can see a little clearer. Let me introduce you to a nifty little preamp called the Mapletree Audio Design Ultra 4A. As you can see from the hefty price tag of $505 ($480 plus $25 for the stepped attenuator option), it's well within reach of all but the tightest, tightwads (me included).
Mapletree Audio Design (MAD) and it's chief cook and bottle washer Dr. Lloyd Peppard (who is a retired electrical engineering professor), has cooked up a complete line of pre's, amps and even headphone amps. A Conrad Johnson or Audio Research he ain't. Dr Lloyd is just a small shop that serves musical involvement to the masses as his entrée.
I beg your pardon, musical involvement, just what does that have to do with the exacting reproduction of my favorite audiovile recordings? Well.....absolutely nothing unless you are into enjoying music.
There are quite a few manufacturers represented on the site. Mostly smaller guys that produce good sounding, affordable gear. I've listened to a fair amount of the gear in the manufacturers circles. Knowing that all that I heard was quality stuff, I decided to dig a little deeper and check out some of the pieces I hadn't listened to.
While I was digging into MAD I saw a link back to Richard George's review of the Octal 6 (kit version) preamp that Mapletree manufactures. Richard did a nice job conveying the sound of the Octal and that got my attention.
See, I grew up listening to that classic 'tube sound' and rather enjoy it. I wish more gear had some of that same tonal quality today. Anymore, audiovile gear sounds (to me) cold, clinical and downright sterile. Sure, on most of it you can hear a bug fart in the third row of a venue, but who cares? More often than not, I don't. I just want to enjoy my favorite music. Most of my favs are in no way associated with audiophile recordings. Most of them are just so-so recordings of great compositions. You put some of these on most high end systems and you can hardly listen to them. In fact, the majority of the time they sound God awful.
So what are we supposed to do with all this great music that sounds like hammered shit on our 'audiophile systems'. I guess we aren't supposed to listen to it anymore or something like that. If not, why else are manufacturers making gear that excludes such a large segment of our collections? (this simple question could be an article all unto itself)
For your hard earned $505 you get tubes (glorious tubes), the PS1 power supply, a phono stage, a stepped attenuator, two gold plated line inputs, and a pair of line outs in case you want to drive a sub, bi-amp or maybe even an external headphone amp. The units come in a variety of colors, red, green, yellow and black. I'm sure if you wanted a special color like Mauve (or something to match the color of your cat), the Doc would be happy to accommodate you. The unit I have is a very attractive (although different) metallic red with blackened wood side cheeks. The case design is quite compact (8" x 4" x 2" for both the preamp and power supply chassis). The Ultra 4A comes with a power supply (the PS 1) in a separate case of the same size and it's connected via an umbilical cord (OK, no childbirth jokes). This allows you to place the power supply on a separate shelf to keep those unwanted magnetic fields away from your small signals.
The Ultra also comes with independent left and right channel level attenuators rather than a balance control. The unit I have in house sports an optional Alps stepped attenuator. The phono stage provides 50dB of gain which should be plenty for all MM and many high-output MC cartridges.
Now to the tubes. In my case, the 12SN7GT's are Westinghouse and the 12SC7's are Philco's. These aren't exactly common (modern) preamp tubes. These are octal based rather than your more typical nine pin miniature tubes like a 12AX7 or 6922. That's OK though, Doc's choice of tubes are cheap, dirt cheap in fact. Pay a visit over to eBay and you'll see just what I mean. That means tube rolling just became really affordable. Of course if you feel the need to spend the best part of a paycheck buying NOS tubes on eBay or from your favorite retailer, you can always order the 6 volt version of the ULTRA 4A which uses the 6SN7GT.
In the design, Dr Lloyd decided to use a simple solid-state, bridge-rectified power supply (using fast/soft recovery diodes) for the plate supply voltage rather than a tube rectified supply. The power supply also produces 12VDC (regulated) for the tube heaters. At his price point it makes perfect sense, not to mention a tube rectified power supply would have imparted it's own sound on the pre. As I mentioned earlier, it comes in a separate case and has a nifty green indicator light to let you know she's heated up. You also get a standard IEC female socket so you can play with different power cords if you wish.
Your choice power cord makes a dramatic difference. I tried several different ones and settled on the Response Audio RAM Standard P3 power cord. This relatively inexpensive cord made a huge impact on the soundstage, bass and overall clarity of this preamp. I highly recommend it.
The classic tube sound is very distinctive. Imagine if you can, walking into a jazz bar where a trio is playing. The lead man is playing a hollow bodied guitar amplified through a vintage Fender tweed amp and has the treble turned down slightly. The Bass player is plucking away un-amplified on his upright and the drummer is using brushes so he doesn't run over the top of his bandmates on the stage. It's this laid back sound that best describes the classic tube sound for me (at least today anyway).
The presentation of the music is very relaxed and highly non-audiophile sounding. In fact Dr Lloyd and I exchanged a couple of emails during this review about the 'sound' of his creations. Basically, the Doc said he doesn't care for the sound of gear today. That's why he designed his pre this way. His design and choice of tubes gives a far warmer presentation to the music. Personally, I rather like this approach.
Next up, listening to YoYo Ma and Emmanuel Axe I'm reminded just how sweet and inviting this preamp really is. Sure, I know it's not the most accurate pre on the face of the planet but it damn sure can stir emotion like few others I've heard. I guess it's that rich harmonic texture of the 12SN7. Who knows for sure. All I know, the Ultra makes me forget about all my expensive gear and lets me listen and enjoy the music. It almost reminds me of my old Stromberg Carlson 6L6 monoblocks.
I tried a couple of different speaker combinations while the Ultra 4A was here. The Dynaudio 42's are a nice match. The forwardness of these speakers lends itself well to the laid back nature of the Ultra. The ACI Emeralds worked very well too. As chance would have it, I ended up settling on the Odyssey Epiphany's (look for the review next up in the speaker shootout). One thing, if your speakers are already a bit on the relaxed side, the Ultra might be a bit too much of a good thing unless that is what you are in the market for.
Speaking of speakers, if you have horns or full rangers, I'd hazard a guess that the Ultra 4A might work really well. It could add just the right amount of warmth to some of those forward sounding horns and full rangers. Personally, I tried it in front of my Lowther PM2A's in Martin Kings MLTL's with my 2A3 amp and Handmade Electronics 45 I have in for review and it worked quite famously. The Ultra went a long way in taming some of the Lowther's uniqueness (like the way I put that?). It gave some serious body to what can often be a cold sounding speaker.
With the sonic nature of the Ultra 4A I just had to throw some horribly mixed music at it to see how the phono section would do.
First up is Frank Sinatra Strangers in the Night (mono) on Reprise. I don't know what is about the Reprise label but the vast majority of the copies I have sound terrible. Not because of the condition of the albums but because the pressings just suck……like a Hoover. They are noisy, cold, clinical and very uninviting on my big rig. Well, the Ultra did just what I expected. It warmed up old Frank just like some swingin' dame in Capri's and a Mohair sweater. Infinitely better than new.
Now quickly, check the hands upon my clock
it's 8:05, it's time to rock
Sammy Hagar, Standing Hampton. Next to the Montrose album, this could be his best release. Yeah, that's right, I'm a Hagar fan. I even thought Van Halen was better for his addition......so shoot me. Problem is with Sammy's recordings, they tend to be a bit bright and harsh. Tell you what, the Ultra adds just the right amount of warmth to tame this vinyl beast. With Sammy and a bunch of other in-yer-face recording artists, the Ultra was a really good match. The Ultra's tonal qualities definitely subdued the harsh nature of a number of Rock and Rollers. This is a damned good thing in my estimation.
Ok, now that I've turned my sub off and got that out of my system, how about talking about how the Ultra's phono stage creates an image. For this one I picked a couple of albums. Classic Records re-release of Count Basie's Chairman of the Board, and (again) Classic Records release of Buena Vista Social Club. Two phenomenal recordings. Both will provide a great test of a pre and phono stages ability to image and project a virtual soundstage. And now for some overly critical listening.
Basie's Blues in Hoss Flat is up first. Because of the tonal nature of the tubes that come with the Ultra, the deepest bass is little slow and appeared to smear the images in the lower octaves. Not too terribly bad mind you, but it could be a bit sharper. I personally feel it's because of the NOS tubes Doc chose. As you start your adventures in tube rolling, no doubt you will find some with tighter bass lines if that's what you are looking for. The next real test is Segue in C. On my big rig (using the Korato KVP-10), Eugene 'Snooky' Young's musings with a muted horn fall a solid 4 feet outside and 5 feet behind the left speaker. With the Ultra, Snooky ends up about 18" outside and about 2 feet back. Not bad at all considering the cost difference between these two very different pre's. Keep in mind my Korato cost me about 4 times more than the Ultra.
Buena Vista Social Club is always on my short list of demo vinyl. The first song Chan Chan (the whole album really) is a lesson in proper recording techniques in my estimation. Ry Cooder and his long lost band of Cuban musicians did one hell of a job recording and mixing this release (not to mention the stellar job Mike Hobson at Classic Records did too). Ibrahim Ferrar and Compay Segundo singing should be in a nice tight grouping dead center of the stage and back about five feet or so. The bongos should be deep within the stage (ten to twelve feet) and just inside the right speaker (unless I've got my interconnects backwards again). The trumpet solos should appear almost as deep as the bongos if not just slightly in front of them. The virtual stage should be expansive, extending well beyond the outside of the speakers and should approach the ceiling. Well in the case of the Ultra, generally it faired pretty well considering it's price point. The soundstage was a bit closed compared to the Korato but again I feel a different (brighter) tube would probably help. As for the definition and placement of the performers, everything (and everybody) was pretty much where they should be, again without too much smearing.
I keep using that word smearing. That word has one helluva negative connotation so let me define it a little better regarding the Ultra. As opposed to this tight thin person performing on the stage (think of Karen Carpenter) when an image is 'smeared' you end up with a wider performer (think of Luciano Pavarotti). When I use smearing in the case of the Ultra, I'm not talking whale size smearing, just Dom DeLuise size smearing. Nothing too bad at all, just not as tight an image as most audiophile gear. A different choice in tubes could make a huge difference.
...there are so many colors in the rainbow,
so many colors in the morning sun,
so many colors in the flower,
and I see every one……
Dr Lloyd has broken all the rules when it comes to audiophile gear. He has taken that cold analytical sound associated so often with high end gear, softened it up and made music eminently more listenable. Are the highs a bit rolled?…....yep. Is it a bit thick in the midrange?…..…sure. Is the bass a tad soft?…...….so. Try some different tubes and I'd be willing to bet you get different results.
The real question that remains, are you tired of the high end merry go round yet? Want to listen music again and stop listening to your cables or interconnects? This might just be the way to stop getting dizzy without having to fork over your life savings. Granted, the 'Classic Tube Sound' isn't for everybody. If you are a detail and timbre freak, you should probably look elsewhere. If you just want to enjoy music and spin vinyl, maybe a visit to the Doc is in order.
Let me end with this. A Jazz musician once walked into my local two channel shop and bought a pair of Vandersteen's on the spot. When he was asked why he chose the 2c's he said, 'It's all about the tone man.' …………'nuff said.
I'd personally like to thank Doctor Lloyd of Mapletree Audio for the use of his gear during this review. If you're interested, heres a link to my system and the associated gear I used during this review.
I enjoyed reading your review Scott, and learned a lot about what real listeners may hear from and through the MAD Ultra 4A when they are concentrating on real music. I listen with my own components within a system of my own designs and have done so all my life. So a designer like myself is the last person you should ask "how does this preamp sound?"; I really have no basis for comparison.
However, that does not mean that there is not an appreciable amount of careful engineering that goes into the design of what seems like a simple preamp, particularly when you are trying to hit a given price point. Such things as how the RIAA equalization is achieved (in this case, the bass boost is implemented by feedback around the second stage and the treble cut comes after this stage to minimize high frequency tube noise generated within the phono section), how much gain to build into each stage, where to put the gain controls for optimum signal/noise ratio, what passive components are the most critical, etc. are questions that are part of the design process. A few dead-ends are experienced along the way and the final product is the result of many months of work (not to mention a lifetime of experience with things that work and don't work).
For example, the choice of the 12SC7 (metal) tube for the phono preamp came after dissatisfaction with the noise and hum sensitivity of the electrical equivalent 12SL7GT in a number of phono stages that I have designed and built over the years. Likewise, the use of a separate power supply chassis was dictated by a desire to obtain the best signal/noise ratio possible with the circuits used. Whatever a preamp sounds like, there is no excuse for audible hum and noise at normal listening levels. I should also point out that whatever listeners like Scott hear in the sonic presentation, this is not necessarily predictable from basic electrical measurements of this or any other preamp.
The Ultra 4 has high frequency response extending up to radio frequencies (-0.5 dB at 200 kHz!) and bass response extending to the subsonic realm (-0.5 dB at 10 Hz for the line stage) so there is nothing that would suggest a particular coloration due to bandwidth limitations. And, as a designer, I don't have any magic formulae or circuit tricks to widen (or narrow) the sound stage, increase detail, tighten the bass, etc.. I simply do the best I can do within the constraints of a selling price with which I feel comfortable. It is thanks to reviewers like Scott who spend time listening and evaluating within the framework of a lifetime's experience (and take the time to write about it) that we can begin to understand what happens after the designs leave the test bench and are exposed to the unpredictable measuring instruments called our ears.
The current price of $480 for the Ultra 4A plus PS 1 power supply includes the standard carbon element volume control, which is a good quality unit with reasonably close tracking, quiet operation, and good feel. The Chinese (Alps copy) stepped attenuator included in the review sample is no longer available. The option of a Noble 31-step plastic element volume control lists at $30; an Alps control is $40.
© Copyright 2003 Scott Faller - www.tnt-audio.com