product: Michell Orca stereo preamplifier
manufacturer: J.A.Michell Engineering, UK
approximate price: ECU2000 (standard) / ECU2450 (HR version)
While Michell Engineering typically is a manufacturer known for their
excellent turntables, and this for about 30 years already, they also diversified
into amplifiers some time ago. It all started with the famous Tom Evans-
designed Iso moving coil phono stage, and in a short time led
QC turntable power supply, Argo linestage, and
Alecto power amps, designed
by Graham Fowler, then of Trichord Research but now
also fully with Michell.
While the Iso, QC and Alecto everywhere met very positive response, the Argo series, while undoubtely sounding very fine, often was the subject of criticism concerning the preamp's odd looks, and more importantly, its lack of remote control. After all, the year 2001 is nearing and for a demanding customer like Alex D the good old handyworks clearly won't do, no no ...
So now there's the Orca, a replacement for the top-of-the-range Argo HR, and yet totally unlike it...
Older Michell preamps, quite contrarious to the gorgeous power amps and turntables, looked like toys. But the new Orca looks like it has been crafted by Burmester or Restek: top-class engineering, yes, but also rather baroque. Yet, after having been exposed to various prototype stages of this newling, I can say it looks better in real life than on paper. Still, it is a departure from Michell's earlier Bauhaus style. It clashes with my own notion that hifi should be either unintrusive, or else an undisputable work of art. And further, it is darn impractical, matching no other component on Earth, Moon, or Mars in size or shape. (Hmm, not so sure about that last one. Did you ever watch Mars Attacks?). The thick, black acrylic front and back panels are connected with a stainless-steel roof-shaped, er, roof, which of course precludes you from putting anything on top of the Orca. It also precludes you from actually touching the thing, lest you leave your fingerprints all over. Now I know how burglars feel... A smart thing is that all of the acrylic is just a tiny little bit translucent: a well-known touch of Michellness. Overall build is not of the battleship standard so beloved in the USA. No, rather it reminds one of a sailing yacht. And if you're given the choice between the two...
The front sports three knobs which curiously remind one of fifties American cars (how's that for a knob?). One is used for source selection, the other for record out selection, the third and largest one is the volume control. No balance adjustment facilities are present. The backside has very high-quality isolated RCA inputs for six line sources, outputs for two tape decks, and two sets of outputs to a power amp, facilitating passive biamping or the connection of an active subwoofer.
The Orca's juice is sourced from a separate high-quality DC power supply, housed in a matching case. This power supply can be likened to the older Hera PSU, only even better now, and delivering tightly regulated DC instead of AC.
And now that remote control. What remote control? Heck, the Orca was more or less launched in January, and now in May we still haven't seen the remote!!! It appears that John's very busy, and so the industrial design for the control wand had to be postponed. Anyway, the least I can tell you is that it is to be a very stylish job. Small, so that it easily fits the palm of your hand, and probably made of Michell's proprietary acryl-vinyl compound. Yes, the same black stuff their turntable platters are carved from! Its functionality will be limited to volume control only, although in the end that's all a music lover needs, not? Anyway, people with more complex tastes may want to get one of these nifty programmable remote controls as well. The RC shall be there in July or thereabouts, and anyone who buys an Orca now will simply receive it when it is available, free of charge of course.
After John's architectural design, we enter and have a look at Graham's interior decoration: The power supply is a serious affair, what with a toroidal transformer that eclipses the one in my power amp? After this heavy lump separate discrete rectifiers follow, one for each power supply polarity, and with the individual diodes bridged with film capacitors to smooth out their switching behaviour. Still peeking through the PSU's acrylic bottom plate, we find what appears to be RCRC filters, implemented with a multitude of electrolytic capacitors, and finally then the voltage regulators. The output of this box is fed via locking connectors and a 4-wire solid-core cable to the preamp, where again a voltage regulation stage awaits. I found the umbilical, with its 70 cm or thereabouts, a bit too short in my particular system, but your mileage may vary.
There's not much I know about the actual preamp design. Signals enter and are then selected with normal switches (well, probably of the silver-plated variety and other quality goodies), after which they pass through a buffer, a volume pot chosen for its channel balance (the one in the Argo was notoriously bad in this respect), and a heavy-duty output stage. The unit is entirely DC-coupled, but features delayed power-on as well as monitoring with automatic mute in case of excessive DC at the output: safety first! The electronics are a hybrid of ICs and transistors and this led me to believe that in fact they were similar to the Argo's. Yet, a superficial inspection of the PCB revealed that the Orca really is an entirely new animal. Both the amplifier and the PSU are fully compliant to the new European EMC rules. Impressive, given the lack of a totally shielding cover...
For the test I sampled Orca serial number 009 (009 - licensed to thrill?), this one being from a first batch of 10 units that served as testcases. They are full production, but after this run potential changes could be made. And yes, only after the test had been done, it emerged that the prototype Orca had been made even better by means of some selected capacitors here and there. Now there will be two Orcas: The first is a standard one, without remote control, and with circuitry as auditioned in this test. It will be sold for ECU2000 or so. The second one will be a high resolution version, possibly named Orca HR, it will come with the better capacitors, with remote control, and it will be yours for ECU2450 (all export prices).
Since I was not prepared to remain on my analogue hunger during this test, I also got hands on a Michell Iso moving coil phonostage. Not an unknown: this is a component that makes vinyl soar, and as such I have a lot of respect for it. Price is ECU750 or thereabouts.
At the risk of flushing my credibility down the drain, I have to tell you now that I am the webmaster of Michell's unofficial web pages. There, I said it. Unlike other famous reviewers (grin) who manage to publish favourable reviews of brands they act as technical consultants for. Anyway, I'm not on Michell's payroll. My GyroDec turntable is a battered old and scratchy war horse I bought second hand. I did their webpage spontaneously and out of enthousiasm, just as I do TNT. And if I would come to write that the Orca sounds heavenly, then you don't have to believe me. No. Just like you should not blindly believe any review. But if you're in for a new preamp, then do yourself a favour and go listen to it!
Now how would this dude perform in my system? And how would I perform myself, jumping from my own lowly Quad 34 to this expensive animal? Well, I wasn't really afraid of the confrontation. In the past I already had played with an upmarket line preamp, the ECU1500 Sphinx Project Two MkII, and that was an unqualified success that showed me how good not only my speakers are, but also the cheap Quad 306 power amp, and especially the Rega CD player.
And so I started one night unpacking the lot and setting up, cursing the power supply cable 'cause I wanted to put the Orca high on top of the power amp and the PSU low on the ground: a small coffee table had to come to the rescue. The interconnect between the Rega CD player and the pre was a short silver/teflon solid-core by Deskadel, and the cords between pre and power, and phono stage and pre, were my trusted OFC studio microphone wires.
Put in a CD. Switched on. Not to listen, oh no. Just to make sure everything was working fine. But once more I did make that mistake of sitting down and listening in before things got warmed up. I report on this because the Orca, in its first minutes after power-on, sounded interesting. Immediately obvious was an enormous gain in system dynamics and in bass extension, tightness, and control. If my Quad ESLs before sounded somewhat boomy and compressed, due to - so I thought - a room problem, then now they did no more. Bass was tight, rhythmic, and detailed, so much even that I learned a lot more about CDs I thought to know. Imaging was wide and deep, very deep. But at the same time it all lacked some cohesion, really as if the music was all multitracked. But then, it was, that first CD I played... Treble was not harsh or distorted, but strangely emphasised. It reminded me of a listening place in the control room. Even more: it reminded me of the sound I heard when using the SigTech room equalizer. Baffling, not? That a line preamp seemingly does the same as an room acoustics computer... A very promising sound thus. Even a good one, but not quite a relaxing one. Still, don't forget that these were only first impressions, and during warm-up. And yes, these impressions were not lasting.
During these first hours the system was continuously in use for background music. Until at about bedtime I approached the component stack, the soon-to-be-Mrs.Ogiers suddenly bidding me not to switch it off. 'Why then'. 'Because it's beautiful, as ever.' It was that sublime Dead Can Dance life recording, Toward The Within, the track titled Piece For Solo Flute. The next thing I remember is us being in a vivid discussion over what instrument precisely was used there, sounding now so real. A flute, for sure, but not a normal one. For that its tonal range was far too wide to be a recorder flute, while it sounded too warm and woody to be a transverse flute. And then I remember that at a DCD live gig I had seen a strange and rather large and *barbarian* instrument...
I then left the Orca on over the night, so that the next day the actual reviewing could start. I began with Jeff Buckley's Grace, the track titled Eternal Life (how prophetic a title...) I had encountered Buckley live, at Torhout in 1994 or so, and Eternal Life as it was played there completely bowled me over with its raw energy. Rock as rock should be. The CD version, though, always left me underwhelmed. But this time, through the Orca, EL sounded rough, bristling, flat (!), aggressive, and with kick-ass dynamics. Just as it ought to be, and much as it was then, there, in that meadow, under the sun, with Buckley at 10 meters distance. But if you think the Orca made it raw and flat, then ... wrong. Because the next track, Dream Brother, was smooth, with subtle guitars, naturally decaying cymbals, deeply layered and sweet. Same amp? Yes. Different recording style? you bet!
Back to the Dead Can Dance live recording. I happen to have seen their show shortly after the release of that album, and thus both gig and CD ran mostly in parallel. Upon playback now, and even before the music started, I got a lively sensation. Almost smelling the rubber of the cable jackets, the stage itself ... instrument amplifiers humming in the background, crackling when guitars get inserted ... the audience, not a large one, but expecting ... and finally the music.
The two first tracks of Cassandra Wilson's jazz/pop/rock cover album New Moon Daugther were interesting: almost a year ago I used the Sphinx Project Two MkII preamp (in itself a very fine all-round component) in a comparative CD-player test, and I vividly remember the sound made by the Rega Planet in that system. Back then it was musical, controlled, tight, but also slightly too dull and laidback, and with a certain lack of air and detail, as if there was a vacuum between the performers. Still, by all accounts it was a very good sound, then. But this time, with the Orca, things got even better. The myryad of inflections in Cassandra's sultry voice were impressively resolved in an airy stage, with the musicians firmly behind the loudspeakers. At the same time, the slightly dull nature of the Rega/Sphinx combination was absent. Then again, given the price difference between the Sphinx and the Michell, this result was to be expected.
Another disc I had used back then was Tori Amos' Under The Pink. Striking now was the sheer presence of her whispering voice, hovering in the room, with the piano sounding natural when it was meant to, and obviously sounding treated when it was. Again, this was a fair cut above the darker and more 'empty' sound of the Sphinx. At times I got the idea I could distinguish between tracks where Tori sung and played the piano in one go, and tracks that used overdubs.
Trying something from local grounds,
the arabeat on Natacha Atlas' Diaspora sounded feathery in the midrange,
and had a bass line which was very easy to follow, rather than the
plodding wallops I was used to.
At one particular instant something strange
and hitherto unheard struck me, a strange doubling of the bassdrum, slightly
shifted in time with regards to the real beat. Well, it took me some time before
I realised it was just my right foot tapping along :-)
(What local? Yep, Atlas was born in Brussels, and that's where I am too.)
Another favourite of mine are the Walkabouts. From Seattle, yet grungeless, they mix their own unique coctail of rock, folk, and country influences. If you want a different Fleetwood Mac for the nineties, well, here they are. On the Devil's Road CD, which combines an orchestra with electrical instruments played by the band members in a full sound with a lot of body and a lot of busi-ness, the violins sounded very good, naturally complementing the jangly guitars rather than trying the combat them, while female voices were creamy, smooth, emotive...
I didn't constrain myself to a diet of rock, folk and weird music. Classical
was sampled too, although shortly. Early music from my beloved
Monteverdi Vespri della Beata Vergine under J.E.Gardiner sounded positively
lush and warm, as one has the right to expect from a recording venue like
San Marco in Venice. Many individual voices could be distinguished from their
choir, while the musical backdrop sounded lively, especially the flutes.
Micheal Nyman's Prospero's Books, the soundtrack of the eponymous Peter Greenaway film, is more modern altogether. While I adore the music, especially the track Prospero's Charm, I often find the combination of less-than-accessible music and a forward tonal balance too tiring for long listening. This time, however, my guest preamp enabled me to make more sense of the intricate melodical and rhythmical lines, also sounding sweeter or more natural than before.
Finally turning toward LP, I found the analogue discs sounding tonally less of a departure from what I get from the Quad preamp. But then, it was already clear to me that the 34's phono input betters its CD idem ditto with a fair margin. What was different, though , was imaging. Via the Quad images tend to clutter in the center of the stage, obscuring the 'sight' on any sounds at the back. With the Michell there was the same wide and deep stereo I experienced via CD. Dynamics were, understandably, somewhat restricted when compared to the silver discs. A bit disappointing was the bass area, which was not as extended and tight as with the Planet. But then, I almost exclusively played old new-wave records in this period, and these do not sound magnificent at all. I then got nice results with that finest of Dutch export products, the arty and semi-acoustical pop of The Nits' Urk live triple album. It exhibited a round and full bass, brilliantly detailed treble, and after all fine dynamics too. Just for the fun of it, I ended the analogue sessions with David Bowie's Heroes, an album that normally sounds dreadful, and now was rendered in an acceptable way, if nothing more than that.
If you'd ask me so sum up the sound of the Orca in only a few words then it would be: sweet neutrality, coherence, resolution, openness, dynamics. Instruments are expressive, with drum sounds being a case in point: explosive, each with the natural tonality proper to its own kind, and often positioned behind the other instruments. The Michell is never harsh, never loses control or gives in to undue sibilance, but neither does it sound dull or muted. On the contrary, it is my Quad 34 which is slightly dull, yet also can be somewhat grey and fierce on sibilants! The Orca has sonic exuberance, a property which one expects to be accompanied by impetuosity, but here it comes with composure and control. It is detailed, not clinical, but in a fashion which musically makes utter sense, even when sometimes it highlights the lack of coherence that can be found in multi-miked or multi-tracked recordings: the dark growl of a Shure SM-58 dynamic vocal microphone against the warm detail of a large-diaphragm studio transducer or the naked directness of a closely miked acoustic instrument.
The volume pot has excellent resolution and balance tracking. Due to the combination of an apparently high preamp gain, a sure high gain in the power amp, and my wish not to overload the ESLs, I had to keep the volume knob below 1.5 on a scale of 10 at all times. Even within this constraint both control range and channel balance were exemplary. If anything, imaging always has been a bit of a problem in our room, but with the Orca it was no more!
So for sound and operation it gets a big thumbs up. Build also is excellent, if you like the looks. Price? I don't know. ECU2000 or 2500 is an awful lot of money, and this makes the Orca not quite the absolute bargain that notably Michell's own GyroDec and Orbe turntables are. But then, I'm an anti-capitalist impoverished electronics engineer who thinks that almost all hifi to the right of a Quad 34/306 is overpriced. On the other hand, it is my humble experience that a preamp often has an unreasonable impact on a whole system's sound, which makes it rather unwise to economise on such a component. In this light the Orca is an excellent choice since from many established high-end brands, ECU2500 buys you only their entry-level preamp. While the Michell most certainly is and behaves like a top-level product.
Now all Michell need is a CD player or a DVD of the same class to complete the product line!
© Copyright 1998 Werner Ogiers for TNT Audio Magazine (http://www.tnt-audio.com)