Product: TC-754 phono phono pre-amp
Manufacturer: TCC - Taiwan
Supplied by: Phonopreamps.com - USA
Price: 70 Euro + Taxes
Author: Geoff Husband - TNT France
Reviewed: December, 2005
I don't suppose it's an exaggeration to say that TNT has become a little T-amp crazy over the last six months. Seeing a revolution unfold in front of your eyes is pretty hard to ignore, and the fact that it comprises a technology, and product that is truly available to all is so much more satisfying than being the first to 'discover' some new valve amp manufacturer selling amps for the price of a decent car.
But the T-amp has limitations. The first is its low power, a situation not helped by the lack of mainstream, high efficiency speakers, and a subject I intend to focus on in the near future. The second and rather more prosaic limitation is that though it sports a volume control, it will accept only one input. Given that on an unmodified T-amp that input consists of a simple jack-socket the cheapest solution is to give each source its own jack-plug and merely swap leads each time you want to change from one component to another, effective, cheap but a bit of a fiddle.
So to be user friendly the T-amp really needs a switch-box to allow the use of multiple sources. If that box has a volume control then the T-amp, with its slightly fiddly volume control, can be tucked away out of sight. Um... What we're talking about is a pre-amp, albeit passive. Now if we could find one that did all this, AND has a phono stage AND is cheap enough to be in the same ridiculous price band as the T-amp we might have the makings of a T-preamp :-)
And being the prophet of 'T' Lucio finally found one, the subject of this article.
Like the T-amp the TCC is tiny. In fact it is as small as it could possibly be and still have room for 4 phono input pairs, an output pair and a power lead. The offboard 'wallwart' helps of course (and gives a simple upgrade path) and inevitably this makes for a small volume control knob. The tiny gold plated buttons for input selection work brilliantly in such a format and the metal case is one up from the T-amp's plastic case. The volume control has rather woolly click stops, which hark back to '70's amplifiers and (more recently) stepped attenuators, but do nothing for the feel of the thing.
What lifts this preamp above the other switch boxes out there is the fact that it is active (chip based) and has a phono stage built into the case. This is a discrete design (lots of bits in there anyway) and layout is neat. This also makes tweeks more simple.
So here we have a zero-gain, three line plus phono pre-amp. There's no tape loop but for most people that's not a problem.
Here I have a real problem. Lucio reminded me that it was important that the pre should be tested against similarly priced phono stages - the NAD PP, QED discsaver and the like. Yet the amp it is going to be partnered with simply rewrites the rules on pricing - to compare a T-amp, on purely musical terms, with a 150 euro integrated is a nonsense (as we'll soon see), and we on TNT have been throwing it into comparisons with valve amps costing 100 times as much.
You see the dilemma? It's something we all now face and so I chose to review this little beast in two ways. First as a partner with the T-amp on a value-for-money basis, but secondly to see if the T-amp's high-end pretensions could be maintained when partnered in such a way.
In the context of a mega-value pairing it's a clean sweep for the TCC and 'T'. I know we go on about it, but this pairing now makes it possible to get a full function pre/power including phono for under 100e. For comparison purposes I had one of the Cambridge brands A1 amps to hand (current 'Richer Sounds' model, circa 150e) and an older AR integrated with phono - manufactured in the '80's by the original 'Cambridge Audio' and a cracking 40 Watter. This 'oldie', like the Naim Nait, will hold its own with current 400e integrateds. Main source was my Onkyo 706 Interga CD player, a 60e bargain picked up at a second hand store.
OK, how can I make this plain? The 'T' pairing TRAMPLED the integrateds. Given decent sensitivity speakers (in my case the BFB and the TQWP from BD-designs) you were looking at a gulf in presentation. The A1 was brighter and lacked the bass response of the AR, the 'T' combination had a tonal balance nearer the A1 but beyond that it's difficult to make a meaningful comparison. Both integrated amps had a typical, narrow, flat soundstage between the speakers with little sense of atmosphere, the A1 being noticeably gutless and boring. The TCC/T just opened out the recording, acres of soundstage width, a real sense of height and depth, a feeling of a studio/hall that was totally absent from the competition. Sheesh, I could go on but you've heard it all before.
Now this is important, because what it showed was that the TCC didn't screw the sound up. With the speakers and source used, the effect of adding the pre was just to add a lot of ease-of-use. I dare say that with a switch box and rapid A/B comparison I might spot a difference but it's hardly relevant.
Next up comes the rather bizarre wiring in of a 6000euro front end (Orbe/SME4/Music Maker) to that 100e combination. The phono stage proved quiet and showed no obvious nasties. As the basic amplification was so superior to the AR, comparisons with its rather good onboard phono stage were pretty pointless, but the Orbe was clearly superior to the Onkyo.
So having swept away the budget opposition I next wired up the JLTi integrated, a valve/gainclone hybrid and a very, very difficult nut for any amplifier to crack. At around 1500e, 15x the cost of the 'T' combo, it doesn't even have a phono stage. The fact that it sports the other red-hot amp configuration of the moment - a chip-based 'gainclone' section, makes it particularly interesting.
I've already noted my feelings on the JLTi vs T-amp in the former's review and nothing here changed. Here we're getting serious and to show the slightest differences between the amps and to allow them to really strut their stuff I used them with my Loth-x Polaris horns. Both amps immediately showed they were happy in such exulted company, something that would have been heresy a few years ago. As before I gave the lead to the JLTi, it's warmth and ease of flow just being more something you'd want to listen to for an evening compared to the T-amp. But now other considerations come into the equation. I could hear the effect of the TCC on the T-amp run naked. The up side was that the change of tone with volume that the T-amp suffers to a small extent had disappeared, there was a slight increase in the solidity of the presentation. On the down side I though the immense transparency of the naked 'T' was reduced - not to a huge extent but noticeable. The valve pre section of the JLTi did a better job, mainly because it added some much needed warmth and weight to the 'T', it also gained in solidity and focus. This strengthened my opinion that for the 'T' to really fly it needs a good pre-amp with a sympathetic presentation. The TCC didn't do anything wrong, it's balance just wasn't such a good match. By any rational measure the TCC/T put up a fine fight, but I'd have to rank it below both the JLTi and the JLTi/'T' combo.
Now I got really silly and tried it direct into my own Audionote Quest Silver 300b monoblocks. Absolute disaster. Flat, undynamic, no soundstage, flabby bass, harsh, compressed - I listened to one track of Harry James on Sheffield Labs disc and took it off. Now this was with the superb ESE Nibiru phono stage. Trying the TCC's own phono stage made things worse, I can only describe it as poor mono with everything funnelled down between the speakers.
I should have given up at this point, but in the name of science I tried the TCC as a phono stage (which after all is what it is billed as) into my Audionote M3 pre, now happily driving the Quests. Big surprise - a really good sound, quite listenable and fully capable of giving a wide and deep soundstage. A quick reality check with the M3's own built in stage and the Nibiru showed the TCC to trail significantly, but that said it was a performance that would leave the standard budget recommendations trailing in its wake. In fact under the microscope of the Audionotes/Polaris I've heard nothing else I could live with below the Gramamp 2. The TCC is no Gramamp, it lacks that designs flow, openness and sheer all-round ability, but at 1/4 the price it was close enough that in a lesser system you'd be pushed to split them.
What this showed was that with the Quests there was some hideous missmatch going on (impedence?), which when buffered by the M3 simply disappeared.
Well Lucio wanted a couple of paragraphs and yet this has degenerated into a pretty full review - let's call it a 'second look'.
The T-amp uses new technology to move the hi-fi goalposts. The TCC uses established technology yet packages it very economically and sells it for peanuts. The truth is that the TCC does add switching and a very fine entry-level phono stage to the T-amp. The combination's lead over anything at remotely the same price is vast. But whereas the T-amp can worry power amps costing 100 times its asking price, the TCC merely remains stunningly good value :-)
So here I'm putting together a real hi-fi system for my son. I've just bought an old Thorens TD 160 super/Rega/AR cartridge for 80e. He can have my own Onkyo (60e). To this add the TCC/T at 100e. Then finally all this rounded off with a pair of BFB's at about 150e. Total 370e for a real, two source hi-fi system that 12 months ago you could only dream about!
And then? If the bug bites he'll start playing with power supplies for both the TCC and T-amp, then both designs cry out for that assault with a soldering iron I know will follow.
Like I said with my comments in the original T-amp review - "just go out and play".
Also read Lucio Cadeddu's review here on TNT-Audio (specs, close-out internal view etc.).
© Copyright 2005 Geoff Husband - www.tnt-audio.com