|Sonic Frontiers Line 2 Stereo Preamplifier|
|Home Theater Preamplifiers Stereo Preamps|
|Written by Jerry Del Colliano|
|Monday, 01 December 1997|
Tube gear used to scare me. Spooky people are into tube gear. The kind of guys who wear pocket protectors and brag about their mail order engineering degrees. My idea of high end audio is not heating up the soldering iron to mod my preamp or hunting down the latest tube condoms from Uzebkistan. To quote the 1970's disco/soul profits, The O'Jays "I love music... any kind of music." The Sonic Frontiers Line 2 lets you love your music exactly the way you want to. Your listening options include configuring your system for high performance 2 channel stereo playback with remote control, feeding a home theater or multi-room system or listening through headphones. Incidentally, you will never find Sonic Frontiers gurus Chris Johnson and Chris Jensen with tape on their glasses or pens in pocket protectors.
The Sonic Frontiers Line 2 ($3295 USD) is a Canadian made preamp that is well suited for music lovers who do not like to compromise. The Line 2 is a remote controlled, fully balanced, dual mono, direct coupled, tube preamp that has captured my attention. Why? It is a very well built, extremely well thought out, musically engaging piece of high end audio gear that takes tube preamplification, volume attenuation and input switching to a high art.
The Line 2 is not a preamp designed for tweaks. I guess some tube fanatics get on the net and buy up all kinds of weird tube tweaks but that really isn't the buyer the Line 2 is designed for. The Line 2 is one of those rare high end audio products that if you were to put it into the hands of a person who was oblivious to the world of high end audio but who did know how they liked their music, they could and would fall in love with listening to music all over again.
What can the Line 2 do?
The Line 2 is one of the most well designed preamps I have encountered to date. Even compared to my reference preamp, the Mark Levinson No. 38s, The Line 2 has some truly innovative features. The remote control is the first radical design element you will notice. It is round. Sonic Frontiers swears the reason for the remote being round is because it fits your hand more comfortably. I disagree. I heard an unconfirmed rumor their head remote designer used to play left wing for The Toronto Maple Leafs and this remote is his ode to a hockey puck. Either way the remote easily fits into either hand (good for us lefties) and has all functions within a thumb's reach. You can find volume up and down, volume for each channel, mute, display, input switching, tape monitoring, surround sound loop and phase switching all on this tiny remote. Additional thought went into the bottom of the remote to put a tiny ring of rubber (more fuel for my hockey puck theory) as not to scratch any surfaces you may put your remote on.
The Line 2 has 2 fully balanced inputs, 4 single ended inputs, 2 single ended and 2 balanced outputs, a tape loop actively buffered with Burr-Brown op amps and a surround processor loop that allows you to defeat the volume control. The volume control has 191 levels of resolution (@ .5 dB each interval) so that even at low, 2:30 AM listening sessions when your wife (or husband) is asleep, you can still get the resolution you want from your system. The circuit boards utilize SMOBC construction with 3.5 oz of copper, exceeding military specs.
The Line 2 uses 6 tubes in a cross-coupled, fully balanced circuit. Sonic Frontiers is very proud of the advances they have made in power supply design. They have 19 regulated power supply stages and the raw power supply housed in an outboard chassis. The guys at Sonic can go on in detail as to the reasons why but basically it is to avoid distortions, weird harmonics and other garbage added to the signal as it is amplified. You may can ask them questions directly from links at the bottom of this review.
Additional features include the addition of a headphone amplifier utilizing the HeadRoom imaging processing technology inside the preamp as well as an IR jack and trigger for home automation. Bravo. The days of a simple, integrated music systems (CD player, turntable, preamp, amp and speakers) are gone. High end audio systems are being asked to perform world class music playback while at the same time feed a multi-room system with a signal that will distribute music all over the house. The Line 2 also comes with a strong 5 year warranty on the gear and 1 year on the tubes which is longer than you will find from other respected tube gear manufacturers.
The Line 2 is a really hot preamp. Its best strength is in its ability to resolve depth of soundstage and detail. On "One Of My Turns" from Pink Floyd's The Wall it seems as if the girl in the prelude of the song is recorded in 5 channel surround sound. She has that much separation and depth. The same goes for "Jam" on Michael Jackson's Dangerous record. While recorded using the Q sound technique for a surround effect, "Jam" makes a convincing argument for how far outside of the speakers you can get the image to be.
Bass was very solid on the Line 2. Prince's "7" from the Symbol album has a very deep drum and bass section. The Line 2 made it seem rich and full while not being too "loose". Teddy Pendergrass' "Love TKO", an older non-audiophile grade recording was rich and satisfying with low, powerful bass and smooth resolution of high frequency information.
My critique of the Line 2 is in the high frequencies. The hi hats, cymbals and percussive instruments seem to be a bit thin and too up front. In comparison to my No. 38s ($3500 higher retail price) the highs are much more smooth than with the Line 2. I tried a number of cable systems to combat my concern with varying results. I found the Transparent Reference interconnects and speaker cables to be the most resolute however the Straight Wire digital cable was by far the best choice in my reference system while using the Line 2. The Line 2 is very sensitive to input signals above the industry standard 2 to 4 volts. Sonic says the Line 2 can handle unbalanced signals up to 4 volts and balanced signals up to 8 volts. My troubleshooting tip to you is to make sure you don't feed it too large of an input signal as I did when first auditioning the Line 2. Most DACs and CD players can be easily adjusted to give a lower output which is how I eventually overcame the pro level (10 volts balanced) DAC output issue when using the Line 2.
The Line 2 is the kind of high end investment that has the ability to make people fall in love with their music all over again. It is the kind of preamp that would leave very little to want for in your next upgrade. The best aspect of the Line 2 is the fact that it is so well designed. For $3295, high end customers and more importantly music lovers with the resources to buy a Line 2 should never have to accept excuses like "... it doesn't really work for home theater" or "... a remote would compromise the sound" or "...why would you want to listen to headphones anyway". The Line 2 gives you first class audio performance without compromising features. Other manufactures should take note.