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Sonic Frontiers Line 3 Stereo Preamplifier Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 February 2000
ImageThe Line 3 from Sonic Frontiers is the flagship of their preamplifier lineup. It’s a two-box system, with a separate power supply enclosure attached via a sizable umbilical cord to the Line Stage Preamplifier unit. Each enclosure measures in at 19 inches wide, 14-1/4 inches deep, and four-and-a-half inches tall, a size consistent with much of the Sonic Frontiers line. The combined weight is approximately 60 pounds. The Line 3 is a fully balanced tube preamplifier, incorporating a fully dual mono design. The Line 3 uses five 6922s and one 6U8A tube per channel, for a total of 12 tubes. There are sufficient input options, including two sets of balanced and four pairs of single-ended inputs. As for output options, there are two pairs of balanced and two sets of single-ended outputs for you to chose from. There are also external loops for tape in and out and a surround processor input which, when selected, bypasses all other functions on the preamp. This preamp is a departure from many traditional featureless two-channel preamp products in that it has many intriguing functions. A few of these that caught my attention are the ability to dim the display information at multiple intensities, the ability to program the default volume level at start-up. Also, when the preamp is removed from the muted mode, the Line 3 has a gradual ramp-up to the previously set volume level.

Sonic Frontiers provides a five-year parts and labor warrantee on the electronics and a one-year warranty on the tubes. My review model had a brushed silver front panel with a black overlay panel, and retails for $4,999 US. Sonic Frontiers also offers an option for silver with a gold overlay panel at no additional cost. The tubes are estimated to last in the neighborhood of 4,000 to 6,000 hours and have a replacement cost of about $200 through Sonic Frontiers.

The effort that went into the mechanical design and packaging of this product is apparent at first sight. The build quality inside and out is absolutely superb. The chassis and top cover have an extraordinarily solid feel. The front panel has a contemporary look that never quite caught my attention until I had it in my system. The multi-colored display grew on me quite quickly. The display on the front of the line stage unit displays the volume for the left and right channels separately, affirming its balance control abilities. The front panel also has a variety of selectable input options. In addition, there are balance control buttons, a 180-degree phase inversion button for selecting and experimenting with the proper phase for each individual recording, mute, standby and a liquid smooth volume control which has 191 incremental steps of adjustment. In addition, there is an op-amp-based headphone amplifier in which Sonic Frontiers licensed Headroom Corporations Image-Processing-Circuitry to enhance the headphone experience.

The remote control for the Line 3 is a puck-shaped unit, fabricated out of aluminum with a clear anodized finish. Rather than using screws to secure the lid containing the control buttons, the entire top simply threads on. I personally like it, and found it to be quite comfortable to operate. Regardless of your impression both ergonomically and aesthetically, I think that it is one of the more thought-out and well-designed remotes out there.

The Music
Initially, I auditioned the Line 3 in my system with my Muse model 2 DAC. My first reaction was less than favorable. I had done an approximate 80-hour break-in on the unit before performing any critical listening. The unit sounded very forward and fatiguing with an unnatural bloom. I decided that perhaps the unit needed additional break-in time and that possibly there was a system-matching issue with my Muse Model 2 DAC. I had been scheduled to review the Sonic Frontiers Processor 3 DAC in the near future, so we decided to expedite the unit and see if this would help clear up some of the problems that I heard in the initial audition of the Line 3. (The Processor 3 review will be in an upcoming issue of the Revolution.) After further break-in of the Line 3, and receipt of the Processor 3, I reconnected for a new audition. This cleared up the problems and then some. The obvious imperfections that I had previously heard were now gone. After spending considerable time with the unit, I recommend a minimum of 200 hours of break-in to allow this preamp to reach its full potential.

I used the latest effort from Chuck Brodsky (Red House Records), to test for midrange purity. This is an HDCD encoded disc that is superbly recorded. There was a nice sense of ease in the music. What I had previously found to be fatiguing was now notably laid back with a very natural sound. The vocals were sweet and remarkably detailed. The sound of the preamplifier was particularly intriguing to me because it possessed an inherent quickness, revealing transients previously unheard. Digging into my music bag in search of a cool test for bass extension, I used the first from Keb’ Mo’ and his self-titled release (Epic Records). I used the Robert Johnson tune "Come On In My Kitchen," which has nice sounding and solid percussion. The Line 3 possessed very tight, solid, and controlled bass with minimal roll-off.

To test the headphone amplifier, I summoned a pair of Synnheiser 600s, which retail for $450. Although not a huge fan of headphone listening, I found the sound to be very detailed, dynamic, and enjoyable. This is a feature that I could see benefiting those listeners who have limited windows of time to listen through their loudspeakers, yet want top quality sound.

The Line 3 and Home Theater
As with most two-channel line stage preamplifiers, theater surround is achieved through the addition of a separate surround processor. I recommend using only a line stage preamplifier and separate theater processor combination to those who want the very best in 2-channel performance in an A/V system. It can afford a uncompromising musical reproduction system combined with a top-notch theater.

The Downside
The Line 3 is a very neutral component that is designed to give you exactly what was recorded, nothing more and nothing less. I found it extremely useful in exposing and accentuating flaws in my other components, and moreover, the flaws in my favorite recordings. In addition, I found it tended to be aggressive. This may or may not be your flavor. I found that transient details such as crowds in some live recordings for example, could be somewhat abrasive with my system on occasion. This is something that you will need to determine for yourself in your own system when auditioning for possible purchase.
The Line 3 is a two-box component, a design feature that offers considerable sonic benefits, yet it requires a well-ventilated area for an additional component. For me, this was no problem.

Having owned and auditioned many preamplifiers in the past, I have fallen in love with different aspects that are unique to these components. I have always been a big fan of the quickness and detail of solid state preamplifiers. However, many solid state preamps have less than exciting electronic sound and lack truly real three-dimensional imaging. On the other hand, I have most recently been in love with my Audio Research tube preamp because of its truly palpable midrange presentation. I found the Line 3 to posses the quickness of the better solid state preamps, and the wonderful realness of tubes. I initially wavered on the possibility of purchasing the Sonic Frontiers Processor 3 until I connected the Line 3 and heard the combination together. I found the combination to be so outstanding that I purchased them both for my reference system.

I recommend the Line 3 to anyone auditioning preamplifiers in its price range and considerably beyond.

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