September 2001McCormack RLD-1 Preamplifier
by Tim Shea
Life is full of tough choices. Do you want a Whopper, or would a Big Mac better satisfy your self-destructive, hedonistic burger craving? Should you buy that gas-guzzling, air-polluting sport-ute you like so much, or should you go with the more practical and responsible minivan? Should you get married, or should you continue to have an independent life?
Lets face it -- life is complicated. It's even more so for poor audiophiles, who, in addition to such vexing questions as those above, now more than ever are faced with "new and improved" choices vying to separate them from their hard-earned dollars. And as if the new software formats and the resulting equipment choices arent enough to deal with, we cant even seem to come to grips with the choices we have among current products. Two of the more prevalent topics I see while perusing the online message boards are the venerable "tubes vs. solid state" and "preamp/processor vs. stereo preamplifier" conundrums. Woe be the audiophile forced to make such difficult and life-altering decisions.
Thanks to Steve McCormack a solution to one or both of these common audio dilemmas may be at hand with the RLD-1. In the words of Forrest Gump, "Thats good -- one less thang."
Meet C-J McCormack
McCormack amplifiers and preamplifiers have a loyal following. They have a reputation for exceptional build quality, value, and performance, all of which I have experienced firsthand through my DNA 0.5 stereo amp with Steve McCormacks Revision A modifications. In fact, McCormack products are so musically satisfying that theyve even been able to cross over and win the admiration of dyed-in-the-wool tube-aholics.
In 1997, McCormack Audio was purchased by Conrad-Johnson, known primarily for their fine tube amps and preamps, and a new line of McCormack amplifiers and preamplifiers has subsequently been introduced and bears a strikingly solid and attractive appearance. The $1695 USD RLD-1 is the first new active preamp to emerge from the combined entity.
This type of organizational change always strikes fear into the hearts of a companys loyal customer base, including yours truly, as we naturally become concerned that the outside forces that are now inside will tinker with a great thing and destroy what made the products so special. After I spoke with Lew Johnson, the Johnson part of Conrad-Johnson, it became apparent that C-J knows exactly why they purchased McCormack -- they are leaving Steve McCormack with full reign in the design of new products (whew!). In fact, if you visit the C-J or McCormack websites, you wont find any reference to the other. Only the keenest eye would recognize that the company addresses are the same, as well as the similarities in the machined faceplates and round push-buttons. And these are the only tangible pieces of evidence that there is any relationship between the two companies.
A major factor in the decision to purchase any company is to realize cost savings. A direct result of combining the purchasing power of these two companies is that it allows for higher-quality parts to be incorporated without raising costs or to make the same products for less money. These benefits seem alive and well judging by the products that have been released under the McCormack name so far. Steve McCormack told me that he has been able to incorporate many of the parts he formerly had included in his well-known "Revisions" into the base products today (Im thinking of the amplifiers here), and prices have remained close to what they were for the older models. In business school, we called this a "win-win scenario," but I just think its really cool. Suffice it to say there is as much or more value in McCormack products today than ever (whew again!).
When I play cards I never look at my hand until all the cards are dealt. For one thing, if theres a misdeal I never have to see if I lost a monster hand due to some goof who cant count. It seems to be split 50/50 between people like me and others who dutifully pick up each card as its dealt, which seems like Chinese water torture to me. Anyway, I couldnt be more hypocritical when it comes to audio equipment -- I cant keep my hands (or ears) off the stuff to let it break in. To date, my worst experience with break-in was with my Soliloquy 5.3 speakers, which sounded awful out of the box and had me scratching my head over my purchase for the better part of two weeks (Soliloquy speakers are notorious for long break-in periods).
Ive had far less experience breaking in electronic equipment, or should I say that I just havent yet noticed such severe changes in performance with electronic gear, and so it went with the RLD-1. Steve McCormack recommends at least two to three days of break-in and as long as up to a week, but I found the RLD-1 sounded pretty darn good right out of the box.
Speaking of right out of the box, thats how easy it is to use the RLD-1. Im unlike many of my fellow audiophiles in that I do tend to read the manuals before plugging in a new component, but it was completely unnecessary here. Probably the most complicated feature of this unit is the home-theater pass-through, which simply involves selecting the video input and pushing the "theater" button, both of which you can do from the front of the unit or from the remote control. The remote, by the way, is tiny but very functional and not at all confusing. The worst things I can say about it is that its plastic (like most remotes) and its easy to lose track of (it seems to sniff out and find the cracks in the couch). The RLD-1 has five line-level inputs for various sources, but the auxiliary input becomes a moving-magnet/moving-coil phono input if you choose that $395 available option. There is also a tape loop and dual main outputs for those running amps in a biamp configuration. The power cord is detachable.
The home-theater pass-through is a wonderful feature that I wish would be incorporated into more stereo preamps. The home-theater mode automatically puts the RLD-1 into unity gain, which in effect allows the signal from the front speaker output of a preamp/processor or A/V receiver (if its equipped with preamp outs) to simply pass through the RLD-1 to the amplifier. This means you can continue to use your existing pre/pro or receiver for watching movies while using the RLD-1 for more critical two-channel listening without having to worry about re-calibrating volume levels every time you switch from stereo listening to watching TV or a movie. "One less thang." If your priority is two-channel music and if, like me, you can only have one system, having a stereo preamp with a home-theater pass-through feature may be the easiest, most sonically pure, and least expensive way to incorporate high-end stereo capability into your home-theater rig.
Another very useful feature of the RLD-1 is its solid-state volume control. Apparently Steve McCormack spent quite a bit of time and effort reworking his already-expensive volume control to get it to meet his specs for accuracy and to work with low-impedance loads. But all I know is that it works like a charm. Volume can be changed in 0.5dB increments for both channels simultaneously or independently, so you not only get a very fine level control but also a very helpful balance control.
Rounding out these nice features is solid build quality you can see and feel. From the hefty, gold-plated RCA jacks to the thick, machined metal faceplate, the RLD-1, which measures 19"W x 3.5"H, 11.25"D and weighs 18 pounds, exudes quality that would befit a unit costing two or even three times as much. My only ergonomic complaints are a lack of balanced connections and source indicators that are too small to read from more than a couple feet away, but associated LED indicators are too bright, especially when the lights go dim.
Its about the sound, stupid
What I noted immediately was a fullness, solidity, and heft to the sound that my Rotel RSP-980 preamp/processor couldnt muster. Percussive instruments in particular had a more weighty sound, and there was a more physical presence in general to every element within the soundstage. This had the effect of making the soundstage seem more voluminous, although Im not sure it actually got much bigger. It kind of reminds me of blowing up a balloon with writing on it -- as you add more air, the words spread out and expand, but the print gets lighter. That was basically what happened when the RLD-1 entered my system. Things became fuller and more fleshed out while also becoming a bit softer. By contrast the Rotel was more detailed and crisp, but sounded relatively closed in and anemic. So headfirst into the CD collection I went to more concretely identify and categorize what I was hearing.
To try and get a better grip on my initial perceptions of the soundstage, I played Rossinis William Tell from William Tell & Other Favorite Overtures [Telarc CD-80116], which starts out light but builds to a wonderful full-tilt symphonic blast at the end. Even at the beginning, however, I found an ease about the presentation that reminded me of being in a concert hall. Specifically, there was a very natural sense of space around the instruments that I equate more with live performances than with recordings. There was also just enough detail to let me know what was going on without going so far as to cause a distraction from the musical flow. Very present in my mind was the tube-vs.-solid-state debate. The RLD-1 had transported me from paying attention to individual instrumental detail to focusing rather on the musical whole. And by the time I reached the bombastic conclusion to William Tell, it was very apparent the soundstage had indeed expanded to a much more grand and realistic scale, making the whole experience much more believable and enjoyable.
A more recent addition to my collection that has been getting a lot of play is John Scofields Steady Groovin [Blue Note Records 7243 4 99257 2 4], which provides a nice hodgepodge of rhythmic funk and features Scofields omnipresent guitar licks along with some nicely flowing sax solos compliments of Eddie Harris. The overall tone of the recording is warm and full, which really lends to the enjoyment of the music through the presentation of its rich textures and lush tonal colors. If your speakers are far enough from the front wall to allow it, Scofield looms and his guitar blooms behind and around the left speaker in a way that makes it seem like the sound protrudes out of thin air rather than simply being reproduced in two dimensions. The RLD-1 really brought this out in a way that made it seem tonally and physically more complete. Also notable were the occasional tom-tom strikes that projected better while maintaining the drum's inherent woody resonance, resulting in a very palpable and natural presence. There was also greater weight to the bass that helped fill out the lower octaves without slowing the pace of the music. In general, the RLD-1 seemed to have a firm grip on the music at all times, but by using a velvet glove rather than an abrasive rubber glove -- meaning that it exhibited excellent control without sacrificing musicality.
To ramp things up a bit I pulled out some Mighty Sam McClain, which proved interesting because last May at the Home Entertainment 2001 show in New York, I picked up the XRCD version of Give It Up To Love [JVC JVCXR-0012-2]. It has a few overlapping tunes with Soul Survivor [AudioQuest Music AQ-CD1053], which I also own. The non-XRCD version of "Too Proud" is recorded a bit on the bright side for my tastes, and the XRCD version softens the edges while not sacrificing detail (this actually sums up the major difference between the discs). The RLD-1 showed its refinement by making the non-XRCD disc more enjoyable and less fatiguing versus playing it through the Rotel. On the flip side, I thought some of the transient snap of guitar strings on "Lonesome Road" off the XRCD disc was softened a wee bit by the RLD-1, and the brass section on "Where You Been So Long?" from Soul Survivor had a more mellow bite. Although the prior strengths of the McCormack continued to impress, in the case of the smoother XRCD disc, the added energy in the upper octaves provided by the Rotel yielded more insight into the performance, while the RLD-1 sat me a few rows back, letting me absorb the musical whole. Given the quality of the recording and the music, both seats turned out to be very nice, but the relatively sweeter nature of the RLD-1 clearly won the day with the less-refined non-XRCD disc. And you cant discuss a Sam McClain recording without addressing "the voice." The RLD-1 portrayed all the character, energy, and emotion from the Mighty Ones soulful sound without flinching, even when McClain would occasionally drop the hammer.
To further explore how the RLD-1 would fare with other high-quality recordings, I brought out Cheskys The Super Audio Collection & Professional Test Disc [Chesky CHDVD171] DAD sampler, which is an audio-only DVD recorded in full 24-bit/96kHz resolution. These recordings contain a huge amount of detail, but the detail is presented in such an effortless and natural way that most CDs seem like an exercise in connecting the dots by comparison. I was interested to hear how the RLD-1s more relaxed nature would come off with recordings that are already supremely smooth themselves.
One of the most stunning male-vocal recordings Ive ever heard is Livingston Taylors "Isnt She Lovely" from the Chesky DAD. Everything from the finest subtleties of Taylors voice to the wide dynamic swings as he works up and down his vocal range are captured in a way Ive not heard from CD -- or vinyl. Whats truly amazing is the amount of detail present even when Taylor is singing at a low volume level, and the RLD-1 brought forth all the embedded nuances intact in addition to handling the strong and sudden surges of vocal energy.
The only other stereo preamps Ive had in my system for any length of time were the solid-state Adcom GFA-750 and tubed PSE HL1. But it has been a while, so please consider I am working off long-term memory here. That being said, I find the RLD-1 slots neatly between the two in that it combines the silky midrange and slightly sweet highs of the tubes with the impact, control, and speed of the solid state, and all of the units soundstage and image like champs. Overall Id say the sound of the RLD-1 was actually closer to the tubed PSE unit than the Adcom, but its as if the McCormack cherry-picked some of the best attributes of both and assimilated them into its own coherent, musical package. If I were pressed, I might ask for a bit of the Adcoms slightly more detailed and transparent presentation, but I know at the same time Id miss the fluid tonal portrait painted by the RLD-1.
I like when a review circles back to its introduction to provide the reader with ultimate closure. So to answer the questions posed at the outset: Id be eating a Big Mac in the passenger seat while my wife drives the minivan. But more importantly, where do I stand on the RLD-1? This is an excellent all-around preamp that I believe would satisfy all but the most warts-and-all, slap-me-in-the-face, hit-me-where-it-hurts, detail freak or the most warm-and-fuzzy, sit-me-down-in-the-comfy-chair-and-drown-me-in-a-tonal-pool tube nut. Put another way, while it may not have the ultimate transparency and detail of some solid-state preamps or the lush tonal bloom that seduces the tube crowd, it provides important elements of both but avoids many of the trade-offs that frequently occupy either side. That is quite a feat for any preamp to pull off, much less one that retails for well under the $2000.
Whether youre looking to build a serious two-channel system, significantly upgrade the stereo performance of an existing home theater, or are debating the virtues of valves versus chips, the RLD-1, with its many sonic strengths and useful features, may make this potentially difficult choice an easy one. If life is like a box of chocolates, the McCormack RLD-1 is definitely one of the truffles.
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