Thor Audio TA-2000 Preamplifier
by Todd Warnke
Thinking outside the box
Harry Pearson used to comment (jokingly?) that much of the sound of a component could be divined from the color of its casework. Thus, according to him, the classic champagne-colored casework of conrad-johnson equipment was the visual counterpart of the gears golden tones. My version of this form=sound theory says that packaging is an even better indicator. Exhibit A for this is the roughly two-foot-square, hard-plastic shipping case the Thor Audio TA-2000 preamp showed up in. This case resembles nothing so much as the containers that are used to carry human organs for transplantsvery appropriate considering that a preamp is often described as the heart of a system. Opening the shipping case only confirmed this anatomy analogy. Unlike the common rectangular component, the Thor TA-2000 is veryexcuse meorganic-looking. Its a two-piece unit, and both the power supply and control unit are round. The center of the preamp proper is hollowed out and has a flat bottom to hold the six tubes that make up the heartbeat of the preamp.
Paul Marks, the design brains at Thor Audio, chose this round shape for three reasons. Surprisingly, resonance control, although a highly effective result of the design, was the least of these. In fact, it was more the end product of the innovative design than part of the actual design criteria. Back when the sheet was blank, Marks decided he wanted to mount the tubes vertically to reduce physical stress and thus prolong tube life, and that proper shielding was equally important. Thinking literally outside the box, Marks concluded that arranging the tubes in the center of a circular shield would accomplish both goals. As he looked at the design, in a scene that plays in my head like Richard Dreyfuss molding his mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the rest of the TA-2000 took shape. I can see Marks, Dreyfuss-like, heading off to the basement with chicken wire and mud trying to perfect that round case.
However Marks did it, the result is unique, and uniquely beautiful. At 4.5" high and 14" across, the TA-2000 fit easily in my SoundRack Reference Granite rack while retaining its strong visual flair. The power supply, which is also 4.5" tall but only 8" across, is tethered to the main unit with a 6' umbilical. The supplied 6' Discovery power cord joins the power supply to the wall. The cases of each, 1/8"-thick aluminum finished in a medium gray powder finish with a brass faceplate and silver switches, make for a stunning product (with, I should add, no visible chicken wire). I liked the look so much that I rearranged my rack so that the TA-2000 could occupy the top shelf for a while. At night, with the chromed recess of the donut gently focusing the tubes glow on the ceiling, lights-out listening was mandatory. Coupled with the shine of the Blue Circle BC6 amp insignia, the TA-2000 made nighttime indeed the right time at the Warnke Mountain Lodge [TM] (name courtesy of our paradise correspondent, Señor Saxon).
As for ergonomics, the controls on the TA-2000 are straightforward. A toggle switch on the power supply is for the main power, and two toggle switches on the main unit control stereo/mono and mute functions. The center-mounted volume pot is flanked by a similarly sized balance pot and a source selector. The rear of the preamp has three line-level inputs and a phono input (optimized for cartridges of at least 1mv output) as well as two outputs, all of the RCA variety. Tubes are four Sovtek 12AX7 and two Golden Dragon 12AT7. A final significant point about the TA-2000: It costs $8490not chump change, thats for sure. But then Paul Marks, besides making a beautiful preamp, is also making a preamp to vie with the very best in the world.
As youll find out from reading further, the Thor TA-2000 is a rather complex piece of equipmentmusically, that is. Thus I used it along with a wide array of gear so that I could evaluate every last nuance of its performance: Platinum Audio Studio 1, Triangle Antal, Dunlavy SC-III, and Kharma Ceramique 2.0 speakers; the Assemblage ST-40, Warner Imaging VTE-201S, Symfonia Opus 10 and Blue Circle BC6 amps; a Theta Miles CD player and a borrowed full-boat Linn LP-12 turntable as sources.
Usually when a new component arrives it spends some time in the office system breaking in. Since the Thor came to me almost directly from the CES, rather than warming up in bullpen, it was ushered directly to the pitchers mound. Taking the place of my long-term reference, an Audible Illusions L-1, the TA-2000 immediately WOWed me. Now, Im not one to trust first impressions, simply because change alone isnt an improvement. That new and added amount of detail often turns out to be a rising top end. The bass that fills the room may turn out to be nothing more than a recessed midrange. Still, my initial response to the TA-2000 proved to be significant.
After unpacking and installing the preamp I took the dog on a walk while the Thor warmed up (among other benefits, Ella ensures a daily two-mile walk). When I got back, I put on Joni Mitchells Court & Spark [Asylum 2-1001] and sat down. Forty-five minutes later I was covered with goose bumps and emotionally wrung out. Every minute feeling on the disc had washed over me. Every note and inflection had wafted through my room. I felt naked, vulnerable and overwhelmed. This was not just a good performance, nor merely a great audiophile performance. No, this was a great musical performance.
I know, comparing a system with an $1800 preamp and then swapping that unit for one that costs nearly five times as much is patently unfair, but keep in mind that the Audible Illusions L-1 is no slouch. The AI Modulus 3A (an L-1 with a phono stage and without the headphone output) is a Class-A recommendation by some obscure print magazine, and more importantly, the L-1 is a SoundStage!, Dave Duvall recommendation (see his review for more details). Ive used the L-1 in my system for about two years now, and until the Thor came along I never considered it a weak link. So, besides the WOW, I also felt a large shock at how much more musicaland especially emotionalinformation the TA-2000 delivered.
The good thing was that this was much more than an initial reaction. Before the night was over I had run through a list of favorites, all with the same response. Miles, Bruce, Cowboy Junkies, Mahler, Van, John Lee Hooker, Everything But The Girl, Bach: It didnt matter what I played because each disc in its own way was as exciting, as emotional, as involving as the last. For me, this is what its all about, and to have a preamp come on so strong right out of the box was indeed a good sign.
Still, I dont get paid to listen solely with my monkey bone. (DAS, I do get paid, right? OK, for stuff this good Ill do it for free.) So after listening to the Thor for several weeks, I put the L-1 back in to reacquaint my ears with the old setup. Sonically, the treble was extended but rougher, grainier. Bass was a bit deeper and just a bit more defined. The stage was narrower and less defined. Tonal accuracy was slightly less sure, and the harmonic envelope, while sharply drawn, was a bit less full. But these sonic details, in the big picture, are minor. Of greater concern was the criminal loss of musical soul. I cant speak for why you listen to music, but for meno heart, no reason to listen. For the listener in me, that about sums up the AI/Thor comparison, but for the reviewer, the difference between the two preamps was such that I had an even bigger problem to deal with. If the Thor so improved my system, was my old setup that bad?
This truly is the time that tries reviewers souls. Is a rave nothing more than system synergy? Does the Thor TA-2000 compliment the rest of the system in ways that shortchange the Audible Illusions L-1, or does the AI point in a more direct manner to other flaws in my setup? Can or should I go on record saying that the TA-2000 is so good that my old setup was damn near broken? Am I right in making so strong a judgment, so bold a statement? To paraphrase Mose Allison, have my ears gone on vacation while my emotions are working overtime? Whew. I need time to collect myself. Rest for awhile. Walk away. Count to ten. Cool off.
There. I let a couple of weeks pass with only casual listening to the old setup. Now go back and listen to the that system with the critics hat on. Hmmm, not bad. With fresh ears I can hear why I liked the old setup: Its fast, with excellent detail. I can still hear a bit of the coarseness up top, but nothing really objectionable. The sound is lively, thats for sure. Very dynamic. Goodin fact, superbbass extension and detail. Yes, I can live with this. This is good sound. Nothings broken here. In fact, its great sound. Yeah, good job Todd!
Ummm...just to make sure I guess I better go listen to some live musicHolly Cole at the Soiled Dove in Denver. Hate her albums, too hi-fi, but in person she rocks. Then the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, some live acoustic jazz at Vartans downtowntime to practice the piano for a while, listen to Robin play the guitar for a bit. There. Everythings cool. Think Ill go put that Thor back in.
Time and again
Argh! Who was I foolin! This is just fantastic sound, the type that audiophiles claim to pursue and exactly the sound that music lovers, uh, love.
Alright, I hear ya yammerin for details. Here they are.
In audiophile terms, staging is perhaps the defining characteristic of the Thor. Its deep, wide and extremely stable; images cast up by the TA-2000 are life-sized and credible. Players are solid and defined. The corners of the stage are "visible" in natural proportion. Depth is subtly and believably layered. Intimate recordings, such as Sarah McLaughlins The Freedom Sessions [Arista 18784-2], are full of the nuance that lead to complete surrender to the illusion. Full orchestras, such as the live recording of the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karajan in Bruckners 8th Symphony [DG 215471], are arrayed with complete detail and full impact. The Thor TA-2000 simply presents the best staging Ive heard in my home.
Dynamics of the macro variety are slightly shorted, but the micro type are just delicious, alive with the soft breath that is the earmark of naturalness. Tonality is beyond reproach, with all the colors of the sonic palette easily discernible, and, best of all (theres that word again), natural. Bass is full and powerful, although ever so slightly soft and not quite as deep when compared to the bass of a preamp like the Joule Electra LA-100 Mk III. Treble is as pure as the water Pete Coors uses to make a living. Unlike the results of Coors work, however, it is delivered without grain. In absolute terms, I would like to see just a bit more extension, but this is not much more than a quibble. Very minor.
Not quite as minor, but nonetheless a very small issue, is the resolving power of the TA-2000. When I switched from it to the L-1, or especially the Joule-Electra LA-100, exceedingly subtle sonic details that I had missed with the Thor were audible. The slight harshness of the L-1 overwhelmed the gain in detail and decisively turned the tables in the favor of the Thor. The Joule Electra preamp, on the other hand, had as grain-free and smooth a presentation as the TA-2000, and so was a far more accomplished foe.
Matched head to head, I listened first to the JE and the Thor. Under this type of condition I found that every sonic detail the JE extracted the Thor did as well. The issue was one of presentation. The Thor placed detail as a part of a musical tapestry rather than as individual sonic threads. At times this made locating a particular audio-dweeb detail with the Thor a slight effort. Still, I prefer this approach to detail as it more correctly mimics what I hear in a jazz club or concert hall. I want to be sure that this is clear: All the filigree was there, but the Thor presented those fine features in proportion with the overall picture. In all, this constituted superb audiophile performance.
Time to follow the heart
However, to get the heart of the Thor, throw that last section away, put on your favorite CD or LP and listen. Musically, the Thor is in very select companysuch as Steinway, Martin and Stradivarius. Yes, I really do mean that. This preamp simply makes music. It doesnt hide information, nor does it gloss over the nasties that accompany music-making. It simply communicates the musical intent of a recording with more finesse than I ever heard from a preamp before.
The emotion in Jonis voice was overpowering. The sonic arc of a Bruckner symphony was as tangible as the walls of a cathedral. The pulse of blues was cleansing, while the drive of soul was redeeming. It mattered not what I played, and like a twist on the alchemists dream, the Thor found the gold in every recording without changing or hiding the details of that recording. In short, the TA-2000 is the music lovers mother lode.
And Ive saved the very best for last. My comments above apply to the line stage of the Thor, and, if anything, the phono stage is slightly more detailed while retaining every bit of the musical skill of the line stage. If you are running both CD and vinyl, you owe it to every recording you own to listen to this preamp. It can take you places with both media that fully justify its price.
So how do I answer the issues the Thor raises? First, this review took longer than normal because I paired the Thor with everything I could. The character of each component came through the Thor unmitigated. From that I can only conclude that the TA-2000 was as uncolored as any component in the chain, and that the joys it opened for me were due to its skill. Second, is my old setup broken? No, but listening to Thor makes going back nigh unto impossible, so well has it shown me what is possible. Lastly, as an "audiophile" preamp, the Thor occupies a prominent place in the first rank. If you need to know everything about your recordings, the temperature in the hall, the type of cigarette the drummer was smoking, the color dress Billie wore during the session, the Thor can get you as close to that as all but a handful of preamps on the planet. But even more importantly, if you want that and to feel what it would have been like to be in that concert hall, to watch that drummer, to see Billie sing in person, the Thor is unique. Its balance of detail and musical soul is astounding. And yes, as I placed it in that shipping container, I took all the care of a surgeon, for it truly served me as the heart of my system for a season.
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