Issue No. 2 1998
by Dave Clark
Several thoughts came to mind after removing my Reference Line passive preamplifier to insert the Alternate Audio preamplifier. The first was how similar the two units sounded, the second was how different they were in design, and the last was "How the heck does Dan Patten do this for only$1500?"
Let me address this point by point. Both units are very detailed and clean, though the Reference Line is slightly more transparent than the BCAP. (After all, the Reference Line is just a few wires, some switches and jacks, two resistors, and a stepped attenuator! not much to mess up the sound with.) It is amazing just how clean-sounding the BCAP is by comparison, especially when you take into account its numerous parts and elaborate design. Yeah, there's some grain and veiling, but not enough to make me say, "Hey, who pulled the shades!" I hear slightly less air or body than I do with the passive preamplifier, but not enough to draw my attention away from the music.
The BCAP is also very fast and dynamic. What else would you expect from a single-ended class A transistor preamplifier? Compared to the passive/EAD combo, the BCAP/EAD's presentation was much more dynamic (micro and macro), with starts and stops coming at startling speed. This was very impressive on discs from Bill Laswell, or percussive artists like Scorn and Portishead. The BCAP/EAD combo has more three-dimensional imaging, along with deeper bass and airier treble. The faults of the EADDAC are mitigated to a much greater degree with an active preamplifier than with a passive one-the passive unit passes on the responsibility of driving the amplifier to your source component, affecting bass drive and dynamics.
An active preamplifier such as the BCAP changes the whole story. You'll still hear the intrinsic character of the source component, but (all other things being equal) the active stages in a preamplifier will do a far better job driving an amplifier. I found the BCAP's imaging to be pretty much as deep as the Reference Line's, and more dimensional, but still two-dimensional. If I want three-dimensional imaging, it's all in the tubes! While the BCAP's images were not quite as tall or as wide as those portrayed through thepassive unit, there's still good separation of images, and with the BCAP they are more between than around the speakers. This is not to say that the BCAP doesn't offer a satisfactory soundstage, just that it is not necessarily better than the passive's, which I find to be quite credible, though not all that I want it to be.
My system falls to the dark and warm side of neutrality, mostly because of the EAD 1000. I like this fatter presentation, and tend to turn away from the lean and analytical. The passive lets the warmth through, adding little if anything to the tonal picture. Is the BCAP as neutral? Well, the BCAP/EAD combo produced pretty much the same warm, dark tonality, with a few minor deviations. The BCAP produced a frequency emphasis in the bass region, providing more whomp or bass slam than the passive, but not necessarily more detail. The bass was never boomy or exaggerated, but was simply more prominent. Treble was still on the soft side, though reasonably detailed, just like that of the passive. No glare or hardness added to offend the listener, regardless of volume level.
It was the bass reproduction that really caught my attention. On most music the bass emphasis was quite enjoyable, though on some cuts there was a tendency to lose the rhythm a bit. Especially out of sync was the Shelleyan Orphan disc Carol uses to evaluate components. The kick drum on track one is very low and powerful, but through the BCAP it lagged behind the rest of the group. Yeah, there were gobs of oomph and explosive depth, but come on and catch up with the rest of us here! With the passive preamplifier in the system, the bass on this track is right in sync, but not quite as visceral. Mind you, while I never find my system to be lacking in bass extension, it could offer more slam.
The BCAP alleviates this to a degree, though still within the limitations inherent to the speaker. I found myself selecting discs that would benefit from the BCAP's bass drive, leading me to listen to old but not-forgotten favorites. One disc that really benefitted was Christian McBride's "gettin' to it," which caused Robert, my bass-playing neighbor, to remark that the BCAP's bass portrayal is much more "there" than the passive's, with the timbre being spot on. Perhaps not quite as transparent as with the passive, but oh so tonally correct for a stand-up bass, with plenty of woody resonance and oomph to really make the track come alive.
Of course, with the good comes the bad. Certain vocal tracks took on a hollow or honky, less "real" quality. I never found this very objectionable, since most of the music I listen to is instrumental. No doubt this quality is of a very narrow-band nature, and thus does not appear on all tracks, much less all systems. Female vocals were less affected than male vocals, leading to the conclusion that this shift in tonality is also responsible for the bass emphasis and the lack of the rhythmic drive on several discs.
Fit and finish are first rate, with a machined aluminum chassis of considerable heft. Ergonomics of the BCAP are very acceptable, with back lit control knobs, well-spaced Tiffany RCA jacks, and enough inputs to accommodate the most elaborate of systems. Alas, no phono section, but that seems to be the sign of the times in preamplifiers. A remote control version is in the works that ups the performance slightly and the price not so slightly. In several ways the Alternate Audio BCAP was superior to what I had become accustomed to with the Reference Line.
If my passive is Clark Kent, the BCAP is Superman-a great, sensitive guy but with an alter ego that is all muscle and brawn. Watch out bad guys! Faster than a speeding passive, more powerful than a source alone?!
- Dave Clark