Issue No. 2 1998
by Larry Cox
I am a tube fascist. I make no excuses for that, but thought you should know right off the bat that I expect to be using a tube preamplifier on the day they plant me eight feet under. That said, I was impressed with the Alternate Audio solid state line stage.
I was dumbfounded by the bottom end of the BCAP. While I love the body and imaging of tubes and their life like textures, tubes just don't do bass like solid state. Although I haven't missed the bottom end while using tubes for the past seven years, bass is a good thing, and I can understand the attraction of solid state components for passing real and deep bass information. It was a joy to listen to the Alternate reproduce amplified bass guitar, and to have kick drums reproduced with a force that I felt almost as much as heard.
However, what really told me that my systems have had less than solid bass these past seven years was to hear the Alternate reproduce acoustic bass. Charlie Haden's plucking on Missouri Sky was practically electric with "liveness." The strings chattered when plucked hard, and had an excellent sense of texture and vibrato. I was not looking forward to hearing the rest of the frequency spectrum on this preamplifier as, in my experience, solid state usually delivers hard, etched, and unpleasant sound.
The Alternate was much better than I expected, but it still lacked the light touch that may be the exclusive domain of tubes. However, unlike a lot of the solid state preamplifiers that I have heard, the BCAP did not have a hardness or glare in the midrange. The treble was quite extended, detailed, and not the least bit hard-sounding. Image specificity was quite good as well, with images having a distinct left to right position. Front to back layering was modestly specific, although that layering was not a challenge to what tubes can do.
The volume pot and input selectors felt very smooth. The four inputs were plenty for my taste and equipment. Aesthetically, the Alternate is understated like the older Threshold designs, with little visual embellishment on the front, save for two handles placed at the far left and right. The appearance of the handles is awkward and a bit ugly-they seem to project a little too far out from the front of the face plate. However, when it came time to use them, they were the perfect size for my fingers. I guess I'll defer to form following function, if it is agreed that having handles is a necessity. Personally, I don't think handles on a preamplifier are necessary.
I don't have any important objections to the Alternate Audio BCAP. After living with it for awhile I thought to myself, this is a pretty darn good preamplifier, and came to appreciate the fact that its clarity and detail was by no means harsh or hard. I even started to think to myself that I could live with it. But after reinserting my own tube preamplifier, I realized that while I had learned to live with the Alternate's sound, I was not a contended puppy. I'm still a tube fascist.
The liquidity, warmth, textures, and delicate touch that tubes have just reinforced my tube-aholicism. Palpability and front-to-back soundstaging are more important to me than I suspected. Despite my criticism, I think that the Alternate Audio preamplifier is a successful design. Its attractions were like a confirmed bachelor meeting a woman that wants to get married. I can appreciate the possibilities, but it's just not for me.
If you have not been seduced by tubes, you could probably be very happy with the Alternate Audio preamplifier. I have been seduced by tubes, and didn't hear what I needed to change my preferences.
- Larry Cox