It may seem unusual to pair a recent concert by Louisiana Bluesman Tab Benoit with a review of a high end expensive piece of audio gear, (the First Sound Paramount MKIII-S Preamplifier), but since we are all about music here at bostonconcertreviews, the pairing is quite apt. What both Benoit and Emmanuel Go (the one-man show behind First Sound audio products) epitomize is the height of craftsmanship in their respective art forms that allow us, their lucky listeners, to revel in their artistry and their glorious sound.
Benoit performed in the intimate and welcoming confines of one of my favorite local places to hear music – The Narrows Center For the Arts in Fall River, MA. (“Narrows”; www.narrowscenter.org ). Testament to Benoit’s faithful following, this show (held on a cold Monday night in November) was sold out. Joining Benoit were his longstanding partners Corey Duplechin on bass and Terance Higgins on drums. As soon as they hit the Narrows’ stage, everything from cajun swing to pile driven blues was fair game in this band’s blast furnace of sounds.
Benoit’s guitar and vocals were a special treat: a synchronized vehicle of expression characterized by a concentration on elemental rhythms (fused from Benoit’s rich Louisiana Delta traditions). His vocals could be cool and swanking or full-throated and powerful. He has this great vocal ability to fully inhabit his songs with his brawny gliding baritone that picks up grit and emotional husk in its highest reaches.
Benoit’s radiant guitar is another thing of beauty. His solos at this concert ran the gamut from the slow pot-boiler, “Darkness,” (an expansive version with Benoit tumultuous and driven) to a rollicking version of “How Come People Act Like That.” Benoit has the uncanny ability to strike each note crisp and full even when those notes are being struck frenetically (or bent into a contortion of other notes and colors). For instance, on one volcanic number, Benoit made his guitar sound like a roaring locomotive. He held high note squeals (like a train whistle) and then pelted rhythm guitar swipes and staccato stops to create a frenetic “click-clacking” of strings with his guitar body (sounding like a train speeding down its wooden rails). Every note was heard clear and pugnacious on its own but also within the flow and infectious rhythmic pattern of Benoit’s swanking music.
This propulsive guitar glory was kicked into a higher gear by Higgins’ furious snare and wood rim hits and Duplechin’s pungent chest-felt notes on his electric bass (each low note sounding like the pounding of an iron stake into a railway bed). With sweat running down their backs, the band shifted gears from this locomotive stew of power and finesse into the light Cajun funk of Benoit’s joyous hit, “Solid, Simple Thing.” This number ignited the crowd to spill into the aisles of the Narrows to dance to Benoit’s ardent guitar notes (popping like pinpoint fireflies) with each note landing punctually on the infectious dance beat.
Returning home from this dazzling performance, I took a listen to Benoit’s superb 2003 recording, Sea Saint Sessions [Telarc] to see what my reference audio system could accomplish in recreating a slice of the magic heard at The Narrows. This is where audio products hand crafted by today’s best audio engineers and designers, like Emmanuel Go of First Sound (“Emmanuel”), can make a huge difference in getting as close as possible to the illusion of reproducing a live concert at home. Emmanuel designs and produces only preamplifiers. The goal of the best preamplifiers is to take the signal from a source component (like a turntable or CD player or DAC) and carry it as undistorted as possible to the amplifier to drive loudspeakers. First Sound preamplifiers are serious investments: they can cost between $6,000 for their base model (“Presence Deluxe MKIIIS”) to $12,999 for the Paramount MKIIIS to well over $20,000 for the ultimate First Sound designs. (All technical and pricing information on First Sound preamplifiers can be found at: www.firstsoundaudio.com). Each piece is handcrafted by Emmanuel and is the pinnacle of durability and reliability. I have owned my First Sound Paramount MKIIIS (“Paramount”) preamplifier for more than twelve years without any issues whatsoever (except for the routine tube replacement).
The MKIII-S series is the latest endeavor by Emmanuel to lower the electronic noise floor in his preamplifiers. The combatting of noise from both internal and external sources is one of the most critical advances in modern audiophile science because a lowering of noise in a system improves everything from presence to imaging. The MKIII-S series includes a completely redesigned circuit board (with a more direct signal pathway); a novel approach to combatting noise from power supplies and other sources (with new technologies incorporated from Emmanuel’s joint research with Shunyata Research, www.shunyata.com) and a new Power Supply Delivery System (with over 500 new steps) allowing for, as Emmanuel posits, the unimpeded flow of power to the audio circuit while significantly decreasing noise. First Sound designs are the epitome of simplicity: no remote control; no tone controls and on my unit, only RCA single input connections. (Emmanuel can accommodate different types of configurations of his units to fit the individual needs of your system and room. Another great virtue of dealing with a sole proprietor and individual craftsman in the world of serious high end audio investment).
Volume control is performed from two manual dials on the main unit, (designed from hand assembled premium quality resistors in a complex attenuator unit). Channel- to- channel tracking is exceptionally accurate in this volume control unit. The Paramount consists of a main unit (composed of cold rolled steel and plated with copper- again to eradicate noise) and two separate power supplies connected by two dedicated umbilical cords (with high quality copper wire and shielding). All of this requires significant shelf space and ideally, investment in two separate power chords of superb quality. (In my system, I utilize a common loom of Nordost Valhalla2 cables and power cords; www.nordost.com).
Emmanuel also offers valuable advice as to tube configurations for his First Sound products and encourages tube experimentation. My Paramount MKIII-S series came shipped with stock Russian 6N-P tubes that sounded lively and dynamic. After a short time, Emmanuel communicated that he had found a set of tubes that he thought elevated the performance of the Paramount. These were a pair of NOS General Electric 6922 tubes manufactured by IFI Audio (www.ifi-audio.com) that when installed in the Paramount, (an easy operation) generated in my system improved bass performance; a richer tonal palette and even better presence, particularly in capturing sudden dynamic shifts with visceral impact.
Finally, be aware that like many high-end precision audio components, First Sound preamplifiers are very revealing of their partnering components, particularly with associated amplifiers. Over the years, I have run my Paramount with amplifiers from several companies and the Paramount has always revealed the qualities of those amplifiers in striking fashion: from the unlimited power and layered soundstage produced by the exceptional Reimyo KAP-777 stereo amplifier (www.combak.net; available at www.wynnaudio.com) to the stable foundation delivered to music by the Aesthetix Atlas monoblock amplifiers (www.aesthetix.com) to the refined treble and revealing midrange delivered by my current reference- the Constellation Audio Centaur Stereo Amplifier (www.constellationaudio.com).
The Paramount’s signature sound quality (in the context of my associated equipment and listening room) can be best summarized by an analogy to Tab Benoit’s artistry. Like Benoit’s tigerish ability on his guitar to hit each note squarely “on its head” with perfect focus to its full color, harmonic substance and rhythmic potential, so does the Paramount invite the listener to explore the tactile harmonic weight and timbres of each individual note produced from instruments and the human voice. The Paramount aims to convey the crux of each note on any recording, delivering that individual note with substance, textural definition and tonal body. Although leading edges of notes and note decays are also conveyed by the Paramount, its forte remains, (like in Benoit’s guitar style), the mining of each note’s central harmonic and textural core of sound before the next one follows in natural rhythmic pace.
Listening to Benoit’s “Solid, Simple Thing” from his Sea Saint Sessions with the Paramount was a great example: each swaying note was complete and delivered punctual and thrilling (even as Benoit glided along in a flurry of guitar notes and funky holds). The chugging rhythmic glory of Benoit’s “Making The Bend” and “Howlin’ For My Darling” was propelled forward by the Paramount with all the subtle details of each note’s individual tonal palette and definition precisely defined in the collective flow of notes and phrases. The Paramount presented sharp and punctual leading edges to these notes, but it was less of the champ when it came to delivering the sustain and length of Benoit’s longest guitar holds or the shimmering decay of cymbals (which could, on occasion, sound abbreviated). Its midrange (where most of this individual note magic occurs) is authoritative, with a special combination of vital punctuality of notes, tonal richness and feel for each note’s substance and its placement in propelling the music forward.
Another example can be taken from classical sources, such as listening to one of the earliest reference LP’s cited by my mentor Harry Pearson in early editions of his Absolute Sound magazines from the early-1970’s. Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances performed by the Dallas Symphony (Turnabout LP 34145S) was a perennial favorite of HP and his associates, calling it at the time “one of the best likeness of an orchestra” and “stunningly lifelike in its reproduction of every orchestral choir.” With the Paramount partnered with the Aesthetix Rhea phonostage and the Rega RP-10 turntable (with its Apheta2 cartridge- www.rega.co.uk), this 1967 recording came to shimmering life. The first movement, (with its slowly marching theme weaving woodwind and strings into a climax of sudden bass drum blasts) was stunningly delivered by the Paramount in capturing the individual textures, timbres and dynamic shadings of each individual note as they evolved together into the movement’s bracing conclusion.
A different interpretation of this majestic piece, performed by Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra (and recorded superbly on a 2001 Reference Recording disc), takes a more enlivening pace to the Symphonic Dances’ colorful orchestration and propulsive momentum. The Paramount scaled this faster paced version with the same thrilling quality for capturing the “rightness” of individual notes and instrumental timbres. It easily portrayed the differences in these two conductors’ approaches to this same piece of spirited music. The Paramount mined each version’s unkempt lyrical beauty; their rhythmic variations and their dynamic gradations (from a lone flute call to the cataclysmic bass drum and brass pounces) with its special gift of conveying the energy and punctuality of each note in the momentum of the music.
Turning to favorite vocal recordings, the Paramount highlighted why its signature quality (for mining the heart and substance of individual notes in flowing fashion) is so beautifully attuned to capturing the human voice. Take, for instance, the stunning creativity of a young Abbey Lincoln, who recorded a sensational session in 1957 with a stellar group of jazz musicians that resulted in her brilliant recording That’s Him [Riverside Records LP].
From the opening cut of “Strong Man” (with Sonny Rollins’ huge tenor frolicking bluesy and slow next to Lincoln’s lilting voice) to Max Roach’s frisky drums igniting “I Must Have That Man”, the Paramount carved out space for every note and subtle vocal intonation to be explored – no matter how frenetic or coolly lit. The highest vocal treble reaches by Lincoln (so soft, fragile and expressive!), were delivered smooth, lustrous and extended. When Durham’s sudden trumpet punches hit from the side of the stage, the Paramount remained unflappable in the wake of these dynamic challenges. This superb recording, (with great up-front presence), also illustrated the Paramount’s lowest bass qualities in my room with my reference Hansen V.2 Prince loudspeakers. Paul Chambers’ acoustic bass (introducing the swanky slow “Don’t Explain”) was nicely pungent and tactile, each note tonally full (with an emphasis on natural warmth and flesh hitting string). His string slaps against his large instrument’s body were resonant (felt chest deep) with nice articulation, lacking only the fullest extent of their decay and trailing resonance into the recording space. Again, the Paramount’s focus in my room is on the capturing of each individual note and the coherent delivery of the entire musical flow (and artistic statement) and less so on the ultimate delivery of the fine trailing decay of those notes struck into the surrounding air of a recording venue.
Finally, as to its soundstage character, the Paramount presents a consistent soundstage configuration and image presence in my room. Its imaging is always precise and naturally defined, as defined by the recordings themselves. Its soundstage is normally limited to the lateral plane in front and between loudspeakers- and immediately behind them. Some may find the Paramount’s front to back image depth (and lateral expansion) less than ideal or the most spacious in their rooms. I have never found this to be a limiting factor in my room. For example, listening to one of the great jazz orchestras of our time, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, on their Grammy awarded The Thompson Fields [ArtistShare], the Paramount exceeded expectations in bringing the illusion of this large ensemble into my listening room. The opening “Walking By Flashlight” is a gorgeous lyrical piece. With the Paramount in action, Scott Robinson’s slowly building alto clarinet was nestled in its own space and air floating in-between my loudspeakers while other members of the orchestra, (including Frank Kimbrough on piano and Gary Versace on accordion) layered sparkling notes on either side of his curling sax. The flowing colors of this music were generated from the artists positioned naturally on a stage set between my loudspeakers.
This is what Emmanuel and his latest designed Paramount is all about: getting invited to explore the substance and richness of favorite artists and their music, whether it be the scorch of Benoit’s guitar or the inner beauty of Schneider’s intrepid music. This is a joyous gift to every serious audiophile interested in getting as close to the music as possible.
*UPDATE MAY, 2017: S AND SI UPGRADES NOW AVAILABLE FOR MKIII-S OWNERS:
First Sound has now announced its latest upgrades for MKIII-S model preamplifiers and both of these upgrades have now been installed by Emmanuel Go in my MKIII-S preamplifier. Emmanuel states that both upgrades deal with improvements to electro-magnetic properties and electronic flow in the MKIII-S power supplies, resulting in a further drop in noise floor. Ultra high tech MDPA’s (multiple differential array) units are utilized: one in the S upgrade and two for the SI upgrade. Other proprietary and costly components are utilized for each transformer. I can report that the free S upgrade and SI upgrade (contact First Sound for SI upgrade pricing) brings another stunning improvement to the sound of this reference preamplifier in my system. The main way to describe this latest improvement is a further freeing of the music from the loudspeakers- a feeling of quicksilver projection and also greater inner beauty. There is also an improvement in front to back depth with more air and distinct spacing between instruments as the recording allows. Even bass has more potency, grip and coherency. Imaging has been further freed up on favorite recordings, (take, for instance, the stunning new recording of the reedy, gauzy voice of Macy Gray and her bracing band as they slowly boil on Stripped [Chesky Records; www.chesky.com]). Overall, there is a sense of greater inner life and buoyancy to the projection of notes and vocals with the SI upgrade. Another tank of high octane energy has been added to the MK III-S model by Emmanuel’s continuing gift for finding advancements to his science- all for our listening joy!
FIRST SOUND AUDIO: www.firstsoundaudio.com; telephone: 425-271-7486; address: 8225 5th Ave. Suite 147, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11209
I get a chance to audition and compare the First Sound Paramount with a new reference preamplifier from another gifted craftsman, Kevin Hayes, of Valve Amplification Company. Stay tuned!