The last several years as movies have taken over my audio system, I've often wondered how much the sound quality has suffered when listening to music. I used to make a point of having as pure as possible a way to listen to music. The best setup I'd had was using a pretty decent Nakamichi CD player I once owned which had a remote controlled variable output fed directly to a power amp. No pre-amp at all. Just the CD player and an Adcom power amp.
So last December, almost on an impulse, I decided to get an Emotiva USP-1 Stereo Pre-amp. I really wasn't sure what to expect. After all, it only costs $450 and was on sale for $400. This is such a "purist" piece of equipment that I'm not sure many HTFers will have any interest in it. In one way, it is a stereo pre-amp, and that is it. It has input selections (including a phono pre-amp) and a volume control. Nothing else. No sound modes, no processing, and what I suspect will make a lot of people uncomfortable, no tone controls. It is two other things it does have which got my attention. A variable (analog) crossover for a subwoofer and an HT bypass. That means, if you have a surround sound system and use external amps (or at least have a receiver with pre outs and power amp inputs) you can integrate the USP-1 into the system to essentially operate as its own independent 2 or 2.1 channel music system, without actually having a separate system.
Of course, why would anyone do that? The receiver I use sounds GREAT! I have news for you. No, it doesn't. I don't care how much you spent on it or how amazing the reviews are. The fact is, I'm still a little amazed the significant improvement I've gotten using this pre-amp, even though it is Emotiva's "lower" model. Now I'm waiting for the step-up XSP-1, which I plan to buy as soon as it is announced.
Here is the pertinent part of the equipment I am using with the USP-1…
Thiel CS 3.6 Speakers: After years of moving up to better speakers pretty frequently, I bought these a few months after they were released and have had them ever since. That's almost 20 years now. I suspect I'll die with them. They are fairly large, dynamic three ways with a passive radiator. For best imaging, they sit at least four feet from the wall behind them. I know most people wouldn't allow a setup like that, but they sound best that way, I have a room that is ideal for it, and even when I was married, despite my wife's seemingly endless complaints about me, this was never one of them.
Aragon 4004II amp: I've had this almost as long as the Thiels. It can provide over 400 watts to each speaker and at least 100 of that is in pure Class A. In a lot of ways it is an ideal amp for them, but lately I wonder if there may now be better choices I might actually be able to afford.
SVS PB12 Plus 2 Sub: Real purists will cringe at using a sub with music, but I accept the trade-offs, plus the Thiels are massive power hogs and it takes a huge load off the Aragon.
Cables: I'm not a cable freak. Interconnects are generally Monoprice's premium models and the speaker cable is regular original Monster Cable. The only cable they make which isn't a complete rip-off.
So, what do I hear? Simply put, the system comes to life with the USP-1. The Thiels are capable of producing an incredible soundstage, and it takes several steps forward now. It is three dimensional in a way I don't think I've heard before. What is most obvious is the distinct difference between sources. I have a Pioneer DV-59avi DVD/SACD player I got on eBay a couple years ago for $175 as well as a very expensive DAC setup from Audio Alchemy (no longer in business) that cost 10 times that much about 16 or 17 years ago. Before, there a noticeable but not overwhelming difference, now the difference is obvious. The funny thing is, the Pioneer blows the Audio Alchemy setup away. It's like a whole new experience. It has made me wonder what an even better player would do. I can't afford any of the super exotic ones available, but have been saving up for an Oppo BDP-95, which would go nicely with the XSP-1 since they both have balanced connections.
In the end, the USP-1 makes the system sound like a veil has been lifted. The soundstage from the Thiels not only has width now, but genuine depth. I can hear and feel the musicians from front to back, especially with Classical, and with Telarc SACDs I can close my eyes and feel the hall around me. After nearly 20 years, the Thiels are finally getting the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Right now, I think the main limitation is the Pioneer player. While it has great depth and resolution, it can have a bit of an edge to it that is not a good match with the Thiels, which are very aggressive speakers.
While the USP-1 is a very simple piece of equipment, adjusting the sub crossover in a 2.1 system is far from precise. People used to digitally fine tuning their system might be a little uneasy with the imprecise controls. You can always run sweeps and analyze the results. Or do like I did. Listen and wing it until you settle on something you like.
I do have one minor complaint with Emotiva's gear. I also have their XPA-5 5 channel amp. They put a lot of lights on their equipment and I have some problems with them. First, there tend to be a LOT of lights. Really, too many and they tend to be rather bright in a darkened room. Also, several of the lights either don't work, or don't work properly. The amp has a light for each channel and out of the box, one of them doesn't work. It has no effect on the function of the amp and they will fix it, but, of course, I have to send it back. Apparently this is a common problem. Even though they will fix it, the amp weight 70 lbs and dragging it out of the system, back up the stairs, getting it packaged up and sent back is a major undertaking. The USP-1 has considerably more lights. There is a ring around each input as well as the power button and a huge ring around the volume control. Aside from their being bright, many are uneven. Again, no effect on the function of the piece, but my thought is, if you are going to put lights, they probably should work, and maybe have a dimmer.