Audio: Listen to this article.
While I have been sitting here listening to and evaluating the new pre amp I have purchased from SMc Audio, the GT24 TLC-2, I am reminded of that old tried and true adage, getting older is a bitch, but it beats the alternative. The same applies to audio equipment as well. I can sure relate after experiencing double cataract surgery in 2022. My vision had been deteriorating for several years albeit very slowly, to the point that I didn’t notice it. Yes my prescriptions changed over time, but I did not appreciate the loss of color fidelity and how much dimmer my vision had gotten over time. The surgeon who performed my surgeries commented how pernicious the clouding of cataracts is as it occurs so slowly that you do not notice it until several years have passed. A hundred years ago I would have been toast. Fortunately I live in modern times and the loss of vision can be corrected. I am sure you are wondering now what the hell does this have to do with audio equipment. Glad you asked. I will endeavor to explain.
First off, I am not one of those audiophiles who churns equipment. My speakers, Vandersteen 3A Signatures, were last upgraded in 1997. My pre amp has been a Spectral DMC 5 that was manufactured in 1985 or so and purchased used in 1992. That other equipment I have in use I have reviewed in the past, the Schiit Audio Yggdrasil LIM (link) and the McCormack/SMc Audio DNA 1 amplifier (link). The power is all provided via Essential Sound Products power cords and outlet (link). I run two dedicated 20 amp circuits with Oyaide outlets and interconnects and speaker cables from Audioquest. Over the past year or so I noticed a subtle degradation of the sound of my system, a loss of some bass, some weight and snap. I was able to get some samples of interconnects from David Calhoon of Zenwave Audio and speaker cables from Jeff Smith at Silversmith Audio that noticeably improved the sound (reviews forthcoming too). But I couldn’t help but think that I was still missing something of that old familiar sound. Hence the cataract analogy. Given the age of the pre amp, could it be that the parts were slowly degrading enough that it was effecting the sound? The only way to tell was to get a another pre amp to test.
Given the age of the pre amp and the difficulty of getting replies from Spectral, I thought the best option was to just buy a new pre amp, which my hope is will be my last. Since I have been enjoying the rebuilt DNA 1 as much as I have and my track record with Steve McCormack products over the years, I thought it best to contact them first. I have in the past heard their various VRE pre amps and they always have sounded top notch. Plus, Steve and the tech Patrick, who would be building my pre amp, knew my equipment well. Financial issues got in the way for awhile so I was not able to make the order and plunk down the cash until the middle of 2023, ear unheard so to speak. As SMC Audio is a small operation, I had to wait a good bit of time until they had enough orders for their TLC-2 but the unit finally arrived a few weeks ago. Was it worth the wait and more importantly, the cost? Damn right it was.
First off, the pre amp and the power supply are beasts, weighing in at around 50 pounds. Patrick from SMC Audio certainly did a great job packing the units up for shipment. Each had their own box and were placed in a much larger box with tons of padding. For anyone like my wife and I who have had some issues with some of the carriers over the last couple of years, flipping packages up on our doorstep or worse, sliding boxes down our driveway, this attention to detail on Patrick’s part was reassuring. I was a bit concerned for the UPS guy as he walked this box down the steps to our front door as it looked like he was delivering a mini fridge rather than a pre amp.
After I unboxed the units and screwed in the supplied spikes, it was time to place them in the audio rack. Before doing so, I took some pictures as it was easier to do so before they were placed on the shelves.
My apologies as I am not the world’s finest photographer!
Once installed on the racks after the installation of the umbilical cord between the two boxes, I proceeded to plug the power supply into the outlet and went over to put my ear on the speaker to see if it as working. I was concerned when I heard nothing, zip, nada. For years I was used to hearing some faint hiss out of the speakers, not just with my system, but with many others. Here I heard nothing, even with the volume knob cranked up. I then proceeded to turn the volume down and sat down in the listening chair with my iPad in hand to play some files. I was relieved when I heard music emanating from the speakers. As the pre amp spent several cold days traveling across the country, I let the unit warm up for a couple of hours before I really sat down to listen. As I will describe, I was very impressed with what I heard initially. However, with family holiday obligations and a trip overseas, I really couldn’t do a deep dive on the unit until I got back. While away for over a week, I left the unit on, burning in if you will. Upon arriving home, I was floored by what I was hearing when I sat down to listen.
What I heard was a total a lack of any sense of noise. My system now had an incredibly low noise floor. I had always heard about music emanating from a black background, but never heard that before at home. Now I did. Wow is all I can say. Detail was amazing, from the pushing of pedals on a piano, to the fingering of an upright bass to the opening and closing of valves on a sax or trumpet. It was now all there. If I was able to hear some of this detail before, it now came through much clearer with greater presence. Even better was the bass which was deeper and more tuneful than I had ever heard in my room, even when the Spectral was in peak form. No comparison. What was the most amazing of all was that the speakers totally disappeared. When I closed my eyes, all I heard was music, not boxes. The soundstage was not only wider but deeper. Much deeper. There was a greater separation between the instruments in the sound field, with each seemingly occupying their own sliver of space therein. The tone of the instruments was better as well with more body and heft all across the frequency spectrum. Ride cymbals and high hats had more of the metallic sound that you hear live. With live recordings, you got a greater sense of the room acoustics, with a greater appreciation for the decay that one hears live. Fade outs seemed to go on longer than I remembered with very familiar recordings. This is no doubt due to the astonishingly low noise floor which allowed the amp and speakers to reproduce this level of detail.
One of the traits that I loved about the Spectral was the sense of speed, the jump one hears from a great jazz guitarist live or the impact of the lower registers on a piano played by a master. That speed and intensity was still there, only it was now better and more fully developed. Listening to the rich harmonic tones and after tones of a piano was a thrill. I had a greater sense of the real thing in my room than I ever had before. A piano sounded three dimensional, floating in the air before me, not confined to the boxes as it had before. Drum kits also came alive, much more like the real thing, especially the kick drum which had more thump. Not a bloated thump but deep and impactful. Listen to the kick drums on the stunning new Carmen Gomes, Inc. release, Stones in my Passway, from Sound Liaison. This is a superb recording both in terms of performance and sonics. The SMc Audio pre amp reproduces it beautifully.
The words dynamic, neutral, coherent, three dimensional, full, quick and rhythmic among others come to mind in describing the sound I was hearing from the SMc Audio TLC-2 pre amp. Listening was done in the same system and room compared with the Spectral inserted. Nothing was otherwise changed, not even the speaker placement. The Spectral gave me many years of enjoyment, but the TLC-2 is another beast entirely. The Spectral now gets to enjoy the rest of its remaining days safely in retirement.
Now, I am no technical wizard and can only evaluate equipment by what I hear. I do not have the capacity to take measurements. I fed the TLC-2 many different types of recordings, with different resolutions and sonic prowess to see if the TLC-2 imparted its own sound on the music. I could not detect that the unit had a sound of its own. It sounded totally transparent to me. Compressed recordings sounded compressed. Bright recordings sounded bright, spacious recordings sounded spacious. The TLC-2 allowed the true nature of the recording to come through my speakers, for good or bad. Thankfully for the overwhelming majority of the recordings. It was for the good. Very, very good.
As one can see from the pictures I have posted, the TLC-2 is not a blingy piece of kit. However, it is beautifully built. I asked Patrick to send me a picture of the inside of my unit which is attached below, without of course, giving away any of their secret sauce. The unit, as was the case with my rebuilt DNA-1 amplifier is equipped with the SMc Audio gravity base system. The build quality is impeccable.
In preparing this review, I asked Patrick and Steve to provide me with some more detailed information about the unit and pricing and was provided with the following:
- The TLC-2 Preamplifier by SMc Performance. The TLC-2 preamps are built by hand in Vista, California.
- Like the TLC-1, VRE-1 and VRE-2, the circuitry in the TLC-2 is a buffered passive design that has been a proven winner at delivering music in a pure and extremely engaging manner. The unit is considered a buffered passive design even though the buffer is an active circuit as there is zero gain. Due to the way the Jensen output transformers are configured, the TLC-2 has 6 db of gain.
- The average cost of building a TLC-2 typically ranges between $5000 and $9000 but the cost can go as high as $14,000. It really boils down to the needs and desires of the customer.
- The TLC-2 can be built with an internal or external power supply. The TLC-2 is also available in custom finishes.
- Common Input Configurations
- 3, 4 or 5 single ended (RCA) inputs
- 3 single ended (RCA) and 1 balanced (XLR) input 2 single ended (RCA) and 1 balanced (XLR) input
- Every TLC-2 preamp has both balanced and single ended outputs.
Volume Control Options
- Manual Volume Control
- Remote Control Volume (volume up/down & mute) with no display Remote Control Volume (volume up/down & mute) with display
As I am retired, I decided to go without the remote control, the display and balanced inputs. I have three single ended inputs and a set of single ended outputs and balanced output. My unit does not have a phono stage. Should I desire to get back into vinyl, I will likely get the new Schiit Audio phono stage, the Skoll, which I have heard in another system and was greatly impressed with. The Skoll is reasonably priced, as audiophile stuff goes, at $399.00. I can live with that. That leaves me with an extra input if I ever add another DAC or god forbid, a reel to reel tape machine! Ha.
I also wanted to keep the cost down, in part, to get this purchase past the finance committee here at Chez Whip. In full transparency, I paid for the TLC-2 before ever having had the opportunity to hear it as I had full trust in Patrick and Steve due to my experiences with them over the years. That trust was rewarded with the receipt of my end game pre amp. Yes it is expensive, but for me, the cost was well worth it. The TLC-2 comes with my highest of recommendations.
While I waited many months to get my unit, Patrick tells me that the TLC-2 is going back into production. As a result, the wait should be around four or five weeks give or take not months. Remember, these units are hand built to order. Should you wish to order one or discuss a project with the folks at SMc Audio, they can be contacted at: 760-908-5263 or at [email protected]. SMc Audio.