2020 Pre-amp Showdown

Hi kind folks…I thought I would post some pics and a few observations from an epic Jan 2nd evening at my place.

We’d been planning on this night for months - a holiday showdown of preamps. the line up:

Shaun’s Bryston BP26
Robbie’s Modwright 9.0 Signature
Ben’s Sonic Frontier SFL 2.0,
My PS Audio BHK

Here’s how it went down…

We started off mellow…with a sweet Blue Rodeo tune called “What is this love” from their 5 Days in July album. The first few bars are soft and slow. I nudged the volume a little louder on the Sonic Frontiers preamp with a firm click, click…for speakers, we started with Magnepan 3.6R’s and stereo REL S5 SHO subs.

We listened mostly via Small Green Computer (Roon Core) > Switch > AQ Vodka ethernet cable > GigalFoil v.4 >Bryston BDP (Roon Endpoint) > Cardas Clear AES / EBU > PS Audio Direct Stream > MG Audio Design XLR > preamps above > Bryston 14B3 power amp > MG Audio Design speaker cables > Magnepan 3.6R > REL S5 SHO stereo subs.

Occasionally we played music from CD’s using an Oppo 203 transport > AQ coax > Direct Stream

Ok…back to the Blue Rodeo…I had never listened to high quality fully tubed preamp in my system before, and as this track started to cook a little, I could tell I was going to be in for a treat. Right away, I could tell the notes were sweeter, fatter and richer than I’m used to hearing on this track through my BHK. I was sitting a bit left of the sweet spot so I couldn’t get a full sense of soundstage depth but when Sarah’s piano became louder, I knew it was positioned back right…way back. The cymbals on this track are stunning and the Sonic Frontier seemed to emphasize the decay of the crash cymbal that was pleasing to my ear…

20200102_191553|666x500 !

ok…back to the showdown…

after listening to “What Is This Love” through the Sonic Frontiers pre, we switched to the Modwright. The first observation was the volume was much lower, even with the volume positioned at about 3 o’clock on the Modwright. It took me awhile to overcome this concern and begin listening again…but I really couldn’t get over it fully. I wondered why in the hell the volume was much lower - is it a function of straight gain, or was there something else going on…? I started to think about impedance matching issues, or possibly the cables - as the Modwright is single ended only whereas all the other preamps in the showdown used balanced connections. was this a reflection of 6db gain associated with the cables…or…a combination of cables, inherent gain, and impedance? I since looked up the output impedance of the Modwright and it’s spec sheet indicates 800 ohms - and the input impedance of the 14B3 power amp is listed as 7500 ohms. So, assuming we need a minimum of 10:1 ratio - the pairing falls just short of the minimum target…so perhaps there is something here…

In terms of sound, the Modwright was less fat, less rich but tonally excellent. In fact this Modwright’s bottom end seemed to be more involved, and presented itself more fully than the Sonic Frontier…but perhaps it came across this way b/c the SF was more balanced overall thoughout the frequency spectrum. not sure.

Moving forward we busted out the dB meter and carefully matched the volumes of each preamp during playback. For the first few hours, we listened at about 78 dB. As the night wore on, this volume creeped up to about 86dB…and occasionally hit 90. (it was late, and spirits were flowing…)

Next up was the Bryston BP26 preamp - same track. This proved to be really interesting. The presentation of the song rolled off incredibly smoothly, silky almost…and the bass seemed more defined and crisp. The upper frequencies of the vocals seemed sharper…so much that it was easily evident and forced the listeners attention to it. I wondered if at louder volumes this would become slightly too sharp and draw attention to itself, distracting from the rest of the music.

next up, BHK pre - same track. This is the sound I am most familiar…and maybe because of this, I enjoyed it the most. One observation from the listener in the hot seat was the BHK demonstrated a wider soundstage vs the BP26 and maintained precise imaging. To my ears, the BHK offered an overall presentation which was smooth and warm, yet still maintained impressive clarity and transparency. Compared to the SF, the BHK was less rich and fat… but more smooth and silky.

we played a few more tunes…going through the line up of preamp in reverse order. Hitting the SF last…

for fun, we decided to stack up the SF vs the BP26 head to head - with a simple well recorded live track. we chose Neil Young’s “Tell Me Why” from the 1971 Massey Hall album…sourced from Roon/Tidal.

First up was the SF…man…this was something beautiful. deep rich tones. the guitar sounded perfect. The BP26 was also stunning. absolute clarity. precision was off the charts. The differnce between the 2 preamps was obvious…tons of fat, meaty tones with the SF, and ultra smooth and dry precision from the BP26. What was interesting is how these differences were interpreted by the listeners. One fella was floored with the BP26’s sense making you feel like being there…in the theatre…with Neil. And the wow factor of the accuracy or complete transparency. Whereas others, like me, felt like the SF drew me in to the music…how I immediately fell back into my seating position and listened with tons of joy. The SF was inviting and warm. I wanted to play more music with the Sonic Frontier. I remember commenting on how precise the BP26 was…that you could almost see into Neil’s vocal cords and determine he used Aquafresh toothpaste…but that was the Stella’s kicking in… :slight_smile:

the last songs we played with the Magnepans were: “A Little Rice and Beans”(Victor Wooten), “It Doesn’t Matter” (Alison Krauss), “All Ashore” (Punch Brothers), “She’s Gone” (Hall and Oates).

Then we removed the Maggies and hooked up Shaun’s lovely Casta C speakers. Man…these babies are sensitive…98dB I think.

We thought about ditching the 14B3 amp and setting up the 300B tube amp…but the task of reconnecting speakers cables, disconnecting subwoofers, and warming up the tubes seemed too much at the time…so the 14B3 remained in the mix…

honestly, the level of attention given to the differences in preamp sonics became weakened…compromised by the effects of having too much fun simply listening to music with a few spirits under our belts.

but one thing I remember about the inserting the Casta C’s is how much the Modwright preamp came to a new life. the music became more alive, quicker, with a very involved bottom end. The Modwright loves to dance.

not sure if the apparent lower gain from the Modwright paired with highly efficient speakers allowed to music to take on a new shape. But whatever it was we were all impressed with the change in the Modwright’s behaviour. I would love to spend a full day with the Modwright using a low powered tube amp, a sweet vinyl rig and these Casta C’s. I think the Modwright would shine gloriously…great preamp.

each preamp offered it’s own particular strengths. and the showdown was not necessarily which was the ‘best’…but more about what types of strengths within each preamp did we enjoy the most. or what types of music were better expressed by each preamp. for example, the BP26 is a solid performing preamp and brings a magnifying glass into the mix…so to say. If you’re looking to dig into the music with stunning vividness, then this baby is the unit to use. just incredible resolve…

for my musical preferences (mostly acoustic)…I preferred the BHK and the Sonic Frontiers with my Magnepan speakers, in my room.

As the Sonic Frontiers pre was new to my ears, I tended to play more tracks through the SF than the other preamps.

In A/B’ing the BHK with the SF, I came away with another observation that I am not even sure is real or not. but when listening at higher volume with the Maggies, I felt the BHK firmly maintained it’s control over the music. where, for some reason, I felt the SF preamp lost some of it’s control at higher volumes - and this expressed itself as slightly more distorted or perhaps a more blurred or smeared soundstage compared to the BHK. was this a function of the SF’s full tube design vs. the BHK’s hybrid design with Mosfet output stage…I suppose so…maybe?

at the end of it all, we had an incredibly fun evening and I am looking forward to another showdown this summer! maybe a DAC showdown…:slight_smile:

thanks all - especially Robbie, Shaun and Ben for bring your gear over to my place - even from 1500 km’s away Ben!

happy 2020.



Great stuff, keep on comparing, always interesting!


Cool! As an owner of BHK and Modwright reference gear myself the one thing I might suggest you post to better understand the results of the shootout is the tube complement used in the BHK, Sonic Frontiers and Modwright preamps. It makes a real difference in sonics.
I’m also very curious about the heritage of the SFL 2. Is that completely original? Maybe a Parts Connexion PCX restored and upgraded unit?



hey owl, good point about the tube compliment - thanks.
The BHK used stock tubes; matched 12AU7 dual-triodes.
The Sonic Frontiers used NOS Sovtek tubes
Uncertain about the Modwright tubes, but I will find out…

and yes…the Sonic Frontier preamp was sourced from Parts Connexion as a tripped out modded unit.

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finished up some edits…hope you enjoy. :slight_smile:

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Nice write up! Beautiful listening room!

thanks kylemillsap!

GREAT showdown and report! Looking forward to a DAC showdown, should be even more fun.

Bryston is a very under-rated brand, while it has never disappointed anyone and has a warranty that’s unheard of in the industry. It’s just not as “flashy” as some other brands and I am glad it fared very well in this showdown. Might be on the list of items for me in the future!

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Bryston makes super equipment, but being from the pro audio world audiophiles tend to be biased against it. :frowning:


Maybe there’s something wrong with our ears. I almost bought a Bryston a while back. The 14B SST. I thought it actually sounded pretty good in my place, but at that time I liked my Muse 150 monos a little more, a little more vivid sound. My brother really liked it, it was better than has Mark Levinson 332’s, so he bought it and sold the MK 332. But over time when my friend and I went over to listen to his system, we thought it didn’t sound so good, a little veil and uninvolving. I suggested he should try another power amp. He took home the BHK 250 for trail and it transformed his whole system. No more veil and lifeless. He is so happy with the BHK in his system, he sent in his Bryston to PS Audio right away for trade in. Maybe his was an older Bryston and the newer cubed models sounds much better, I don’t know. Or maybe now our associated equipment is so much better. He’s already got a very good preamp, the Conrad Johnson Gat, otherwise he would be looking at the BHK pre right now. The Conrad Johnson is another mind blower. Enormous soundstage. Incredible transparency.

thanks abeiklou! It was a fantastic evening of stellar audio, shared with great friends and a few beverages. doesn’t get much better than that…and so glad to share with this hi fi family.

I’ve always loved Bryston products…and have owned many over the last 8 years or so. and as you say, a 20 year warranty on their amps and preamps is unheard of in any industry. plus, the bonus is they are Canadian…I am biased, sorry! customer service is wonderful too.

if you tend to favour vivid, razor sharp, transparent sound then the BP26 should be on your short list for sure…

cheers! TJ


You can’t simply compare pre-amp sound to amp sounds between two companies.

hi waymanchen11, I am not sure anything is necessarily wrong with our ears…the Bryston 14B3 is a stunning amplifier. I have not heard a BHK 250 or 300 - but man, I’d love to.
Yes, the 14BSST emerged around 2003 (ballpark) - and the cubed series came on the scene almost 15 years later. so, ya, I’d say there’s an evolution in sonics between the two models.
I previously owned the 4BSST2, 4B3, and 14BSST2, and now the 14B3. The cubed series brings more life to the sound, a little more sparkle…and even more quiet background…and more space. super quiet.
someday I’ll get my mitts on a BHK amp…I’d love to A/B the pair.

cheers, TJ


Maybe I’m a bit too critical on Bryston. That was an older Bryston. The newer ones should be very much improved and different. Disregard my comparisons as they do not represent what are available now, so as you say, the newer models are much better. It would be very interesting if there is a shootout between the 14B3 and the BHK. Maybe that’s a better comparison.
BTW, the ears I’m referring to are my friend’s, my brother’s and myself, not anybody’s else when we were listening to my brother’s system.

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sounds good 11. I’ll definitely post some observations once that shootout happens! I’m hoping it does :slight_smile:

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