Emotive Audio’s Poeta Preamp
Fred Volz, the proprietor of Emotive Audio, hand builds what could be described as “bespoke” audio components in his shop in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. He has a range of standard models: three pre-amps, one phono-stage, and two mono-block power amps, all of which are built to order. He also does custom work for audiophiles with special requirements. For those who want their hi-fi components to look as good as they sound, beautiful gold-washed, acid etched geometric art is available for the chassis. Fred will even – on occasion – rebuild other people’s equipment: I’ve seen at least one pair of really interesting looking frame-off modified Dynacos floating around on Audiogon with his logo attached to them. With the exception of his phono-stage, all of Fred’s gear runs on good old-fashioned glass bottles.
I first learned of Emotive Audio when a friend brought a pre-amp – the now discontinued Erato – to “Hi-Fi Day” in my family room. We used it to run both tube and solid-state amplifiers with spectacular results. It simply blew away everything else that we had on hand for scale, dynamics, detail, and instrument timbre. In one of those mysteries of hi-fi, the Erato was particularly fetching with a pair of forty year-old Grommes mono-block p/a amps that ran on TV tubes and looked like they’d been used for target practice. The sound was gorgeous, and I immediately started plotting my next hi-fi acquisition. Fast-forward about a year and the successor to the Erato – the Poeta – is snuggly ensconced in my system.
Functionally, the Poeta is a very simple pre-amp. It’s got four pairs of single-ended inputs, one pair of single-ended outputs, one knob each for volume and source selection (both mounted vertically on the top of the chassis) as well as power and standby toggle switches. The top/rear plate is brushed stainless steel with sides of beautifully finished hardwood. There are no lights or LEDs and there is no remote control. The Poeta is a line-stage only, so vinyl junkies will need a separate phono preamp. On the whole, it’s very solidly built and nicely finished. It’s also relatively compact and a bit chunky. It’s supplied with NOS tubes, and wiring is all point-to-point. Unique within the Emotive Audio line, the Poeta uses a solid-state section for voltage regulation. It is Emotive’s entry level pre-amp at a not insignificant $4,995.
The tube compliment consists of a single 5687, a pair of 6186’s and a 5R4GY rectifier. Tube rollers can have a bit of fun with this equipment. The Poeta came to me with a mix of NOS Tung-Sol and Phillips tubes. Replacing the single Phillips 5687 with an NOS Tung-Sol improved
clarity a bit, and an assortment of GE and RCA rectifiers from the 5R4 family, as well as a General Electric 5Y3 GT, quieted the background a little too. Volz has been forthcoming with tube options, so there’s no reason not to experiment a little.
In my current system, the Poeta replaced a Cary SLP 50A to deliver the signal to my Cary V12R power amplifier. The change was not subtle, expanding everything in every direction all at once. Pushing ‘play’ for the first time generated one instant reaction: This pre-amp throws a big soundstage. But that initial playback also left the images diffuse and ill defined. It sounded big, but it also sounded disorganized. The elements were all there (and they were audible) but it lacked focus. Reorganization eventually required significant adjustments to speaker positioning. With the Cary preamp the speakers were toed-in to cross at a point about four feet behind my head. With the Poeta, optimal positioning required moving the speakers further apart and then toeing them in to cross at a point about two feet in front of my listening position. With this accomplished the sound stage remained large, but it also became tightly focused, developed instrument solidity, and additional spatial cues. My best guess is that because of the larger soundstage image the interaction with the room was sufficiently altered to require moving the speakers. In any event, the anomaly was easy enough to solve and the results were good.
The other thing that really stood out was the bass. With the Poeta installed, bass is deeper, more palpable, and more detailed than I’ve ever heard through my Spendor S8es. Kick drums reverberate and double basses sound like real wooden instruments with tonal shadings even in the lowest notes; precisely the place where things can get murky if the equipment is not good. This bass is tight, tuneful and well defined. Having run the Spendors over the years with both tubes and some very powerful solid-state amps, I have never heard them generate this much high-quality bass. Like any other speakers the Spendors have a measurably finite range (their specifications conservatively state depth to 44Hz) so I couldn’t claim that the Poeta is getting more quantity from the speakers but it is very obviously producing significantly better quality. Whatever it is, adding the Poeta to my system made the Spendors sound more like a satisfyingly full range speaker; a welcome development.
The Poeta also reveals new tonal subtleties in recordings that I’ve listened to hundreds of times. Highs are well extended, and perhaps most importantly, the timbres of acoustic instruments are correct. The wood of a clarinet comes through loud and clear, and pianos demonstrate both weight and delicacy that can be hard to reproduce.
A long-time reference CD, Tord Gustavsen’s Being There [ECM 2007] demonstrates all of these qualities. Even among a catalog of well-recorded ECM titles, Being There stands out for its spaciousness and ability to reveal tonal shadings in the piano and the room around the instruments. The Poeta brings the bass into forward relief against the piano, defining distinct stage depth. The big fiddle also gains a physical presence: plucked notes come with palpable “thwack.” In the treble, it is easy to hear the subtle differences between cymbals tapped on their edge or close to the nut. Gustavsen himself is, of course, a piano player. His instrument should be the biggest piece on this stage, and it is, captured with all of its dynamic qualities, its subtleness, and its scale intact. The tonal variations, the subtle shadings within chords are all audible. But there’s a bigger quality in play.
My mother has a Steinway grand, and is fortunate enough to be involved with a conservatory. Periodically she’ll have students come and play for small audiences in her home making for very intimate musical performances. It’s also a great reference for what a piano sounds like in a room. It fills the space with sound regardless of its placement or even where you’re sitting, especially as the playing grows louder, but it doesn’t necessarily offer a distinct originating point source. Generalizing a bit here, quiet passages are more directly identifiable as emanating from the piano, but louder passages fill the room with sound that almost seems to have no source at all. Visually you obviously can’t miss someone pounding on a nine-foot grand piano when you’re sitting in a room with it (so you’re aware of the source) but the sound isn’t necessarily attached to the instrument as it reverberates around the room. It surrounds and envelops you.
Piano recordings, on the other hand (even some good ones) often suffer from microphone placement and baffling that pinpoints the instrument unnaturally in the soundstage. Think of virtually every Blue Note record made in the fifties and sixties: the Van Gelder piano was miked in a way that often left the instrument sounding small and narrowly stacked on top of itself. The Gustavsen recording avoids this pit fall, leaving the piano sounding fully realized in the performance space. When he’s playing loud, the sound is everywhere in the sound stage. It’s a great piano recording.
This is where the Poeta really excels. It captures the effect of the piano expanding in space, conveying the origination point of the notes on pianissimo passages, and then filling the audio image on the fortes. Yes, as hi-fi it’s all clearly coming from the end of the room where the speakers reside, but with the right recordings the presentation is as close to mom’s Steinway as I’ve ever heard in my family room. No, you probably won’t be tricked into thinking someone snuck a piano into your listening room (the scale and envelopment are almost impossible to reproduce with two channels) but this preamp definitely delivers more of a piano’s ability to fill a room with sound than anything else I’ve heard in my home.
Switching over to vinyl presents a bit of a challenge because the Poeta is now at the mercy of the signal quality delivered from an outboard phono preamp: in this case, a humble Project Tube Box (noticeably enhanced by a pair of NOS Mullard 12AX7s). But modest though the Tube Box may be, it’s one of those pieces that sounds better than it should for its price, and the differences between the line stages are still obvious regardless of the source.
Count Basie’s 88 Basie Street [Pablo, 1984] is an audiophile warhorse that provides an opportunity for the Poeta to handle a larger ensemble with big dynamic swings and multi-instrumental textures. It doesn’t miss a beat, so to say. The Count’s piano, played with his customary restraint is (similar to the Gufstavsen CD) delivered in space with it’s full range intact. It’s recorded a little more directionally, but it realizes fantastic weight particularly with big resonant left-handed chords. When the rest of the band joins in, the soundstage simply extends out in both directions beyond the speaker boundaries. “Blues Machine” features an all-reed melodic passage penned by arranger Sammy Nestico. The two altos, two tenors and baritone horn harmonize beautifully while remaining distinctly panned across the stage. Compared to the Cary preamp in the identical setup the music is all just bigger, fuller sounding, and much more detailed.
The Poeta is unquestionably a tube preamplifier and that comes with a certain amount of warmth. But its overall presentation is relatively neutral and very consistent from top to bottom without imposing any tube glow on the music. Nor does it unnaturally spotlight any particular portion of the sonic range. Extension doesn’t come at a price paid in mushy bass or piercing tizzy highs. The Poeta delivers very detailed, natural music reproduction, but it also provides recordings with a certain amount of flattery, in a very good way. In a last-minute experiment, the Poeta was installed in a friend’s system driving B&W 802 Diamonds. Even with the B&W’s greater resolution and stygian bass depth the essential qualities of the pre-amp were similar: tonal consistency, spectrum neutrality, lots of gorgeously reproduced detail. The Poeta does great things for music without attracting attention to itself, good qualities in any hi-fi component.
Now, in the interest of disclosure: I am a new hi-fi writer. As you finish this article you have now read the sum and total of every equipment review I’ve ever written. I can’t make any claims about my “reference” components, or even offer a particularly long list of products for critical comparison. What you get here is my impression of the component in my system today without much to compare it against except live sound and my very unscientific personal experience with various hi-fi systems over four decades. I know what I like my system to sound like and the Poeta pushes all of my buttons for all the reasons I’ve already stated. Breaking that rule about listening before buying, I sought out and purchased this pre-amp without first hearing it simply on the strength of its predecessor. I haven’t been disappointed. The Poeta just makes well-recorded music sound great, and after all, isn’t that what this hobby is all about?
Emotive Audio Poeta pre-amplifier
Tube linestage with five single-ended inputs
One fixed and one variable output
Tube compliment: (1) 5687, (2) 6186 follower tubes, (1) 5R4GY retifier tube
All point to point wired
236 East Bishop Street
Bellefonte, PA 16823
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