Review: Einstein The Tube Linestage Tube preamp

Category: Preamps

Just added the Einstein "the Tube" preamp to my system, purchased from Jim Meine @ Epic Audio in Houston TX (great dealer). Perhaps I'm not the guy to be writing a review of a reference preamp; it met my requirements of being a fully-balanced, tube linestage (no phono) w/ full function remote; tubes are 6922s (18 of em, but only 10 in operation at a time) and one 12au7, so no worries about tubes being out of production or too expensive. While i'd have preferred not to have the Class A bias that the preamp operates in, i didn't think it would matter too much (more on this below). My pool of candidates was thus limited by my requirements, and truth be told i never auditioned others in my system. i was previously using a overachieving sub-$1k audio mirror linestage (which got much better w/ select mods), but it just doesn't compare to the einstein. But perhaps that says that once you "hear" something like the Einstein, you gather you don't need to look any further. That's why its expensive. It does what it should do, and it does it so well that you can conclude your preamp search if you're like me.

let me explain: i've 2 philosophies on system building. Number 1) get dynamics right, and Number 2) in the long run, you're better off saving up and buying the best thing you can rather than hopping on the endless upgrade train. Now, #1 is really a lesson i learned from our dearly departed Bob Crump (RIP), but he's quite right: notice how footers, cables, shelves, etc etc all change tone & staging? now, how can you make a weak-willed system more dynamic? the answer is that you cannot. sure, you might make minor improvements by going from soft footers (less dynamic) to hard, but you cannot turn a cow's ear into a silk purse. and as mikey fremer rightly pointed out, you likely need a lot more power to recreate lifelike dynamics than you think---thus my purchases of 500wpc monoblocks and WP6s (excellent dynamics for monkey coffins). Insofar as #2 goes, if you're a committed audiophile, as i am, its just foolish to buy / sell / buy / sell when you're making small improvements. you'd be better off just going whole hog & getting what you need to get you to the end of the road, rather than nickel & diming yourself for years.

back to the review. I've heard the einstein in multiple systems, and invariably the unit displayed the same characteristics that I see now that its in my rig: an incredible sense of dynamics / transient snap and an uncanny neutrality. Let me get right to it: IME audiophiles fight a mostly losing battle in terms of the ultimate goal of creating the perfect illusion of a live performance in the home because of 2 mistakes: inadequate dynamic expression and systems that are too bright (think "digital" on both counts). well, the einstein tube is easily the most dynamic component i've ever owned, taxing the dynamic capacities of the mcintosh 501s and the WP6s like i never thought possible. now, digital normally has dynamics severely compressed as a failure of most engineers, but every now & then you can find a well engineered CD (decemberists:"picaresque") that have the snap & transient pop-to-stop that live music has. well, the einstein will ensure that you get it in your house, and that dear reader is the toughest trick in audio. if you don't have lifelike dynamics in your system after its insertion, the problem is elsewhere (me, i lose a bit in my CD Player, and a lot in my software. wish i never sold my records). i think about dynamics like i think about surfing: sometimes you get good wave after good wave and they all push you in pretty good..pretty thrilling. that's why i surf. but then a REAL GOOD WAVE just plows behind you and rattles your cage and gets your chest heaving and you know you've just had your day made for you, and that you wish every wave were just like that. well, the force and drive behind that real good wave is like the einstein in your system. or, to use another analogy, think of a preamp as a conduit for water (music) to flow from upstream to downstream; whereas most preamps are like faucets, the einstein is like niagra just throws you giddy with its incredible force, reestablishes what you should expect, and accomplished it all in a completely natural manner. in a nutshell, recorded music takes on the visceral characteristic that live music has, whether it be the pulsation of a kick drum, the sharp attack of a plucked string, or the "action" (per J. Valin) that instruments take as they project outwards. casual listening is virtually impossible with the einstein in the rig; music is now the main & only event, much as at a live performance. in this regard, a paramount concern for me, the einstein is simply beyond reproach.

(as an aside, as part of the appeal of the mcintosh 501s, the big blue volt meters dance around in a very sexy manner. i noticed w/ the einstein in front, the gyrations of the meters moves quite a bit faster. coincidence? doubtful.)

prior to the einstein, i had a good idea of what tone should sound like, and what preamps sound like (to show my bias, i would only own tube preamps). well, the einstein doesn't have a tube sound, or a SS sound (unless you think moxie is a sound). its just treading this thin line where its tough to peg down. if anything, it sounds extended...more so than anything else, it extends, whether it be the frequency extremes or the way notes seem to go to great deliberation to get to their natural conclusion, and then STOP. it doesn't overextend with a false euphonic the way a tube (particularly a SET) will do (quite a lovely effect BTW, but nevertheless its wrong), nor does it just throw away the baby with the bathwater or impart a false etch the way a SS unit might. it just does its job, correctly.

also of note: as m. mickelson rightly pointed out in his review on soundstage, the unit is dead quiet, which no doubt helps with its dynamic expression. (fwiw, i think mickelson got the review pretty spot on, as is often his way. or, he and i share same priorities / listening penchants). further, its quite a beautiful unit (think "top shelf" of the rack, for visual and practical reasons), and throws an expansive soundstage complete w/ terrific width / depth / height.

now, a couple things i don't like:
1) the unit runs HOT. i had never owned a class A component before, and i must say its a shock. when fully warmed up (1hr), its so hot you cannot put your finger on it for more than 1 second. i recall seeing a photo on the web showing an egg frying on a pan placed atop a Pass Labs amp (class A as well), and i wouldn't doubt this unit could fry an egg as well. i'd never have expected it from a preamp---forced me to reconfigure my rack (ugh), remove my TV (11" Sony from the 1980s, but nothing to watch until MLB playoffs) from my room, and rethink my HVAC of my dedicated room. and unlike all my other equipment, i would NEVER think of leaving this thing on unattended for days on end. it just runs too darn hot, and i suspect my electric bill will reflect it. and IME, hot components are less reliable components, but its worth noting that the unit comes w/ a 3 yr warranty, and in talking to the factory they state they've never had service calls associated w/ the preamp, and its been around for years, albeit w/ limited distribution in the US.
2) the remote that comes with the unit is silly...see it and you'll understand. while it does its job (source & volume), it doesn't fit such a lovely unit. an upgrade is available, but for this kind of $$, upgrades should be stock.
3) the power IEC is underneath the unit. you have to use a right angle IEC on your power cords to power the unit.
4) it doesn't make bad recordings sound great. it just plays bad recordings like they are. ---i figure einstein could've figured out this trick if he figured that light photons bend via gravity, but guess that's asking too much. (that said, its still easy to get completely lost in great recordings that are poorly engineered).
5) i have no owner's manual. i called the factory, and they did send me one. its written in german. ACHTUNG!

criticisms aside, and comparatively speaking, its easily the best audio component i own. i put the degree of change in my system's sound on the order of a speaker change (like moving from bookshelves to full range floorstanders). its a paradigm-shift, and it allows character elsewhere to be demonstrated (wilson WP6s: dynamic monkey coffins that do most everything right but with a hot top end that needs addressed; mac 501s: solid, reliable, sweet brutes that will never give you the last word or the top of the mountain, but an easy compromise to live with).

while not made for home theatre or casual listening, for serious audiophiles i don't doubt it will be a final purchase.

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Good review, but, I beg to differ on a few points. The first is that the Einstein (which I never heard) is devoid of "a tube sound". I too own tube equipment, balanced as well. While the Einstein my be more neutral than most other tubed or solid state pre amps, one must simply change some of the tubes,and, voila! You will hear a difference. Tube sound. The second point is that you seem to feel that digital playback has less in the way of dynamics. . .than what? A live performance is the only thing I can think of, as digital playback has the widest dynamic range of any playback equipment that I know of. Even the cheap stuff. Otherwise, I really enjoyed reading your review and your opinions. I suspect that your system sounds great! I would love to hear it. Again, thanks for the review and happy listening!
As a result of some extended listening sessions at my local dealer's home (Jim Meine @ Epic Audio), I replaced a CTC Blowtorch with the Einstein, mistakenly thinking that the Einstein would offer a different and more tubular set of trade-offs. Wrong! The Einstein does in fact have a somewhat different tonal balance, not the overly warm, somewhat rounded balance of classic tube preamps, but certainly more fleshed out than the Blowtorch, particularly from the midbass through the lower mids; however it also has a somewhat more prominent lower bass and what appears to be a sweeter and more extended top end (particularly noticeable on the Acapella's plasma tweeters). The best way to describe the difference in the bass is to say that prior to the Einstein, I always missed my 21" subs (Cabasse Saturn A-21's) when they were out of the system. Now, for the vast majority of listening, the subs are not missed. It sounds as if my Campaniles now go about half an octave lower in the bass. No, they still cannot do the bottom octave justice but otherwise are all that one might want in the bass. I think that Rhyno would say that the Watt Puppy's have a little more snap and slam than the Acapella woofers (four 10" SEAS woofers per side in sealed enclosures), but would also admit that the WP's cannot fill a large room in the same way.

The Einstein seems to equal the Blowtorch in those areas where the Blowtorch excelled and to surpass it in other areas. Rhyno has already said that the unit has a vanishingly low noise floor that allows you to hear into the music in a way that most other preamps cannot. The Blowtorch is the absolute quietest piece of electronics that I have ever owned. The Einstein approaches that level but never quite reaches it. Likewise, the Blowtorch was extremely transparent and detailed without the false sense of detail that normally comes from selectively spiking a small band of frequencies in the upper mids and lower treble. The Einstein excels in this area and retrieves low level ambient information that the Blowtorch missed. Unfortunately, this sometimes intrudes on the music (coughs, low level talking in the audience, subway trains in the background) but more often than not reveals a richer tapestry of sound that helps to make the recorded performance seem more real.

The dynamics are spectacular? Not on every record or CD, but certainly on those few that are recorded well. Rhyno has already said much of what can be said with respect to macro dynamics, but the Einstein does equally well with micro dynamics which in my experience is much harder. It also does a nice job of recreating the leading edge of transients and an equal job of recreating the reverberant tail.

The Blowtorch had an ability to recreate a stage that remained stable at least with the right speakers, Rockports for instance, even as you moved about the room. Most other equipment that I have owned did not do this, at least in my system with my speakers. The stage was often wall to wall, particularly with large orchestral works and exhibited extremely good depth. The Einstein also does this but seems to generate denser, more three dimensional images, say the body of a cello or the chest of a singer. The image has somewhat softer edge definition than the Blowtorch but does a better job of creating an illusion of space between instruments.

Transparewnt, accurate, detailed, natural, tonally correct. All adjectives that describe the Einstein; however, none of these truly captures what makes this unit so special. I have noticed that whenever I acquire a new toy, my initial reaction is to spend hours upon hours rediscovering familiar pieces of music. Over time that initial enthusiasm wains, and I find myself listening less and less. On rare ocassions (after purchasing a Crosby modified set of Quad 63's), I find myself actually listening more as time goes on. I often read while I am listening. With the Einstein this is virtually impossible. This preamp refuses to let you casualize the music. It demands your attention. Its not so much that it removes veils (which it does) but that it somehow draws you into and allows you to connect with the music on an emotional level. If a system is truly exceptional, it will catch your attention even when you are in an adjacent room and this is certainly the case with the Einstein. Highly recommended.
all components have a sound 'personality'......the tubes will dictate the sound, wheither by rolling, or just hours of play headed for their demise.