The leading edge of music is preserved with the LA-01. That simple statement sounds obvious, but it masks the fact that so few products do this as precisely. Those musical transients that make you instantly recognise live music from recorded are retained perfectly here. And again, we come back to drummers; the splash of a cymbal, the delicate stickwork of an Art Blakey, or the not-so-delicate pounding of Meg White are all in perfect temporal alignment (the online video of Meg White receiving a not-so-delicate pounding is probably fake, by the way). You notice this especially in comparison, this time to the otherwise very good Coda 05X preamp. Sounds seem half a step behind the Belles; softer and perhaps more rounded, yes, but not as fast or as immediately dynamic. This applied both with the matching Belles powers and the Coda CX; the Belles-Belles combination being the most expressive and exciting, the Belles-Coda being the more sumptuous. But every time the LA-01 was put in the system, things just seemed to get a little bit faster. If anything, it’s almost too fast; combining the seeming pace with the Stillpoints feet (especially on a Townshend VSSS rack) is pushing ‘excitement’ into ‘brightness’.
The Belles preamp is not simply a speed-freak though; there’s a lot of dynamic weight and solidity to the sounds too. Play something Wagnerian and that sense of rootedness, coupled with the pace really makes for a maelstrom of sound. All of which means the Belles will never be consigned to making background sounds. You wick it up and listen captivated. The idea of talking over the LA-01 is absurd; it won’t let you. You’re there for the musical duration. In this, I’m reminded of the Magico experience; it’s not as enchanting and pausing the disc does not seem like an affront to music, but you find yourself struggling to pull away from sounds played on the LA-01.
There are more subtle preamps around, and what the LA-01 does to the leading edges of music, you can find preamps that do the same to the sustain, decay and release of individual notes too. And even ones that address the whole musical entity with more excitement and drama, but in all these cases the preamp that’s better is also a lot more expensive. Then there’s the whole issue of stereo imagery; the LA-01 is squarely locked between the speakers. The imagery does not draw attention, either in a positive or negative light. But those who set their store by expansive soundstages and stereo you feel you could walk into are going to be looking elsewhere. Others will find this a triviality and love the amplifier for its excitement first and foremost; soundstaging’s suddenly not going to be a priority for you after listening here.
The Belles LA-01 preamp is surprisingly good. It’s one of the fastest and most exciting sounding preamps you can buy, in very much the darTZeel mode (only without the battery power and the fancy multicoloured Swiss casing). It will take feed from any CD player and drive pretty much any power amp you can think of without a grumble. For some, the lack of even a balance control is a minimalism too far, and just four inputs and a complete absence of funky features will make it impossible to countenance. Others will find it the perfect combination, in a package that challenges considerably more expensive preamps. That could prove irresistible for many seeking top class sound over fancy frills. That’s a heady brew.
Belles LA-01 preamplifier
Inputs: Four line-level stereo RCA inputs
Outputs: Two pairs RCA stereo
Manual & Remote controls: Input, Volume, Mute & Power
Frequency Response: 0.2Hz to 200kHz +/- 3 dB
Hum and Noise: >100 dB (A weighted)
Input Impedance: 100k ohms
Output Impedance: Less than 0.1 ohms
Distortion: Less than 0.001%
Maximum Output: 6.7 volts RMS
Gain: 4.92 or 13.84 dB
Crosstalk: Unmeasurable between inputs, 60dB between channels
Filter Capacity: 4 stages of decoupling, 400,000µF total
Dimensions (WxHxD, per chassis): 432x88.9x330mm
Power Modules Inc.