The exception of exceptions
Translation of a 1998 Chinese language review of the DIVA Classic 200* preamp by "The Mad Guy", reviewer for Sight and Sound Journal
*Note: Classic 200 has been discountinued and replaced by the new Classic One preamp, which surpasses its performance at a much lower price. Also, this review was done before DIVA launched the higher models Class 300 and M-7 preamps.
Translated by W K Fong
Within Singapore's context, if Mr T S Lim's name does not ring a bell to any local audiophile, then this particular person must either be a novice just picking up the ropes, or be a long-timer audiophile recluse.
Mr Lim is currently making waves in the local market, primarily because of the impeccable reputation of his finest creations, the Diva Classic 200 pre-amplifier. It has even captured the heart if our very hard-to-please editor, who, in the 27th issue of our magazine, gave a glowing review of this pre-amplifier.
I have known the editor for a good many years; he is normally a very contented person in his daily life, except for three things that has caused him much agitation.
The first is food; he possesses fastidious tasted buds, so except for the very finest tasting food specimens, he rarely agrees with any food. In fact, his food recommendations number even lesser than the the baker's dozen LP recommendations (13) in Harry Pearsons's "The Absolute Sound" magazine.
The second is drink. He is a connoisseur of only the finest wine, especially red wine, and even then, his preferences are again of very high standards, and even the French Bordeax's 8 most famous wines are not up to his level.
The third is, of course, audiophile-equipment.
His reputation for being fussy about every single aspect of audio reproduction is already well-known, and any equipment that can make his eyebrows twitch, that equipment must be of the utmost highest qualities, and if he can further heap glorious praise upon it in his reviews, its designer had better rush to buy a lottery ticket, as the odds of winning are even higher.
Yes, I have rarely ever seen our editor so enamoured of any audio product, especially when it happens to be the relatively "cheap" Diva Classic 200 preamplier.
I have previously tried some "cheap" audiophile products from so-called "reasonable" manufacturers, which often turn out to be rubbish - more suited for land fill. The few exceptions were the Allegro Mk III integrated amplifier, whose audiophile qualities truly exceeded its low price, but is yet a big leap away from really "High-End" equipment when compared.
Thus, after the 27th issue of "Sight and Sound" magazine review came out, I had to ask Mr T S Lim for a Diva Classic unit to perform a prolonged in-depth audition.
All in all, I spent a straight four months live-in with this pre-amplifier, and even though my final conclusions bore the same excellent impressions as my editor's, I feel obliged to give a more detailed test report to my readers.
This is because my editor only used a solid state amplifier (Rowland 8) to test it, while this time I use a tube amplifier, the Marantz 9, to match with it. Besides, I also used the Marantz 7 tube pre-amplier as a comparison reference.
Another point I wish to reiterate is that I used the same Diva Classic 200 physical unit that had been earlier tested out by my editor, with even the same 12BH7 tube inside. Thus if there are any differences in my test reviews, it is most probably due to difference in matching equipment.
Other equipment used included Sony's XAE7ES CD player, Roger LS 3/5A Classic Limited Editon speakers, while audio cables were Transparent MusicLink Ultra interconnects and NBS Master Pro speaker cables.
As the Diva Classic 200 unit had already been run-in earlier, I had no misgivings about immediately sending the Classic 200 into the the audio testing warzone, to determine it's true salt.
Joining in this audio battle were the test CDs:
Of course, during the 4 months period, I also listened to other CDs, which were the ones that I listen to sooth my soul and enhance my well-being, and not the CDs I used for "reviewing work". If I list all the others I had listened to, this review will turn into an audiophile music catalog instead.
As my editor had such overflowing praises for this ordinarily looking pre-amplifier, to the extent of finally buying a unit for himself, I had very high hopes for the Diva Classic 200, and forgot that it was indeed a "cheap" product.
Cheap and expensive rubbish
Normally, I have always down-to-earth attitude to testing "cheap" equipment", that is to use rather forgiving terms in appraising them.
Even then, out of the masses of cheap equipment I have reviewed before, those that can really shine are as rare as the morning stars, and the majority of cheap equipment sounds like cheap rubbish.
Readers may also be interested to know that I have also heard some expensive rubbish too, where a high price tag cannot mask the cheap rubbish sounds reproduced. Hence rubbish is not restricted to only cheap equipment.
So, is the Diva Classic 200 a piece of treasure or a piece of rubbish?
In the past 2 years, I have always been using the pair of Marantz 7 and 9 equipment as my preferred pieces, and never thought of changing them during this "temporary period".
During the same time, I had the opportunity to listen to many many pre-and power amplifier sets, and with the exception of Marantz 8b and Jadis JA30, both of which moved my heart, I had never kept any other audition sets for longer than 2 weeks before returning, the simple reason being that their performance was not worthy.
And the Diva Classic 200 is the exeption of the exceptions.
I connected it to my Marantz 9 power amplifier and listened to it for a full 2 months, and totally forgot about my own Marantz 7 pre-amplifier, which was nearly buried in dust.
Two months later, because I wanted to listen to Jacintha's "Here's to Ben" LP (this was meticulously produced at the famous Los Angeles studio, "Ocean Way Studio"), I had to reluctantly connect back the Marantz 7 pre-amp, as the Diva Classic 200 lacked a phono input, being only a line stage.
In the latter 2 months that followed, I regularly switched between Diva and Marantz in order to find out the sonic signature of each one and also as reference equipment to test out audio cables.
Refined and extraordinary
If I had to use a few words to describe the essence of the Diva Classic 200, I will unhesitantly describe it as "refined and extraordinary".
Amongst my audio equipment, the Diva Classic 200 is characterised by its sweetness, and its ultra transparent high frequencies that was imbued with high refinement that was out of this world.
When I played Tracy Huang's "Buried Heart", her fine vocal control and the richness of her trailing voice are mesmerisingly captured by the Diva Classic 200.
It is also very suitable for either playback of old or new recordings. Besides trying it out with the moving tune of the current pop hit "Buried Heart", I also had outstanding performances with some old recordings.
I often listen to an old recording, which is Beniamino Gigli's "O Solo Mio" double CD, which contained many songs from 1930 - 40 era, and even one from as early as 1918.
Using Classic 200 to listen to these old recordings brought back fond memories of yesteryears listening to and enjoying Gigli's moving voice again.
I have often played Gigli's CD for many years and, so far, the few pre-ampliers that were able to move me when playing this CD have been the Marantz 7 and 8b combo, and now the Diva Classic 200 and Marantz 9 (although it still lacks the 7 / 8b's melancholic classic flavour, but is still of refinement and musicality).
After listening to Gigli's CD, you may perhaps wonder had Gigli been born decades later, would there even be "The Three Tenors" at all, or rather should it be only be "The Tenor" instead?
Diva Classic 200's separation ability is very high; the recording's details and
When I played "Tangos" piano recording, the piano's high notes were clean and crystal clear, and utmostly transparent.
More amazing was the richness of the high frequency spectrum rendered which causes the moment before the last note of the piano dies away to be so endearing.
Besides, the subtle low frequency changes of "Tangos" piano lower notes were also clearly captured, which would otherwise sound very muddled and confused when performed by pre-amplifiers of lesser pedigree.
Having heard Diva Classic's great ability to define musical details, I carried on to play various selections from "The Weavers" Carnegie Hall concert CD such as "The Ramblin Boy", "Guantanamera", "Goodnight Irene" and "Round the world".
The Clssic 200 enabled the spacious and majestic atmosphere of Carnegie Hall, the audience applause and coughs, as well as the private whispers of the onstage performers to be completely recreated in my small listening room.
Using the Classic 200 on live recordings is indeed a great pleasure, for it allows the
On playing strings instruments, the Classic 200 was outstanding. Be it playing "Ravi Shankar and Friends" or Xue Wei's "Red Bible", the Classic 200's rendition of the Japanese Koto or Xue Wei's Stradivarius violin is clean and crystal clear, as well as very sweet.
With respect to personal preferences, I would have liked Classic 200 to be richer-sounding at its higher mid-range spectrum. In the areas of the richeness and sweetness of the violin, the Jadis JA 30 and Marantz 7 have better representations that suit my personal taste.
On playing Jazz music, the Classic 200 was extraordinary.
The cymbals sounds in "When Alto was King" selections such as "You'd be so Nice To Come Home To" and "Jeep's Blues" etc were crisp and buoyant, while CI William's Alto Sax came across as resonant and brilliant without sounding too common.
All the musical aspects reflected TS Lim's pursuit of "spirit", "space", "refinement" and "delicateness" in his musical philosophy.
I heard from the magazine editor that the Classic 200's ability to perform climactic sections in large orchestral movements was staggeringly explosive and real.
Thus I chose "Verdi Choruses" CD (known for its immense climaxes) to verify our editor's claims.
I would normally use track 14 Gloria all' Egitto"(Glorious Egypt) to test an equipment's tolerance limits and ability to play explosive pieces.
When the whole chorus reaches its climax, the Classic 200 indeed gave a fantastically grand climactic performance. The combined strength of hundred over choral singers and hundred over orchestral players was transformed into the grand majestic sound of a thunderous brigade charge of thousands of galloping horses and men.
In order to further understand how much the Classic 200 can "explode" to and how well it can control such climactic explosions, I not only used Rogers LS 3/5a Classic LE, but also used the Dynaudio Contour 1.1 speakers (famed for being able to tolerate loud music as well as being attractive).
I found that the Classic 200 can play both loud and soft music with great ease and control.
However, when I played Track 9: II Trovatore - Squilli, echeggila tromba guerriera until about 1 minute 24 seconds, when the male voices are in the midst of their heroic operatic movement, the voices lost their concentration, as though it was lost in overstrain.
In order to validate this problem, I specially made a trip to the editor's house to borrow his Classic 200 Pro, Rowland 8 and Watt Puppy System 5.1 system to re-play this particular music section.
I experienced the same "overstrain" loss during this male choral section.
In order to check whether this was due to the Classic 200 shortcoming or due to the CD inherent recording problem, I requested the editor to use his other Gryphon Line-Stage preamplifier to match his Rowland 8 amplifier to perform the same section again.
I found that the problem was due to the Classic 200 because the Gryphon and Rowland combination was able to play this particular section firmly without any loss of control, and push forward the music unwaveringy in the midst of waves of anguished sounds to its explosive climax.
Besides the discovery of loss of control in explosive music, I find that the the Classic 200 is slightly thin it its midrange section.
I guess it may be because TS Lim in his pursuit of refinement and spirit in his preamp design, may have to taken this into account to reach his design aim.
If this was indeed his primary objective, he has more than fulfilled it.
However, for myself, after thorough listening I still find that at the high freqencies about 3 octaves down, the midrange is still slightly thin, and if it were able to be richer and thicker by one or two degrees , that would have been my ideal.
I do not know whether Mr Lim had designed the Classic 200 to match it only with his Diva amplifier. If that were the case, perhaps the Classic 200 and the Diva amplifier combination may be richer in sound.
However, in my system, the Classic 200 exhibited more emphasis towards the high and low frequencies extensions.
When I played Ella Fitzgerald's "Let No Man Write My Epitaph", I felt that Ella's voice lacked penetration, and emotiveness was on the thin side.
In the past 4 months, I have always used the GE 12BH tube. In the editor's house, using this tube to match with Rowland 8 was found to be coarse sounding compared to the editor's treasured Mullard 8137 tube. With the Mullard, the Classic 200 sounded more refined and smoother, and yet preserved musical depth and spaciousness.
In my system, I did not find using the 12BH tube to sound coarse. On the contrary, the 12BH majestic characteristics sounded well with my Marantz 9 combination.
Feeling "itchy" one day, I substituted the 12BH with the Mullard 8137, and I discovered that the resultant sound became more refined, but some of the dynamics and majestic atmosphere was also softened out in the process, and the Marantz 9 sounded like an 8b, ie more delicate and sweeter.
It was indeed quite amusing to obtain such a dramatic change in sonic character by the mere change of a tube, which may be yet another advantage of Classic 200: users can follow their own preferences and decide at any time which sonic character they would like their Hifi to take on.
Not snail paced
In my combined listening assessments, I find the Classic 200 to sound better when used together with a tube amplifier.
Although the Classic 200 is a tube preamplifier, it still possesses the solid-state qualities of great definition, speed and extensions of the extreme frequencies.
As a result, one will not feel that it is slow sounding and sleep inducing, that is typical of many snail paced tube pre-amplifiers. If it is used with a solid state amplifier, it is better to have one that is powerful and heavy in the low frequencies, such as the Rowland and Cello, which will not expose the slightly thin midrange weakness of the Classic 200.
In conclusion, the Classic 200 is a preamplifier that will bring excitement.
To either the poor or rich audio enthusiast, I would still unreservedly recommend the Classic 200.
Any wealthy Hifi collector should include a Classic 200 in his audio garage in order to excite his tastebuds ocassionally.
Although the Classic 200 is not perfect, I have listened to many much more expensive pre-amplifiers (costing above $10,000) before, and they are also not perfect (which brings me to the point that audio equipment should not be designed until they are ridiculously overpriced).
As for those financially inadequate audiophiles like myself, the Classic 200 is indeed the best buy available.
Even though it has some slight imperfection, I honestly "forgot" about my own Marantz-7 preamplifier during my long listening trials.
However, do not mistake the Classic 200 to be almighty and powerful, because my Marantz 7 has a musical richness that will make one totally forget the presence of the equipment, and as well as transfer one into the innermost realm of musical sensations.
In comparison, the Classic 200 is still just an equipment, but a very excellent equipment indeed.