I received some Plinius products for review a few months ago. These are the first products I’ve reviewed from a “down under” manufacturer, by which I mean not only Australia and New Zealand, but also South America, Southern Africa and Malaysia. My apologies to you geographers who can list the 40-plus countries entirely in the Southern Hemisphere. I was favorably impressed with the Tautoro and the SA-201 right out of the box, but now I’ve fully broken them in and I’m ready to render my verdict. Read on.
First, The Tautoro Preamp
Tautoro is an area located in Northland, New Zealand. It lies about five miles southeast of Kaikohe. I have no idea why this name was applied to a preamp, and the Plinius website is silent on that point. Zeroing in on Tautoro via a Google satellite map reveals a rich green expanse of what looks like the farming country of the Gods. Just one look made me want to visit on my next vacation. Maybe that’s the point.
This review describes the Tautoro as an individual component used with my Esoteric front-end and Electrocompaniet Nemo monos or Pass X-600.5 monos. Below I discuss its sound in combination with Plinius’ own SA-201.
From 2000 to 2003, I spent time at many dealerships listening to many preamps. Some of these I took home for brief, weekend auditions. I liked several of them, most notably the Ayre K1-x and then K1-xe, but the ones I liked were always more expensive than what I was willing to pay, so in 2003 I decided to buy a demo Cary SLP 2002 to use on an interim basis.
I operated with it for nearly two years while assembling more information on preamps I liked. I then sold my Cary to raise money for a new front-end, and operated without a preamp for two years. When I finally felt ready, I went on an intensive search to find a high-end pre that would have the right synergy with the rest of my system. So from mid-2006 through mid 2007, I went on a preamp binge, auditioning several impressive preamps in my system and also getting preamps for Dagogo reviews. Some of the preamps I auditioned stayed in my system for extended periods. These included the following: Mark Levinson 380S (which was being phased out); Sphinx Project Eight Reference Preamp; Ayre K-1xe; XLH SL-11XS; MBL 5011; BAT VK-40SE; and Pass XO. The Ayre, the BAT and the Levinson I auditioned for a few weeks, while the others I had for a minimum of a month. I’ve written detailed reviews of the Pass, the Sphinx, the XLH and the MBL, and you might find it helpful to read those reviews to get an idea of my perspective on preamps.
I’ve also used Electronic Visionary Systems’ Ultimate Nude Attenuators, which enable me to get a clear idea of my system’s sound without a preamp. This is very helpful when evaluating preamps since it allows you to more clearly isolate the effect of each preamp.
The Tautoro has all the input and output options you’d expect from a top-flight preamp that is meant to control a multiple-source high-end system, including phase inversion, home theater bypass, adjustable gain (50dB, 56dB, 60dB, 66dB) and adjustable load (47k, 470R, 100R, 47R, 22R), all of which I found useful. It allows five line inputs in either balanced or unbalanced mode. Dual outputs can be used for biamping and/or multi-room configurations. It is a highly flexible machine that will accommodate virtually any high-end configuration. Please read the complete description on the Plinius website, http://www.pliniusaudio.com.
I’ve now had the Plinius Tautoro for several months and (subject to the caveat below about using points and discs) can enthusiastically say that I have added it to the short list of preamps that I’ve enjoyed the most, which include the Ayre, the Pass and the MBL.
“… I thought its bass performance was better than the K1-xe, and I definitely liked its bass performance better than the Pass XO …”
In many ways, the Plinius Tautoro is a cross between the Ayre and the Pass. It is very lively, with excellent PRAT and slam and is quite good with microdynamics and detail. Compared to my own MBL 5011, the Tautoro was a bit more forward, separated the performers a bit more and was not as rich. As I mentioned above, it has the macrodynamic qualities and slam of the Ayre K1-xe and the microdynamic qualities of the Pass XO. Sonic memory is a tenuous thing, but I thought its bass performance was better than the K1-xe, and I definitely liked its bass performance better than the Pass XO, which errs on the side of amazingly detailed and agile bass, but sacrifices some of the chest-thumping richness of the type of bass I hear in live concerts.
The Tuatoro is one of the more “tweakable” of the high-end preamps I’ve auditioned. This could be viewed as extraneous, but I did not find that to be the case. It allows any user to experiment and tune the Tautoro for his own system and personal preferences. I liked it without cones or discs, but I found that using Walker Valid Points and tuning discs really helped to improve bass and overall musicality in my main system. I could easily live with a tweaked Plinius Tautoro in my main system.
Now, The SA-201 AMP
In a broad sense, the SA-201 stereo amplifier is a two-channel version of the multi-channel Odeon – it uses two Odeon modules in a smaller chassis. Plinius makes a point of stating that the Odeon was meant as a multi-channel amp that would satisfy music lovers (as opposed to those just interested in movies). They also make a point of stating that the modules used in the Odeon and the SA-201 were designed so that owners of the then-current pure class A Plinius SA-102s and SA-250s would not feel like they were losing anything if they substituted the Class AB Odeons or the SA-201s.
As my notes about the SA-201 reflect all the strong points mentioned in published reviews of the Odeon, I’ll start with a clear statement of what it doesn’t do: It is not as accurate to the input signal as the best high-end amplifiers, in that it misses details and articulation of treble notes that the top, $20k+ solid-state amps get. However, those amps carry price tags that are multiples of the Plinius SA-201’s price, and many people will not notice the difference unless they compare the amps head-to-head in the same room.
One the other hand, the strong points are numerous. The SA-201 is highly natural and listenable. For example, piano strings are not overemphasized in relation to the piano’s wooden sounding board, avoiding that bright, steely sound that you will hear in the piano’s upper midrange from an average solid-state amplifier. As another example, an acoustic guitar’s rich sounding wooden body gets lost on an average-sounding solid-state amplifier. Not so with the Plinius. The strings of the acoustic guitar are distinct, but with body, and do not sound bright or “plastic”. Getting to the bottom of things, the bass is nimble, but still full and powerful with excellent woofer control. There is no sign of bass dryness, which happens when bass tightness and leanness are overemphasized. Personally, I find that bass fullness is essential to natural musicality, and that a recording loses its natural feel if the bass is dry, even if the midrange retains its warmth.
I want to note that the SA-201 improved significantly over time, and any user will be rewarded if he or she extends some patience.
Because I’ve had the Plinius Tautoro and SA-201 for such an extended time, I have had the opportunity to use them together and separately in several systems. During this time I have used them with a very wide range of speakers: the Eventus Audio Lysitheas, the Daedalus Audio Ulysses (review to follow), the Coincident Total Victory IV (see this Issue), the Canton Vento Reference 7s, and the B&W Nautilus 800Ds, my own reference speakers.
The front-ends used with the Tautoro and the SA-201 included a modified Pioneer Elite DV-37A, a modified EMM Labs CDSA, and a modified Esoteric P-70/D-70 transport/DAC.
The Plinius pair were used in my main listening room, in my secondary listening room (I also call it the “teen room” because my teens bring friends in there to talk and watch movies) and in one of the rooms in our main living area. The Tautoro was used more extensively than the SA-201 in my main listening room. This is because it’s unfair to pit the SA-201 against the Electrocompaniet Nemos or Pass X-600.5s when driving my B&W 800Ds, which reside in my main listening room.
Though I was amazed at how well the SA-201 stereo amp did when I hooked it up to the B&Ws, the Nemos and the X-600.5s are 600 Wpc monoblocks that are each powered by separate 20 amp circuits in my main setup, while the 225 Wpc SA-201s could obviously only be connected to a single circuit. (But see below how the Plinius SA-201 sounded driving the Daedalus Audio Ulysses in my main room.) On the other hand, a preamp is an entirely different animal, and the Tautoro clearly begged to be pitted against the MBL 5011 and the Pass XO driving my B&Ws.
Three particularly memorable usages of the Tautoro/SA-201 pair come to mind. The first was when the Tautoro and SA-201, barely broken in, were coupled with the Eventus Audio Lysitheas during a fundraiser in our home for the local symphony. The fundraiser’s theme was Hausmusik, with the performer being Leon Bates, one of America’s leading pianists. He was scheduled to play at our home on February 16th. The pieces were Edward MacDowell’s Sonata No.4 in E minor, Samuel Barber’s Nocturne and Ballade, Billy Strayhorn’s Chelsea Bridge, A Flower is a Lovesome Thing and Lush Life, George Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me and Louis Moreau Gottshalk’s Le Banjo. We expected way more people than could fit in our living room, which is where the grand piano is situated.
“… I was able to walk into the living room to listen to [the pianist] directly and then walk to the room where his performance was transmitted through the [Plinius/Lysitheas combo].”
As a result, we miked the piano and set up wireless transmission to three sound systems located in three separate rooms in the house. One of the sound systems was the Eventus Audio Lysithea/Plinius combination. Leone Bates put on a great performance, and I was able to walk into the living room to listen to him directly and then walk to the room where his performance was transmitted through the Lysitheas. The presentation by the Plinius/Lysithea combo was nothing short of top-caliber. Every note was presented with great tonality and dynamics. Listening in the “Plinius/Lysithea Room” was every bit as satisfying as listening in the living room where you heard Leon Bates in person.
The second use was after full break-in coupled with the Pioneer Elite DV-37A DVD player and the Canton Vento Reference 7 speakers in my secondary listening room. Despite being used with standard power cords and barely stepped-up interconnects and speaker wire, in a narrow room with lots of ceramic tile, the system sounded absolutely great. It didn’t have every one of the audiophile traits that reviewers specifically look for, but it really did a good job in putting out enjoyable music. I played “Big Man Mambo” from Robert Lucas’ Luke and the Locomotives (JVC XRCD JVCXR-0024-2) for an audiophile buddy of mine, and he was blown away by the rich and weighty but highly controlled bass and the screeching but not glaring blues harmonica solo.
“The Tautoro/SA-201 combination … [makes] me wonder whether I had spent too much on my speakers and amps …”
The third usage was in my main listening room with the Tautoro and the SA-201 driving the Daedalus Audio Ulysses speakers. The Ulysses’ are much more efficient than my B&W Nautilus 800Ds, and are tuned to have a fairly rich bass to match an outstanding upper-end extension. Any amp driving the Ulysses has the challenge of controlling the bass while allowing the extremely detailed treble to open up without glare. The Tautoro/SA-201 combination, now playing from my Esoteric transport/DAC, tweaked with cones and discs and connected via premium power cables, interconnects and speaker cables, sounded quite spectacular, making me wonder whether I had spent too much on my speakers and amps, angst regularly experienced by reviewers while reviewing great components. Again, the outstanding Plinius bass, with its combination of warmth, weight and tight control, the utterly natural midrange and the smooth extended highs, captivated visitors who were more used to my regular reference components.
In addition to the third combination described above, I also used the Tautoro/SA-201 to drive my own B&W Nautilus 800Ds. The SA-201 finally started to lose its tight grip when driving the 800Ds at concert hall levels. Compared to my two Pass 600 Wpc behemoths, the bass became just a tad slower and slightly boomy on Perez Prado’s “Mambo Jambo” from The Best of Mambo (JVC XRCD SVCD-191046), though the soundstage and performer placement remained quite stable. I wonder how the 310 Wpc high-bias class AB Plinius SB-301 would do in this setup….
I then took out the SA-201 and reinserted my Nemos, but left the Tautoro as the system’s preamp. This is where I performed the comparisons described above in the Tautoro section.
Playing Introduction from Rhino Records’ release of The Chicago Transit Authority (Rhino’s releases are definitely sonically superior), the horns were slightly more spread out and distinct, while moving to a more neutral position compared to the slightly laid back and defocused perspective of my MBL 5011. The bass and kick drum were ever so slightly less weighty, but still with superb bass performance. Mind you, I made this comparison using Walker points and discs. I had previously determined that the Tautoro felt more “electronic” when placed directly on my stand and that it sounded more natural when the points and discs were used. My MBL on the other hand, is relatively impervious to tweaking, perhaps because of its additional seven pounds of weight (42 vs. 35 pounds). The Tautoro can very comfortably be used with the very best components and sounds terrific without forcing you to spend five figures.
As I’m finishing up this review, I’m sitting in my secondary audio room listening to the Plinuis Tautoro and SA-201 driving the Coincident Total Victory IVs. I’m admiring the way that the Plinius pair is controlling the Coincident’s bass, allowing each articulated note to come through, while still giving the bass that touch of warmth and weight that you hear live, while the ribbons sound like they’re driven by a warm but not overly-lush tube amp. Add in that very natural midrange and I’ve got to give both the Tautoro preamp and the SA-201 power amp an enthusiastic endorsement. Well done Plinius!
- (Page 1 of 1)