Listening #91 Page 2

Arguably the greatest circuit distinctions between the old and new Fi preamps are found in the 2b's outboard power supply. Incoming AC is still regulated by a pair of silicon diodes—"A tube would not make a difference," Garber says—and still conditioned by a 6AV5GA series regulator and other tubes. "I've tried using regulated power supplies in amps, but, to me, it tends to dry out the sound," he says; "whereas, in a preamp, it appears to do the opposite." But Garber says that the new design, "simpler and more straightforward than the older one," was the subject of many hours of his work in refining the circuit layout for a lower noise floor.

Another distinction: In the new version, only a single umbilical carries power from the supply to the preamplifier. Garber explains: "On the old one, I was trying to keep everything as dual-mono as I could—and then I found it didn't make a difference." As it turns out, simplicity had the greater, and better, influence on the sound.

Finally, although the 2b retains the layered look of Fi's earlier preamp (and a few Fi amplifiers), certain visual elements have changed somewhat. Input jacks, which were on the top surface of the original, now share the rear panel with the output jacks. The plastic control knobs of the first samples and the smooth metal pillbox knobs of interim preamps have given way to three brass control gears: a distinctive touch. But the biggest visual change is the new model's comparative bigness. While the size of the outboard power supply hasn't changed, the preamp itself now measures a little over 10" square. Especially when placed side by side, the new combination looks righter to me.

All right, then—what of it?
As his friends surely know, Don Garber is articulate and well versed in a number of areas, including fine art (he also enjoys success as a painter), literature, films, and, of course, music. Just don't ask him to wax poetic about the amps and preamps he constructs for his grateful clientele. "I have the sales charisma of a wet paper bag, or so said Harvey Rosenberg a number of years ago." Garber pauses and chuckles at the memory—imagine Donald Sutherland saying Uh-uh and you'll have an idea what that sounds like—then finishes by saying, dryly but not uncharitably, "Coming from Harvey, I regarded this as a compliment. I told Harvey that and, after a longish pause, we both had a good laugh."

I've had the pleasure of reviewing a number of Fi products, yet I can't recall Garber saying a thing about the sound of any of them, let alone enthusing over them. Thus I couldn't help being impressed when he said, of the Fi 2b, "I like the sound." That, I suppose, was as close to channeling Muhammad Ali and Yngwie Malmsteen as the thoughtful and understated Mr. Garber will ever get.

After the Fi 2b preamp was run in and warmed up, during a week when my system appeared to be in a very good state of tune, I set about listening to Chopin's Ballade 4 in f, played by Sviatoslav Richter, recorded live during an early-1960s tour of Italy (mono LP, Deutsche Grammophon LPM 18849). What's special about this recording is its musicality: Though Richter was a player of extraordinary skill—and this Ballade is one of the most technically challenging pieces in the canon—his technique remained invisible throughout. In Richter's hands, the Ballade simply made sense, simply worked as a moving piece of music, better than in any other modern recording with which I'm familiar.

And the music itself holds a special place in my life. Long ago, as I watched TV in the lounge of a college dorm, a commercial came on for some or another fancy perfume. The visuals were the usual crazy shit—an intentionally grainy, washed-out, black-and-white film of an attractive woman speeding through the countryside in an old-style roadster—but the music sank its claws into my memory, more or less for good. I set about trying to learn what it was, using the unpromising method of humming the melody at strangers and asking if they knew it. I struck paydirt in the best possible place—a quaint old 20th-century record store—and went home with a Deutsche Grammophon LP containing the Ballade in f. In the following weeks I just about wore the groove clear through to the other side—and to this day, when I hear that piece under the best listening conditions, I still see in my mind that peripatetic blonde.

The Fi 2b's great strength was that it allowed such a thing to be readily apparent.

Prospective buyers will be happy to know: The Fi 2b also sounded very good!

In the same sense that most hobbyists of my generation can point to the first time they heard spatial depth from a stereo pair of modern loudspeakers, or the first time they experienced an approximation of lifelike musical drama and dynamics from a single-ended-triode amplifier, I remember the first time I realized that some electronics were capable of sounding bigger than others. It was, in fact, the first time I heard the original Fi Preamplifier in my system. Before that, I'd never even suspected that scale was something I could have more or less of in my playback gear. Since then, of course, I've consistently wanted more. The 2b gave it.

Through the Fi 2b, musical detail was fine: as abundant and naturally realistic as it gets. Before putting the new Fi in my system, I never noticed Tony Rice's unmistakable speaking voice encouraging fellow guitarist Peter Rowan during the latter's solo in the middle section of their version of "Midnight Moonlight," from the album Quartet (CD/AIFF, Rounder 610579). Also on that good album, I was impressed with the greater-than-usual sense of humanness the Fi seemed to bring to the quartet's reworking of "The Walls of Time," wherein Sharon Gilchrist's mandolin chop had an attitude that no machine could match, and the string-bass playing of virtuosa Bryn Davies—daughter of LAST founder Walter Davies, of course—simply swung.


mike13's picture

Nice article on Garber's 2b pre=amp. I too received my Evolution pre amp with Don's very nice, hand
written script on the imput board. Another sign of our post industrial decline or just good caligraphy? I'm sure this deviation (hand written or silk screened) will be much debated (to warm and a peaky mid bass; yak, yak, yak!) on various site's for year's to come! Ha Ha. Anyway, thanks for the year's of good column's. Alway's a good read.

Mike P.